Monday, March 13, 2017

Plesiosaur Machinations XII: Shape Shifting Plesiosaurs & Marine Apex Predator Musical Chairs

Plying Abyssal Depths  by Duane Nash

The bull Albertonectes is down deep. Sweeping its massive 7 meter long neck - the longest among elasmosaurs and the most neck vertebrae of any tetrapod - back and forth it lights up bedazzling, psychedielic swarms of bioluminescent organisms of the deep scattering layer. Visible for more than a kilometer this banner of deep sea light plays a purpose for the animal. The elasmosaur is banking on the "deep sea burglar alarm" defense mechanism of the numerous and small denizens of the deep to draw in larger animals for the elasmosaur to ambush. 

The deep sea burglar alarm is a rather clever solution to predation in the dark vastness of the abyssal ocean. This theory rests upon the premise that for any predator of the ocean, there is often something bigger that is a predator of that animal. So if a prey animal is attacked in the dark depths a potential tactic would be to call in a larger predator to take out the animal attacking me. Hence the fabulous light show.

The bull is at home in the cold, crushing depths of the high Arctic Bear Paw Ocean. Despite the exertions from these provocations the massive elasmosaur - over 11 meters long and at 4 tons the weight of an Indian elephant - still has the capacity to remain under for at least 40 minutes. A deep rich blubbery layer and abundant super oxygen saturated blood provide the necessary equipment for such dives. With the ambient light provided by the bioluminescent organisms and pressure sensor receptors along the snout and the length of the neck the bull is well attuned to this environment despite the enveloping darkness. While matrilineal pods of Albertonectes ply the shallower oceans of the coastline these big males do their foraging in the deep, cool and productive water in order to gain weight and stamina over other males when the mating season begins. In those months the males feed rarely at all.

After the bull elasmosaur has litten up an area half the size of a football field it retreats over to the edge of light show, cloaked in darkness, and waits. He does not have to wait long for out of the blackness emerges another topside explorer of these depths. A primitive scromboid fish, itself equipped with advanced thermoregulatory features that allow it to exploit such productive but cold depths, has arrived to investigate the disturbance. At over a meter long the high octane fish - which usually cruises warmer and shallower water during the day in between dives - is usually met with a welcome feast when it investigates such scenes. And here is no exception as it voraciously ram feeds on the various cephalopods, crustaceans, annelids, jellies, and tunicates swarming in the melee. The visual detection of the fish is geared towards near sighted objects, 10 meters below it it does not see or feel the 11 meter long monster of the deep pivoting slowly into strike position. As the fish makes long and straight passes through the light show picking off small organisms the bull Albertonectes recognizes the pattern and anticipates. The fish is faster in the absolute measure of speed but if the elasmosaur can get within 7 meters it has a good chance of snatching it. Noiselessly and effortlessly the massive elasmosaur shifts and hovers into striking distance below the fish. Running along the length of the vertebral column is a channel filled with oils that allow the animal to change its position in the water column like a predatory stealth submarine. When the fish makes a pass hundreds of muscles fire simultaneously along the 7 meter ling neck drawing it upward and lateral to snatch the fish. These muscles, strongest at the base of the neck anchored along the neural spines and transverse processes, move the massive neck with astonishing speed and accuracy against water resistance. The necks purpose sole here to bring a relatively small but toothy mouth into a position to gain purchase. The fish now can sense the movement of a larger animal below it but here the neck of the Albertonectes outperforms the swimming muscles of the fish. A trailing fin of the fish is snagged by two inch long, deeply rooted fangs. As the bulk of the body of the elasmosaur catches up with the course of swimming the neck has set in motion the mouth opens quickly - the gape is amazing for such a small head - to reposition a bite on the gills of the fish. With bulldog like tenacity temporal muscles squeeze tight on the gills of the fish. 

400 meters below the surface of a cool, temperate Cretaceous Artic ocean the life of an ancestor to the tuna dies to support the life of a member of the most resilient and long lasting marine tetrapods ever.

Abyssal Fishing by Duane Nash

The plesiosaur machinations are back!!

As speculative as the above scenario is deep sea burglar alarms are a real thing and considering the ubiquity of bioluminscent organisms in todays oceans such defense tactics likely occurred in Mesozoic oceans as well. Plesiosaurs were probably right there to exploit them as the aquatic bad-asses that they were. Furthermore the take home message - that neck could have been used for all sorts of weird and useful tactics - should not be lost on people.

Because I have said it before and I will say it again: the long neck "plesiosauromorph" bauplan; guild; family - whatever qualifier you want to give it - is the longest tenured and most successful marine tetrapod family of all time. Especially if you go back and consider nothosaurs as part of the radiation plesiosauromorphs beat out macro-pliosuars, ichthyosaurs, sea crocodiles, placodonts, mosasaurs, sea turtles, any and all marine mammal/bird radiations in terms of longevity. Plesiosaurs just kept on sailing along flipping a proverbial middle finger (in the form of a long neck) to all those other marine tetrapod newbies as well as to future hominid interpreters all to eager to characterize plesiosaurs as misshapen, slow, downtrodden, backwards, weak, sucked up, ineffective, cumbersome, ecologically limited and forever the proverbial cannon fodder for the more ferocious, aggressive, and dominant mosasaurs, pliosaurs, ichthyosaurs, sea crocodiles etc. etc.

Changes in  plesiosaur perception are not unlike the revolution sauropods had to go through in the dinosaur renaissance. Early interpretations of sauropods depicted them as bipedally rearing, vigorous land animals. At least in attitude and countenance, if not anatomy, some of the earliest depictions and workers on plesiosaurs got more right than many more contemporary interpretations.

These are quite meme-tastic, no? Lifted from the Pinterest of Denver Fowler.

Far from being lackluster pushovers, these animals were likely highly combative and highly social and most likely combative as a social unit (like certain family oriented skinks) against perceived threats. You did not want big mama Terminonator mad at you because she probably has 5 other cohorts circling beneath and around you ready to take the fight to ya and bite you in all those sensitive areas'!!

These animals were sea monsters but they also may have had a sensitive side. The vastness, coldness, depth, and horrific indifference of the open ocean is an existential threat that every lineage of marine tetrapod has to face. Stare at the abyss long enough and the abyss stares back.

This daunting evolutionary challenge for slowly reproducing, high metabolism, social and air breathing marine tetrapods is most often met not only with tight and intricate social bonds but with reassuring physical contact. Plesiosaurs may have indeed eerily reminded us of sauropterygian equivalents to the highly evolved social marine mammals we are familiar with today.

ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT!! Do I got the base riled up enough? Do I got ya' singing the sauropterygian gospel yet??

An incipient pivot has occurred. First and foremost people are really starting to take to this notion of plesiosaur being a lot more thicker... bring the thickness people. Not just thick layers of blubber and skin but absolutely daunting packages of muscles powering both fore and hind flippers - because the 2x penguin (credit Robert Bakker) - is a thing. And not just thick straps of muscle around the torso but thick necks - especially towards the base - are also getting traction.

