GEOL 104 Dinosaurs: A Natural History

Fall Semester 2017
Sauropodomorpha: Size Matters!

Detail of illustration of the gigantic Argentine titanosaur sauropod Patagotitan by Román García Mora (2014)

Key Points:
•Sauropodomorpha is a clade of herbivorous dinosaurs characterized by small skulls, long necks, and (at least ancestry) leaf-shaped teeth.
•The Triassic and Early Jurassic taxa--basal sauropodomorphs, core prosauropods, and near-sauropods--represent a transitional series starting as meter-long obligate bipeds to 10 meter long obligate quadrupeds. These include the only successful Triassic dinosaurs.
•The remaining taxa--all obligate quadrupeds--form the clade Sauropoda. Sauropods were among the most successful of all dinosaur groups, and were a major part of the herbivorous niches in every region from the Middle Jurassic until the end of the Cretaceous. Sauropods include the largest animals ever to live on land.
•Various primitive sauropod branches lie outside the derived Neosauropoda. The latter include the long-skulled, pencil-toothed Diplodocoidea (divided into the enormous Diplodocidae, the tall-spined Dicraeosauridae, the gnawing Rebbachisauridae) and the large-nosed Macronaria (including the upwardly-built Brachiosauridae and the extraordinarily diverse Titanosauria).

Simplified cladogram of Sauropodomorpha

More detailed phylogeny of Sauropodomorpha


The derived sauropodomorphs are the Sauropoda (lizard feet), giant obligate quadrupeds that include the largest land animals of all time. Primitive sauropodomorphs (i.e., sauropodomorphs other than sauropods) were traditionally grouped together as "Prosauropoda". Modern studies differ as to whether all prosauropods form a paraphyletic grade (with no major prosauropod groups more closely related to each other than to sauropods), while others recognize a monophyletic "core Prosauropoda" composed of plateosaurids, riojasaurids, massospondylids, etc. This course follows the first (paraphyletic grade) hypothesis (see cladogram and phylogeny above).

Specializations of the most primitive sauropodomorphs relative to other saurischians include:

These forms were small (~1-2.5 m long), bipedal plant eaters. Their long necks would allow them to feed on higher leaves than most of their contemporaries. Recent work suggest a paraphyletic series of basalmost sauropodomorphs. The most primitive seems to be the clade Saturnaliidae. The most completely known of these are Panphagia and Eoraptor of the Late Triassic of Argentina. (Eoraptor was long thought to be a basal theropod dinosaur, hence its name.) Newly discovered Chromogisaurus lived alongside them. The clade gets its name from Saturnalia of the Late Triassic of Brazil: its contemporary Guaibasaurus maybe a a saturnaliid, or a basal theropod, or a basal saurischian.

The teeth of saturnaliids are less phyllodont than the more derived taxa, and some teeth approach the ziphodont (blade-like) teeth of theropods in shapes: consequently, the earliest sauropodomorphs were almost certainly omnivores rather than strict herbivores. (In fact, that is the etymology for the name of Panphagia, "all eater" or "omnivore".) Intriguingly, the recently-discovered Buriolestes (initially described as the basalmost of all sauropodomorphs, but more recently found to be a saturnaliid) has honest-to-goodness ziphodont teeth.

Slightly more derived basal sauropodomorphs Thecodontosaurus, Asylosaurus and Pantydraco of Late Triassic England; Efraasia of Late Triassic Germany; and Plateosauravus of Late Triassic South Africa. Mussaurus of the Late Triassic of Argentina may be one of these basal forms, or may be more advanced (a "core prosauropod" or even a near-sauropod).

Like most saurischians, basal sauropodomorphs and core prosauropods had a "wrap around overbite": the toothrow of the mandible fit entirely within the tooth row of the upper jaw. Efraasia and later prosauropods (and basal sauropods) seem to have had a small fleshy cheek similar to (but smaller than) those interpreted for ornithischians. Less convincingly, some evidence suggests a small keratinous beak in front of the dentary (and possibly premaxilla) of basal sauropodomorphs and/or core prosauropods. The diets of basal sauropodomorphs would have included at least some plants, but these may have been more omnivorous than later, more derived sauropodomorphs.

