High phenotypic plasticity at the dawn of the eosauropterygian radiation

Laboury, Antoine; Scheyer, Torsten M.; Klein, Nicole; Stubbs, Thomas L. and Fischer, Valentin (2023). High phenotypic plasticity at the dawn of the eosauropterygian radiation. PeerJ, 11, article no. e15776.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.15776

Abstract

The initial radiation of Eosauropterygia during the Triassic biotic recovery represents a key event in the dominance of reptiles secondarily adapted to marine environments. Recent studies on Mesozoic marine reptile disparity highlighted that eosauropterygians had their greatest morphological diversity during the Middle Triassic, with the co-occurrence of Pachypleurosauroidea, Nothosauroidea and Pistosauroidea, mostly along the margins of the Tethys Ocean. However, these previous studies quantitatively analysed the disparity of Eosauropterygia as a whole without focussing on Triassic taxa, thus limiting our understanding of their diversification and morphospace occupation during the Middle Triassic. Our multivariate morphometric analyses highlight a clearly distinct colonization of the ecomorphospace by the three clades, with no evidence of whole-body convergent evolution with the exception of the peculiar pistosauroid Wangosaurus brevirostris, which appears phenotypically much more similar to nothosauroids. This global pattern is mostly driven by craniodental differences and inferred feeding specializations. We also reveal noticeable regional differences among nothosauroids and pachypleurosauroids of which the latter likely experienced a remarkable diversification in the eastern Tethys during the Pelsonian. Our results demonstrate that the high phenotypic plasticity characterizing the evolution of the pelagic plesiosaurians was already present in their Triassic ancestors, casting eosauropterygians as particularly adaptable animals.

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