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The kingdom of the reptiles: what is a dinosaur?

Dinosaurs (superorder Dinosauria, “terrible reptiles”) are a group of reptiles which dominated all terrestrial ecosystems during the Mesozoic (Secondary Era or “the Age of Reptiles”). Even today, to most people there’s still some confusion over what a dinosaur is and what is not, and the term “dinosaur” is often used to refer to all the reptiles that evolved during the Secondary Era. In this entry I’ll try to give account of some of the different groups of reptiles that appeared during the Mesozoic and I’ll explain the classification of the different dinosaurian groups and some of their adaptations.

MESOZOIC REPTILES: DINOSAURS AND LOTS MORE

The rise of the dinosaurs was possible thanks to a mass extinction phenomenon which occurred 251 million years ago (Permian-Triassic extinction event). That phenomenon annihilated up to 96% of marine species and up to 70% of terrestrial species in that time, leaving lots of empty ecological niches to be inherited by new animal species.

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Modified graphic from Rohde & Muller (2005) showing the great massive extinction. The darker zone corresponds to the Mesozoic period.

During the Triassic period (in the early Mesozoic) many different groups of reptiles evolved. One of these groups was the Dinosauria, which at that moment was far from being the dominant group of terrestrial animals. Some other reptilian groups of that time were the terrestrial rauisuchians (clade Rauisuchia) and fully aquatic groups like the sauropterygians (superorder Sauropterygia) and the ichthyopterygians (superorder Ichthyopterygia).

Reconstructions by Dmitry Bogdanov of Prestosuchus (a rauisuchian, top), Nichollsia (a suropterygian, left bottom) and Platypterigius (an ichthyopterygian, right bottom).
Reconstructions by Dmitry Bogdanov of Prestosuchus (a rauisuchian, top), Nichollsia (a suropterygian, left bottom) and Platypterigius (an ichthyopterygian, right bottom).

A second mass extinction in the late Triassic and the early Jurassic put an end to most of the dominant reptile groups, allowing the yet small dinosaurs to expand and evolve, along with some new groups like the crocodilomorphs (superorder Crocodylomorpha, ancestors of crocodilians), the flying pterosaurs (order Pterosauria).

Reconstructions by Dmitry Bogdanov of Dakosaurus (a crocodilomorph, top) and Scaphognathus (a pterosauria, bottom).
Reconstructions by Dmitry Bogdanov of Dakosaurus (a crocodilomorph, top) and Scaphognathus (a pterosauria, bottom).

As we can see, dinosaurs are only one of many reptile groups that evolved during the Mesozoic. During the Jurassic period, dinosaurs diversified into many different groups, but they were mostly restricted to terrestrial ecosystems, which they would rule until their practical extinction 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretacic period.

DINOSAUR CLASSIFICATION

The first dinosaurs evolved around 231 million years ago during the mid-Triassic period. They were small in size and were characterized by their limb’s posture, which contrary to most reptiles, grew vertically elevating their body from the ground. That gave them more agility and a more active lifestyle.

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Top: Skeleton of Eoraptor, one of the oldest known dinosaurs (Museum of Japan, photo by Kentaro Ohno). Bottom: Representation of the posture common among most reptiles (left) and the posture characteristic of dinosaurs (right).

Then dinosaurs diverged into two different orders: the Saurischia and the Ornithischia. These two groups were distinguished by the structure of their pelvis; saurischians conserved a pelvis more closely similar to that of the other reptiles, while the ornithischians evolved a pelvis superficially similar to that of modern birds.

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Representation showing the structure of saurischian hips (left) and ornitischian hips (right). The animals represented are facing left.

ORNITISCHIA: BIRD HIPPED

ORNITHISCHIA
Evolutionary tree of Ornithischia, modified by Zureks.

Ornithopoda (“bird feet”): Ornithopods were the most diverse group of Ornithischia, characterized by their three-toed feet similar to that of birds. They were herbivores that could combine bipedal and quadruped walking. Among them we can find the Iguanodon, one of the first dinosaurs to be discovered by science.

