A new Heterodontosaurus specimen elucidates the unique ventilatory macroevolution of ornithischian dinosaurs

A new Heterodontosaurus specimen elucidates the unique ventilatory macroevolution of ornithischian dinosaurs

Article from: https://elifesciences.org/articles/66036


Ornithischian dinosaurs were ecologically prominent herbivores of the Mesozoic Era that achieved a global distribution by the onset of the Cretaceous. The ornithischian body plan is aberrant relative to other ornithodiran clades, and crucial details of their early evolution remain obscure. We present a new, fully articulated skeleton of the early branching ornithischian Heterodontosaurus tucki. Phase-contrast enhanced synchrotron data of this new specimen reveal a suite of novel postcranial features unknown in any other ornithischian, with implications for the early evolution of the group. These features include a large, anteriorly projecting sternum; bizarre, paddle-shaped sternal ribs; and a full gastral basket – the first recovered in Ornithischia. These unusual anatomical traits provide key information on the evolution of the ornithischian body plan and suggest functional shifts in the ventilatory apparatus occurred close to the base of the clade. We complement these anatomical data with a quantitative analysis of ornithischian pelvic architecture, which allows us to make a specific, stepwise hypothesis for their ventilatory evolution.

eLife digest

The fossilised skeletons of long extinct dinosaurs are more than just stones. By comparing these remains to their living relatives such as birds and crocodiles, palaeontologists can reveal how dinosaurs grew, moved, ate and socialised. Previous research indicates that dinosaurs were likely warm-blooded and also more active than modern reptiles. This means they would have required breathing mechanisms capable of supplying enough oxygen to allow these elevated activity levels.

So far, much of our insight into dinosaur breathing biology has been biased towards dinosaur species more closely related to modern birds, such as Tyrannosaurus rex, as well as the long-necked sauropods. The group of herbivorous dinosaurs known as ornithischians, which include animals with head ornamentation, spikes and heavy body armour, like that found in Triceratops and Stegosaurus, have often been overlooked. As a result, there are still significant gaps in ornithischian biology, especially in understanding how they breathed.

Radermacher et al. used high-powered X-rays to study a new specimen of the most primitive ornithischian dinosaur, Heterodontosaurus tucki, and discovered that this South African dinosaur has bones researchers did not know existed in this species. These include bones that are part of the breathing system of extant reptiles and birds, including toothpick-shaped bones called gastralia, paired sternal bones and sternal ribs shaped like tennis rackets.

Together, these new pieces of anatomy form a complicated chest skeleton with a large range of motion that would have allowed the body to expand during breathing cycles. But this increased motion of the chest was only possible in more primitive ornithischians. More advanced species lost much of the anatomy that made this motion possible. Radermacher et al. show that while the chest was simpler in advanced species, their pelvis was more specialised and likely played a role in breathing as it does in modern crocodiles.

This new discovery could inform the work of biologists who study the respiratory diversity of both living and extinct species. Differences in breathing strategies might be one of the underlying reasons that some lineages of animals go extinct. It could explain why some species do better than others under stressful conditions, like when the climate is warmer or has less oxygen.

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