Mark Witton recently wrote a piece Plesiosaur Paleoart: thoughts for artists in which he echoes a lot of the same sentiments I have been espousing in past plesiosaur machinations with regards to neck thickness, torso muscles, generally a more robust appearance. Make 'em thick.

credit Henry Sharpe used w/permission

And then pictures like this!! What the hell are those elasmosaurids investigating a potential meal larger than a trout breaking with the dogma of "they ate only small fish". Blashemy!!

Credit: © Jorge Blanco

What is this? A throwback of plesiosaurs battling eachother, necks flailing out of the water wildly?!? Restrain your skepticism, it could be that the body is supported from below as the animals are sitting on the seafloor?!?

Mauriciosaurus credit Frey et. al. 2017

A quick little shot out to thick bodied Mauriciosaurus being revealed; further work supporting the aristonectine radiation of filter feeding elasmosaurs; a polycotylid breaking the dogma of "obligate piscivore" and chomping on hesperonithinines.

Don't forget Heavens miraculous thick necked "eel" inspired Alaskan Talkeetna elasmosaur. Awesome work James!! GoFundME.

Yep it does seem like we are in a bit of a renaissance as goes plesiosaurs. And I do detect a faint whiff of plesiosaur machination inspiration in some of these newer interpretations. Long gone are the wimpy, clumsy looking, anachronisms of yore replaced by thick, muscular, confident, and awe inspiring sauropterygian aquatic monster-gods!! Rejoice!!

In light of all these new and wonderful discoveries and depictions of plesiosaurs I want to break with one of my own rules and depict a plesiosaur getting chomped on by another marine predator; not by a mosasaur; not by a pliosaur; not by a shark; but by an ichthyosaur!!

Attenborosaurus vs Macro-predatory Temnodontosaurus credit Duane Nash
I commit such travesty because 1) we don't have many images of macro-predatory ichthyosaurs doing dastardly deeds and 2) Attenborosaurus is one bad ass plesiosaur... urmm pliosaur... what is it?

With regards to point 1) on macro-predatory ichthyosaurs:

We don't often talk enough about macro-predatory ichthyosaurs because though was a big chunk of time in the Triassic to early Jurassic where the marine apex predator throne was held by these guys.  Perhaps due to the early and persistent comparison between dolphins and ichthyosaurs we have somewhat eschewed the monstrous and apex nature of some of these animals. I suspect that they were on the whole more sharklike in swimming motion, that they didn't "porpoise" through the water, and probably a little more opportunistic and "reptilian" in their feeding strategy than dolphins. It is a shame we don't have any living shark toothed dolphins around as they might offer better analogy...

I also did not ascribe a species name to the tempo but just went with a generalized large macro-predatory design. I depicted one of the temnos gulping down an immature Attenborosaurus in a swallowing feat many might be skeptical of.

Consider these points:

Modern animals - both with kinetic and akinetic skulls - swallow down quite sizeable things to a somewhat astonishing degree. We do tend to think of bone as quite rigid and "fixed" structurally but in the living animal it is wet and always has some capacity to deform - probably more so than we might assume from dried and brittle skeletal remains.

Ichthyosaurs, possibly due to their "dolphin" like assumed ecology, have been interpreted to have extremely stiff, unyielding dolphin like skulls or even quasi beaks. But look closely at the lower jaw i.e. mandible of ichthyosaurs - the two halves of the jaw, the dentary bones, do not form a solid connecting structure at the tip of the jaw. Unlike the mandibles of dolphins there is no mandibular symphisis.

T. platyodon no mandibular symphysis
Lyme Regis Ichthyosaur credit BNPS no mandibular symphysis

Could elastic tissue there allowed a certain amount of bowing of the lower jaw there to accommodate large parcels of food? Perhaps augmented by some amount of give along the length of jaw and at the jaw hinge? Even just a little flexure would have assisted swallowing large parcels of food… Additionally how rigid is the mandibular connection to the cranium? Could this have bowed out a bit? I don't know - not an expert - but I think there is enough there to ask: why not? Has adherence to ascribing dolphin like affinities to ichthyosaurs inhibited a more thorough investigation of their ecology and feeding apparatus?

hailing from Char mouth in Dorset U.K. T. platyodon credit Richard Austin

In case you have trouble wrapping your head around macro ichthyosaurs there is the pic above. I saw it on Facebook and thought that it needed wider exposure so I can't claim ownership or even permission to use it but in the spirit of spreading the word about these animals you will not find a better visual representation. T. platyodon may have been more of sperm whale than a killer whale, an idea we will revisit shortly. T. eurycehalus, though smaller, offers a more convincing glimpse at the skull of an apex predator ichthyosaur:

T. eurycephalus. credit Ghedoghedo. CC3.0
In addition to Temnodontosaurus and the various "species" that encompass that genus there was; Thalattoarchon saurophagis revealed a few years back; the mysterious, but potentially gigantic, Himalayasaurus; at the 2016 SVP meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah another massive macro-predatory ichthyosaur was announced hailing from British Columbia.

What is very interesting is that these top dog ichthyosaurs all seem to stem from the Triassic and early Jurassic and then they just peter out and disappear into the Jurassic. And this is a trend that seems to have parallel in many lineages of marine tetrapods that achieve apex predator status. An initial burst of diverse forms and then, over time, they wane off into... very often a niche of specialized deep sea teuthophagy (deep sea squid eaters). This is exactly the case with the formerly dominant and massive raptorial sperms whales as they are now represented solely by a dedicated deep sea squid eater. Could it be that many of the latter pliosaurids were actually specialized deep diving teuthophages? Always assumed to represent traditional pliosaur apex predator roles perhaps species such as  Brachauchensis lucasiMegacephalosaurus eulertiStenorynchosaurus; many of the other quasi polycotylid looking pliosaurs actually had more in common ecologically with sperm whales and pilot whales than killer whales.

Megacephalosaurus marine arch-predator or simply a celebrated squid eater?
Compare the skull of Megacephalosaurus eulerti (FHSM VP 321)- one of the last surviving pliosaurs - to a truly macro-predatorial skull below of Pliosaurus kevanni.

© Jurassic Coast Trust. Sir David Attenborough w/Dorset monster
Blasphemy right? Suggesting that not all pliosauromorphs were marine apex predators ready to go ape shit on any prey in sight… that some may have been more like sperm or pilot whales?

A constant theme of this blog has been unpacking the cultural baggage that comes along with analyzing  extinct animals that are in fact cultural creations. What do I mean when I say that extinct animals that absolutely existed are in fact simultaneously real and cultural creations? The term pliosaur is a loaded terms just as Tyrannosaurus or Smilodon are. When we think of a pliosaur we imagine a huge apex predator that smashed through lesser marine reptiles not necessarily a deep diving specialist on cephalopods… which many later pliosaurs may have been relegated to as sharks and mosasaurs crept into apex predator roles.

