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The ‘Not-so-Simple’ Crocodylomorphs

December 30 , 2016:

by Adventures of a Sheepish Palaeontologist

We humans like to keep things simple.

Microwaveable dinner? Simple. Facebook? Simple. Online shopping? Simple. Google Maps? Simple (most of the time).

However, every so often, simple gets, well, dull. That is one of the many reasons why I love my particular work so much.

Palaeontology is not what we would define as ‘simple’ .

It’s a special kind of challenge attempting to figure out how an organism or a group of organisms looked, lived, and worked. Linking together aspects of biology, anatomy, geology, and ecology, with a little bit of forensic work thrown in. A difficult, but ultimately fulfilling, challenge.

In particular, the group Teleosauridae are anything BUT simple.

These unique crocodylomorphs (the term referring to ‘crocodiles and their ancestors’) have been known since the mid 1700s. They were dug up, described, and displayed by many of the well-known early palaeontologists, both European and UK-based (e.g. Charles Andrews, Eugène Eudes-Deslongchamps, and Alfred Leeds, to name a few). Why, then, are they not ‘simple’?

For starters, their taxonomy is a bit of a mess. Numerous genera and species names have been erected, and dismissed, and erected again, and dismissed again, then changed, then labelled as a junior synonym, and changed and possibly erected again…you get the picture. It is difficult to pinpoint which specimen relates to which genus or species; it’s basically a job of starting from phase one of looking at the holotype (first specimen) and figuring it out from there. As a result, their evolutionary relationships is in shambles. Secondly, during the 18th and 19th Centuries, the skull was thought to hold all the interesting information, while everything else was dismissed as ‘similar’. To be fair, some skull descriptions were well done; others not so much. Third, they have not been STUDIED until about 10-15 years ago. They’ve been neatly packed up and waiting quietly in collections drawers or out-of-the-way museum exhibits for someone to examine them again, and only recently have a handful or researchers begun to.

I was fortunate to add myself to that list, as I got an opportunity to examine a specimen in London, UK, during my Masters degree. I was absolutely enamored with this group, and am continuing to work on them for my PhD.

I’ll admit, they can be a bit difficult at times. Much of their literature is out of date or simply not available. Same with figure or photographs. Multiple senior and junior synonyms, as well as discarded genera, make taxonomy tough. Little to no work on postcranial material means starting from scratch. But that’s what makes them so fun.

In short, teleosaurids are not simple. And I love them for it.



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