Field of Science

New Study on the Late Triassic Pollen Record at the Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, USA

This is a new study of the palynology of the Chinle Formation of Petrified Forest National Park that fills in a previous sampling gap caused by reevaluation of the local stratigraphy. The study finds three pollen assembalge biozones that correspond to the two zones previously recovered by Litwin et al. (1991). Two main points of the paper are: 1) these faunal zones no longer pertain to the Carnian/Norian boundary as recent dating of the Chinle Formation in conjunction with a recalibration of the Late Triassic timescale demonstrates that the Chinle Formation is Norian-Rhaetian in age (Irmis et al., 2011; Ramezani et al., 2011); 2) the floral turnover roughly corresponds stratigraphically with the faunal turnover precisely located in the park by Parker and Martz (2011). Potential causal mechanisms remain under investigation.

Reichgelt, T., Parker, W. G., Martz, J. W., Conrad, J. G., van Konijnenburg-van Cittert, J. H. A., and W. M. Kürschner. 2013. The palynology of the Sonsela Member (Late Triassic, Norian) at Petrified Forest NP, Arizona, USA. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 189:18-28.

Abstract - Recent paleontological investigations and lithostratigraphic revisions reveal a marked biotic turnover zone within the continental deposits of the Sonsela member of the Chinle Formation (Late Triassic, Norian) at Petrified Forest National Park, USA. Within the Sonsela member we found three pollen assemblage biozones: Zone II (90.5–94 m above the Mesa Redondo member) contains a relatively diverse palynological assemblage, with a mix of pteridosperms, voltzialean and some Mesozoic conifers. Following a 2.3 m hiatus, Zone IIIa (96–97.5 m) is characterized by a decrease in pteridosperms and Mesozoic conifers and a drop in voltzialean conifer diversity. The alleged voltzialean conifer pollen Klausipollenites gouldii was dominant in this part of the assemblage and a significant rise in spores and cycad pollen was also evident. In Zone IIIb (97.5–98.5 m) diversity increases and several taxa, which were absent in Zone IIIa reappear, although K. gouldii remained the most abundant taxon. The transition between the palynological assemblages Zones II and IIIa coincide approximately (within a ~2.5 m interval) with a documented faunal turnover. The floristic assemblages suggest that the climate of the south-western United States during the Norian was most likely semi-arid and highly seasonal, despite being located at tropical latitudes, with aridification occurring towards the end-Triassic as the continent drifted northwards and global volcanism increased. The gymnosperm dominated palynofloral assemblage as opposed to the fern- and horsetail-dominated macrofossil record of the Sonsela member of the Chinle Formation, conforms to a semi-arid upland environment alternated by riparian, swampy lowland.


Irmis, R. B., Mundil, R., Martz, J. W., and W. G. Parker. 2011. High-precision U-Pb zircon ages from the Chinle Formation of New Mexico, USA: Implications for Late Triassic vertebrate biostratigraphy and the rise of dinosaurs. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 309:258-267.

Litwin, R. J., Traverse, A., and S.R. Ash. 1991.  Preliminary palynological zonation of the Chinle Formation, southwestern U.S.A., and its correlation to the Newark Supergroup (eastern U.S.A.).  Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 68:269-287.

Parker, W. G., and J. W. Martz. 2011. Constraining the stratigraphic position of the Late Triassic (Norian) Adamanian Revueltian faunal transition in the Chinle Formation of Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. Earth and Environmental Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 101:231-260. 

Ramezani, J., Hoke, G. D., Fastovsky, D.E., Bowring, S. A., Therrien, F., Dworkin, S. I., Atchley, S. C. and L. C. Nordt. 2011. High precision U-Pb zircon geochronology of the Late Triassic Chinle Formation, Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona): Temporal constraints on the early evolution of dinosaurs. Geological Society of America Bulletin 123:2142-2159.

Diverse Tetrapod Track Assemblages from the Late Triassic of Morocco

Lagnaoui, A. Klein, H., Voigt, S., Hminna, A., Saber, H., Schneider, J. W., and R. Werneburg. 2012. Late Triassic Tetrapod-Dominated Ichnoassemblages from the Argana Basin (Western High Atlas, Morocco). Ichnos 19:238-253. 

