GEOL 104 Dinosaurs: A Natural History

Fall Semester 2019
Neornithischia I: Thescelosauridae & Ornithopoda: Beaks, bills & crests

Late Cretaceous lambeosaurine hadrosaurid Amurosaurus by Sergey Krasovskiy (2011)

Key Points:
•Neornithischia is the sister-group to Thyreophora. It contains the Marginocephalia, the Ornithopoda, and a series of basal forms.
•Thescelosauridae is the most diverse group of non-marginocephalian, non-ornithopod neornithischians. Thescelosaurids remained obligate herbivores, and were minor herbivores in most regions of the world in the Cretaceous.
•Ornithopoda was one of the most successful of all dinosaur herbivore groups. Primitive members were small obligate bipeds, but many evolved into facultative quadrupeds. Some include the largest land animals other than sauropods of all time.
•Ornithopods showed extensive modification of their chewing ability, culminating in the mobile skulls and dental batteries of Hadrosauridae. •The Hadrosauridae of the Late Cretaceous was the most speciose branch of Ornithopoda. These "duck-billed" dinosaurs are known from the entire life cycle, and from entire herds. Both major clades--hollow-crested Lambeosaurinae and broad-snouted Hadrosaurinae--show extensive features for some form of visual (and/or auditory) displays, suggested complex social interactions.

Detailed phylogeny of Genasauria

The Incredible Shrinking Ornithopoda

Traditionally, Ornithopoda ("bird feet") comprised all ornithischians that weren't stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, or neoceratopisans. Eventually, pachycephalosaurs were recognized as their own distinct clade, and psittacosaurids as ceratopsians. With the development of cladistic analysis, it was recognized that Scutellosaurus and Scelidosaurus belonged with the stegosaur-ankylosaur clade, and that Pisanosaurus and Lesothosaurus were primitive ornithischians outside of all the other major groups.

But even at the dawn of the 21st Century, Heterodontosauridae was still generally considered as sharing a more recent common ancestor with the "hypsilophodonts" and iguanodontians than with any other group of dinosaur: thus, the heterodontosaurids were thought to be the oldest branch of Ornithopoda. More recently, however, heterodontosaurids have been recognized as splitting from other ornithischians at a very basal divergence, and thus are no closer to ornithopods than to marginocephalians or to thyreophorans. So there are at present no recognized Late Triassic or Early Jurassic ornithopods.

Even more recently, Middle Jurassic taxa (such as Chinese Agilisaurus and Hexinlusaurus, early Middle Jurassic Siberian Kulindadromeus, and Late Jurassic western North American Othnielosaurus (possibly a junior synonym for the long-thought-to-be-invalid Nanosaurus) (all of which were considered to be primitive hypsilophodont-grade ornithopods in many cladistic analyses) now seem to be basal members of Neornithischia. This latter clade includes marginocephalians, true ornithopods, and all taxa closer to them than to Thyreophora.

(The recognition of the non-ornithopod status of these Jurassic forms comes in great part with the discovery of Eocursor, "Stormbergia" (really, adult Lesothosaurus), and other Early Jurassic ornithischians. The data from these fossils are helping to sort out the relationships of the bird-hipped dinosaurs.)

But wait; there's more! A 2015 extensive survey of ornithischian relations reduces Ornithopoda even further, which is the source of the phylogenies shown above and below. A cluster of (mostly) Cretaceous small (1-3 m) beaked bipedal ornithischians previously called "hypsilophodontians" were found to not represent either a clade of ornithopods (the old model) or a grade of basal ornithopods (the newer model). Instead, nearly all lie outside the Ornithopoda-Marginocephalia clade Cerapoda. (Cerapods are united by the shared presence of asymmetrical teeth with enamel on only one side, allowing them to be ever-sharpening.)

Instead, as well as the aforementioned Jurassic Agilisaurus, Hexinlusaurus, and Othnieliosaurus/Nanosaurus, the Cretaceous ultra-long tailed Australian Leaellynasaura and the Cretaceous Chinese clade Jeholosauridae (including Jeholosaurus and Yueosaurus) belong in this part of the tree.