Megacephalosaurus eulerti credit MCDinosaurhunter CC3.0

I am not implying that titans like Pliosaurus necessarily evolved into more teuthophagous forms but that over time the apex predators got winnowed away leaving behind deep sea diving squid eating specialists. Life at the top of the photosynthetic marine food web was harsh and any disruption to the system potentially catastrophic for apex predators. However deep sea based food webs - dependent on detritus i.e. "marine snow" and/or chemosynthesis i.e. sulphur consuming organisms, tube worms etc etc. - may offer more stability than shallow water based marine webs dependent on photosynthesis. Which fits the pattern of diverse ichthyosaurs - including macro predator types - getting winnowed away leaving pelagic forms behind; raptorial sperms whales declining in diversity until just a single common teuthophage remains; macro-predatory pliosaurs getting diminished to teuthophagists. Extinct members of the walrus family were once a lot more diverse and some may have been highly predatory - now we are left with an arctic specialist of shelled mollusks. Shark toothed dolphins may have been much more broad in their ecology than most modern dolphins. I would not be surprised if a more predatory extinct penguin comes to see the light of day, if it has not already and we simply have overlooked it…

By the way I thought I would give some exposure to a rather excellent and thoroughly interesting Royal Tyrell Musuem video on the underreported swell of large apex sharks in Cretaceous with some interesting musings on which sharks might emerge as apex marine predators of future oceans.

What should become clear from the above video is how - when an oceanic apex predator declines - another group is waiting in the wings to fill that vacated niche. Nature abhors a vacuum.

So to summarize my thoughts on the matter and to paint with a very broad stroke I detect some common trends in several marine tetrapod adaptive radiations and extinctions:

1) Following large extinction event marine tetrapod clade diversifies rapidly including apex predator and deep sea diving forms.

2) Repeated environmental catastrophes usher in extinction events especially at the apex predator role. Deep sea teuthophage specialists remain relatively steady.

3) Invasions from other marine tetrapods into vacated marine eco-space inhibit reoccupation of niche space further winnowing away diversity. The last holdouts of formerly diverse radiations occupy offshore, deep diving, teuthophagist niches.

4) Large enough perturbations eventually kill off even offshore deep diving specialists rendering a full scale extinction of clade (i.e. ichthyosaurs, marine crocodiles, pliosauromorphs). Animals become so rare that loss of genetic diversity makes extinction a statistical eventuality.

Which brings us right back to the long necked plesiosaurs i.e. the "plesiosauromorph" bauplan. It just kept sailing along. While all of the other marine reptile clades fell away the plesiosauromorph dynasty just kept chugging along, a remarkably consistent pedigree of success.

We have to ask why?

I want to give that question room to breath a bit, I will come back to it in a future post. My current thinking is that plesiosauromorphs were exceptionally opportunistic not just in feeding but in habitat choice. The wide feeding envelop including everything from benthic organisms (clams, worms, crustaceans etc etc), mesopelagic fish/cephalopods, small/weak marine tetrapods, and scavenging combined with an exploitation of marine ecosystems ranging from deep abyssal offshore pelagic (as supported by histological evidence of "the bends") to estuarine/large river complexes offered strong resilience to environmental catastrophes.

And now finally on to point #2) Attenborousaurus is one bad plesiosaur or… pliosaur… what the hell is it anyways?

First things first how cool is it that this animal is named after Sir Richard Attenborough by none other than Dr. Robert Bakker. Back to the gist of the matter is Attenborousaurus a pliosaur or a plesiosaur? Well let us give it the 5th grade test. The 5th grade test is: "does this animal look like the Loch Ness monster?". The answer is unequivocally YES!! Phylogentically this animal is on the path towards latter true macro-pliosaurs that do fit our popular image of what a classic pliosaur does but - sheesh look at the neck - it probably has more in common ecologically and behaviorally with true long necked "plesiosauromorphs". A shape shifter caught in the act of shape shifting.

Attenborousaurus credit Adam Smith. plesiosaur directory
Yes, it is true that relative to other plesiosauromorphs this animal has a largish head. But in absolute size the head of this animal is not larger than many of the latter elasmosaurids and probably both were capable of the same predatory feats. In essence those that are ok with ascribing mesopredator tendencies to Attenborosaurus should ascribe the same tendencies to other plesiosauromorphs with similar sized jaws. An 18 inch skull with 2 inch teeth is just as effective on a 15 foot animal as it is on a 30 foot animal.

Attenborousaurus credit Adam Smith plesiosaur directory
What we see in Attenborousaurus is a trend towards the apex predator realm, essentially falling short due to the arch predator ichthyosaurs which still occurred in the Sinemarian. The shape shifting plesiosaurs would not be held back and that trend would continue into Rhomaleousaurus a truly impressive animal and perhaps our first best evidence of plesiosaurs making headway into apex predator territory.

credit Adam Smith. plesiosaur directory Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni w/curator Matt Williams. Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute

Something appears to have opened up the doors for sauropterygians to truly reach this potential. Let us look at a little time line here. Rhomaleosaurus dates to the Toarcian of the early Jurassic. Temnodontosaurus - the complex genus potentially representing the last of the macro-predatory ichthyosaurs - dates from the Hattengian to the Toarcian. Atennborosaurus occurs smack dab in the middle of apex predator ichthyosaur dominion, explaining why it did not become a truly pliosaur looking pliosaur. Could the waning macro-ichthyosaurs - perhaps already trending into deep diving offshore cephalopod specialists with some species of Temnodontosaurs - have allowed the proliferation of true macro-predatory pliosaurs? The suggestion is certainly there…

Or that is what I thought. Further investigation revealed that the daunting panappoly of late Triassic/Early Jurassic plesiosaurs revealed one early macro predatory pliosaur from the Hettangian age of the earliest Jurassic - what has formerly been referred to as "Rhomaleosaurus" megacephalus but which Adam Smith has cleaned up taxonomically as Atychodracon megacephalus. Things always tend to get more complicated the more that you peer into them. I still think that there was an interesting give and take between macro-predatory ichthyosaurs and the first macro-predatory pliosauromorphs. Perhaps the transition was already underway in the late Triassic?

Way back in the Triassic ichthyosaurs and nothosaurs were seemingly in a dead heat for that position as both scary huge Nothosaurus giganteus & N. zhangi occurred and coincided with macro-predaotry ichthyosaurs Thalattoarchon & Cymbospondylus. The ichthyosaurs appear to have won out, I don't know of any macro-predatory nothosaurs making it into the Jurassic. However sauropoterygian relatives of this vanquished class would eventually muscle in over the ichthyosaurs at the apex predator realm.

mandibular symphysis Nothosaurus zhangi credit Liu et al. 2014
Well I'm gonna leave it off right there. Probably a lot to think about; marine arch-predator musical chairs; shape shifting plesiosaurs; the consistent plesiosauromorph bauplan. I hope you enjoyed this and I hope you start to look at plesiosaurs with a new eye. I want to do one more post in the series, end it at lucky number 13 of course, and for this one I want to break one of my own rules: let me know if there are any topics or species I should cover for my last and final installment in the plesiosaur machinations and I will try to work them in. So I am taking requests in the comments.



