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Anatomy, systematics, paleoenvironment, growth, and age of the sauropod dinosaur Sonorasaurus thompsoni from the Cretaceous of Arizona, USA

  • Michael D. D’Emic (a1), Brady Z. Foreman (a2) and Nathan A. Jud (a3)

Sauropod dinosaurs are rare in the Cretaceous North American fossil record in general and are absent from that record for most of the Late Cretaceous. Sonorasaurus thompsoni from the Turney Ranch Formation of the Bisbee Group of Arizona, USA, potentially represents one of the youngest sauropods before their ca. 30-million-year-long hiatus from the record. The anatomy of Sonorasaurus has only been briefly described, its taxonomic validity has been questioned, several hypotheses have been proposed regarding its phylogenetic relationships, and its life history, geologic age, and reported paleoenvironment are ambiguous.

Herein we assess the systematics, paleoenvironment, life history, and geologic age of Sonorasaurus based on firsthand observation, bone histology, and fieldwork in the holotypic quarry and environs. The validity of S. thompsoni is substantiated by autapomorphies. Cladistic analysis firmly places it within the Brachiosauridae, in contrast to results of some recent analyses. Bone histology suggests that the only known exemplar of Sonorasaurus grew slowly and sporadically compared to other sauropods and was approaching its adult size. In contrast with previous assessments of a coastal/estuarine paleoenvironment for the Turney Ranch Formation, our sedimentological and plant macrofossil data indicate that Sonorasaurus lived in a semiarid, low relief evergreen woodland that received highly variable (perhaps seasonal) precipitation. We obtained detrital zircons from the holotypic quarry for U-Pb dating, which only yielded Barremian-aged and older grains, whereas other radiometric and biostratigraphic data suggest that the sediments at the quarry were deposited near the Albian-Cenomanian boundary.

Sonorasaurus is taxonomically valid, represents one of the geologically youngest brachiosaurid sauropods, and inhabited a harsh inland evergreen-dominated woodland environment that limited its growth. A review of other Bisbee Group dinosaurs suggests that its fauna, although poorly sampled, exhibits broad similarity to those from coeval North American horizons, reinforcing the apparent faunal homogeneity at the time.

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