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A salute to the Erythrosuchidae

September 22, 2016:

by Mark Witton

I find erythrosuchids, large, big-headed Triassic archosauriforms, very charismatic fossil animals. If nothing else, it's hard not to admire their no-nonsense approach to carnivory. Take a fairly standard reptilian bauplan, weld an oversize theropod dinosaur face to the front, then point it at the things you want to die: simple. They're the Mesozoic equivalent of mounting a howitzer on a golf cart and calling it a tank. We might question the rudimentary nature of the design, but we can't argue with the results.

Alas, erythrosuchids don't get as much love from palaeoartists or outreach projects as they deserve. Their marriage of a proportionally huge, sharp-toothed skull with a crocodile- or lizard-like body is unlike anything around today and it's difficult not to wonder how they functioned as living animals. Closer inspection of their anatomy reveals more sophistication than we might assume from the few illustrations of these animals available online or in books, and it seems that their role in Mesozoic ecosystems and reptile evolution was an important one. These were a successful, abundant group of predators with an evolutionary run spanning the Early and Middle Triassic (12 million years in total) and a near cosmopolitan distribution. Moreover, they remain important species for understanding the early evolution of archosaur-line reptiles. They really do have a lot going for them, but they just haven't quite caught public imagination.

A few years ago I was commissioned to reconstruct the small(ish), early erythrosuchid Garjania madiba for David Gower and his colleagues for their 2014 descriptive paper (below). The brief was for a straight illustration of the animal rather than a restored scene, and I promised the team I would put this reconstruction in a landscape one day. Two years later, I've finally got around to it: the results are above. Posting this painting seems like as good an excuse as any to lavish some much needed attention on these most encephalised of reptiles, so let's get stuck in.

What, exactly, is a erythrosuchid?
You can find erythrosuchids in Triassic rocks on every continent except North America and Antarctica and, although relatively complete specimens are not common, many species are represented by large inventories of bones. Despite this relative glut of material, the classification of erythrosuchids - from the fine anatomical characteristics of the group, to their position in the reptilian tree and the number of species contained in the clade - has been the subject of long-standing, ongoing discussions among palaeontologists. Older erythrosuchid literature is confused by a multitude of different classifications which entwine erythrosuchids with other large-headed, carnivorous archosauriforms such as raisuchians and proterosuchids. Researchers have long realised the problems with these schemes, but unpicking the relationships of these groups and other early archosaur-line reptiles has been tricky. With the arrival of extremely detailed and well sampled cladistic analyses of archosauromorphs (e.g. Nesbitt 2011; Ezcurra 2016) we might be moving towards greater consensus on the systematics of these animals, however. In modern schemes, erythrosuchids are recovered as non-archosaur archosauriforms close(ish) to the base of Archosauria. More specifically, they are the sister clade to the the Eucrocopoda, the large clade that contains the likes of Euparkeria and proterochampsids, as well as the true archosaurs (Ezcurra 2016).

Several erythrosuchid species are well known: Erythrosuchus africanus from the Middle Triassic of South Africa, Garjainia prima from the Early Triassic of Russia, and Shansisuchus shansisuchus (that's not a typo) from the Middle Triassic of China. These species are represented by associated remains as well as large numbers of fragmentary referred specimens, and allow for a relatively complete insight into their overall form. The largest taxa, like Erythrosuchus, are big animals with head-tail lengths approaching 5 m - the length of a good-sized car - and even small taxa like Garjainia are over 2 m long. The most arresting aspect of eyrthrosuchid anatomy is, of course, their skulls (above). Superficially theropod-like, these long, deep and robust structures are sub-rectangular in lateral view, but taper markedly towards the snout in dorsal or ventral aspect. These animals are yet another reminder that restoring fossil animals needs more than a lateral view of a skeleton: those massive skulls are considerably narrower than we might expect. Their teeth are thecodont, large, serrated and recurved. A characteristic of the group is the complicated shape of the upper jaw, where the jaw tip is vertically displaced from a ventrally bowing maxillary region (Parrish 1992), creating something of a 'notch' towards the front of the jaw. Beneath this, the mandible has a slightly dorsoventrally expanded tip, as well as a swollen posterior region. At least the skull of Erythrosuchus is essentially akinetic, although minor movements of some bones may have been possible (Gower 2003). Although erythrosuchid skulls are fairly conservative in morphology, some species were not above frivolous accessorising: prominent bosses above and below the eye are known from Garjainia madiba (Gower et al. 2014 - see reconstructions, above), and Pickford (1995) reports a long, low boss on the snout of an undescribed Karoo Basin specimen.

