Field of Science

Lithostratigraphy and biostratigraphy of the Chinle Formation in Lisbon Valley, Utah

The stratigraphy of the Chinle Formation in Lisbon Valley, Utah has been somewhat controversial. This paper is the result of several seasons of fieldwork and provides an intense revision of the local stratigraphy as well as discussion of the fossils found in these rocks. Martz et al. provide a large amount of information and are careful to make sure that their work is repeatable as possible. To this end they provide coordinates and labelled photos of their measured sections as well as a list of voucher specimens for all of the fossil taxa. Martz's work continues to raise the bar not only for studies in the Upper Triassic of Utah, but also for stratigraphic and biostratigraphic work in general.



Martz, J. W., Irmis, R. B., and A.R.C. Milner. 2014. Lithostratigraphy and biostratigraphy of the Chinle Formation (Upper Triassic) in southern Lisbon Valley, southeastern Utah; pp. 397-448 in MacLean, J.S., Biek, R.F., and J.E. Huntoon (eds.), Geology of Utah's Far South. Utah Geological Association Publication 43.

Abstract - We present here a detailed study of the lithostratigraphy and preliminary vertebrate biostratigraphy of the Upper Triassic Chinle Formation in Lisbon Valley, southeastern Utah. Triassic salt tectonism resulted in a period of erosion and possibly non-deposition that removed the top of the Lower Permian Cutler Group, the Early-Middle Triassic Moenkopi Formation, and the Late Triassic (earliest Norian) Shinarump Member of the Chinle Formation. Chinle Formation deposition in Lisbon Valley began or resumed sometime during the middle-late Norian or Rhaetian and terminated before the end of the Rhaetian. Chinle Formation sediments are mostly siltstone to fine-grained sandstone dominated by planar cross-bedding and climbing ripple cross-lamination; these sediments generally exhibit poor paleosol development, with interbedded conglomerates dominated by clasts composed of reworked intrabasinal sediments and containing only minor extrabasinal silica. The regional climate during Chinle deposition was becoming increasingly arid, with fluctuating seasonal rainfall. Deposition by the braided and meandering rivers of the lower Kane Springs beds filled paleovalleys incised into the Cutler Group, and was followed by a poorly drained interval of poorly oxygenated swamps and lakes crisscrossed by small streams that produced the middle Kane Springs beds. These conditions transitioned back to the slowly aggrading braided and meandering rivers of the upper Kane Springs beds, probably by Rhaetian time. The Kane Springs paleoenvironment, probably at least partially syndepositional with that of the Owl Rock Member, was inhabited by conifers, freshwater ostracods, bivalves and gastropods, indeterminate phytosaurs, and the aetosaur Typothorax. The shift to the overlying Church Rock Member was gradational and probably involved only subtle shifts in the depositional system, largely related to better-drained sediments. Braided channels with seasonally variable discharge crossed well-drained, rapidly aggrading and well-oxygenated floodplains. Rare paleosols (including entisols, vertisols, and aridisols) indicate seasonal wetting and drying in a generally arid climate. Rivers and lakes were inhabited by the phytosaur taxon Machaeroprosopus (including the derived form “Redondasaurus”), rare metoposaurids, coelacanths, a diverse actinopterygian fish fauna, conchostracans, ostracods, bivalves, and gastropods. The flora included conifer trees, giant horsetails, Cynepteris (a fern), Zamites (a bennettitalean), the small shrub-like conifer Pelourdea, and the enigmatic Sanmiguelia. Terrestrial tetrapods included the aetosaur Typothorax (suggesting that the genus endured into the Rhaetian), paracrocodylomorphs, and small theropods. Eventually, wind-blown eolian deposits entered the region, and late in the Rhaetian, prior to 201.3 Ma, the eolian Wingate erg swamped small braided channels still inhabited by the phytosaur “Redondasaurus,” actinopterygian fishes, and small theropods.

Triassic Research at the 4th International Paleontology Congress - 2014

Wishing I could have joined my colleagues this week for the 4th International Paleontology Congress in Mendoza, Argentina.  There is a large amount of Triassic research being presented at this meeting.
Here is the link to the abstract volume.





Evidence of Trophic Interactions Among Apex Predators in the Late Triassic

Let's get back into the swing of things Chinle with this new paper that shows how badass phytosaurs were. I'd love to see someone recreate this fight scene for a film.

