Sunday, October 13, 2013
New pterosaurs, new phylogenies
People with an interest in pterosaurs will probably be aware of the recent passing of Wann Langston Jnr, the Texan palaoentologist who was responsible for a lot of the popularizing of Quetzalcoatlus. I was lucky enough to meet Wann at the 2007 Flugsaurier meeting in Munich where he was able to attend, despite being well into his 80s. Wann’s work covered a great many aspects of Mesozoic reptiles and the recent festschrift that has been published in his honour covers a raft of different taxa.
Of interest to us though are three papers on pterosaurs that between them name four new taxa! That’s quite an effort for a single volume that is not even devoted to pterosaurs. However, what I want to talk about here is the phylogeny that appears in the paper by Brian Andres and Time Myers. Many will know that since 2003 pterosaur phylognies can broadly be divided into two camps – those which look more like that of Dave Unwin’s 2003 paper (the one shown here in red and blue is from the Darwinopetus description) and those which resemble Alex Kellner’s effort from the same year (the one shown here is from the Wukongopterus description). They are not actually that different from each other, both have the same general arrangement of taxa but with some difference. Kellner-type phylognies have anurognathids before dimorphodonitds, Unwin the reverse. Unwin-types have ornithocheiroids before the ctenocasmatids, Kellner the reverse. Both have the rhamphorhynchines immediately before Darwinopterus and kin and those coming before the origin of pterodactyloids and both have dsungaripterids close to the azhdarchoids. In short, there’s a way to go to get a consensus and there are some fairly clear and consistent contradictions, but they are not so far apart.
Interestingly, back in 2007, Brian Andres presented on some of his PhD work where he talked about how the two might be coming together, and Dave Unwin have a similar talk in Beijing in 2010. However, the phylogeny in this paper (below) is really rather different to both of those. This is the latest version of Brian’s analysis which has already popped up in a couple of papers, but frustratingly, the actual core of this (i.e. the actual character list and coding) still isn’t published –owing to the interminable delays on The Pterosauria book - so there’s no way at the moment to see what is causing these shifts.
The contrasts are quite dramatic though. Neither the dimorphodontids nor anurognathids are at the base (or close to it) of the phylogeny, but instead it is the eudimorphodontids and the anurognathids are in fact lying more derived than Darwinopterus and close to the pterodactyloids! The dsungaripterids are also now not sister taxon to the azhdarhoids, but lying within the clade as sister taxon to the thalassodromids and with the tapejarids as a basal clade to these plus the azhdarchids+chaoyangopterids.
In short, if anything, the phylogenies are getting further apart. Now I would expect them to converge again sooner or later: after all, there is only one correct solution. But as often lamented (and in particular by Darren), pterosaur phylogenies are generally rather character poor compared to many analyses of archosaur clades so there is much more to come. That said, I think some of the problem comes from the continued practice of doing analyses that cover the whole of the Pterosauria. Surely we are at the point where the rhamphorhynchoids and pterodactyloids are well separated and there’s no need to repeatedly include both in every analysis – it’s probably not helping the resolution of some trees where large chunks of the characters or states needed to help resolve one clade won’t add anything to the other. Devoting more time to better characters for smaller groups will probably be more productive than continuing to code up large numbers of taxa where large numbers of characters are inappropriate.
Anyway, that’s my 2p on the problem. Certainly the current conflicts are interesting and I look forwards to seeing what characters are supporting some of these unorthodox positions – there are likely to be some interesting convergences and codings in there. Obviously it’s hard to say much without the underlying data, but at face value I’m not overly convinced by some of those positions, but it will be especially interesting to see what these new positions mean for things like character support of branches and if it calibrates better temporally than the other current competing ideas. Now, we just need the book to get finished….
Andres, B. & Myers, T.S. 2013. Lone Star Pterosaurs. Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 103: Issue 3-4, p 383-398.
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