Give Plateosaurus Its Due

You could make a fascinating study (and many have) just looking at the history of which dinosaurs have held the foreground of popular culture when. The Iguanodon and Megalosaurus of the late 1800s, the Trachodon and Palaeoscincus of the earlier 1900s, the stratospheric rise of Velociraptor (sensu lato) with the release of Jurassic Park. And then there are those that never quite seem to get their dues. I’ve commented before on the odd relegation of Camarasaurus to the status of also-ran among famous sauropods. But perhaps the ultimate example of a dinosaur forced unfairly to the background is the should-be darling of the Late Triassic, Plateosaurus.

Plateosaurus ‘engelhardti’ in the Sauriermuseum at Frick, copyright Ghedoghedo.

Plateosaurus should, by all rights, be a superstar of dinosaur pop-culture. It was one of the first dinosaurs to reach massive size, extending up to nine metres in length and probably standing about as high (or slightly higher) than a tall man at the withers (Yates 2003). It is known from literally hundreds of specimens, many of them with large parts of the skeleton preserved, representing ages from juvenile to full maturity. Some of the bonebeds where it is found contain little but Plateosaurus and may have been formed in dramatic mass mortality events. Plateosaurus is easily the best known of the basal Sauropodomorpha, the ‘prosauropods’. And yet, though Plateosaurus regularly appears in popular depictions, it rarely seems to make much more than a brief cameo. Why is this the dinosaur that gets no respect?

In part, it may be because it comes from a time period that gets less attention as a whole. The Triassic tends to get seen as a meer prelude to later, more ‘exciting’ parts of the Mesozoic. Plateosaurus itself, together with the other ‘prosauropods’, tends to also get overshadowed by its later, more eye-catching relatives, the sauropods. And when you get down to it, Plateosaurus may also be let down by the fact that it is perhaps the single most average dinosaur you could possibly imagine. Honestly, if you asked someone to depict a truly generic dinosaur, I don’t think it would come out looking too different from Plateosaurus.

Reconstructed Plateosaurus, albeit in a now-obsolescent quadrupedal pose, copyright Elekes Andor.

All these criticisms aside, Plateosaurus is still a fascinating genus. Its remains have been found across central Europe, in Germany, Switzerland and France. The exact number of species in the genus has long been uncertain. As with other early-named dinosaur genera, 19th Century palaeontologists named several species whose application has been subject to debate. Yates (2003) recognised two species in the genus, the earlier and smaller P. gracilis, and a larger, later species that Yates labelled P. engelhardti but which, due to various taxonomic shenanigans, should probably now be called P. trossingensis. Plateosaurus trossingensis is the better known of the two species, known from extensive bone-beds found at Trossingen and Halberstadt in Germany, and Frick in Switzerland (Lallensack et al. 2021). Some have questioned whether all these bone-beds represent a single species but Lallensack et al. found that examination of skulls from different locations failed to identify specific distinctions. Both Plateosaurus species would have been among the largest land animals of their times; even the smaller P. gracilis may have still reached lengths of five or six metres. Plateosaurus had a relatively long, narrow head though comparison of this feature with other prosauropods may be complicated by post-mortem distortion.

The life posture of Plateosaurus has historically been the subject of much dispute, whether it was bipedal, quadrupedal, or shifted freely between the two. However, recent models of the range of movement of the Plateosaurus hand and fore-arm have concluded that it was incapable of turning its hands palm-downwards, so it could not have supported itself comfortably on its fore limbs (Reiss & Mallison 2014). Obviously, the capacity for quadrupedal locomotion would evolve at some point in sauropodomorph evolution (in this day and age, I don’t think anyone is proposing bipedal sauropods) but it was not before Plateosaurus.

Skeletal reconstruction of Unaysaurus talentinoi, copyright Maurissauro.

