Today we’re delighted to have a guest post from Dr. Chris Noto, a new assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and an old friend of mine from our graduate school days together at Stony Brook University. Chris has had a long-running interest in dinosaur paleoecology, and thus it only seemed natural for him to apply these interests to the ODP data. Enjoy!
In describing the ecology of an organism our first inclination may be to simply go observe it in its day-to-day existence. Therefore, at its core, ecology is primarily a science of the living and this is reflected in the methods and theories one finds in the literature. Over the past couple decades there has been a growing interest in the relationship between organismal morphology and ecology, which is now often referred to as “ecomorphology”(Losos 1990; Ben-Moshe et al. 2001; Aguirre et al. 2002; Zeffer et al. 2003; Sacco and Van Valkenburgh 2004). This has opened entire new areas of research into the covariation between organisms and their environment, which is also the basic foundation for understanding evolutionary change over longer spans of time.
Some paleontologists have applied ecomorphological principles to reconstructing the paleoecology of certain extinct groups, including carnivorans (Palmqvist et al. 1999), birds (Hertel 1995), and especially ungulates (Solounias and Semprebon 2002; Meehan and Martin 2003; DeGusta and Vrba 2005; Klein et al. 2010). Changes in the types and/or proportions of ecomorphs in a fossil community have also been used as evidence of environmental and evolutionary responses to climate change(Van Valkenburgh 1995; Meehan and Martin 2003; Badgley et al. 2008; Noto and Grossman 2010). You will note though that a lot of this research relies on comparison to living analogs related to the fossil groups in question. How do we explore the paleoecology of groups that completely lack extant analogs?
If there’s one thing we’ve learned through all this research, it’s the fact that:
- Certain morphological adaptations occur regardless of species (convergence) because of specific habitat constraints, and
- Morphological differences between species will occur due to diverging ecologies, even if we don’t know exactly what ecological functions those morphological differences actually represent.
But, we won’t know those differences exist until we look for them. Paleoecology is first and foremost comparative: we take our fossils and compare them to other related taxa and living forms to better understand their place in the original community. Often we assign categories to taxa, such as “carnivore”, “biped”, etc.; however, differences between species are often better described by a continuum than a set of categories(Carrano 1999). The morphology of an organism reflects the amount of time it spends doing certain activities or performing certain functions. For example, a sloth can swim on occasion even if it is not particularly well adapted for it. Dinosaur paleoecology is finally moving in the direction of our mammalian colleagues by using quantitative measures of morphology (which allow for continua) instead of assigning discreet categories.
The ODP is one of the first large-scale projects to bring together the kind of dataset necessary to study dinosaur ecomorphology. In a recent paper I published looking at differences between dinosaur fossil communities (Noto and Grossman 2010), I was forced to use categories in assigning ecomorphs, which artificially restricted the analysis by forcing me to choose a category when uncertainty existed. In this case it was whether certain non-hadrosaur ornithopods were bipedal or quadrupedal. With ODP data, it is now possible to take a more quantitative (and nuanced) approach to this question.
To explore possible trends in ornithischians, I used humerus length and mediolateral width measurements to calculate Mike Taylor’s Gracility Index (GI; Taylor 2009) using only the largest individual from each species. These data were log transformed and plotted against the log of humerus length (to help minimize the effects of size and codependency). The resulting plot clearly separates the taxa, with more bipedal taxa having relatively gracile humeri and quadrupedal groups have more robust humeri. There are two ways to use this graph. First, we can look at the distribution of taxa from each group and see whether they fit more towards a bipedal or quadrupedal type; those intermediate to the extremes are referred to as facultative. These are my own divisions based on where I see breaks in the data. Basal ceratopsians, for example, occur mainly towards the bipedal or facultative ends of the spectrum, while derived Neoceratopsians are firmly on the quadrupedal end of things. Another way to look at the plot is how robust we may expect the humerus to be for a taxon of a given size. The dashed line is drawn across the middle of the plot. For a given humerus length we can compare GI between taxa. For example, Iguanodon has a more robust humerus (lower GI) than most ornithopods in the dataset. Furthermore, we can spot outliers, which may point to either extreme specialization or faulty data. The theropod Mononykus has an extremely robust humerus, approaching the level of Triceratops, which is related to its specialized digging forelimb. On the other hand, Cerasinops appears to have the most robust humerus of all, however as Mike pointed out to me, the original paper describes the humerus as extremely gracile and gives no width measurement. So where did the width measurement come from? This particular data point is worth another look.
As you can see, the distribution of humeral morphologies indicates a gradual continuum of locomotor strategies from fully bipedal to full quadrupedal. Quantitative data such as this could then be fed into a paleoecological analysis instead of categories, allowing for more refined analysis of ecological differences and similarities among paleocommunities over space and time. While evolutionary trends are certainly important, we must not forget the ecological context of the morphological patterns we are studying.
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