Some might be new to the plesiosaur machinations - allow me to indoctrinate. Or, if you have perused the evil machinations before, here is a quick summary and chance to review.

Yes Another Hypothesis on Long Necked Plesiosaur Feeding Ecology: In which I lay out rotational feeding i.e. twist feeding as a method to de-shell large ammonites. A little dated but possible...

Thus Spoke Zarafasaura In this post I lay the foundation for what eventually becomes the plesiosaur machinations by focusing on a particularly brutal looking elasmosaurs Zarafasaura; review plesiosaur art; death by quartering.

Plesiosaur Machinations I: Introducing the Plesiosaur Phalanx Attack

In the introductory post I discuss how a group foraging strategy would facilitate successful and efficient foraging for plesiosauromorphs; make the comparison between white pelicans and grey reef sharks; discussion on a wider prey envelope than generally appreciated; the shark genus Somniosus as a model for cryptic stealth technique.

Plesiosaur Machinations II: The Social Sauropterygian

In this post I advocate the familial unit as the basis for understanding plesiosaur ecology and behavior. I advocate several social lizards - especially skinks - as model organisms for how reptilian aptitude animals can establish social unity and cohesion. Anti-predator behavior is advocated to be antagonist and mobbing cooperative advancements against potential threats.

Plesiosaur Machinations III: The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together

Embellishing the social unity concept and exploring how simple biochemical feedback loops could have enhanced social unity merely through proximate physical contact. The long neck is proposed as an effective tactile appendage for physical contact.

Plesiosaur Machinations IV: He is the Last You'll Know…

Discussion on the feasibility of scavenging in plesiosaurs; plesiosaurs exploiting anoxic die off events; Meyerasaurus and Temnodontosaurus; Meyerasaurus proposed as analogous to oceanic white tip sharks.

Plesiosaur Machinations V: Despot Ammonite Slayer

Plesiosaurs feasting on ammonites, marine escargot…

Plesiosaur Machinations VI: WE BITE!!

Plesiosaurs and the misfits. Why you don't want to get bit by a plesiosaur. How many plesiosaurs fall outside the "obligate piscivore" morphology. Occitanosaurus being naughty. Mesopredator plesiosaurs.

Plesiosaur Machinations VII: You Can't Handle the Thickness

No more Jack Skeleton plesiosaurs. Make them thick and don't apologize for it. Stout muscular necks, thick torsos, plump tails, bulging "knot head" temporal muscles, and juicy blubbery layers. A machination classic.

Plesiosaur Machinations VIII: The Strange Case of Cope's Mosasaur Inside and Elasmosaur

We may never know the answer but I would not be so quick to dismiss… Another classic yet controversial machination.

Plesiosaur Machinations IX: In the Belly of the Beast

The varied and strange things found inside plesiosaur torsos. Includes my take on how a voided ichthyosaur embryo actually ended up in the stomach of a plesiosaur. 

Plesiosaur Machinations X: Senior Water Rights

Sauropods and plesiosaurs. Mosasaurs and elasmosaur arms race. Elasmosaurs prefer cooler waters. California elasmosaurs. Elasmosaurus vs. Tylosaurus revisited.

Plesiosaur Machinations XI: Imitation Crab Meat Conveyor Belt and Filter Feeding Plesiosaurs

The neck as a food storage device and aristonectine giant filter feeding elasmosaurids!!

"A Long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom". Thomas Paine

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Lips Before Beaks Part I: Why Grow A Beak?

Let's dive right in shall we? Some of my more persistent readers may have caught onto my none too subtle hints that I have been dropping with regards to non-avian theropod lips. Indeed, I first made the proclamation that "I'm coning for you next lizard-lipped theropods" back during my now infamous posts on sabertooth predator oral soft tissue anatomy. While the extent and applicability of soft tissue covering on the various and diverse varieties of sabertoothed predators is still an evolving and contentious issue my main goal - that we at least now have the space to talk about such issues without ridicule - I feel was achieved. I might have the lost the battle for fully sheathed Smilodon but I won the war for a more free, open minded and multifaceted debate for novel soft tissue oral anatomy in all saber toothed predators.

"No one cared who I was until I put on the mask."

What lies behind the keratinized edifice of the beak? What secrets will it betray…

A frequent theme and constant source of needed intellectual dismantling in this blog is the perpetuation of false dichotomies.  Regular readers will note that I have went up against false dichotomies in my various posts on Spinosaurus locomotory methods (belly sliding and bottom punting versus obligate bipedalism/quadrupedalism and ill-equipped swimming) and most recently highlighting naked skin on the face of theropods as a viable alternative to the hemmed in scale/feather extremes. Similar to the feather vs. scale debate the lip debate has become hemmed into two fiefdoms: the croc-like keratinized oral margin and squamate like lizard lips. As I will address in this and subsequent posts the croc-like keratinized lip and lizard lip gestalts likely occurred in some theropods. But far more prevalent - especially on some of the more well known theropods - is a completely different and novel lip design that I will be arguing for.

The "lizard lips" hypothesis rests fairly squarely on the presumption that non-avian theropods had scales on their face right up to the oral margin. However in my last post I attacked this notion, noting that modern aves lack scaled heads and even crocodiles lack scaled heads.  While I do think some theropods had croc-like keratinized oral margins and some basal theropods likely had squamate lizard like lips, regular readers will know that I have been  dressing my theropods in a unique oral fashion for some time now. I want to in fact give this unique theropod lip design - the third option I alluded to earlier - a name, and in typical antediluvian salad fashion the name does poke fun and have a certain mischievous, provocative and subversive appeal: meat curtains.

Kill It With Fire!! Monolophosaurus displaying its meat curtains. credit Duane Nash

Maybe some of my younger readers are naive to the term "meat curtain" but, well, inquiring minds will find out. Let's just say the term "vagina dentata" has brand new and startling meaning: this pussy bites back!! The comparison is apt because in both vaginal lips and theropod lips ; a loose seal was maintained; the tissue was non-muscular; the tissue was tough and elastic; and the tissue was highly enervated and extremely sensitive with blood vessels and nerves. In addition you have the double entendre of "meat curtains"; it was literally curtains to any meat that fell between the lips of theropods. This set up also has some vague similarities to mammalian carnivoran type lips. However, I must stress that I am not implying some sort of muscularity to such lips. The upper lips just sort of hangs there and plops down on top of the droopy lower lip when the jaw is shut. An oral seal is achieved, teeth are obscured, the upper teeth do not cut into the lower lips as would be in a problem in many theropod depictions.

