Tooth and cranial disparity in the fossil relatives of Sphenodon (Rhynchocephalia) dispute the persistent ‘living fossil’ label


Correspondence: Carlo Meloro, Hull York Medical School, The University of Hull, Loxley Building, Cottingham Road, Hull HU6 7RX, UK.

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The tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) is the only living representative of Rhynchocephalia, a group of small vertebrates that originated about 250 million years ago. The tuatara has been referred to as a living fossil; however, the group to which it belongs included a much greater diversity of forms in the Mesozoic. We explore the morphological diversity of Rhynchocephalia and stem lepidosaur relatives (Sphenodon plus 13 fossil relatives) by employing a combination of geometric morphometrics and comparative methods. Geometric morphometrics is used to explore cranium size and shape at interspecific scale, while comparative methods are employed to test association between skull shape and size and tooth number after taking phylogeny into account. Two phylogenetic topologies have been considered to generate a phylomorphospace and quantify the phylogenetic signal in skull shape data, the ancestral state reconstruction as well as morphological disparity using disparity through time plots (DTT). Rhynchocephalia exhibit a significant phylogenetic signal in skull shape that compares well with that computed for other extinct vertebrate groups. A consistent form of allometry has little impact on skull shape evolution while the number of teeth significantly correlates with skull shape also after taking phylogeny into account. The ancestral state reconstruction demonstrates a dramatic shape difference between the skull of Sphenodon and its much larger Cretaceous relative Priosphenodon. Additionally, DTT demonstrates that skull shape disparity is higher between rather than within clades while the opposite applies to skull size and number of teeth. These results were not altered by the use of competing phylogenic hypotheses. Rhynchocephalia evolved as a morphologically diverse group with a dramatic radiation in the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic about 200 million years ago. Differences in size are not marked between species whereas changes in number of teeth are associated with co-ordinated shape changes in the skull to accommodate larger masticatory muscles. These results show that the tuatara is not the product of evolutionary stasis but that it represents the only survivor of a diverse Mesozoic radiation whose subsequent decline remains to be explained.