Drumheller, S. K., Stocker, M. R., and S. J. Nesbitt. 2014. Direct evidence of trophic interactions among apex predators in the Late Triassic of western North America. Naturwissenschaften (advance online publication) DOI: 10.1007/s00114-014-1238-3

 Abstract - Hypotheses of feeding behaviors and community structure are testable with rare direct evidence of trophic interactions in the fossil record (e.g., bite marks). We present evidence of four predation, scavenging, and/or interspecific fighting events involving two large paracrocodylomorphs (='rauisuchians') from the Upper Triassic Chinle Formation (~220–210 Ma). The larger femur preserves a rare history of interactions with multiple actors prior to and after death of this ~8–9-m individual. A large embedded tooth crown and punctures, all of which display reaction tissue formed through healing, record evidence of a failed attack on this individual. The second paracrocodylomorph femur exhibits four unhealed bite marks, indicating the animal either did not survive the attack or was scavenged soon after death. The combination of character states observed (e.g., morphology of the embedded tooth, ‘D’-shaped punctures, evidence of bicarination of the marking teeth, spacing of potentially serial marks) indicates that large phytosaurs were actors in both cases. Our analysis of these specimens demonstrates phytosaurs targeted large paracrocodylomorphs in these Late Triassic ecosystems. Previous distinctions between 'aquatic' and 'terrestrial' Late Triassic trophic structures were overly simplistic and built upon mistaken paleoecological assumptions; we show they were intimately connected at the highest trophic levels. Our data also support that size cannot be the sole factor in determining trophic status. Furthermore, these marks provide an opportunity to start exploring the seemingly unbalanced terrestrial ecosystems from the Late Triassic of North America, in which large carnivores far outnumber herbivores in terms of both abundance and diversity.

Palaeontology Online: Fossil Focus: Placodonts

This link is to a new article at Palaeontology Online providing an overview of Triassic marine placodonts. Palaeontology Online is a website sponsored by the Palaeontological Association (who publish the journal Palaeontology) featuring regular articles written by subject experts on all aspects of paleontology.

Return to the Down's Quarry

The Placerias Quarry outside of St. Johns, Arizona is one of the best known vertebrate fossil localities in the Chinle Formation. The nearby Downs Quarry is not as well known.  Named for the late Will Downs who worked in the area in the 1970s with the Museum of Arizona, the Downs Quarry is just a stones throw from the Placerias Quarry and possibly slightly higher stratigraphically.  Crews from the North Carolina State Museum and Appalachian State University have been working these two sites for five years now and are uncovering a lot of good material.  This is exciting as these quarries have produced a lot of incredible material in the past and seem to still be very productive.  Vince Schneider from the NCSM has a blog posted describing some of the work at the Downs Quarry, which you can read here.

Antarctosuchus polyodon, a new Temnospondyl from the Middle Triassic of Antarctica and Evidence for the Provincialization of the Temnospondyl Assemblages of Gondwana

I've always been interested in the Triassic rocks of Antarctica since as a work-study student at the Museum of Northern Arizona in the 1990s, I was tasked with returning a loan back to the American Museum of Natural History. Turns out it was Edwin Colbert's collection of material from Antarctica.  I was spellbound handling and packing away leaves of Glossopteris and specimens of Thrinaxodon and Dicynodon. These were specimens I had read about when I was younger that helped nail down the theory of plate tectonics, and here I was handling them and packing them for shipment (I hope they made it OK). In graduate school in the late 1990s we were tasked with writing a mock NSF proposal.  Mine dealt with collecting fossils in the Transantarctic Mountains and I'm happy to say it was the only one 'funded' by the professor, but of course I did not really get to go. As a result I'm always envious when  I read about Antarctic work.

This is a paper in the new issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology describing a new temnospondyl from the Middle Triassic of Antarctica.  This new taxon, Antarctosuchus polyodon, is based on a well preserved skull and a reconstruction is provided below courtesy of Christian Sidor.


This new taxon and its phylogenetic relationships suggests that the Gonwanan temnospondyl faunal assemblages were more provincial than the synapsid assemblages.

Sidor, C. A., Steyer, J. S., and W. R. Hammer. 2014. A new capitosaurid temnospondyl from the Middle Triassic Upper Fremouw Formation of Antarctica. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34(3):539-548. DOI:10.1080/02724634.2013.808205