Although erythrosuchid skulls were almost certainly pneumatised in some areas, the largest opening in the skull is not, as we might expect in such large headed animals, anything to do with a pneumatic cavity. Rather, it's the lower temporal fenestra, an opening typically associated with allowing bulges of the jaw adductor muscles. This, as well as the presence of a small sagittal crest between the superior temporal openings (which overly the same muscle block) and the depth of the posterior mandible likely betrays the presence of massive adductor muscles in temporal region of the skull. Eryhtrosuchid skull bones certainly look sufficiently robust to withstand powerful biting, the bones forming the temporal fenestra, jaw and orbital margins being extremely massive and thick and tightly interlocking with complex sutures between each bone. Interestingly, Shansisuchus has the same partly invaded orbit shape that Henderson (2003) linked with reinforcement against heavy bite forces in theropod dinosaurs: perhaps similar buttressing was taking place in these Triassic reptiles

The posterior surface of the skull is interesting. Rather than the relatively flat surface we see in most animals, the posterior erythrosuchid skull is recessed so that several aspects of the skull - the jaws and lateral extents of the occipital surface - extend further back than the vertebral/skull joint. The area which anchored the neck musculature extended across this recessed surface, even exceeding the dorsal margins somewhat by means of a pair of semiscircular flanges projecting above the rest of the skull (visible in at least Erythrosuchus and Garjainia - see above). Assuming a typically reptilian muscle plan, these indicate that muscles anchoring above the skull-neck articulation were larger than usual, as might be expected for animals with ginormous heads. Similar dorsal expansion of the occipital region is seen in tyrannosaurids, and is also thought to reflect large cervical musculature (Paul 1988). It thus seems the vertebrae and posterior skull of erythrosuchids were deeply buried in neck tissues, befitting animals with a giant head to support and utilise in predatory acts. But I wonder if all this support and strength compromised the mobility of the skull-neck joint somewhat. Moving the neck articulation forward to sit within the boundaries of the skull likely shortened the length of the skull flexor muscles, as well as buried the joint in masses of potentially restrictive muscle and bone. Motion of the head may have been limited at the front of the neck, then, but unfortunately for erythrosuchid prey, the size of the shoulder skeleton and stoutly built humeri suggest this was accounted for with powerful muscles at the base of the neck, as well as forelimbs able to shove the forequarters around at speed. Dashing left or right against a charging erythrosuchid was unlikely to save you from a nasty, gigantic and powerful bite.

Behind the skull we see a fairly typical Triassic archosauriform body (below). The neck is short, and especially so in some of the larger species, and the majority of the vertebrae are adorned with tall neural spines: these almost certainly provided anchorage for axial musculature related to supporting the head and back. The pectoral elements, which are also employed somewhat in neck musculature, are also robust. Their tails are moderately long, with deep chevrons in the anterior region likely related to hindlimb musculature. Behind these, the tail becomes rather slender. Gower (2001) proposed that Erythrosuchus vertebrae possessed pits and depressions possibly related to the development of post-cranial pneumaticity, the first found outside of pterosaurs and dinosaurs. This would be a significant find, telling us something of erythrosuchid lung structure as well as the early evolution of postcranial pneumaticity in archosaur-line reptiles. However, both O'Connor (2006) and Butler et al. (2012) argued against this interpretation, noting that the features in question were not associated with internal cavities, thus failing to meet criteria for structures of pneumatic origin. An important caveat to this, however, was raised by Butler et al. (2012): the phenomenon of pneumatic tissues invading vertebrae and other postcranial bones almost certainly did not evolve in one swoop. Its earliest stages may have simply been pneumatic tissues 'pushing' against external bone walls, forming pits and cavities, rather than invading them entirely. If so, the sort of thing Gower (2001) found in Erythrosuchus might be what we'd expect of early stage, postcranial pneumaticity. So while we have to concede that these structures do not meet our current definition of a postcranial pneumatic structure, perhaps we also need to learn more about the early evolution of postcranial pneumaticity before this hypothesis can be ruled out entirely.