In the rough coronal anatomical schematic above you can see how this lip design works and is consistent with theropod jaw and tooth anatomy. The nutrient foramen on both the dentary and mandible feed and enervate the lip tissue. A certain amount of tooth crossing is implied allowing the diabolical theropod "scissor cut" technique. That theropod teeth did cross past the lower teeth is probable and rarely appreciated in most theropod lip depictions. Indeed the manner in which most theropod lips are depicted would have the upper teeth shred the lower lips and gums. This is not an issue in the above design.

This model of Allosaurus at the Fukui Dinosaur Preferctural Museum of Japan stumbled upon a similar design albeit I would prefer no snarl and less scales:

That the upper teeth went past the lower teeth somewhat is supported by the patently obvious observation that the neuro-vascular foramina on the lower jaw directly correspond to the length of the longest teeth from the upper jaw. The foramina on the lower jaw in fact demarcate the extent to which the upper teeth slid past the lower teeth and rested against the lower jaw. Alternatively the foramina on the upper jaw simply line up along the alveolar margin of the upper jaw.

Giganotosaurus credit OldEarth
What's my name?
The pattern of foramina is very consistent across many lineages of toothed theropods. In the upper jaw foramina come right up against the oral margin. In the lower jaw foramina mirror the extent and interplay of tooth depth from the upper jaw. This pattern is exquisitely brought to light in the below picture from Jaime Headden.

credit Jaime Headden

These foramina are not just haphazardly placed along the jaw as should be expected if they indeed had a croc - like oral margin. No, tissue was growing out from these foramina. In the upper jaw this lippy tissue - possibly fairly rigid and even somewhat keratinized - just sort of hung out draping over the teeth. In the lower jaw the lippy tissue did not form a pocket but instead grew out somewhat laterally and hung inferiorly. This sort of saggy, droopy lower lip allowed the upper lip to just loosely drape over it but also provided great tactical support for feeling, sensing, and reacting to struggling prey in the jaw. The upper and lower lip combined to form an extensive neural net.

Note that the lippy tissue allows substantially more tactile and proprioception than either the lizard lip design or the weird baggy "tooth pocket" design that has recently come into vogue. The nerve pads of felids and sensitive muzzle/lips of canids are especially useful for allowing tactile information for these animals.

This tactile ability of the lips came in handy not just in securing and maintaining prey within in the jaw but also potentially safeguarding the predator from injury. Theropods did not just eat harmless sauropodlets all the time, they bit into some pretty strong, feisty, and retaliatory animals, including other theropods. One of the persistent myths that has become somewhat enshrined in theropod folklore is that theropods could literally run up to large prey and, almost effortlessly, carve out long and deep gouges with minimal contact. The thick hides, nodules, and osteoderms of many dinosaurs argues against such quick and effortless interactions. In order to deliver a devastating bite the prey may have to have been engaged for longer than generally appreciated. Biting such animals was dangerous and large lips could have mitigated risks. Large and tactile lips could have served as an early warning device when the animal within the jaws was tensing for a blow or other damaging movement. Having lips that could sense such movements and struggles better allowed theropods with such lips to react and counter such movements. Or, if the stresses were too strong, abort the bite. Remember many theropods had a good chin but they had glass jaws. They could take could dorsal ventral blows and trauma but a lateral blow could have been devastating.

"What about such floppy lips getting cut up during jaw closures? Wouldn't they get cut to ribbons?"

If you look at slow motion video of dogs biting the upper lips actually don't have to be pulled back by muscular action to prevent teeth biting into lips. Actually what looks to be going on is that the momentum of opening the jaws throws the upper lips up and away from the point of impact. Additionally, even if an accidental bite of the lips occurred such structures are very tough and heal quickly. A non-avian lipped theropod throwing open its jaws and biting would have looked vaguely canid like but still kinda alien looking.


Incidentally I do think lips getting cut up is a big problem in the "tooth pocket" design most notably implemented for T. rex in the game Saurian. What is preventing such a loose, non scaled lower lip from  flopping inwards during the bite and getting penetrated? Scales might offer more structural support but if the face was not scaled? I know komodo dragons are often asserted to feature this "tooth pocket" design but is that what is really going on in that mouth? Do komodo dragon teeth actually slide past one another for a true "scissor bite" or do the upper and lower teeth not really cross during the bite sequence? What is all that gummy tissue doing? (hint I will more into komodo dragons on a future post)

In discussing this novel lip structure I like to discuss the genesis of an idea because that is something I always find interesting. Let's revisit the "Hellhound Rex" picture that started the ball rolling for me:

The image disturbed a lot of people, some really rallied against it. That was the clue that I was onto something... and it is not that I think "this is how rex looked for sure" indeed, the best critique I got was from Jaime Headden who, to paraphrase, told me to concentrate on one or two soft tissue structures instead of such a plethora. Admittedly I did take a "throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks approach". What I think got underneath a lot of people's skin is one specific part of the oral margin. Something that quite happened by accident but which stimulated a kernel of an idea in my head. In other words, something did stick.

You have seen such morphology before. In fact it is directly reminiscent of the rictus in modern avian theropods. It is the rictus that is most often referred to as the "lip" of modern birds and could it be a sort of evolutionary residue? a relict structure from a formerly lippy pedigree of non-avian theropods? Certainly the picture below suggests that rictus tissue can be co-opted for display purposes. Which also suggests that lippy structures in non-avian theropods could have also been co-opted for display purposes.

Theropods - at least those giving rise to beaked birds - likely once all had lips and the evolutionary residue of a formerly lippy dynasty still persists in modern birds in the rictus at the convergence of the upper and lower jaws.

Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis orientalis) credit Quartl CC3.0

In order to illuminate and bolster this claim that meat curtain, quasi-canid style lips occurred in non-avian predatory theropods I am going to go about it in sort of a round about and non-traditional way.
It relies heavily on the principles of convergence and exaptation - two increasingly robust paleontological concepts. The way and manner to ask and investigate the question of why grow a beak is by investigating the fossil record of the beaked and the non-beaked among terrestrial tetrapods. Upon investigating and then illuminating the patterns encountered then offering explanatory hypotheses on why and how these patterns emerged, answers will start to emerge from the fuzz. As I will argue embedded in the question of why grow a beak? is what type of lip was there before the beak?

Why grow a beak? Go ahead and google search that question - there is a dearth of thought on the subject in both scholarly and popular platforms. But this is the question that needs askingSome lines of thinking might speculate that beaks are just an evolutionary eventuality... that they just happen. I beg to differ. When we take a look at the pattern of beaked and non-beaked among terrestrial tetrapods the patterns are indeed interesting.

The Beak Impoverished Kingdom of Synapsids

Let's start with synapsids - mammals and the various stem mammals. They suck at growing beaks. Let's discount beaked whales of course - not too sure if they have true rhampotheca anyways and we are limiting our discussion to terrestrial tetrapods. I guess it is worth mentioning the platypus and some interesting work on the evolution of its "bill" but again that hardly constitutes the keratinized rhampotheca we are talking about.

So why so beak impoverished, furballs?

