Post-hatchling cranial ontogeny in the Early Triassic diapsid reptile Proterosuchus fergusi

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Abstract

The phylogenetic position of Proterosuchus fergusi (Lower Triassic of South Africa) as one of the most basal archosauriforms means that it is critically important for understanding the successful evolutionary radiation of archosaurs during the Mesozoic. The excellent sample of the species provides a unique opportunity to understand early archosauriform ontogeny. Qualitative and quantitative analyses of cranial ontogenetic variation were conducted on an ontogenetic sequence, in which the smallest individual is 37% of the size of the largest one and osteohistological evidence suggests that four of 11 collected specimens had not reached sexual maturity. Through ontogeny the skull of Proterosuchus became proportionally taller, the infratemporal fenestra larger, and the teeth more isodont and numerous but with smaller crowns. The sequence of somatic maturity supports relatively high growth rates during early ontogeny. The skull of juvenile specimens of Proterosuchus closely resembles adults of the basal archosauromorph Prolacerta, whereas adult specimens resemble adults of more derived archosauriforms. As a result, a plausible hypothesis is that ontogenetic modification events (e.g. heterochrony) may have been key drivers of the evolution of the general shape of the skull at the base of Archosauriformes. These changes may have contributed to the occupation of a new morphospace by the clade around the Permo-Triassic boundary.

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