Of particular note is Kulindadromeus. It is a noteworthy animal not so much in terms of its skeleton (which is boringly standard for a neornithischian), but for its behavioral evidence and integument. Firstly it was found in bonebeds of many dozens of individuals, so it is very likely it lived in groups. More interesting than that, though, is its body covering. It is found in an environment which fine details can be preserved. It has some parts of its body (bottoms of the feet) there are simple scales; on the front of the legs and on top of the tail are more plate-like scales; on other parts of the body are simple filaments; and then there are odd plates with fuzz coming off them (unlike any structure known in other dinosaurs). So small ornithischians show complex types of integument beyond scales (and beyond fuzz).

Simplified cladogram of Thescelosauridae & Ornithopoda

More detailed phylogeny of Thescelosauridae & Ornithopoda

So what IS an ornithopod, then? Ornithopoda is defined as Parasaurolophus and all taxa closer to it than to Triceratops. In the latest study very few of the traditional "hypsilophodonts" fall within this definition: indeed, Early Cretaceous Hypsilophodon itself is no longer a member of Ornithpoda!! Instead a clade of Cretaceous small-bodied bipedal dinosaurs traditionally considered ornithopods was found to lie outside Cerapoda. This clade has sometimes been called "Parksosauridae" (for instance, in earlier versions of this course!), but the proper name is Thescelosauridae. At present no definite Jurassic thescelosaurid is known, but Kulindadromeus (or possibly some other Jurassic taxon) might turn out to be early thescelosaurids.

Thescelosaurids are united in having fused premaxillae and a series of other modifications of the front end of the snout, among other traits. There are two main clades of thescelosaurids:

Thescelosaurids lacked serious defensive weapons, and their limb proportions were not particularly well-adapted to fast running. Their narrow beaks suggest that they were choosy eaters in terms of the plants they selected.

Given the reorganization of the positions of these various neornithischians, many features once used to characterize Ornithopoda are now more broadly distributed among dinosaurs. At present, the traits which seem to characterize the greatly reduced Ornithopoda include:

Additionally, ornithopods in general have a more complex chewing (grinding of upper teeth against lower ones) than other dinosaurs. A hinge is present between the premaxilla, upper part of the jaws, and braincase on the one side and the maxilla and bones of the cheek region on the other. It was once thought that this had a simple out-and-back motion to help grind the teeth while chewing. As we will see below, however, the motion is more complex. In any case, even early ornithopods seem to be able to grind up their food to a finer degree than most dinosaurs, allowing them to more quickly nutrients from that food. (That said, this trait is present in Hypsilophodon, so it may be a more general neornithischian character lost in the rigid-skulled marginocephalians.)

(A note on the name "Ornithopoda": advanced iguanodontians do indeed have three-toed feet something like birds, as seen in these tracks. But basal ornithopods have four forward-facing toes, and no ornithopod seems to have the backwards-facing digit I of birds. In fact, it is kind of a lousy name for the clade, but rather late in the game to change it...)


As noted, little 2 m long Hypsilophodon of Early Cretaceous Europe (and possibly North America) was long considered the "typical" primitive ornithopod, but is now found to lie outside Ornithopoda (and Cerapoda).

The basalmost members currently known in Ornithopoda proper are a set of South American(Talenkauen, Notohypsilophodon, Anabisetia, Gasparinisaura, and Macrogryphosaurus, among others), Antarctic (Trinisaura), and Australian (Weewarrasaurus, Atlascopcosaurus, Qantassaurus, and others) small-to-mid-sized (2-6 m long) taxa. Some analyses find these as a clade (for which the name is Elasmaria); in others, these Gondwanan taxa are a paraphyletic series relative to the the far more diverse clade: Iguanodontia.

The members of Iguanodontia were transformed from their "hypsilophodont" cousins by a number of features:

All retained some bipedal ability, but many of the iguanodontians were facultative bipeds only, spending a sizable fraction of time on all fours.

The oldest iguanodontian known is the Middle Jurassic dryosaurid Callovosaurus. Iguanodontians become more common in the Late Jurassic, but really come into their own in the Cretaceous. In many ecosystems the iguanodontians are the most abundant large animals, displacing sauropods and stegosaurs.

