Donnerstag, 2. Dezember 2010

Three recent papers on chroniosuchians

Buchwitz M, Voigt S. 2010. Peculiar carapace structure of a Triassic chroniosuchian implies evolutionary shift in trunk flexibility. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30: 1697-1708. [Link]

Schoch RR, Voigt S, Buchwitz M. 2010. A chroniosuchid from the Triassic of Kyrgyzstan and analysis of chroniosuchian relationships. Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society 160: 515-530. [Link]

Klembara J, Clack J, Čerňanský A. 2010. The anatomy of palate of Chroniosaurus dongusensis (Chroniosuchia, Chroniosuchidae) from the Upper Permian of Russia. Palaeontology 53: 1147-1153. [Link]

The redescription of the Chroniosaurus dongusensis palate by Klembara and colleagues adds further data to the morphological dataset provided by Clack and Klembara (2009) in their revision of C. dongusensis on the basis of a new specimen (which is the most complete of any yet known chroniosuchian). According to the updated phylogenetic analysis from the 2010 paper Chroniosaurus as the only included chroniosuchian taxon formed the sister group of embolomeres.

Schoch and colleagues (me included) describe Madygenerpeton pustulatus, a new species of chroniosuchians from the Middle to Late Triassic of Central Asia with a highly derived skull morphology and a carapace that was chroniosuchid-like in many aspects. The find shows that one lineage of chroniosuchids survived the Permian-Triassic boundary (by 20 or so million years).

The authors discuss characteristics uniting chroniosuchians with "higher reptiliomorphs" and unlike the approach of Klembara and colleagues their cladistic analysis, which includes five chroniosuchian taxa, results in a position of chroniosuchians somewhat closer to amniotes than to embolomeres. Chroniosaurus comes out as the closest relative of Madygenerpeton (both share the characteristic ornamentation of the skull and osteoderms besides other features).

Buchwitz & Voigt consider the functionality of chroniosuchian carapaces, comparing them to archosaur osteoderm systems. They argue that chroniosuchian carapaces basically served terrestrial locomotion but that the higher lateral flexibility of the Madygenerpeton osteoderm system was linked to a secondary increase in undulation swimming capability.

Clack JA, Klembara J. 2009. An articulated specimen of Chroniosaurus dongusensis, and the morphology and relationships of the chroniosuchids. Special Papers in Palaeontology 81: 15-42. [Link]

Samstag, 30. Oktober 2010

Palges Meeting October 2010 in Munich

The 80 th Annual Meeting of the German Paleontological Society took place from the 6th through the 8th October 2010 within the halls of the Bavarian State Collection for Geology and Paleontology in Munich.

Of particular interest for me was the session on Early Mesozoic vertebrates chaired by the Rauhut couple and Richard Butler as it united many interesting characters, such as Silvio Renesto, Martin Ezcurra, Rainer Schoch, and Daniela Schwarz-Wings and covered a variety of Triassic vertebrates including archosaurs, temnospondyls, and bony fish.

With 5 talks and 6 posters our small Freibergian working group had quite a number of contributions this year (my prof Jörg Schneider was talking about Paleozoic cockroaches from China, Olaf Elicki about Cambrian trace fossils from Africa and the Middle East, Frederik Spindler about the evolution of haptodonts and other early synapsids, Jan Fischer about oxygen isotope signals in Permian and Triassic freshwater shark teeth and I had a talk on osteoderm histology and the Chroniosuchia). My colleagues Ilja Kogan and Jan Fischer won the 1st poster prize with their poster entitled "The Madygen lake deposits: A unique multi-taxa kindergarten for Triassic fisches" - which is quite an achievement as normally the winner comes from the host institute of the Palges Meeting.

The image on the right shows me in front of a poster entitled "Paleontology in the German Wikipedia" [pdf].

Even though there are many private collectors and paleontology enthusisasts in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland you won't find much about "regional paleontology" in the German Wikipedia which was the reason for my colleagues and me to introduce some aspects of Wikipedian (Pop-)Sciencewriting.

The poster praised the advantages Wikipedia can have if it is reasonably incorporated in public outreach campaigns and we commented critically on the dinosaur focus which increases the already biased public image of what paleontology is about.

Donnerstag, 28. Oktober 2010

Madygenerpeton pustulatus: first description finally out

Schoch, R. R., S. Voigt, and M. Buchwitz. 2010. A chroniosuchid from the Triassic of Kyrgyzstan and analysis of chroniosuchian relationships. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 160(3): 515-530. [Abstract]

Montag, 22. März 2010

Madygen trace fossil paper

Voigt, S. and D. Hoppe. 2010. Mass Occurrence of Penetrative Trace Fossils in Triassic Lake Deposits (Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia). Ichnos 17:1-11. [Link]

Besides the exquisite soft body preservation of insects and tetrapods within some parts of the lacustrine succession, the Triassic Madygen lake shows a rich inventary of invertebrate trace fossils, studied by my colleague from Freiberg Sebastian Voigt.

