Cartorhynchus: helping ichthyosaurs crawl back into the mainstream.

Over the last 12 months or so, I’ve been researching ichthyosaurs for my masters project, and since then, I’ve been working on publishing my results. As such, I’ve learnt a fair bit of ichthyosaur palaeobiology and systematics. I’m no expert, but at this early stage in my academic career, I can say that at the moment, ichthyosaurs (specifically ichthyosaur endocranial anatomy) are my ‘specialisation(s)’, perhaps even making me an ichthyo-sir (heh). To this end, Motani et al.’s recent publication in Nature was massive news for ichthyosaur palaeobiologists. And that’s why it’s got its own little blog post.

What’s all the fuss about then? This year (2014) marked the anniversary of the 200 years since the first appearance of ichthyosaurs in scientific literature, and ichthyosaurs are closely associated with palaeontological celebrities, both historical (Mary Anning) and rather more recent (Alfred Romer). In those 200 years, we’ve learnt a lot about ichthyosaurs, and whilst they’re not ‘some kind of fish-lizard’, they are diapsid reptiles that were some of the first tetrapods to evolve a thunniform (fish/tuna-like) bodyplan, which aided them in their marine adventures. We know what colour some of them were thanks to melanosomes (Lindgren et al. 2014), we also know that they gave birth to live young, like mammals and some sharks do. We have exceptional fossils of ichthyosaurs actually giving birth, and others with amazing detailed and undisturbed soft tissue outlines. However despite all these amazing discoveries, we still don’t know a whole lot about two major aspects of ichthyosaur palaeobiology: their precise biomechanical function (we can’t create fancy 3D digital models due to the lack of 3D specimens, most ichthyosaur remains are mostly pancake-flat, even the really awesome ones) and perhaps more importantly, how they place in wider diapsid phylogeny.

The miracle of ichthyosaur birth, over 200 million years-ago. Very cool.

The miracle of ichthyosaur birth, over 200 million years-ago. Very cool.

Now before I go any further, it might be a good idea to explain what I mean by diapsid. Diapsida is a group of organisms (more specifically tetrapods) that have two temporal fenestrae (holes) in each side of their heads. Now this is a pretty large group, including archosaurs (dinosaurs, birds and crocs), lizards, snakes and tuataras. So whilst we have some vague idea where ichthyosaurs lie within this pretty large evolutionary tree, we’re not entirely sure. Why? Well because we don’t have transitionary fossils, ichthyosaurs previously (before Motani et al. 2014) appeared in the fossil record as highly adapted marine reptiles, well suited to the marine environment (remember, they look like fishes). So without any hint of which precise group of terrestrial organisms they evolved from, the topic of where ichthyosaurs came from is highly debated. So much in fact that in 2006, a very prominent ichthyosaur worker, Michael Maisch declared that the placement of ichthyosaurs within Diapsida was “…impossible…” (Maisch et al. 2006) without more basal specimens.

The internal phylogeny of ichthyosaurs isn’t a much better state either, with tree topologies changing at every opportunity of the last 10 years or so, threatening to change again when new systematic methods are applied. This again is largely due to the lack of well preserved three-dimensional specimens. But it’s not all doom and gloom, amazingly preserved specimens like those used in Lindgren et al. 2014 have shown us the colour of these ancient fish-dolphins (joke name, please don’t take it seriously), and Fischer et al. 2013’s discovery of Malawania has helped, to some degree, solve the internal phylogeny of at least neoichthyosaurs and ophthalmosaurs (ichthyosaurs from the Jurassic onwards). And obviously, my work on ichthyosaur endocranial and neuroanatomy from an exceptionally three-dimensionally preserved specimen will be hopefully  well received (more on that in the coming months). So it’s not all doom and gloom. But still, ichthyosaurs aren’t exactly the Brangelina of the palaeontological scene, no sir, those celebrity couples occupying all the headlines are dinosaur discoveries such as Deinocheirus and Dreadnoughtus, and the number of ichthyosaur workers isn’t exactly huge.

To my shocked delight, on the afternoon of the 5th of November, 2014 I stumbled upon a fresh new ichthyosauriform, in a Nature paper. Good heavens! Could it be true? Well, of course, other wise I’d have spent the last hour typing madly about ichthyosaurs for no apparent reason. Catorhynchus lenticarpus (‘shortened snout’, ‘flexible wrist’) is a weird, small beast. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Catorhynchus wasn’t even a ichthyosaur at all. Well, technically, it isn’t an ichthyosaur at all, it’s an ichthyosauriform.  Catorhynchus comes from the Lower Triassic, approximately 248 million years-ago, and whilst some would call it an ‘ichthyosaur’, the Ichthyosauria (essentially all of the things your properly allowed to call ‘ichthyosaurs’) didn’t occur until later on in the Triassic. So, what the hell is Catorhynchus? Simple, it’s an ichthyosauriform, an ichthyosaur-looking creature which is more closely related to Ichthyosaurus communis than to a hupesuchian? Wait, what the hell are hupehsuchians, and what do they have to do with anything?