Among the diversity of primitive iguanodontians are:

The remaining ornithopods form the specialized Cretaceous clade Styracosterna. Their snouts have become longer and broader-ended with a better developed grinding jaws, while their hands have become better adapted for absorbing weight. These transformations are more fully developed in the hadrosauriforms.

Simplified cladogram of Styracosterna

This represents the clade comprised of Hadrosauridae and all taxa closer to hadrosaurids than to Camptosaurus. The primitive styracosternans were once all grouped together as "Iguandontidae", at least some of the old "iguanodontids" turn out to be paraphyletic with respect to hadrosaurids. Styracosterna is by far the most successful radiation among the ornithischians.

Styracosternans show the following transformations from the ancestral state:

The combination of their great size, ability to walk on their hindlegs or all fours, and powerful beaks with grinding teeth allowed styracosternans to be excellent browsers of both low and high vegetation. At least some seem to have lived in herds.

Styracosternans are known from most of the Cretaceous world, but are most particularly common or diverse in Europe, North America, Asia, and (in the Early Cretaceous) northern Africa. Among the diversity of Early Cretaceous styracosternans are:

Recent studies do support a monophyletic Iguanodontidae (after a decade or so when this cluster of dinosaurs were a paraphyletic series with respect to Hadrosauridae). Iguanodontids were a sucessful group of large-bodied Early Cretaceous ornithopods. Nearly all have a very prominent thumb spike (but to be fair, so do more basal styracosternans.) Among the the iguanodontids currently recognized are:

One subset of styracosternans (Hadrosauria) in particular shows a series of transformations including an increase in the number of tooth positions in the jaws and expansion of the snout. These dinosaurs are on the lineage which leads to the duckbilled dinosaurs (Hadrosauridae). Among the precursors and cousins of the hadrosaurids are Early Cretaceous tall-snouted Altirhinus of Asia (once considered a species of Iguanodon, Equijubus of North America, Gongpoquansaurus and Probactrosaurus of China; Eolambia of western North America; Early-to-Late Cretaceous Protohadros of western North America; and Late Cretaceous Bactrosaurus and Plesiohadros of Asia. (These latter two fall out within Hadrosauridae proper in some analyses). There are many others, and more are being named every year.

True Hadrosauridae is the most speciose and specialized branch of the ornithopods. All known members of Hadrosauridae proper are from the Late Cretaceous. Although known from Europe, South America, and Antarctica, the main diversity of hadrosaurids is in Asia and North America.

The transformations of hadrosaurids relative to their ancestors include:

Hadrosaurids see the fullest expression known of the ornithopod grinding mechanism. As mentioned above, it was once thought that the motion was relative simple: the side unit would move outwards when the lower jaw was brought up, giving a side-to-side grinding of the teeth during chewing. This model (proposed during the 1980s) was called "pleurokinesis" (or "side-motion"). Here is a video of a computer animation of this interpretation:

However, a more detailed study using CT scans and more complete computer models show the motion is really a LOT more complex. Pleurokinesis plays a part in it, but there are other directions as well. No name is given at present for this form of jaw mechanics, but below is a preliminary model of how it works:

But wait! There's more (or perhaps "less", in terms of motion). Even more recent study suggests that motion at the joints above was limited at best. Instead, these studies suggest that the maxillae and other facial bones remained fixed in position, but that the mandible moves either by rotation along the long axes (pivoting at the predentary) and/or moving forward and backwards. Here is an animation showing one example of this:

Their exceedingly-complex tooth form--which were made of six different tissue types, rather than the standard two of most tetrapods--maintained a good grinding surface as they wore down.

Hadrosaurids include some definite herd dwellers. The entire life cycle of hadrosaurids is preserved: nests, eggs, embryos, hatchlings, juveniles, subadults, and adults. Hadrosaurid footprints and isolated hadrosaurid teeth are among the most common Late Cretaceous fossils of North America. Skin impressions and even mineralized soft tissue are known for duckbills.