The limbs of erythrosuchids are not, to my knowledge, completely known from any species but their major limb bones are powerfully built and surprisingly lengthy: you could never call them 'long-limbed', but they are not the stumpy-legged animals we often see them reconstructed as. Their hands and feet are poorly known. Rare examples of erythrosuchid ankles are thought to indicate an mesotarsal condition (Gower 1996), and their pelves show signs of advanced features that we see developed further in true archosaurs. These features led to our G. madiba reconstruction having semi-erect hindlimbs, while the forelimbs remained sprawling. The typical pose of erythrosuchids remains to be determined from further study of their limb bones.

A point of contention among researchers is whether or not erythrosuchids had osteoderms. Two examples of such structures have been found in association with a specimen of Erythrosuchus, but they show no consistency in their morphology (Gower 2003). Moreover, the extensive inventory of Erythrosuchus and other erythrosuchids have yet to show additional evidence of dermal bones (Ezcurra et al. 2013). The safe bet, for the time being at least, is to assume these reptiles did not have osteoderms, and that those previously referred to the group were a fluke association from another animal.

The life and times of Triassic big-heads
We have much to learn about many aspects of erythrosuchid palaeobiology: details of their dietary preferences, locomotor mechanics and likely habitats remain only provisionally researched. Much of what we've learned about their lifestyles comes from 'bigger picture' assessments of Triassic diversity and faunal turnover, so we can only paint a broad-brush picture of their ecology at this time. That's not to say we have no specific palaeobiological insights into these animals, however. For instance, there is consistent histological evidence that erythrosuchids grew quickly, perhaps at rates comparable to pterosaurs and dinosaurs, until they reached reproductive maturity (de Ricqlès et al. 2008; Botha-Brink and Smith 2011; Ezcurra et al. 2013). Given that this trait is not limited to erythrosuchids among Early and Middle Triassic reptiles, this is one reason it's thought that archosaur-line reptiles may not be ancestrally ectothermic. Whatever the cause, rapid growth may have played some role in the success of erythrosuchids and other reptiles as ecosystems were rebuilt in the early Mesozoic (Sookias et al. 2012).

Erythrosuchid ecology remains only lightly investigated, but they have been considered arch terrestrial predators by some (Sennikov 1996 - see below). Interestingly, their size puts them among the largest terrestrial animals known from their respective faunas (Sookias et al. 2012). This is unusual: in post-Middle Triassic ecosystems we generally find herbivores are the largest animals in terrestrial ecosystems, so what's going on here? It's thought that physiological distinctions between large Early-Middle Triassic reptiles and the synapsid herbivores they coexisted with may explain the size difference (briefly summarised, archosauriform growth rates and respiratory anatomy may have permitted larger overall body size than therapsids - see Sookias et al. 2012), but how did this translate into ecological balance? Energy is lost as it is transferred between species in food webs, so how did populations of relatively 'giant' top-tier erythrosuchids sustain themselves on consistently smaller prey? Perhaps they were simply comparatively rare, or very energy-efficient, or maybe they supplemented their diet with non-terrestrial food items - did they also take food from aquatic realms, perhaps?

Speaking of aquatic habitats, the concept of erythrosuchids as strictly terrestrial predators is not the only interpretation of their habits. Indeed, for much of the 20th century erythrosuchid proportions were considered evidence of aquatic or semi-aquatic habits: their huge heads and robust limbs were thought to permit only cumbersome, laboured movement on land (see Ezcurra et al. 2013 for a brief review). The words offered by Reig (1970) paint an excellent summary of these older interpretations: "We doubt that bulky and clumsy animals like Erythrosuchus and Shansisuchus should be considered very active animals... It is more likely that they were inhabitants of swamp marshes, able to prey upon big, slow herbivorous vertebrates, inhabiting the same environments, which could be caught by a relatively slow and heavily built predator" (p. 261). Potentially further evidence of semi-aquatic lifestyles are the relatively thick limb bone walls common to all erythrosuchids, these being comparable in thickness to those of modern alligators (Botha-Brink and Smith 2011; Gower et al. 2014).

In recent years, however, erythrosuchids seem to have been perceived as more terrestrial animals (Sennikov 1996; Botha-Brink and Smith 2011; Ezcurra et al. 2013). Their thick bone walls are explained as being a consequence of their large size rather than aquatic habits (Botha-Brink and Smith 2011) and the deficit of obvious aquatic adaptations in their skeletons has been noted by several authors (Botha-Brink and Smith 2011; Ezcurra et al. 2013; Gower et al. 2014).