Abstract - We describe a new capitosauroid temnospondyl, Antarctosuchus polyodon, gen. et sp. nov., on the basis of a large and relatively complete skull from the upper Fremouw Formation of Antarctica. The new species is characterized by its possession of numerous, extremely small maxillary, palatine, and ectopterygoid teeth, a dental pattern that suggests specialization on small prey items, possibly invertebrates. The taxon is also characterized by a parachoanal tooth row that extends far posterior to the choana and occipital condyles set close to the midline. A combination of features, including a flat skull and low occiput together with well-developed sensory canals, suggests an aquatic lifestyle. We address the phylogenetic relationships of Antarctosuchus by adding it to a recent cladistic analysis of Capitosauria. The revised data set includes 27 taxa and 53 characters. The results of this analysis place Antarctosuchus within a clade of derived Triassic stereospondyls as the sister taxon to Paracyclotosaurus crookshanki from the Triassic Denwai Formation of India. To date, the upper Fremouw Formation has yielded two endemic temnospondyl species (viz., Kryostega collinsoni and Antarctosuchus polyodon), although indeterminate remains referred to benthosuchids and a cranial fragment assigned to Parotosuchus sp. have also been noted. In contrast to the broadly distributed therapsid taxa recognized from the Middle Triassic of Antarctica (e.g., Cynognathus, Diademodon), the temnospondyl fauna suggests more limited interchange with other coeval southern Pangean basins (e.g., Karoo, Luangwa, Ruhuhu, Waterberg).


New Article on the Colorado Plateau Coring Project

I apologize for the hiatus since the last set of posts but I was very busy finishing up my scholastic career, as well as maintain my full-time job, and we as my private life with home and family.  I hope to start posting regularly again and possibly even something more than just new paper updates, but we shall see.

This is an article that came out this week on the Colorado Plateau Coring Project work that was completed earlier at Petrified Forest National Park and what we hope to learn from this core.  The core is presently being CT scanned at the UT Austin and after that is will be split and the detailed research started.

https://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/news-events/amid-fossil-bonanza-drilling-deep-pre-dinosaurian-rocks

This summer we will continue work on the layer briefly mentioned in the article and video. An extremely fossiliferous layer we affectionately call the 'poop layer' because it is not only chock full of bones (micro- and macro-) but also a predominance of coprolites.  I'll post updates on our work during the summer.  In the meantime enjoy the article and video.

New Neopterygian Fishes from the Chinle Formation of Utah

This is an important new paper describing some new fishes from the Chinle Formation of Utah. Well-preserved fish are rare throughout much of the Chinle and relatively understudied in previous decades.  Nonetheless, they were important constituents of the Late Triassic biota, and much material goes unrecognized because many Chinle Formation workers (myself included) are one, unfamiliar with the fish fossil record, and two, the taxonomy of this group is in serious need of revision.  Sarah's new work and phylogenentic study is a huge step forward in rectifying these problems. We should all start paying more attention.

Gibson, S. Z. 2013. Biodiversity and Evolutionary History of Lophionotus (Neopterygii: Semionotiformes) from the Western United States. Copeia 2013:582-603. DOI: 10.1643/CI-12-028

Abstract - Two species of the neopterygian genus †Lophionotus Gibson, 2013, are described. Specimens of †Lophionotus chinleana, new species, were previously and recently collected from freshwater deposits in the Upper Triassic Chinle Formation of Lisbon Valley, southeastern Utah. †Semionotus kanabensis Schaeffer and Dunkle, 1950, from lacustrine deposits in the Lower Jurassic Moenave Formation of southwestern Utah, is herein redescribed and attributed to the genus †Lophionotus, based on shared characters, including the infraorbital in the posteroventral corner of the orbit being expanded and contacting the anterior ramus of the preoperculum. Both new species of †Lophionotus are distinct from †L. sanjuanensis Gibson, 2013, in that they lack a postcranial hump, deep body, dense tuberculation, and ventrally expanded preoperculum. The addition of two new species lends to a revised generic description of the genus †Lophionotus. A phylogenetic analysis infers a monophyletic †Lophionotus sister to the genus †Semionotus, and †Lophionotus is placed within the family †Semionotidae within †Semionotiformes.

Ice Archosauromorph


 Recent retreat of ancient ice sheets from western Virginia has revealed the frozen exquisitely preserved remains of a phytosaurian archosaur. The specimen appears to be of the fully crested type, similar to Nicrosaurus kapffi, previously only known from Germany. As the photos below demonstrate, even details of the soft tissue are preserved giving us amazing insight of this animal such as proportions, posture, and that it had bulgy eyeballs. 
 



 A close-up of the pes shows that digit four is the longest, supporting the hypothesis that the ichnoform Apatopus is indeed the track of phytosaurians.


Discoverers Michelle Stocker and Sterling Nesbitt are taking measurements and describing the new find before the Spring thaw, hopefully publishing the results soon.  In the meantime they are also eagerly awaiting what other rare forms may be exposed as these thick deposits of eastern ice finally retreat.

 




Triassic Period: Reptiles Rule. Video from the Discovery Channel.

