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Keywords:

  • cladistic analysis;
  • Mesozoic;
  • phylogeny;
  • titanosaur

Titanosauriformes was a globally distributed, long-lived clade of dinosaurs that contains both the largest and smallest known sauropods. These common and diverse megaherbivores evolved a suite of cranial and locomotory specializations perhaps related to their near-ubiquity in Mesozoic ecosystems. In an effort to understand the phylogenetic relationships of their early (Late Jurassic–Early Cretaceous) members, this paper presents a lower-level cladistic analysis of basal titanosauriforms in which 25 ingroup and three outgroup taxa were scored for 119 characters. Analysis of these characters resulted in the recovery of three main clades: Brachiosauridae, a cosmopolitan mix of Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous sauropods, Euhelopodidae, a clade of mid-Cretaceous East Asian sauropods, and Titanosauria, a large Cretaceous clade made up of mostly Gondwanan genera. Several putative brachiosaurids were instead found to represent non-titanosauriforms or more derived taxa, and no support for a Laurasia-wide clade of titanosauriforms was found. This analysis establishes robust synapomorphies for many titanosauriform subclades. A re-evaluation of the phylogenetic affinities of fragmentary taxa based on these synapomorphies found no body fossil evidence for titanosaurs before the middle Cretaceous (Aptian), in contrast to previous reports of Middle and Late Jurassic forms. Purported titanosaur track-ways from the Middle Jurassic either indicate a substantial ghost lineage for the group or – more likely – represent non-titanosaurs. Titanosauriform palaeobiogeographical history is the result of several factors including differential extinction and dispersal. This study provides a foundation for future study of basal titanosauriform phylogeny and the origins of Titanosauria.

© 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 166, 624–671.