Christopher T. Griffin, Candice M. Stefanic, William G. Parker, Axel Hungerbühler and Michelle R. Stocker (2017)
Sacral anatomy of the phytosaur Smilosuchus adamanensis, with implications for pelvic girdle evolution among Archosauriformes.
The sacrum – consisting of those vertebrae that articulate with the ilia – is the exclusive skeletal connection between the hindlimbs and axial skeleton in tetrapods. Therefore, the morphology of this portion of the vertebral column plays a major role in the evolution of terrestrial locomotion. Whereas most extant reptiles only possess the two plesiomorphic sacral vertebrae, additional vertebrae have been incorporated into the sacrum multiple times independently among early-diverging archosaurian (crocodylians + birds) clades. Phytosauria was a diverse, abundant, and cosmopolitan clade of archosauriforms throughout the Late Triassic, but postcrania of this clade are rarely described and few species-level taxonomic placements of phytosaurian postcranial material are available, potentially hampering knowledge of morphological disparity in the postcranial skeleton among phytosaurs. Here, we describe the sacrum of Smilosuchus adamanensis, a phytosaur recovered from the Upper Triassic Chinle Formation of Arizona. This sacrum consists of the two primordial sacral vertebrae, but has a vertebra incorporated from the trunk into the sacrum (= a dorsosacral) and is therefore the first Late Triassic phytosaur and one of the first non-archosaurian archosauromorphs to be described with more than two sacral vertebrae. Our interpretation of this element as a dorsosacral is justified by the lateral extent of the dorsosacral ribs, clear surfaces of articulation between the distal ends of the dorsosacral ribs and the first primordial sacral ribs, and the scar on the medial surface of each ilium for articulation with each dorsosacral rib. Additionally, we provide the first detailed description of the vertebral junction formed by two anteriorly projecting flanges on the first primordial sacral ribs and their corresponding facets on the centrum of the dorsosacral. Computed tomographic (CT) imaging reveals that the two primordial sacrals are not co-ossified and that the dorsosacral morphology of this specimen is not the result of obvious pathology. We place this incorporation of a trunk vertebra into the phytosaurian sacrum in a broader evolutionary context, with this shift in vertebral identity occurring at least seven times independently among Triassic archosauriforms, including at least three times in early crocodylian-line archosaurs and at least four times among bird-line archosaurs. Additionally, anteriorly projecting flanges of sacral ribs which articulate with the anterior-adjacent centrum have evolved several times in archosauriforms, and we interpret ‘shared’ sacral ribs (= a sacral rib that articulates with two adjacent sacral centra more or less equally) present in some archosaurian clades as a more extreme example of this morphology. In extant taxa the highly conserved Hox gene family plays a central role in the patterning of the axial skeleton, especially vertebral identity; therefore, the independent incorporation of a trunk vertebra into the sacrum across multiple archosauriform lineages may suggest a homologous underlying developmental mechanism for this evolutionary trend.