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Iguanodon feet (right) and reconstruction by O. C. Marsh (1896).

Ornithopods acquired many different adaptations; some groups had duck-like bills to feed on aquatic vegetation, others developed specialized hands with a sharp thumb and an opposable little finger to grasp the plants they fed on. Many groups developed bony crests which are thought to be used both for species identification and for communication between members of the same species.

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Reconstruction of Parasaurolophus (missing author), an ornithopod which presented a big hollow crest to amplify the sounds it made.

Marginocephalia (“fringed heads”): The so-called marginocephalians were a group of herbivorous dinosaurs related to the ornithopods characterized by a great cranial ossification. These can be divided into two separated groups:

Pachycephalosaurians (suborder Pachycephalosauria, “thick-headed reptiles”) were bipeds which had an extremely thick skull and a series of lateral osteoderms (keratin-covered ossifications) flanking it. It is believed that pachycephalosaurians resolved territorial fights and disputed reproductive rights via head-ramming, similar to goats.

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Reconstruction of Pachycephalosaurus by Jordan Mallon.

The other members of the group are the ceratopsians (suborder Ceratopsia, “horned faces”), quadrupeds which presented; neck frills making their skulls look bigger and the “rostral bone”, which formed a beak-shaped structure on the mouth. Lots of species also developed facial horns which could protrude from the cheek-bone, the eyebrow or the neck frill.

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Reconstruction of Rubeosaurus by Lukas Panzarin (left) and skull of Triceratops (right), photo by Zachi Evenor.

Thyreophora (“shield bearers”): This basal group of ornithischians was exclusively composed of quadruped herbivores characterized by the presence of heavy osteoderms that constituted their main defence. This group can be divided into:

Stegosaurians (suborder Stegosauria, “roofed reptiles”) were big herbivorous dinosaurs characterized by having two rows of dorsal osteoderms from the neck to the tail, which served as protection and helped them in their thermoregulation. Some species also developed caudal spines called “thagomizers” used as weapons to defend themselves from predators.

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Mounted “thagomizer” at Denver Museum of Nature and Science (left) and reconstruction of Stegosaurus by Nobu Tamura (right).

Anchylosaurians (suborder Ankylosauria, “fused reptiles”) developed heavy bony armours that covered most of the body. Some of them, like the Ankylosaurus, developed big bony clubs at the end of the tail to fend off predators.

Euoplocephalus_BW
Reconstruction of Euoplocephalus by Nobu Tamura.

SAURISCHIA: REPTILE HIPPED

SAURISCHIA
Evolutionary tree of Saurischia, modified by Zureks.

Sauropodomorpha (“reptile-shaped feet”): The sauropodomorphs are better known as the “long-necked dinosaurs”. That’s because they adapted to feed on the highest strata of vegetation.

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Reconstruction of different sauropodomorphs (left to right): Camarasaurus, Brachiosaurus, Giraffatitan and Euhelopus.

Most species became large quadrupeds, with pillar-like legs similar to those of elephants and long necks to reach the leaves of the highest trees. Later species reached tremendous sizes, like the Amphicoelias which could grow up to 60 metres long.

Theropoda (“beast feet”): This last group is mostly known for two reasons. First of all is that this group includes some taxons of great predators like the Tyrannosauridae and Dromeosauridae families. The second reason is that theropods are the only dinosaurian group that includes living species, because modern birds are included in the suborder Theropoda.

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Skeleton of Allosaurus from american museum collections (1915).

All theropods are bipedal and most of the Mesozoic species were carnivorous, with sharp replaceable teeth adapted to predation. Theropods present a saurischian pelvis but later on, birds evolved a hip structure more similar to that found in ornitischian dinosaurs.

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Reconstruction by Davide Bonnadonna of the different clades that led to the aparition of birds (left to right): Neotheropoda, Tetanurae, Coelurosauria, Paraves and finally the Archaeopteryx, believed to be the first bird species that ever existed.

Some species had feathers to help thermoregulation. Birds from these groups evolved at the end of the Jurassic period.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted in the elaboration of this entry:

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