Skull shape and feeding strategy in Sphenodon and other Rhynchocephalia (Diapsida: Lepidosauria)


  • Marc E.H. Jones

    Corresponding author
    1. Research Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, Anatomy Building, UCL, University College London, London WCIE 6BT, UK
    • Research Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, Main Anatomy Building, UCL, University College London, Gower Street, London WCIE 6BT, UK
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  • This paper is dedicated to the memory of Brian N. Ruth whose help gave me a tremendous head start in morphometrics.


The Rhynchocephalia are a group of small diapsid reptiles that were globally distributed during the early Mesozoic. By contrast, the only extant representatives, Sphenodon punctatus and S. guntheri (Tuatara), are restricted to New Zealand off-shore islands. The Rhynchocephalia are widely considered to be morphologically uniform but research over the past 30 years has revealed unexpected phenotypic and taxonomic diversity. Phylogenetically “basal taxa” generally possess relatively simple conical or columnar teeth whereas more derived taxa possessed stouter flanged teeth and sophisticated shearing mechanisms: orthal in some (e.g., Clevosaurus hudsoni) and propalinal in others (e.g., S. punctatus). This variation in feeding apparatus suggests a wide range of feeding niches were exploited by rhynchocephalians. The relationship of skull shape to skull length, phylogenetic grouping, habit, and characters relating to the feeding apparatus are explored here with geometric morphometric analysis on two-dimensional landmarks. Principle components analysis demonstrates that there are significant differences between phylogenetic groups. In particular, Sphenodon differs significantly from all well known fossil taxa including the most phylogenetically basal forms. Therefore, it is not justifiable to use Sphenodon as a solitary outgroup when studying skull shape and feeding strategy in squamates; rhynchocephalian fossil taxa also need to be considered. There are also significant differences between the skull shapes of aquatic taxa and those of terrestrial taxa. Of the observed variation in skull shape, most variation is subsumed by variation in dentary tooth base shape, the type of jaw movement employed (e.g., orthal vs. propalinal) and the number of palatal tooth rows. By comparison, the presence or absence of flanges, dentary tooth number and palatal tooth row orientation subsume much less. Skull length was also found to be a poor descriptor of overall skull shape. Compared to basal rhynchocephalians members of more derived terrestrial radiations possess an enlarged postorbital area, a high parietal, and a jaw joint positioned ventral to the tooth row. Modification of these features is closely associated with increased biting performance and thus access to novel food items. Some of these same trends are apparent during Sphenodon ontogeny where skull growth is allometric and there is evidence for ontogenetic variation in diet. J. Morphol., 2008. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.