The latest on-going phylogenetic analyses show two major subclades of Hadrosauridae: crested Lambeosaurinae and broad-snouted Hadrosaurinae. The latter group has sometimes been called "Saurolophinae", because in some analyses Hadrosaurus proper of New Jersey and the closely related Eotrachdon of Alabama (and the very similar Italian Tethyshadros and Telmatosaurus of Romania) seems to lie outside the Lambeosaurinae-Hadrosaurinae clade (Euhadrosauria) (However, a note of caution: some preliminary studies suggest that "hadrosaurines" may be paraphyletic with respect to Lambeosaurinae). Both the major clades are known from a great number of excellent skeletons.

Lambeosaurines are characterized by a hollow crest covering the nasal passage. These crests, which vary between species, may have had both a visual and sound display function. Baby lambeosaurines lacked this structure.

CT scans allow for the pathways of these passages to be studied in greater detail:

Differences in crest size and shapes within some populations may reflect sexual and/or ontogenetic varations.

Among the better known lambeosaurines are Nipponosaurus, Olorotitan, Tsintaosaurus, and Charonosaurus of Asia and Parasaurolophus, Corythosaurus, Hypacrosaurus, Velafrons, Lambeosaurus, and GIGANTIC Magnapaulia of North America.

Hadrosaurines (aka "saurolophines") differ from their relatives by greatly flared snouts and greatly expanded nares. Some hadrosaurines had (relatively) short snouts: North American Gryposaurus and Brachylophosaurus, for instance. Others had longer snouts: North American Maiasaura and Prosaurolophus and transcontinental (Asia and North American) Saurolophus. The extreme development of the duckbill can be found in the the Edmontosaurini, a group containing sauropod-sized Shantungosaurus (largest of all ornithischian dinosaurs) of China and North American dwarf Ugrunaaluk and large (but not quite as big as Shantungosaurus) Edmontosaurus proper and species sometimes considered separate genera (Anatosaurus and Anatotitan), but sometimes all considered Edmontosaurus. (There is recent work to show that there are only two species, each with different growth stages: personally, I am fine using the old name Anatosaurus for the geologically-younger annectens, but am willing to follow the common usage and call them all "Edmontosaurus".) Babies of even the long-snouted hadrosaurines had relatively short faces.

Both hadrosaurines and lambeosaurine produced giants of greater than 13 m in length. These represent the largest animals other than sauropods that have ever lived on land, and the heaviest bipeds in Earth's history.

Microwear analysis of the teeth of hadrosaurids is consistent with their complex chewing patterns. In at least the broad-billed edmontosaurs there is a great degree of scratching on the teeth, suggesting that they were primarily low browsers of tough vegetation ("grazers"). (Given the wide snouts of Edmontosaurus, Shantungosaurus, and so forth, this makes a lot of sense.) Studies have not yet been published to see if most hadrosaurids were primarily low browsers, or if some of them might have been mostly high browsers. Given the diversity of bill shapes and snout lengths (and the diversity of species overall), there was probably a number of different diets among the hadrosaurids.

Feeding adaptation transformations:

Locomotory changes:

Social behavior in Ornithopoda:
Neornithischians (in particular ornithopods (in particular iguanodontians (in particular hadrosaurids (in particular lambeosaurines)))) have abundant evidence for socially-related adaptations, including: herding; visual (and possibly aural) displays; species recognition structures; possible sexual dimorphism. We will discuss these more fully in the third section of the course.

Heterochrony, size, and ornithopod history:
In general, peramorphosis seems to play an important role in neornithischian evolution. Hatchling iguanodontians tend to resemble adult "hypsilophodonts", while hatchling hadrosaurids tend resemble young primitive iguanodontians, and young hadrosaurids tend to resemble the immediate outgroups of Hadrosauridae.

Basal neornithischians, thescelosaurids, and basal ornithopods were small (comparable to basal members of other ornithischian groups). But at the base of Iguanodontia and the base of Styracosterna there are major size increases. Additionally, various different styracosternan lineages independently achieved very large (>12 m) size.

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Last modified: 20 June 2019

The mid-Cretaceous thescelosaurid Oryctodromeus by Mark Witton (2013)