Plateosauridae (including Late Triassic European Plateosaurus), Riojasauridae (including Late Triassic Argentine Riojasaurus), and Massospondylidae (including Early Jurassic South African Massospondylus, Argentine Adeopapposaurus, Antarctic Glacialisaurus, North American Seitaad, and Chinese Lufengosaurus): considered by some to form a monophyletic "Prosauropoda" and by others a paraphyletic series relative to melanorosaurids and sauropods. Core prosauropods were the dominant group of herbivores worldwide in the later Late Triassic and Early Jurassic: in some communities they were up to 95% of the known biomass. They represent the first time dinosaurs dominated a major way of life. (They are the only common dinosaurs in Late Triassic Europe, for example.) Traditionally interpreted as facultative bipeds, new studies of their forelimbs (especially forearms and wrists) show that they were not used for locomotion in most of these and so these dinosaurs were obligate bipeds, although slowly built ones. (In Riojasaurus, however, limb proportions show that they were almost certainly primarily quadrupedal.) Like basal sauropodomorphs, the core prosauropods retained the ancestral dinosaurian grasping hand. Their distal hindlimb (tibia, fibula, and metatarsus) was shorter than in other saurischians (a trait they passed on to Sauropoda).

Larger than the basalmost sauropodomorphs, most core prosauropods range from 3 to 8 m longer (although some grew larger, up to or more than 10 m). Their necks were proportionately even longer than in their ancestors. They have been found in many environments: from swamps to deserts.

Although very common in the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic, no core prosauropods are known after the end of the Early Jurassic. They may have "evolved themselves into extinction", by being outcompeted by their specialized descendants: the sauropods.

The most advanced prosauropods (Anchisaurus, Yunnanosaurus, Lamplughsaura of India, Leonerasaurus of Argentina, and Melanorosauridae (such as Late Triassic South African Melanorosaurus) are considered basal sauropods by some workers. For the purpose of this course, we'll restrict "Sauropoda" to Saltasaurus and everything sharing a more recent common ancestor with it than with Melanorosaurus, and use the unofficial name "near-sauropods" for those sauropodomorphs phylogenetically intermediate between Massospondylus and Sauropoda.

Like sauropods, the near-sauropods were typically larger than the more primitive sauropodomorphs: in this case, some 10-13 m long or more as adults and perhaps 5 tons. (Anchisaurus [sometimes called Ammosaurus] is a tiny exception: only as big as the basal sauropodomorphs.) Recently discovered Aardonyx of the Early Jurassic of South Africa is the last branch of Sauropodomorpha which was an clearly an obligate biped. Most near-sauropods were at best facultative bipeds, and some may have been obligate quadrupeds. Most add another sacral vertebrae (total of four).

The evolution of sauropodomorphs shows a correlated progression towards larger body size, smaller heads, longer necks, and quadrupedality. This may have been related to two (not mutually exclusive) selective forces:

Exaggeration of larger body size, smaller heads, longer necks, and increased quadrupedality continues through the Sauropoda.

These transitional near-sauropod forms are Late Triassic-to-earliest Middle Jurassic in age.

Postcranially and in size (10-13 m length), basal sauropods (Late Triassic Argentine Lessemsaurus, South African Antetonitrus and Pulanesaura, Thai Isanosaurus, Chinese Gongxianosaurus, and the Vulcanodontidae) do not differ much from melanorosaurids and other near-sauropods. But early sauropod skulls have been transformed:

Furthermore, in sauropods the fifth metatarsal is long and weight-bearing. (The fact that, unlike all other dinosaurs but like lizards (and, to be fair, the vast majority of tetrapods!) all five toes contacted the ground is what makes sauropods "lizard feet". Otherwise, the feet of a sauropod are about as UN-lizardlike as you can possibly imagine!)