Hupehsuchians, think ichthyosaurs but a little more 'vacant' looking.

Hupehsuchians, think ichthyosaurs but a little more ‘vacant’ looking.

Good question. Hupehsuchians are a weird bunch of marine reptiles, who you’d be very much forgiven for calling ichthyosaurs, because well, they look quite a lot like ichthyosaurs. This simple fact has led many researchers to state that ichthyopterygians and hupehsuchians were related, however, there’s been little evidence to really cement this (just because two organisms look the same/have similar features, doesn’t mean they’re closely related. For example birds and bats both have wings, but they evolved powered flight independently and convergent to each other). As I’ve previously said, this is due to the lack of really primitive fossil ‘ichthyosaurs’ as well as our fairly poor understanding of where ichthyosaurs fit relative to other diapsids. However, Catorhynchus has given us a glimmer of hope, enabling us to, for the first time, really start to understand how ichthyosaurs first came about. Now, thanks to Catorhynchus, we think that ichthyosauromorphs (which now includes hupehsuchians) originated in China in the Earliest Triassic, which was a warm tropical archipelago ‘back in the day’. This is interesting, as we know that other groups of marine reptiles, such as sauropterygians (plesiosaurs, pliosaurs et al.) may have also originated in this area at the same time, so Earliest Triassic China may have provided very good conditions to harbour the evolution of many marine reptiles.

Phylogeny of ichthyosauromorphs, modified from Motani et al. 2014.

Phylogeny of ichthyosauromorphs, modified from Motani et al. 2014.

Don’t worry, I’ll stop teasing you now, I’ll actually talk about the fossil for a bit. With a host of unusual features such as really short snout, large flippers and a short body length (the shortest of all ichthyosauromorphs, estimated at a tiny 40 cm) and a really deep lower jaw, Catorhynchus is a weird beast. Yet, despite all these abnormalities, it looks like an ichthyosaur, I mean look at those big eyes! However, it also looks like a juvenile ichthyosaur. For me, and other ichthyosaur workers I’ve spoken to, this is the main reason why people of sceptical about drawing so many big conclusions from Catorhynchus. However, other people (untrustworthy creator of have said that it certainly can’t be an ichthyosaur, and has to be an ‘ichthyosaur-mimic’, because yeah, if it has loads of scientifically diagnostic features of an ichthyosaur the most obvious answer is that it wants you to think it’s an ichthyosaur, just to troll the scientific community, and then years later scream ‘psyche!’ to everyone, you know, because fossils love to mess with us, the jerks.

Catorhynchus fossil from Motani et al. 2014. E represents a  newborn Chaohusaurus, for comparison.

Catorhynchus fossil from Motani et al. 2014. E represents a newborn Chaohusaurus, for comparison.

ANYWAY. I think it’s worth pointing out that it realistically might turn out to be a juvenile, even though Motani et al. do present some evidence that it’s a fully grown adult, for example the forefins of Catorhynchus are almost as long as its skull, a feature found exclusively in adult individuals. However, it’s also worth mentioning that even despite this, Motani et al. don’t completely dismiss the possibility of this specimen being a juvenile. Essentially, I feel it’s best to take this discovery with a pinch of salt until we find a few more specimens of Catorhynchus. Despite this uncertainty, we can be fairly sure that Catorhynchus may have been amphibious. Yeah, that’s right, amphibious and NOT an amphibian. Other articles have said that Catorhynchus is an amphibian, this is incorrect, as Amphibia form their only little group of organisms, which ichthyosauromorphs aren’t part of! However, Catorhynchus is amphibious, i.e. it shares its time between land and water. How do we know this? Well from the fossil, Motani observed that the carpus may have allowed the flipper to bend in a way much like the flippers can bend in seals, and since seals have flippers for limited terrestrial locomotion, it seems likely that this was also the case for the flippers of Catorhynchus. Motani also presents a case for suction feeding in Catorhynchus, which brings the contentious debate of whether other ichthyosaurs fed via suction feeding back to the table.

To summarise Motani and friends have presented the world with a new ichthyosauromorph which, if verified with further specimens, will help us to really start to understand how ichthyosaurs (and perhaps marine reptiles more widely) first evolved, as well as to understand the place of ichthyosauromorphs within Diapsida. And since it was published in Nature, it might turn a few heads, perhaps persuading more people to join the very small field of ichthyosaur of palaeobiology. As always let us know what you think, comment below or Tweet us (or indeed, even Facebook us).

Not only was it amphibious, Catorhynchus was also the most miserable of all the ichthyosauromorphs.