I will venture it probably has a lot to do with lactation and suckling - that nested quite deep in mammals and maybe even stem mammals is the ability to form a tight seal on female teats/other organs of "nursing" that was advantageous for such feeding.  This in turn begat a very muscular and evolutionarily flexible oral margin. I'm sure that this idea has been suggested before just not sure where or by whom.

We will revisit mammals upon discussion of other beaked animals but just keep this in mind. When mammals make the transition to herbivory or delicate and precise foraging techniques they pretty much universally invest in more intricate and elaborate oral-facial musculature. Think elephant trunks, tapir noses, or even the prehensile lips of bears.

credit Anna Schultz. CC3.0 Tapirus terrestris flehmen response

Prehensile lips and trunks - these are structures on the opposite spectrum from relatively immobile and non-muscular beaks. Yet both extremes can achieve a lot of the same goals ecologically. Both muscular lips/trunks and non-muscular beaks can do some very dextrous and agile manipulations. Keep this thought in your back pocket.

credit Mojcaj CC3.0

To really come up with a beaked dynasty in synapsids we have to go way back to dicynodonts. These stem mammals are truly beaked but their relatively less derived position also begs the question: Did these stem-mammals even lactate/nurse their young? Seems doubtful or, at the very least, painful. This observation supports the earlier contention I made that muscular mouths/lips/oral margins in synapsids has a lot do with suckling.

edentulous upper mouth pad of domestic cattle. credit Woolshed 1 blog

The roughened and sometimes edentulous oral pad of many mammalian herbivores comes the closest to approximating a beak. But even here not quite a beak.

Over all though the lack of beaks among synapsids - especially derived mammals - is notable but there are good hypothesis to explain the dearth of beaks.

The On Again Off Again Beaked Diapsids

It's really when we get into diapsids that some interesting patterns emerge. Forgive me for using somewhat generalized and familiar names (as i usually do) but this is only for ease of understanding at all levels.

Turtles - always beaked. Probably archosaurs or archosaur cousins. Used to have teeth and beaks but have been eduntulous for some time. However it is worth noting that even after beaks evolved in turtles teeth were not totally lost, this is a concept that I will revisit later on..

Crocodiles - never beaked. Crocodiles figure prominently in the lip debate as well. What is noticeable is that various stem crocs engaged heavily in omnivory/herbivory/insectivory. However unlike the case when theropods became engaged with these lifestyles this move from carnivory to herbivory did not result in beaks for any known crocodyliformes. I will suggest that there is potentially a difference in oral anatomy, i.e. lips the presence or absence there of, that negated a convergence in evolving beaks. Again keep that factoid in your back pocket - crocodiles never evolved beaks even when they switched to an omnivorous/herbivorous diet.

Lizards & Snakes - never beaked. This is an important observation that should not go unstated. Snakes are of course dedicated predators. Lizards on the other hand have experimented with all manner of foodstuffs. However even herbivorous lizards don't grow beaks and become edentulous. They might "tighten" up the keratizined scales around the oral margin but they don't form a true rhampotheca and become edentulous. I will go more into lizards in a bit but the patently true observation that lizards - which by definition have "lizard lips" - never evolved beaks but theropods - asserted to have lizard lips - often evolved beaks.

Sauropods - never beaked. Despite spurious claims of a "beak" in Camarasaurus - which is most likely just highly keratinized scales along the oral margin - there are no beaked sauropods. This is an important observation. Indeed if there is one dynasty of herbivores that begs to have beaks it is sauropods. They live by the motto of bite quickly, don't chew, and swallow so an eduntulous beak would have been perfect for them. Yet in over 140 million years of evolution beaks did not occur in this group and they kept their teeth. That sauropods, like lizards, never grew beaks hints at a commonality in the oral margin in these two groups. Sauropods were, and likely always were, truly lizard lipped with a tight band of scales all the way up to the oral margin.

*Ornithischians - always beaked!! (work in progress)

Pterosaurs - sometimes beaked!! (work in progress)

Crurotarsi - maybe aetosaurs, although might just be a highly keratinized snout? otherwise not much beakyness. (work in progress)

Dinosauromorphs - Did silesaurids have beaks…. hmmm. (work in progress)

*these sections are still works in progress and thinking things through...

"Lizard Lipped" Theropods? Lizards Fail Where Theropods Prevail

Lizard Lips in Theropods a Work of Fiction? Ol' Skool Lizard Lip Carch Shark Cage by Duane Nash

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana) credit Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

The thought dawned on me while driving to work one day. If theropods did indeed have lizard lips we should expect convergence in oral anatomy when dietary changes occur in these respective lineages. In non-avian theropods the transition from a carnivorous diet to an omnivorous-herbivorous diet is commensurate with an increasingly edentulous and beaked oral set up. However when lizards - which by definition are "lizard lipped" i.e. a  somewhat tight, keratinized, and scaled oral margin - transition from a carnivorous or "faunivorous" lifestyle to omnivore and herbivory they never evolve beaks. Never.  Nunca. Not Once. Most obvious are iguana but you have various member of the agamidae such as Uromastyx lizards that are lizard lipped but did not evolve beaks with the advent of ominovry-herbivory. Hell, even the recently discovered fruit eating monitor lizard of the northern Philippines shows no evidence of a beak, and monitor lizard style lips are the style of lip most ascribe to theropods!!

Varanus bitatawa credit ACD CC3.0

Uromastyx acanthinura. credit MAJ Kathleen A. Hoard, U.S. Marine Corpspublic domain
Don't want to leave out the large bodied herbivorous Jim Morrison lizard king from the Eocene: Barbaturex morrisoni.

When faced with a change in diet lizard lipped lizards never evolve beaks. We have to ask ourselves why did non-avian theropods - presumed by many to have lizard lips - always evolve beaks when faced with a similar change in diet? Convergence is a powerful trend in evolution and to not see any degree in convergence between these two lineages when faced with similar adaptive pressures is an observation not to be dismissed.

It is not like theropods dabbled in growing beaks, they fully embraced beaks. Not just avian theropods but Therizinosauria, Oviraptorsauria, Ornithomimosauria, and Elaphrosaurinae. The reason for this convergence in shared oral anatomy - both the reduction and eventual fully edentulous nature of tooth loss and growth of beaks - is tied intimately with diet and feeding anatomy. However the anatomical feature that precipitated this transition in theropods is lips. The question is what did these lips look like?Not the tight fitting, slightly keratinized and scaled lips as we see in lizards. Lips of this sort don't precipitate beaks as shown by the noted absence of beak evolution in lizards.

If we eliminate lizard lips in theropods - at least from those theropods that evolved beaked forms - we are left with meat curtains and croc lips. However no crcodylomorphs evolved beaks and they messed around with all sorts of diets during their long evolutionary tenure. Now I do think that a number of theropods messed around with keratinized croc like oral margins - but among those that evolved into beaked forms I don't think that such an oral margin occurred.