Abstract - Diverse tetrapod track assemblages with Scoyenia invertebrate traces were discovered in the Triassic Timezgadiouine and Bigoudine formations of the Argana Basin (Western High Atlas, Morocco). The ichnofossils occur in alluvial plain sandstones and mudstones of the Irohalène Member (T5) and Tadart Ouadou Member (T6) considered Carnian-Norian in age by vertebrate remains and palynomorphs. Tetrapod footprints are assigned to ApatopusAtreipus-Grallator,Eubrontes isp., Parachirotherium, cf. Parachirotherium postchirotherioidesRhynchosauroides ispp., and Synaptichnium isp. They can be referred to lepidosauromorph/ archosauromorph, basal archosaur, and dinosauromorph trackmakers. Apatopus represented by 11 tracks of a more than 4 m long trackway, is recorded for the first time outside of North America and Europe. The assemblage concurs with the proposed Late Triassic age of the track-bearing beds by the occurrence of ApatopusAtreipus-Grallator, and Eubrontes. If this is accepted, the stratigraphic range of Synaptichnium and Parachirotherium, hitherto known only from Early or Middle Triassic deposits, has to be extended to the Carnian-Norian. The occurrence of Eubrontes in the Irohalene Member (T5) provides further evidence for large theropods in pre-Jurassic strata. All assemblages are referred to the Scoyenia ichnofacies indicating continental environments with alternating wet and dry conditions.

Finally a Dinosaur Textbook with a Section on Dinosaur Origins! Dinosaurs: A Concise Natural History

In 2010 when I reviewed the first edition of Fastovsky and Weishampel "Dinosaurs: a Concise Natural History" for the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology I gave it a good review, recommending it for classroom use.  However, one complaint I had was that as a book on dinosaurs it had almost no coverage of dinosaur origins.  David Fastovsky took note and assured me that the next edition would remedy this. 

Well I'm happy to say that the second edition is out and does indeed have a much expanded section on dinosaur origins. Thanks to David and David for not taking my constructive criticism too hard and adding this section. In my opinion this makes what I think is the best dinosaur textbook available even better. 

Rediscovered Specimen Draws Dinosaur Origins Down Into the Middle Triassic

I've been peripherally involved in the recent renaissance regarding dinosaur origins since my discovery of the skeleton of Revueltosaurus callenderi in 2004 and the subsequent recognition that it was not a dinosaur. With my good friends and colleagues Sterling Nesbitt and Randall Irmis, I proceeded to reexamine much of the Late Triassic dinosaur record using an apomorphy-based approach emphasized by UT Austin professor Chris Bell and his colleagues for Neogene vertebrates. Our findings were that Triassic dinosaurs were actually rarer than previously believed, especially in North America. In addition, extensive fieldwork by Sterling and Randy led to the discoveries of Dromomeron romeri, Tawa hallae, and Asilisaurus kongwe, filling in some key gaps in our understanding of the early diversification of the Ornithodira.  Nonetheless it has become readily apparent that many important specimens crucial to this issue were not weathering out of outcrops in the field, but rather were sitting un- or misidentified in museum collections around the globe. Our new understanding of character states and polarities for early diverging dinosauriforms provided us with specific search criteria leading to the discoveries and/or reinterpretations of taxa such as Eucoelophysis baldwini, Dromomeron gregorii, Technosaurus smalli, Daemonosaurus chauliodus, and of course Effigia okeeffae, all from previously collected material including fossils collected for Edward Cope in the 1800s. Furthermore, Randy's work found that the rise of dinosaurs was diachronous, although the timing is still poorly understood.

The discovery of the silesaurid Asilisaurus kongwe (published in 2010) pulled the split between Silesauridae and Dinosauria into the Middle Triassic creating a significant ghost lineage for Dinosauria as the earliest known bona fide dinosaurs do not appear until the end of the Carnian stage of the Late Triassic. Amazingly it appears that we did not need to wait very long for this ghost lineage to be filled.

Today's issue of Biology Letters has a paper by Sterling Nesbitt, Paul Barrett, Sarah Werning, Christian Sidor, and the late Alan Charig on a probable new dinosaur from the Middle Triassic of Tanzania. Even more amazing is that this is not a new specimen, but was actually collected in the 1930s, and never described, except in Charig's 1950s dissertation, until today. Charig named the new specimen Nyasasaurus parringtoni and until now this name has been a nomen nudum.