The phylogenetic relationships of Plateosaurus to other sauropods have been similarly disputed. Plateosaurus is, of course, the type genus of the family Plateosauridae but the concept of that family has varied significantly over time. For a large part of the twentieth century, ‘Plateosauridae’ was kind of a catch-all for all moderately large prosauropods, with Anchisauridae for the smaller species and Melanorosauridae for the giants. Redefinition of Plateosauridae to include only close relatives of Plateosaurus have significantly winnowed its contents. The current closest known relative of Plateosaurus is the recently described Issi saaneq, based on a pair of near-complete skulls from Greenland (Beccari et al. 2021). This species is close enough to Plateosaurus that its remains were previously assigned to P. englehardti. Offhand, “issi saaneq” is translated by the species’ authors as “cold bone” in the local Kalaallisut language, but this looks to be another situation like “mei long” where a phrase was converted into a species name without considering that noun and descriptor order is reversed in biological names.

Other likely plateosaurids include two South American species, Unaysaurus tolentinoi and Macrocollum itaquii. The status of an Indian species Jaklapallisaurus asymmetrica is more uncertain. Beyond this, things become increasingly dodgy with little agreement over the details of prosauropod phylogeny. The overall conservative appearance of prosauropods means that phylogenetic studies are heavily reliant on fine details of the osteology that are debated between authors or not preserved in key taxa. Nevertheless, it does appear that the plateosaurids were widespread in the Norian epoch of the Triassic, and are bound to catch the attention of time travellers to the period.

REFERENCES

Beccari, V., O. Mateus, O. Wings, J. Milàn & L. B. Clemmensen. 2021. Issi saaneq gen. et sp. nov.—a new sauropodomorph dinosaur from the Late Triassic (Norian) of Jameson Land, central east Greenland. Diversity 13: 561.

Lallensack, J. N., E. M. Teschner, B. Pabst & P. M. Sander. 2021. New skulls of the basal sauropodomorph Plateosaurus trossingensis from Frick, Switzerland: is there more than one species? Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 66 (1): 1–28.

Reiss, S., & H. Mallison. 2014. Motion range of the manus of Plateosaurus engelhardti von Meyer, 1837. Palaeontologica Electronica 17 (1): 12A.

Yates, A. M. 2003. The species taxonomy of the sauropodomorph dinosaurs from the Löwenstein Formation (Norian, Late Triassic) of Germany. Palaeontology 46 (2): 317–337.

0 comments

  1. Plateosaurs isn't exactly a superstar but when I was a kid she appeared in just about every old dinosaur book I had. (I'll stick to the stupid old dinobook fashion of referring to 'gentle' plant eating boring egg laying dinosaurs as 'she', while referring to aggressive cruel meat eating dinosaurs that don't hatch but spring fully grown from Ares'footsteps as 'he'. The writers never met my mom…) She was always shown as the first real dinosaur, the first giant. She wasn't very cool but she was cooler then all the other plants and animals that came before. Except for Dimetrodon. He was cool. Always chewing on his wife, Edaphrosaurus. Weird that their kids ended up mammals, with fur instead of a sail..

    1. I suppose you could argue that the 'child' of Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus should be Naosaurus, a name that briefly featured in American palaeontology as a result of the head of the former being erroneously attached to the body of the latter.

  2. I had to look up Palaeoscincus. Having recently turned forty, I guess I should feel grateful for the reminder I'm not yet quite old enough to recall early 20C popular books.

    Plateosaurus' appearance in WWD was brief but impressive.

    Acc'd WP, yes, issi means "cold" and saaneq means "bones". Oddly, though, judging by the WP article on Kalaallisut, the normal order in that language is noun-descriptor, so apparently they got it doubly wrong.

    1. I was considering directly citing the Walking with Dinosaurs appearance in the post, but it didn't really flow.

      "Issi" is listed in the online dictionary of the language that Wikipedia links to as a noun (as in "do you feel the cold?" rather than "it is cold") but I can't find how adjectives work in the language. I suspect that "cold" as a descriptor would involve an inflected form of the word "issi" rather than just that word in its bare form. The most likely scenario is that the authors of Issi saaneq pulled the words from a dictionary rather than consulting with a speaker of the language, which is certainly not an uncommon way of doing these things. Fortunately, of course, etymology is ultimately of little relevance to the use of biological names.

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