Not only was it amphibious, Catorhynchus was also the most miserable of all the ichthyosauromorphs.

Dino Sirs on Tour: Prog Pal 2014, Part 1 (Ryan).

Since the schedule for conferences is jam-packed (and then when the day’s over, everyone is in the pub until people stagger back to hotel rooms), Richard and I could barely take the time just to keep you updated on Twitter during Progressive Palaeontology 2014. However, we’d thought we’d share our experiences (as this our first proper palaeontological conference) and hand out some tips for anyone out there whose thinking about going to a conference any time soon. Anyway, first off, I’ll (Ryan) give my accounts of ProgPal 2014.

Progressive Palaeontology (just Prog Pal to most) is an annual symposium/conference/get-together/piss-up where palaeontologists early in their career (predominately PhD and Masters students, with some keen undergraduates) come together and present their work. It’s a fairly small event, with around 100 people in attendance and lasting only a day. This makes it a perfect introductory conference, with a laid-back atmosphere that isn’t quite as scary as SVP or Pal Ass. Anyway, here comes the blow-by-blow account of my Prog Pal 2014 experience..

Tip #1: Preparation is the key to success. Aside from an opportunity to see what other palaeontologists are up to, conferences are about networking, and getting yourself ‘out there’. Some time before the conference starts, you’ll be sent a list of abstracts of all the people presenting, as well as a list of all the people in attendance. Check through this list and see if there’s any names that you’d like to work with, and plan all the people you want to shake hands with before you get there.

05:30: Christ it’s early. Christ I’m hungover. Richard and I decided we’d drink fairly heavily after the induction and icebreaker session. Big mistake, as I’ve got to give a talk today, my first ever talk at a conference. I wake up and can’t get back to sleep, so quietly practice my talk over and over.

06:42: Richard finally decides to stop snoring and wake up. Lazy so and so.


08:15: Richard and I are at the closest Wetherspoons (pub) to the National Oceanographic Centre (where Prog Pal was held this year), and our hangovers are subsiding after a hearty (and well priced) breakfast. With excitement and glee (as well as the grease from the breakfast) in our hearts, we set off to the NOC.

08:45: We arrive at the NOC and put up our posters. We’re a little late to the proceedings (like the rebels we are), so our posters are right at the far end. Great.

Tip #3: If you’re present a poster, put it up ASAP. Remember, you want the prime real estate so more people have the chance to see the work you’ve spent months slaving away on…

08:46: I impulse buy a Temnodontosaurus PalaeoPlushie. SO CUTE. (And accurate!)

09:00: Jon Tennant himself kicks of the talks of Prog Pal 2014 with a phylogeny of dwarves. No seriously, actual dwarves. (And then talks for a bit about atoposaurids).

Slightly disappointed when I realised the talk was on atoposaurids rather than actual dwarves.

Slightly disappointed when I realised the talk was on atoposaurids rather than actual dwarves.

09:51: Mid-way through one of my supervisors’ (Ben Moon) talk (on the phylogeny of ichthyosaurs) I have a “oh s**t” moment as I realise his data makes the published phylogeny I used in my analyses obsolete. Welp, back to the drawing board on that hypotheses.

10:30: Coffee break time! It’s also the start of the first poster session, so Richard and I eagerly away the throngs of people who love ichthyosaurs and stem-gnathostome evolution.

10:31-10:50: Richard and I get a grand total of 2 people each looking at our posters, whilst the throngs of people congregate at the other end of the conference hall…

Richard and I next to our posters. The person who photographed us here accounted for probably a quarter of the people who looked at our posters all day...

Richard and I next to our posters. The person who photographed us here accounted for probably a quarter of the people who looked at our posters all day…

Tip #3: I reiterate, if you can, place your poster where most people will see it!

10:40: One of my hypotheses get’s put through the ringer by Colin Palmer (a prominent worker in the field of pterosaur flight). He presents valid points, so it’s back to drawing board on yet another hypothesis.

Tip #4: Prepare for criticism (usually constructive). Conferences are about showing your work off to other scientists, and some people may know more about certain things than you. That’s okay, it might take you down a completely different path with your study, perhaps to new and exciting work!

10:50-12:30: The second session is talks on invertebrates and early vertebrates (even Richard ‘fish and early vertebrates 4 lyfe’ Dearden finds some parts a little dull). For most of it I have know idea what’s going on. I muddle through until Robert Lemanis’ talk on ammonite shell function, which was AWESOME.

12:54: Over lunch, Richard learns that he missed out on meeting Philippe Janvier (as he came to Prog Pal rather than go to the Woodward Symposium). For pretty much all of lunch he lets me know how he’ll never forgive himself.

13:25: Richard’s still going on about Philipe bloody Janvier.

13:30: Luckily, the third talk session starts, so Richard gets away unharmed.