In vulcanodonts and the more derived eusauropods (together the Gravisauria) there are four or more sacrals, and there is a transformation of the jaws and teeth:

Early sauropods are known from the southern continents (Gondwana) in the Late Triassic, and only show up in northern continents in the Early Jurassic. They seem to have been only rare components in dinosaurian communities until the Middle Jurassic.

The sauropods of the Middle Jurassic onward comprise the Eusauropoda (true sauropod). Eusauropods differ from their ancestors in a number of ways:

There has been an ongoing debate over the position of the necks of eusauropods (well, long-necked sauropodomorphs in general, but especially for these guys). Computer studies of possible ranges of motion in sauropod necks suggested that they were basically horizontal. However, recent work on a diversity of living animals shows an upright curved neck in nearly all amniotes, so it is quite likely that a raised neck was the natural position for sauropods.

Recently discovered Spinophorosaurus of the Middle Jurassic of Niger is the most completely known primitive sauropod. It might be a eusauropod, or it might be the sister taxon to Eusauropoda. Its tail (like that of Middle Jurassic Chinese Shunosaurus) was interpreted as ending in a tail club: in fact, that of Spinophorosaurus was thought to be convergent in form on stegosaurian thagomizers. (New information indicates that the bones of the "tail club" may be misidentified.)

Eusauropods are the dominant herbivores worldwide in the Middle and Late Jurassic, and in at least some parts of the world all the way until the end of the Cretaceous. The best and most completely known early eusauropod is Middle Jurassic Shunosaurus of China. Jobaria of the Middle Jurassic (once thought to be Early Cretaceous) of Africa has sometimes been considered a primitive member of Macronaria, but other analyses suggest it was a typical member of this early eusauropod radiation.

Several groups of primitive eusauropods are known. Recent studies suggest a paraphyletic series of "barapsaurs" like Barapasaurus of the Early Jurassic of India, Spinophorsaurus, Shunosaurus, and the Cetiosauridae, named after Cetiosaurus of the Middle Jurassic of England and the closely related Patagosaurus of the Middle Jurassic of South America.

Different clades of eusauropods show different specializations towards reaching higher in trees. Several Middle-Late Jurassic Asian sauropods evolved extra cervical vertebrae which were proportionately very long. Some of these sauropods (including Middle Jurassic Omeisaurus and Late Jurassic Mamenchisaurus) seem to form a clade, Mamenchisauridae. Some mamenchisaurids seemed to have reached truly tremendous size.

A recenly discovered but still poorly known group of eusauropods of the Late Jurassic of Europe may form a monophyletic group Turiasauria. Some of these "turiasaurs" (such as Turiasaurus itself) evolved into tremendously large forms (rivaling various giant neosauropods).


Simplified cladogram of Neosauropoda

More detailed phylogeny of Neosauropoda

The dominant group of post-Middle Jurassic sauropods is the Neosauropoda (new sauropods). Their transformations from primitive eusauropods are:

Neosauropods have two major subdivisions: Diplodocoidea and Macronaria.

This group differs from their ancestors by a number of traits, including:

The first major branch of diplodocoids is the truly bizarre Rebbachisauridae, currently known from the Cretaceous, mostly from Gondwana. They are best known from Nigersaurus from the late Early Cretaceous of northern Africa. At least Nigersaurus was "little" (as sauropods go, that is: only the size of an Indian elephant!). Their skulls are highly transformed, most importantly with:

Unlike the slicing dental battery of ceratopsids or the grinding dental battery of hadrosaurids, the rebbachisaurid dental battery is at the front end of the jaw. The rate of replacement of the teeth was very high (one tooth/month; about twice as fast as hadrosaurids).

