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Skull study sheds light on dinosaur diversity

With their long necks and tails, sauropod dinosaurs---famous as the Sinclair gasoline logo and Fred Flintstone's gravel pit tractor---are easy to recognize, in part because they all seem to look alike.

The largest animals known to have walked the earth, sauropods were common in North America during the middle of the dinosaur era but were thought to have been pushed to extinction by more specialized plant-eaters at the end of that era. New discoveries, however, are showing that one lineage of sauropods diversified at the end of the dinosaur era, University of Michigan paleontologist Jeffrey Wilson says.

Wilson's recent restudy and reconstruction of the skull of a Mongolian sauropod adds to a growing body of evidence for sauropod diversity at the end of the dinosaur era. Wilson described the reconstruction and the conclusions he drew from it in a paper published Aug. 24 in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

He based the reconstruction on two nearly complete skulls that were found in the Gobi Desert in the 1950s and 1960s but whose evolutionary relationships have remained enigmatic. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Wilson restudied the skulls and found characteristics identifying them as skulls of titanosaurs, a late surviving sauropod lineage.

"Titanosaurs, which were surprisingly common at the end of the dinosaur era, were really the only sauropod lineage that flourished. All the others went extinct," said Wilson, an assistant professor of geological sciences and an assistant curator at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. But as prevalent as titanosaurs were, they left behind surprisingly few skulls. Paleontologists have found plenty of other titanosaur bones, providing a picture of a group of sauropods with specialized limb bones.

Wilson began to appreciate the finer points of titanosaurs as a graduate student, when he and another student studied fossilized sauropod tracks and titanosaur limb anatomy. From
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Source:University of Michigan


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