The interesting point about these ichnofossil assemblages is that they demonstrate a certain differentiation of the lake ground in better and less well aerated zones, displaying different degrees of bioturbation and abundances of indicative ichnotaxa.

You can imagine that fresh water lake grounds only became inhabited stepwise after the conquest of land by animals, so these trace fossil assemblages mark a certain evolutionary level of lake ecosystems, otherwise rarely documented in detail from the Middle to Late Triassic.

Sonntag, 28. Februar 2010

Perception of deep time by geologists and biologists

Following the Darwin Year a colloquium lecture by zoologist Prof. Wolfgang Maier from Tübingen dedicated to "Darwin and deep time" discussed Charles Darwin’s role as a geologist who (among others) introduced the concept of deep time (a term later coined for million to several billion year long time ranges in geology) to biology.

Darwin did this by translating a hierarchy of (anatomical) similarity into a tree scheme that linked organisms from successive time slices with thousands of generations separating each two slices (see the scheme from Darwin’s "Origin of Species": [link]). The time slices can be related to certain units of the geological time scale.

Deep time correspondents in stratigraphy …

The problem of imagining time ranges far outside the scale of human experience has been approached by geologists with the method and concepts of stratigraphy: Strata of rock can be interpreted as a succession of time slices. Relative ages and age differences often manifest in an amount of rock which is loosely corresponding to certain a time span if similar rockforming processes are underlying. The relationship between the duration of a process and the amount of materal it creates can be inferred from direct observation of recent systems, allowing the assignment of absolute time (in years or millions of years) to a succession of strata. Given that long-term geological processes are rarely gradual, a more reliable absolute age is provided by radiometric dating.

If you would ask a geologist how he/ she percieves deep time I suppose he/ she would explain that it becomes clear from the slowness of present-day geological processes on the one hand and from the vast amount of products of such processes on the other hand.

… and phylogenetics

The evolution of organisms yields another approximation of deep time: The passing of time manifests in the hierarchical distinctness of living systems. Seeing how slow evolution works in a human being’s life span and how much change in anatomy/ biochemistry etc. must have occurred since last common ancestor of mouse and elephant or of mouse and lemon tree, leads to another way of percieving long time spans.

Regarding a certain distinctness and species richness of a group as a product of a certain number of character changes and speciation events (which is more or less well correlated with time) was probably enhanced by the more quantitative look at phylogenetics since the introduction of cladistics and molecular methods.

When I was attending a workshop on molecular paleobiology in 2008 specialists of that field were using the expression “(addressing) deep time problems” synonymous to phylogenetics of higher systematic groups, i.e. as the study of evolutionary changes that occurred deep down in the tree of animals and other organisms – opposed to let’s say the comparative analysis of human and neanderthal genomes or the radiation of Darwin finches.

The viewpoints of paleontologists…

But how do (present-day) paleontologists percieve deep time? You would expect them to share the view of both, phylogeneticists and stratigraphers, as most of them are taught at least a bit about both fields. However, for a paleontological fieldworker who employs the study of fossils as a means to understand and describe geological processes and paleoenvironmental contexts the flow of time is much easier grasped as a series of events preserved in a succession of rocks (and not as a phylogenetic tree scheme).

On the other hand, as a consequence of the so-called paleobiological revolution, you don’t need to be a field worker to contribute to the understanding of ancient organisms. In fact many aspects of paleobiology require mere laboratory and magazine work and you can spend a lifetime on that without ever considering rocks – naturally the perspective of such a modern paleobiologist on deep time will be strictly that of a phylogeneticist.

…can lead to conflicts?

These different perceptions on deep time and evolution are probably the background why cladistics was (and still is) met with some scepticism by “old school paleontologists” (or by “Eastern Europe school paleontologists”): Instead of considering all kinds of data for phylogenetic hypothesis-making I am supposed to use merely data from the (anatomical, molecular, etc.) comparison of organisms, as if evolution does not manifest in other ways in the geological record.

One could argue that it is possible to integrate other data, i.e. stratigraphic ages and palaeobiogeographical relations, in a cladistic analysis or at least in the discussion of its results, and so assure that hypotheses from the tree perspective on evolution are tested under consideration of independent data.

The idea to use time directly as a character in a parsimony analysis with consecutive time slices as character states may be epistemically unsound, as it is problematic to justify any kind of model assumption how time is weighted with respect to anatomical characters (and implicitly would this mean a post-hoc failure if proximity in time is regarded as indicative for degree of relationship?).

An a posteriori fit to other data – e.g. looking which of the equally parsimonious morphology-only-based time-calibrated trees has shorter lineages of no record (ghost lineages) – might be a better approach, but is still hard to swallow for some people who have problems with parsimony analyses on the basis of (too) small character samples (i.e. with inherent biases due to sample size/ character poorness or ambivalence of fossils).