So by eliminating croc-lips and lizard-lips from the ranks of those theropods that evolved beaks what are we left with? meat curtains.

The style of lips that precipitated the evolution of beaks were of a much more looser and pendulous variety - a far cry from the tight fitting shellac of lizards lips. That theropods equipped with such "meat curtains" unanimously replaced them with keratinized rhamphotheca i.e. "beaks" speaks not to the superiority of this lip design with regards to omnivory-herbivory but to the cumbersome and inefficient design of such lips when engaging in such a diet.

Let's play a little thought experiment: Imagine that you are a putative "lizard lipped" theropod that fits this niche of transitional omnivore-herbivore. As compared to your carnivorous brethren you have to spend a lot more time out and about foraging for food. This diet requires a lot of quick and precise nips and bites. Sometimes you are trying to only eat certain parts of a plant and avoid other parts. Sometimes you are selecting nutritious fruiting bodies or fresh green growth, other times you are precisely picking up fallen fruitifications or seeds off the ground. Since the oral margin you have - your "lips" - is a tight fitting rim of scales there is nothing to really impede this foraging ability. More so than that there is no evolutionary imperative to grow a beak or lose your teeth. In fact your "lizard lips" are already a sort of proto-beak of their own.

Long story short if you were a theropod or a lizard equipped with such an oral anatomy no real evolutionary pressure to tighten and clean up the oral margin - the tight fitting scaled lizard lips do the job just fine. No need to lose your teeth either.

Now contrast this scenario with a putative theropod trending into omnivory-herbivory but instead of giving the animal clean and trim "lizard lips" endow it with the cumbersome and sloppy "meat curtains" lips. Now making all those precise nips, pecks, and bites on small items gets a lot more trickier. Your fully carnivorous brethren have no problem operating with large, drooping lips - a quick and violent bite and snatch is all that is needed. But now you find yourself out and about foraging for a lot longer to get your nutrients. This puts you at risk for predation. Because your lips are big and cumbersome and don't quite form a nice clean cutting edge you find yourself having to bite repeatedly at things. Plucking small seeds and fruits from the ground is sloppy. You can't always make the precise bites on select bits of foliage. All the extra time spent foraging puts you at greater risk from predators.

Faced with such a maladaptive situation the solution is simple: tighten up those fleshy, pendulous lips into a nice trim, neat, and keratinized lippy margin. In other words grow a beak. The exaptation for growing a beak in this scenario is not actually some putative proto-beak or such, no it is the exact opposite, a cumbersome "meat curtain" ill-equipped for precise and repeated bites and pecks. Optimal foraging theory dictates that such an evolutionary change would occur in such animals.

Yes For Limusarus, Herbivory & Beaks, and the Quest for Carotenoids

Now I have been planning to consolidate these ideas for a while now and I knew it was going to be a bit tricky to splice apart how all the different birdy, sort of birdy, weird theropods transitioning into herbivory fit along this gradient from toothy to reduced teeth to edentulous. But then I saw the talk on Limusaurus at SVP 2016 SLC and the subsequent paper came out and it was like a god-send. Limusaurus encapsulated this whole transition from a toothed predator to an edentulous beaked herbivore with gastroliths all nicely wrapped up in one complete ontogenetic package!!

Extreme Ontogenetic Changes in a Ceratosaurian Theropod.

This paper (Wang et. al., 2016) encapsulates in one animal the transition from a carnivorous to a more omnivorous/herbivorous lifestyle. In addition to the growth of a beak and loss of teeth evidence of gastroliths and stable isotopic chemistry provide independent lines of evidence converging on the same conclusion: beaks and the evolution there of are not evolutionary eventualities but are coincident with a transition of carnivorous to herbivorous lifestyles and loss of teeth. This trend is very noticeable in theropods and mention of the seed eating avialian Jeholornis is also warranted as it retains some teeth in immature specimens. Harpymimus too and probably a bunch of others I am forgetting.

Jeholornis credit Matt Martyniuk

As the lippy oral margin gets more keratinized it renders the teeth obsolete furthering the loss of teeth and edentulous condition in omnivorous/herbivorous theropods and ultimately modern birds. That the loss of teeth in theropods transitioning into herbivory is commensurate with a transition into herbivory is bolstered by the retention of teeth in many predatory stem birds/enantiornithines as well as the evolution of "pseudo-teeth" and shredding choannal papillae & serrated tongues in many hunting, fishing, and scavenging birds. Limusaurus and its revelations are so important and, well to put it frankly, startlingly fortuitous in documenting this transition from a predator to a beaked herbivore but in reality there were probably many species that fell upon a gradient of lipped predator to quasi-beaked increasingly keratinized toothed omnivore to fully beaked herbivore. I made some rough illustrations to illustrate this transition:

Stage 1: Fully predatory and fully lipped. Will occasionally augment diet with select fruitifications and stomach contents from herbivore prey for display colors and carotenoids. A diffuse coevolutionary partnership has begun with the propagules of several plants enlisting the aide of such carnivores to help spread seeds (i.e. the rotten flesh/cheese odor of ginkgo fruits). Has undergone evolution of protofeather "dino-fuzz" and has subsequently lost scales on the head and around oral margin. No "lizard lips".

Stage 2. Sexo-social signalling devices have stimulated an increased emphasis on colored display for both skin, osteological, and integumentary display. In turn the increase in dietary plants for carotenoids in the diet to support such color displays has created a shift in foraging patterns. Small animals, insects, and scavenging are still important but hypercarnivory and large game hunting has been supplanted by an increased emphasis on high quality plant material, seeds, fruitifications (i.e. cycad, gingko, podocarp propagules) and other vegetative resources in the quest for carotenoids. Commensurate with this shift into herbivory the loose lips around the oral margin have withdrawn and became more keratinized. Some teeth remain, especially at the jaw dip for both grasping, occasional hunting, and defense but other teeth have been lost. Rictal tissue remains at the juncture of the upper and lower jaws is present and is even important for display. The jaw shortens and becomes deeper.

Stage 3. A fully beaked and fully herbivorous realization. Sexo-social signaling and the quest for carotenoids has finally turned a lipped and predatory theropod into a beaked and herbivorous sexual T. rex. Small animals and occasional scavenging are still opportunistically exploited - especially in growing animals and females - but dedicated herbivory is overwhelmingly important. The pubis has tilted back, gut expanded, gastroliths are present, and adults are completely edentulous.

I think it important to iterate that this is not necessarily a straight line progression and there are lots of room for reversions, deviations, and exceptions to this lipped predator to beaked herbivore transition. How you might choose to slot a particular species in this rough spectrum depends on both the ecology of the animal in question and, as Limusarus suggests, its ontogenetic sequence. For some more thought and reference on beaked, half beaked, beaks and teeth in stem-birds go read Matt Martyniuk's post Theropods That Fit the Bill on DinoGoss.