Other rebbachisaurids include Rebbachisaurus and Tatouinea of northern Africa and Limaysaurus, Rayososaurus, Cathartesaura, and Nopscaspondylus of South America, and Histriasaurus and Demandasaurus of Europe.

The remaining diplodocoids are the Flagellicaudata (whip tails). These form a major part of the sauropod communities of the Late Jurassic and early Early Cretaceous. Their specializations include:

There are two major divisions of the flagellicaudates. The Dicraeosauridae were smaller (only 10 m or less), and had:

Dicraeosaurids are best known from the southern continents, but a few from the Late Jurassic of western North America. The best known dicraeosaurids are Late Jurassic African Dicraeosaurus, Early Cretaceous Argentine Amargasaurus, and Late Jurassic Argentine Brachytrachelopan: the latter is about the same size and shape as stegosaurs.

More famous are the Diplodocidae. These are very large sauropods (over 30 m in the massively-built apatosaurines Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus, and more slender Diplodocus [the individual formerly considered Seismosaurus], Supersaurus, and Amphicoelias). They are characterized by the following specializations:

Diplodocids (and other diplodocoids?) may have been able to rear up on their hindlimbs to feed even higher in trees than they could using their long necks. Alternatively, they may have been low-browsing/grazing specialists: we'll come back to this question in a later lecture. At present, almost all diplodocids are known only from the Late Jurassic (Leinkupal of Early Cretaceous Argentina being the exception). In western North America they were tremendously diverse: at least six genera were present at one time.

The other major branch of neosauropods is the Macronaria (big noses). They range from the Middle Jurassic to the very end of the Cretaceous. Their changes from ancestral sauropods include:

Primitive macronarians include Camarasaurus of the Late Jurassic of western North America (and possibly elsewhere); late Middle Jurassic Tehuelchesaurus of Argentina; Lourinhasaurus of Portugal; and others. The first three seem to form a clade Camarasauridae.

(However, a note for the future: some big on-going phylogenetic analyses threaten to shake up the family tree. It may be that Camarasaurus will fall outside of a clade comprised of diplodocoids, brachiosaurids and their kin, and titanosaurs. Stay tuned.)

The more advanced macronarians (the Titanosauriformes) are specialized by:

Astrodon (State Dinosaur of Maryland; Early Cretaceous of Maryland, and possibly Texas) is a titanosauriform, as is as is gigantic Sauroposeidon of Early Cretaceous western North America. Three major clades of titanosauriform include the Brachiosauridae, the Euhelopodidae, and Titanosauria.

Brachiosauridae (Middle Jurassic to Early Cretaceous) are very distinctive. They are characterized by:

The result is that brachiosaurids were built "up hill", making them some of the tallest animals that ever lived. Best known are Late Jurassic Brachiosaurus of North America, Giraffatitan of Africa, Lusotitan and Europasaurus of the Late Jurassic of Europe, and Early Cretaceous Abydosaurus, Venenosaurus, and Cedarosaurus of western North America. Astrodon and Sauroposeidon are sometimes considered to be brachiosaurids. Alternatively, some studies find the "brachiosaurids" as a paraphyletic series with regards to euhelopodids + titanosaurs.

The Euhelopodidae is a clade of ultra-long-necked Cretaceous titanosauriforms. At present all known members are from Asia. They include (among others) Early Cretaceous Euhelopus, Qiaowanlong, Phuwiangosaurus, and early Late Cretaceous Erketu. Daxiatitan and Ruyangosaurus of the early Late Cretaceous of China may both be euhelopodids: the latter is one of the contenders of "largest dinosaurs of all time", with a 2.35 m (7.7 foot) tall femur. (However, some traits of the vertebrae of Ruyangosaurus suggest it is a titanosaur, close to comparably-gigantic Puertasaurus.) Huabeisaurus is a later Late Cretaceous euhelopodid. Gannansaurus (from near the end of the Cretaceous) seems to be the youngest known euhelopodid.