Known from a partial humerus and several vertebrate (three cervical, five presacral and three sacral), reanalysis places Nyasasaurus as either a dinosaur or as the sister taxon to Dinosauria. The humerus bears a ventrally elongated deltopectoral crest with a deflected apex, both synapomorphies of Dinosauria. The cervical vertebrae are elongate and possess deep lateral fossae, consistent with character states found in dinosaurs. The presence of three sacral vertebrae, although not restricted to Dinosauria, also supports this placement. This interpretation is supported not only by a phylogenetic analysis but also by bone histology, which shows high, continuous growth rates similar to that of early diverging dinosaurs. 

This material suggests that dinosaurs probably appeared in the fossil record 10 to 15 million years earlier than we expected. Furthermore, Nesbitt et al. argue that this strongly supports the hypothesis that dinosaurs were not a dominant group during their early history. Finally, Nyasasaurus also provides more support for a Gondwanan origin of dinosaurs.

One thing that is now definitely clear is that workers interested in dinosaur origins will need to spend more time in Middle Triassic terrestrial units. Back in 2004 I don't think any of us fathomed what discoveries and interpretations the next decade would bring. As I often state, it is not necessarily what we already know that dirves our work, but what is still out there for us to learn.

Nesbitt, S. J., Barrett, P. M., Werning, S., Sidor, C. A., and A. J. Charig. 2012. The oldest dinosaur? A Middle Triassic dinosauriform from Tanzania. Biology Letters.

Abstract - The rise of dinosaurs was a major event in vertebrate history, but the timing of the origin and early diversification of the group remain poorly constrained. Here, we describe Nyasasaurus parringtoni gen. et sp. nov., which is identified as either the earliest known member of, or the sister-taxon to, Dinosauria. Nyasasaurus possesses a unique combination of dinosaur character states and an elevated growth rate similar to that of definitive early dinosaurs. It demonstrates that the initial dinosaur radiation occurred over a longer timescale than previously thought (possibly 15 My earlier), and that dinosaurs and their immediate relatives are better understood as part of a larger Middle Triassic archosauriform radiation. The African provenance of Nyasasaurus supports a southern Pangaean origin for Dinosauria.

Dr. Farish Jenkins 1940-2012

Many of you are already aware, but Professor Farish Jenkins of Harvard University passed away earlier this month at the age of 72. A vertebrate paleontologist, Dr. Jenkins was well known for his Triassic work in Greenland and even more so for his work in the Triassic and Jurassic of the Colorado Plateau, especially regarding early mammals.

Biomechanical Comments about Triassic Dinosaurs from Brazil

Delcourt, R., de Azevedo, S. A. K., Grillo, O. N., and F. O. Deantoni. 2012. Biomechanical comments about Triassic dinosaurs from Brazil. Papáis Avulsos de Zoologia 52:341-347.
 Abstract - Triassic dinosaurs of Brazil are found in Santa Maria and Caturrita formations, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil. There are three species known from the Santa Maria Formation (Staurikosaurus pricei, Saturnalia tupiniquim and Pampadromaeus barberenai), and two from Caturrita Formation (Guaibasaurus candelariensis and Unaysaurus tolentinoi). These dinosaur materials are, for the most part, well preserved and allow for descriptions of musculature and biomechanical studies. The lateral rotation of the Saturnalia femur is corroborated through calculations of muscle moment arms. The enhanced supracetabular crest of Saturnalia, Guaibasaurus, Staurikosaurus, Herrerasaurus ischigualastensis, Efraasia minor and Chormogisaurus [sic] novasi suggests that basal dinosaurs may have maintained an inclination of the trunk at least 20° on the horizontal axis. The pectoral girdle articulation of basal sauropodomorphs (Saturnalia and Unaysaurus) was established using a new method, the Clavicular Ring, and the scapular blade remains near 60° on the horizontal axis. This is a plesiomorphic condition among sauropodomorphs and is also seen in the articulated plateosauridae Seitaad ruessi. The Brazilian basal dinosaurs were lightweight with a body mass estimated around 18.5 kg for Staurikosaurus, 6.5 kg for Saturnalia, and 17 kg for Guaibasaurus. Pampadromaeus probably weighed 2.5 kg, but measures of its femur are necessary to confirm this hypothesis. The Triassic dinosaurs from Brazil were diversified but shared some functional aspects that were important in an evolutionary context.