All this said, I must admit to desiring more work in this area. The habits of strange Triassic animals are difficult to fathom in many instances, and we're yet to see particularly comprehensive assessments of the most basic elements of erythrosuchid functional anatomy, let alone application of modern techniques like isotope analysis, stress modelling of jaws and so on to this problem. My gut feeling - and thus in no means a basis for a hypothesis - is open to both interpretations of erythrosuchid habits, and I wouldn't be surprised if terrestrial and aquatic prey were on their radars. I'm suspicious about the weight of the head being a problem for terrestrial locomotion. A decade of looking at terrestrially-competent, large-headed pterodactyloid pterosaurs and recent monkeying about with mass fractions of giant-necked Tanystropheus suggest our intuitive grasp of front-heaviness might be poorly calibrated. Animal heads and necks are often much lighter than we think in contrast to torso and limb masses, and we should remind ourselves that erythrosuchid skulls are actually quite narrow, presumably well-pneumatised structures. This is the sort of thing that can be relatively easily investigated using digital models, and we might hope this approach is applied to erythrosuchids in future. But if that supports a terrestrial habit, the notched upper jaw and swollen mandibular tip of erythrosuchids argues contrarily: similar jaw tips are seen in fish-eating animals like modern crocodylians and pike conger eels, as well extinct presumed fishers such as spinosaurids and some pterosaurs. Might this not imply that small swimming animals were sometimes eaten by erythrosuchids, too? Lest we forget, animals do not necessarily need to be dedicated swimmers to be able to eat aquatic prey. There's a lot of scope for further work and investigation here, and it would be great to see some dedicated functional assessments and ecological investigations of erythrosuchids in future.

I love it when a bauplan comes together
Perhaps one of the most interesting things mentioned recently about erythrosuchids is how little their postcrania differs from those of other archosauriforms, despite their substantial cranial modifications (Ezcurra 2016). This is something we see again and again in Triassic reptiles: relatively conservative bodies with highly localised outlandish anatomy, and is true even for the weirdest Triassic creatures. For example, Tanystropheus isn't that strange aside from its incredible neck, and (what we know of) the body of Sharovipteryx is not that atypical in spite of its leg-wings. I wonder if Triassic animals get the short shrift in popular circles because they're viewed as boring 'also rans' taxa which evolved strange, untenable anatomies but without moving too far from a typically 'reptilian' visage.

But perhaps what we're seeing with these animals is far more interesting than it first appears: a display of the intrinsic adaptability of the archosauromorph bauplan, and how applicable it was to many lifestyles with only localised modification. We can be particularly impressed with erythrosuchids because of their rapid evolution so early in the Triassic: they very quickly and successfully jumped into the niche of large, hypercarnivorous apex-predator after the end-Permian extinction event, and then held that niche worldwide for 12 million years. The fact they did so without much additional modification to the postcrania is evidence that their success was not a fluke, and that the basal archosaur-line body plan was a strong one. Perhaps instead of looking at erythrosuchids and other Triassic archosauromorphs as those strange, but ultimately dull animals that struck it lucky before the more successful ones took over, we might view them as some of the earliest evidence that the archosaur-line bauplan had real potential, and a sign of what was to come.

Big blog posts about big headed reptiles need big support - thank goodness for Patreon
The paintings and words featured here are sponsored by a group of tetrapods with more modestly proportioned skulls, my Patreon backers. Supporting my blog from $1 a month helps me produce researched and detailed articles with paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. For this post, we'll be looking at the history of the painting up top, documenting its long 2-year journey from illustration to, er, a more detailed illustration. I'll also share the bizarre, sausage piglet monster version of Garjainia that you were never meant to see. Sign up to Patreon to get access to this and the rest of my exclusive content!

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Butler, R. J., Barrett, P. M., & Gower, D. J. (2012). Reassessment of the evidence for postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in Triassic archosaurs, and the early evolution of the avian respiratory system. PloS one, 7(3), e34094.
de Ricqlès, A., Padian, K., Knoll, F., & Horner, J. R. (2008). On the origin of high growth rates in archosaurs and their ancient relatives: Complementary histological studies on Triassic archosauriforms and the problem of a “phylogenetic signal” in bone histology. In Annales de paleontologie (Vol. 2, No. 94, pp. 57-76).
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