Titanosauria (Cretaceous) were the dominant group of Cretaceous sauropods in most parts of the world. They were very diverse. The different groups share:

Our understanding of titanosaur phylogeny is, quite frankly, a mess. There are a lot of phylogenetic analysis using quite a number of taxa (titanosaurs represent nearly 1/2 of all sauropod genera!), but very little in the way of consensus between them. We are using a grossly simplified version here. One basal clades is the "chubutisaurus" of Gondwana, including Wintonotitan of late Early Cretaceous Australia, Chubutisaurus of late Early Cretaceous Argentina, and a few early Late Cretaceous African and Argentine forms. Another clade of early titanosaurs is Andesauroidea, which contains Andesaurus, among others.

Malawisaurus of the Early Cretaceous of eastern Africa is the oldest known member of Lithostrotia ("stone skins"), the clade of titanosaurs known to have osteoderms. (However, it might be that osteoderms are found even more basally within the clade).

In addition to these primitive taxa, the titanosaurs include a more derived clade Eutitanosauria, which is further modified by the evolution of:

Relationships among the eutitanosaurs are still being worked out with no strong resolution at present. There might be a split between Aeolosauridae and Saltasauridae (the version shown here), but that pattern doesn't come out in all analyses. Aeolosaurids include a clade smaller forms such as Bonitasaura and Rincosaurus. But it also includes a clade of giants, such as tremendous Argyrosaurus and the subclade Lognkosauria (including Futalognkosaurus, Dreadnoughtus, the recently named Patagotitan, and its sister taxon, the even more gigantic 90-100 ton Argentinosaurus (perhaps the largest dinosaur of all)).

Saltasaurids include the rest of the titanosaurs. Some of these are giants such as Alamosaurus (the last North American sauropod, and potential rival with Argentinosaurus for largest land animal known); others are smaller, such as Saltasaurus itself (the first titanosaur known with osteoderms) and Rapetosaurus; broad-snouted forms such as Nemegtosaurus (known only from a head); broad-bodied Opisthocoelicaudia (known only from a body, and quite possibly the same animal as Nemegtosaurus); and many others. The phylogenetic position of Early Cretaceous Brazilian Tapuiasaurus is uncertain: it was originally considered in the saltasaurid lineage, but may be an earlier branch of titanosaur. Tapuiasaurus's skull is very similar to that known from the saltasaurid Nemegetosaurus and what is known of the skulls of aeolosaurids, and to that of the very well preserved basal lithostrotian Sarmientosaurus (see below); this gives us a sense of what all titanosaur heads looked like:

Titanosaurs are the main group of herbivorous dinosaur in the southern continents (and parts of Europe) until the end of the Cretaceous, and were found on all continents. Titanosaurs include some truly tremendous forms: Futalognkosaurus, Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, Alamosaurus, and Patagotitan all seem to reach just about the same size: masses of perhaps 100 tons or so (depending on the methodology used), and lengths much more than 30 m. Other clades of eusauropod have multiple examples nearly as large. These dinosaurs are still smaller (less massive) than the modern blue whale, but otherwise exceed any living species of animal in mass. We will explore later on HOW it was that dinosaurs could be able to reach this supremely gigantic sizes.

Feeding adaptation transformations:


Locomotory changes:

Heterochrony and the origin of Sauropoda:

Niche partitioning:
Many dinosaur communities had multiple sauropod species at the same time. How could they support this diversity? Niche partitioning: each clade (and even each species) specialized in feeding in a slightly different manner. For example, in Late Jurassic communities there were ground-feeding dicraeosaurids, mid-level feeding primitive eusauropods and primitive macronarians, high feeding brachiosaurids, mamenchisaurids, and diplodocoids (which could feed exceptionally high if they could actually rear on their hindlegs)

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Last modified: 18 August 2017

Detail of "Short Travel" (2012) by Vlad Konstantinov, illustrating the core prosauropod Plateosaurus