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In utero foetal remains of the Cretaceous ichthyosaurian Platypterygius: ontogenetic implications for character state efficacy



Ichthyosaurians provide some of the most famous examples of ‘live birth’ in the amniote fossil record based on spectacular complete skeletons of gravid females. Such remains facilitate direct comparisons between adult and foetal life stages, and thus have significant impact on phylogenetic hypotheses that require discrete character states to be ontogenetically uncoupled. This is especially true for Cretaceous ichthyosaurian taxa, the majority of which have been established using single specimens of assumed osteological maturity. Our assessment of in utero ichthyosaurian remains from the late Albian of Australia was therefore aimed at testing ontogenetic stability amongst key traits defining the most ubiquitous Cretaceous taxon: Platypterygius. Surprisingly, almost all of the salient features were identifiable in our sample of undoubtedly immature individuals. Indeed, only the proportions of the sclerotic ring, relative ossification and fusion of various basicranial elements, development of the axial skeleton, prominence of the deltopectoral crest and dorsal trochanter, and formation (but seemingly not number) of distal articular facets on the humerus were found to vary from larger-bodied members of the same species (P. australis). Ontogenetic continuity amongst the majority of other phylogenetically pertinent skeletal structures advocates their application for cladistic analyses, and suggests that many classic characters used to differentiate Platypterygius remain diagnostic irrespective of growth stage.


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