I assume this is supposed to be the southwest U.S. during the Late Triassic, but there is a hodge-podge of animals from different ages. Still pretty cool though; however, I wish the aetosaur and photosaur were on the scene a little longer, and where is the ubiquitous Postosuchus?

http://www.discovery.com/video-topics/other/dinosaur-videos/triassic-period-reptiles-rule.htm

Large Body Size in Non-dinosaurian Dinosauromorphs - Evidence from a Large Silesaurid from Late Triassic of Tanzania

Barrett, P. M., Nesbitt, S. J., and B. R. Peecook. 2014. A large-bodied silesaurid from the Lifua Member of the Manda beds (Middle Triassic) of Tanzania and its implications for body-size evolution in Dinosauromorpha. Gondwana Research (accepted manuscript). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gr.2013.12.015

Abstract
- Many dinosaur lineages were characterised by wide ranges of body-size, ranging from taxa that were <1 m in length to the largest of all terrestrial vertebrates. On the other hand, the closest relatives of dinosaurs, the non-dinosaurian dinosauromorphs, such as Marasuchus and lagerpetids, were small-bodied animals with little variation in body-size. Here, we describe a partial femur of an unexpectedly large-bodied silesaurid (non-dinosaurian dinosauriform) from the Lifua Member of the Manda beds (?late Anisian) from southwestern Tanzania. This specimen (NHMUK R16303) is estimated to have had a femoral length of approximately 345 mm, which exceeds that of many Triassic and Lower Jurassic dinosaurs, and is either a large individual of the contemporary Asilisaurus kongwe or represents a new and otherwise unknown silesaurid taxon. In either case, it shows that body-size increases were more prevalent among early dinosauromorphs than realised previously. Moreover, silesaurid size increase occurred in parallel with that in early dinosaurs, alongside the convergent acquisition of other features related to locomotion and herbivory. However, Late Triassic faunas including large-bodied sauropodomorph and theropod dinosaurs lack similarly-sized non-dinosaurian dinosauromorphs, whereas the Lifua Member fauna includes both a large silesaurid and the early ?dinosaur Nyasasaurus, which overlapped in size.

New Open Access Paper Discussing the Rise of Dinosaurs

Benton, M.J., Forth, J., and M.C. Langer. 2014. Models for the rise of dinosaurs. Modern Biology 24:R87-R95. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.11.063

Abstract - Dinosaurs arose in the early Triassic in the aftermath of the greatest mass extinction ever and became hugely successful in the Mesozoic. Their initial diversification is a classic example of a large-scale macroevolutionary change. Diversifications at such deep-time scales can now be dissected, modelled and tested. New fossils suggest that dinosaurs originated early in the Middle Triassic, during the recovery of life from the devastating Permo-Triassic mass extinction. Improvements in stratigraphic dating and a new suite of morphometric and comparative evolutionary numerical methods now allow a forensic dissection of one of the greatest turnovers in the history of life. Such studies mark a move from the narrative to the analytical in macroevolutionary research, and they allow us to begin to answer the proposal of George Gaylord Simpson, to explore adaptive radiations using numerical methods.

The Foot of Poposaurus gracilis, Further Convergence with Theropod Dinosaurs

....and the answer to the question we've all been wondering...what type of footprint would Poposaurus have left? It appears that Poposaurus  probably could have left a Grallator-like track.

Farlow, J. O., Schachner, E. R., Sarrazin, J. C., Klein, H., and P. J. Currie. 2014. Pedal Proportions of Poposaurus gracilis: Convergence and Divergence in the Feet of Archosaurs. The Anatomical Record, Early View. DOI: 10.1002/ar.22863.

Abstract - The crocodile-line basal suchian Poposaurus gracilis had body proportions suggesting that it was an erect, bipedal form like many dinosaurs, prompting questions of whether its pedal proportions, and the shape of its footprint, would likewise “mimic” those of bipedal dinosaurs. We addressed these questions through a comparison of phalangeal, digital, and metatarsal proportions of Poposaurus with those of extinct and extant crocodile-line archosaurs, obligate or facultatively bipedal non-avian dinosaurs, and ground birds of several clades, as well as a comparison of the footprint reconstructed from the foot skeleton of Poposaurus with known early Mesozoic archosaurian ichnotaxa. Bivariate and multivariate analyses of phalangeal and digital dimensions showed numerous instances of convergence in pedal morphology among disparate archosaurian clades. Overall, the foot of Poposaurus is indeed more like that of bipedal dinosaurs than other archosaur groups, but is not exactly like the foot of any particular bipedal dinosaur clade. Poposaurus likely had a digitigrade stance, and its footprint shape could have resembled grallatorid ichnotaxa, unless digit I of the foot of Poposaurus commonly left an impression.