I think it fair to say that there is no eventuality in evolving beaks; beaks are related to an increased dietary emphasis of herbivory (not flight); and neither the crocodile style oral margin nor the "lizard lips" style oral margin produce beaks as neither herbivorous crocodiles or herbivorous lizards/sauropods produced beaked forms.

The End of Lizard Lipped Theropods? Not So Fast...

Am I suggesting we cast a death knell for lizard lipped theropods? At first I thought yes, but I have recently recast my decision.

What translates a good hypothesis into the realm of theory is that it has predictive power. As I have frequently mentioned in this piece sauropods never grew beaks even though their foraging strategy seems like it should compel them to. Since sauropods are only known to have scales, likely never evolved a full coat of filaments, and therefore never cleared up the scales around and on the face, they likely retained an oral margin not unlike lizards. Sauropods, like lizards never evolved beaks because their oral margin was fine as it was for biting, pecking, and plucking as a herbivore. They also never lost their teeth. Now if we work from that observation and realize that theropods and sauropods are in fact kissing cousins we should presume that at least very close to the base of the theropod and sauropod split - before theropods evolved an integumentary coat and lost the scales on their face - there was in fact a putative lizard lipped theropod. A further prediction for this putative lizard lipped theropod is that if it embarked on a quest for carotenoids for display purposes and transitioned to a more herbivorous diet that it would not actually evolve a beak but instead retain teeth in its jaw. Such an animal would deviate from the trend in all other coelurosaurian "feathered" theropods that evolved beaks and trended into omnivory and herbivory.

Ladies and gentleman such an animal exists and its name is Chilesaurus diegosuarezi.

Chilesaurus credit UNO

Chilesaurus has become somewhat lost in the mire in discussions of herbivory, beaks, and theropods. I will offer it is very important in that it is clearly a theropod that made the transition from carnivore to herbivore but it deviates from the trend of beakyness seen in other more derived theropods that likewise changed dietary ecology. For starters this animal was not new to herbivory, it had a rear pointing pubic bone and expanded gut. Furthermore it occurs exactly where we should expect such early experiments in herbivory to exist mid to late Jurassic suggesting that the earliest transitions to herbivory in theropods may have started in the early Jurassic or even Triassic. Finally, as should be expected for an early off-shoot from lizard lipped theropods this animal did not evolve a beak but retained and expanded large cropping spatulate teeth in the front of the jaw. Just like a lizard - or a sauropod - would.

An enigmatic plant-eating theropod from the Late Jurassic period of Chile

a, Partial right (?) maxilla in lateral view. b, Left premaxilla in medial view. c, Right dentary in lateral view.d, Details of dentary teeth in lingual view. e, Crown of unerupted dentary tooth. f, Detail of the carina of an unerupted…
No beaks on Chilesarus, no sir!!

credit Fernando Novas
Although many of the artistic depictions of Chilesaurus give it proto-beak of sorts I think this is more indicative of convention rather than direct proof of a proto-beak in Chilesaurus.

I would be remiss not to mention Incisivorosaurus guathieri. This animal being a coeulerosaur is on the branch that underwent feathering, so it potentially could have had dispensed with scales on the face and lacked true lizard lips. Yet it follows more of the trend we see in Chilesaurus… interesting. More derived oviraptors lost all of their teeth.

Incisivosaurus gauthieri credit Jaime A. Headden
Did Incisivosaurus actually have a beak? Was it just embarking on the process of keratinizing its oral margin? If it was just in the incipient stages of keratinizing that would explain why teeth are still very apparent and important in its feeding ecology and anatomy. The pubic bone was not quite so retracted in Incisivosaurus as compared to Chilesaurus. So Incisivosaurus differed from Chilesaurus in that it was just in the incipient stages of herbivory while Chilesaurus was much further along in its dedication to herbivory. Go further: The Origin of Oviraptorosaurs (Diet in Oviraptorosaurs III)

As I mentioned on my last post it is hard to ascribe hard and fast rules to these things. As soon as you start to press down and announce "Aha that's it!!" exceptions start to arise. Biology is squishy and messy.

But I do think that this approach looking at the beaked and the beak less with respect to ecological imperatives gives a faint signal of likely facial appearance and 'lippiness" emerging through the murk of deep time.

In short my parting thoughts on the lip question in theropods are; basal theropods near the sauropod split likely had lizard lips; spinosaurids, unenlagines, piscivorous & small game hunters, kinked snouted theropods, and abelisaurids theropods of that gestalt may have had partially or even completely keratinized oral margins or perhaps even split the difference i.e. lips on lower jaw & keratin on above jaw for abelisaurids; derived predatorial theropods that had underwent evolution of "proto-feathers" may have lost scales on the face and therefore lost lizard lips and adopted a quasi-canid looking "meat curtain" lip gestalt; these same "meat curtain" theropods underwent evolution of rhampotheca i.e. "beaks" when sexo-social display structures stimulated increased consumption of carotenoids leading to increased herbivory. Beaked theropods survived the K/T extinction, not coincidentally their survivorship has been attributed to an ability peck and forage for seeds and other small food stuffs with their beaks.

What wears a mask of a beak, hides a former lippy pedigree. No one cares about me until I wear the mask.

credit Danielle Dufault

Or.... did some beaked lineages of theropods evolve beaks not through feeding on terrestrial foodstuffs but through dabbling in water for food?

As always there are probably some errors in this post, some stuff I missed... things might change even in the course of writing the next post. Evo-devo stuff is a whole other way of looking at the evolution of beaks & lips that I did not even touch upon. Can a bird be reverse engineered to have lips? What about pterosaurs, they appear to have evolved beaks but not from a lipped condition? and ornithischians?

Upcoming posts in this series will touch upon the promise and peril of inferring too much from komodo dragons; their lip/jaw design; their "gummy" mouth tissue; and some new ideas on their poisonous predatory arsenal; more on the interplay of display pressures stimulating a quest for color building carotenoids; and who knows where else I will go. I don't always know myself. 

Best, Duane


Larson, D.W.; Brown, C.M.; Evans, D.C. (2016) "Dental disparity and ecological stability in bird-like dinosaurs prior to the end Cretaceous extinction. Current Biology V-26 Issue 10 pp1325-1333. DOI:

Theropods That Fit the Bill. Mathew Martyniuk. DinoGoss. January 17, 2011

Novas, F. E.; Salgado, L.; Suárez, M.; Agnolín, F. L.; Ezcurra, M. N. D.; Chimento, N. S. R.; de la Cruz, R.; Isasi, M. P.; Vargas, A. O.; Rubilar-Rogers, D. (2015). "An enigmatic plant-eating theropod from the Late Jurassic period of Chile". Nature522: 331–4. doi:10.1038/nature14307.PMID 25915021.

Wang, S.; Stiegler, J.; Amiot, R.; Wang, X.; Du, G.-H.; Clark, J.M.; Xu, X. (2017)."Extreme Ontogenetic Changes in a Ceratosaurian Theropod" (PDF)Cell Biology27: 1–5.doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.043.

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