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Keywords:

  • dinosauria;
  • sauropoda;
  • diplodocidae;
  • ontogeny;
  • vertebrae

Abstract

Within Diplodocoidea (Dinosauria: Sauropoda), phylogenetic position of the three subclades Rebbachisauridae, Dicraeosauridae, and Diplodocidae is strongly influenced by a relatively small number of characters. Neural spine bifurcation, especially within the cervical vertebrae, is considered to be a derived character, with taxa that lack this feature regarded as relatively basal. Our analysis of dorsal and cervical vertebrae from small-sized diplodocoids (representing at least 18 individuals) reveals that neural spine bifurcation is less well developed or absent in smaller specimens. New preparation of the roughly 200-cm long diplodocid juvenile Sauriermuseum Aathal 0009 reveals simple nonbifurcated cervical neural spines, strongly reminiscent of more basal sauropods such as Omeisaurus. An identical pattern of ontogenetically linked bifurcation has also been observed in several specimens of the basal macronarian Camarasaurus, suggesting that this is characteristic of several clades of Sauropoda. We suggest that neural spine bifurcation performs a biomechanical function related to horizontal positioning of the neck that may become significant only at the onset of a larger body size, hence, its apparent absence or weaker development in smaller specimens. These results have significant implications for the taxonomy and phylogenetic position of taxa described from specimens of small body size. On the basis of shallow bifurcation of its cervical and dorsal neural spines, the small diplodocid Suuwassea is more parsimoniously interpreted as an immature specimen of an already recognized diplodocid taxon. Our findings emphasize the view that nonmature dinosaurs often exhibit morphologies more similar to their ancestral state and may therefore occupy a more basal position in phylogenetic analyses than would mature specimens of the same species. In light of this, we stress the need for phylogenetic reanalysis of sauropod clades where vital characters may be ontogenetically variable, particularly when data is derived from small individuals. J. Morphol., 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.