Tip #5: Never mention Philippe Janvier in the presence of Richard.

14:15 PM: Sam Giles gives an absolutely wonderful talk on an exceptionally preserved actinopterygian skull from the Devonian. She really knows how to give a talk, and she presented some awesome CT data!

15:00-15:20: Another poster session. Robert Lemanis and I chat away about CT resolutions. (And I heartily congratulate him on making ammonites really cool).

15:20-16:53: Over the next hour and a half I was too nervous to remember anything, as my talk was coming up. Jon Tennant sends me an amusing Tweet.

Fairly sure this is Jon Tennant's favourite meme ever.

Fairly sure this is Jon Tennant’s favourite meme ever.

16:53: I give my talk, and the nerves get the better of me. I have some form of brainfart and stutter over the same point for what felt like an eternity. Somehow I get back on track and finish on time. Phew. I’m still in a foul mood for an hour or so.

Tip #6: Never let the nerves get the better of you. Yes it’s much easier said than done, but at the end of the day, you’re giving a speech about something that you probably know more about than anyone in the world, so you have a right to be there and ace it.

Yours truly about to give a talk. I didn't have butterflies, I had azhdarchid pterosaurs in my stomach...

Yours truly about to give a talk. I didn’t have butterflies, I had azhdarchid pterosaurs in my stomach…

17:40: Audrey Roberts chats to me whilst I’m posted by my poster. We chat for a while about ichthyosaurs. It was great to meet another ichthyosaur worker!

18:00: It’s over, the posters are taken down and we head on over to the Royal Thai Pier to begin the evening’s festivities.

18:04: We realise it’s absolute pissing it down and spend the next 15 minutes walking gloomily.

18:19: Fear not! We arrived at the restaurant and chowed down on some tasty (and much too hot for Richard’s liking) food. Winners of the day are announced, and it was great to see so many Bristol students (and alumni) take home prizes! Wine is consumed.

20:25: Richard’s supervisor buys him a drink, I look over to my supervisor in a desperate attempt to get a free beverage. No chance.

Richard looking pleased with himself after eating something hotter than a fish finger sandwich. Our friend, Amy, looking miserable as always.

Richard looking pleased with himself after eating something hotter than a fish finger sandwich. Our friend, Amy, looking miserable as always.

21:00: We’ve made it to the same Wetherspoons as last night, we feel like we’re home at last.

21:01-22:00: I hang out with the Bristol MSc cohort, and we all drink far too much. Although not as much as Richard’s supervisor, who’s still buying Richard drinks. No sign of Ben buying me a drink.

22:30: Richard (now fairly drunk) announces we should mingle. So we stand up, and immediately take drunk selfies for a bit.

Tip #7: Make sure either a) they can’t see you or b) that the people you planned to network with you at the conference are drunk enough to forgive you taking selfies. Or just ask them to join in.

Tip #8: On a more serious note, the pub is great way to network in an informal setting, if you don’t get the time to speak to people during the conference.

23:04: Ben Moon reveals to me with wry smile he probably should have given me his phylogeny a while back. No kidding. Still, it gives me something to look at over the summer.

23:10: Jon Tennant tells me he voted for my talk, saying my work was ‘progressive’ and ‘cool’. Somewhat tipsy, it was hard not to straight up hug the guy.

23:30: I watch a fellow MSc student hilariously try and get 4th authorship on Richard’s future paper, despite doing absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, Richard’s having none of it.

23:35: Richard brings up Janvier again and I seriously consider glassing him.

23:50: Last orders, Richard and I stay classy and order two double G&T’s.

00:00: We set off back to the hotel, fairly inebriated.

The last photo I took at Prog Pal 2014. A selfie (of course). We were sober, honest.

The last photo I took at Prog Pal 2014. A selfie (of course). We were sober, honest.

And their we have it ladies and gentlemen, Progressive Palaeontology 2014. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the field trip to the Isle of Wight the next day, as I had to give a talk back in Bristol. I had great fun, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who made Prog Pal possible this year, you guys did a wonderful job of organising the whole thing. Finally, I just like to summarise a few things about conferences:

  • Always prepare who you want to network is, as my Nan often says (and it really does apply to the academic world) “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, so it’s vital that you take every opportunity to meet and greet people that you’re interested in working with.
  • Be prepared for constructive criticism. It’s a huge part of the academic process (and it always hurts a little bit more in person).
  • If your presenting a poster, think about where abouts in the conference hall you’ll be located (if you get the choice).
  • If your giving a presentation, don’t let nerves get the best of you, and remember that you know your stuff, otherwise you wouldn’t be there!
  • Most of all, have fun, it’s so invigorating to spend time with lots of people who are passionate about the same kind of things you are.

Stay tuned for Richards account of Prog Pal (and prepare to read about Philippe Janvier…) over the next few days.