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Ichthyosaur phylogeny: Ji et al. 2016

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Ji et al. 2016
present us with an updated cladogram of ichthyosaur interrelationships. The only problem is they punted on the providing an outgroup. Instead they used several basal diapsids and marine younginiforms with no proto-icchthyosaur traits.

From the Ji et al. 2016 text: 
“We adopted five outgroup taxa from Motani (1999) for character polarization, whereas the position of the Ichthyoptergia within the Amniota is beyond the scope of the current study.”

That’s not the way to start a valid phylogenetic analysis
You really should know what your taxon is before attempting to figure out interrelationships. The authors chose as outgroup taxa:

  1. Petrolacosaurus
  2. Hovasaurus
  3. Claudiosaurus
  4. Thadeosaurus
  5. Hupehsuchus

Unfortunately none of these taxa
are suitable/decent/proximal outgroup taxa for the Ichthyopterygia, according to the large reptile tree. When you don’t have a decent proximal outgroup, how can you know which is the basalmost taxon? And how can you determine a gradual evolution of character traits?

The large reptile tree recovers
the following outgroup taxa in order of increasing distance:

  1. Xinminosaurus
  2. Thaisaurus
  3. Wumengosaurus
  4. the clade Thalattosauria + Mesosauria (Serpianosaurus and Psilotrachelosaurus basal taxa)
  5. the clade Sauropterygia (Diandongosaurus and Pachypleurosaurus basal taxa)
  6. Anarosaurus

Where are hupehsuchids in this phylogeny?
As you can tell by looking at hupehsuchids (Fig. 1), they are quite derived, so derived that the authors don’t realize they actually nest within the Ichthyopterygia. In the large reptile tree they are derived from sisters to the following taxa in order of increasing distance:

  1. Shastasaurus pacificus
  2. Shastasaurus alexandrae
  3. Utatsusaurus
  4. Xinminosaurus, etc. see above list

Figure 1. Two Shastasaurus specimens, one of them the holotype, compared to the related and much smaller Hupehsuchus and Eohupehsuchus.

When you apply tested outgroup taxa
then Xinminosaurus no longer nests with Cymbospondlylus. ChaohusaurusCymbospondylus, Mixosaurus and Phalarodon no longer nest as a basal ichthyopterygians.

As with pterosaur workers
it would be nice if ichthyosaur workers would take the time to figure out what ichthyosaurs are. They have been nested with Wumengosaurus, thalattosaurs and mesosaurs since the origin of in 2011.

On a happier note
Earlier we looked at two odd bedfellow den mates (Fig. 2): an early Triassic amphibian and a cynodont, evidently getting cozy on a sleepover.

Figure 2. The rarest of rare fossils finds: Two more-than-friends having a sleepover. Credit to Fernandez et al. 2013.

A reader suggested
I take a look at this modern equivalent on YouTube (Fig. 3). I encourage you to do the same. I think you’ll enjoy it. Wish I knew about this one on Valentine’s Day.

Figure 3. Click to play on YouTube. Puppet the cat and Puff the bearded dragon are evidently soul mates.

Ji C, Jiang D-Y, Motani R, Rieppel O, Hao W-C and Sun Z-Y 2016. Phylogeny of the Ichthyopterygia incorporating recent discoveries from South China. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 36(1):e1025956. doi:


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