Plasticity and convergence in the evolution of short-necked plesiosaurs
Valentin Fischer, Roger B.J. Benson, Nikolay G. Zverkov, Laura C. Soul, Maxim S. Arkhangelsky, Olivier Lambert, Ilya M. Stenshin, Gleb N. Uspensky, and Patrick S. Druckenmiller
Plesiosaurs were the longest-surviving group of secondarily marine tetrapods, comparable in diversity to today’s cetaceans. During their long evolutionary history, which spanned the Jurassic and the Cretaceous (201 to 66 Ma), plesiosaurs repeatedly evolved long- and short-necked body plans. Despite this postcranial plasticity, short-necked plesiosaur clades have traditionally been regarded as being highly constrained to persistent and clearly distinct ecological niches: advanced members of Pliosauridae (ranging from the Middle Jurassic to the early Late Cretaceous) have been characterized as apex predators, whereas members of the distantly related Polycotylidae (middle to Late Cretaceous) were thought to have been fast-swimming . We report a new, highly unusual pliosaurid from the Early Cretaceous of Russia that shows close convergence with the cranial structure of polycotylids: Luskhan itilensis gen. et sp. nov. Using novel cladistic and ecomorphological data, we show that pliosaurids iteratively evolved polycotylid-like cranial morphologies from the Early Jurassic until the Early Cretaceous. This underscores the ecological diversity of derived pliosaurids and reveals a more complex evolutionary history than their iconic representation as gigantic apex predators of Mesozoic marine ecosystems suggests. Collectively, these data demonstrate an even higher degree of morphological plasticity and convergence in the evolution of plesiosaurs than previously thought and suggest the existence of an optimal ecomorphology for short-necked piscivorous plesiosaurs through time and across phylogeny.
Featured image © Andrey Atuchin.