Field of Science

Postcranial Skeletal Pneumaticity in Triassic Archosaurs


Butler, R. J., Barrett, P. M., and D. J. Gower. 2012. Reassessment of the evidence for postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in Triassic archosaurs, and the early evolution of the avian respiratory system. PLoS ONE 7(3): e34094. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034094


Abstract - Uniquely among extant vertebrates, birds possess complex respiratory systems characterised by the combination of small, rigid lungs, extensive pulmonary air sacs that possess diverticula that invade (pneumatise) the postcranial skeleton, unidirectional ventilation of the lungs, and efficient crosscurrent gas exchange. Crocodilians, the only other living archosaurs, also possess unidirectional lung ventilation, but lack true air sacs and postcranial skeletal pneumaticity (PSP). PSP can be used to infer the presence of avian-like pulmonary air sacs in several extinct archosaur clades (non-avian theropod dinosaurs, sauropod dinosaurs and pterosaurs). However, the evolution of respiratory systems in other archosaurs, especially in the lineage leading to crocodilians, is poorly documented. Here, we use mCT-scanning to investigate the vertebral anatomy of Triassic archosaur taxa, from both the avian and crocodilian lineages as well as non-archosaurian diapsid outgroups. Our results confirm previous suggestions that unambiguous evidence of PSP (presence of internal pneumatic cavities linked to the exterior by foramina) is found only in bird-line (ornithodiran) archosaurs. We propose that pulmonary air sacs were present in the common ancestor of Ornithodira and may have been subsequently lost or reduced in some members of the clade (notably in ornithischian dinosaurs). The development of these avian-like respiratory features might have been linked to inferred increases in activity levels among ornithodirans. By contrast, no crocodile-line archosaur (pseudosuchian) exhibits evidence for unambiguous PSP, but many of these taxa possess the complex array of vertebral laminae and fossae that always accompany the presence of air sacs in ornithodirans. These laminae and fossae are likely homologous with those in ornithodirans, which suggests the need for further investigation of the hypothesis that a reduced, or non-invasive, system of pulmonary air sacs may be have been present in these taxa (and secondarily lost in extant crocodilians) and was potentially primitive for Archosauria as a whole.

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