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Rauhut, Oliver W. M.; Heyng, Alexander M.; López-Arbarello, Adriana; Hecker, Andreas (2012): A new rhynchocephalian from the late jurassic of Germany with a dentition that is unique amongst tetrapods.
In: PloS one 7(10), e46839




Rhynchocephalians, the sister group of squamates (lizards and snakes), are only represented by the single genus Sphenodon today. This taxon is often considered to represent a very conservative lineage. However, rhynchocephalians were common during the late Triassic to latest Jurassic periods, but rapidly declined afterwards, which is generally attributed to their supposedly adaptive inferiority to squamates and/or Mesozoic mammals, which radiated at that time. New finds of Mesozoic rhynchocephalians can thus provide important new information on the evolutionary history of the group. A new fossil relative of Sphenodon from the latest Jurassic of southern Germany, Oenosaurus muehlheimensis gen. et sp. nov., presents a dentition that is unique amongst tetrapods. The dentition of this taxon consists of massive, continuously growing tooth plates, probably indicating a crushing dentition, thus representing a previously unknown trophic adaptation in rhynchocephalians. The evolution of the extraordinary dentition of Oenosaurus from the already highly specialized Zahnanlage generally present in derived rhynchocephalians demonstrates an unexpected evolutionary plasticity of these animals. Together with other lines of evidence, this seriously casts doubts on the assumption that rhynchocephalians are a conservative and adaptively inferior lineage. Furthermore, the new taxon underlines the high morphological and ecological diversity of rhynchocephalians in the latest Jurassic of Europe, just before the decline of this lineage on this continent. Thus, selection pressure by radiating squamates or Mesozoic mammals alone might not be sufficient to explain the demise of the clade in the Late Mesozoic, and climate change in the course of the fragmentation of the supercontinent of Pangaea might have played a major role.