Diving into the evolution of marine reptiles

A newly discovered fossil from the Triassic period sheds light on how marine reptiles emerged following a major extinction event.

Life reconstruction of the new armoured marine reptile, Prosaurosphargis yingzishanensis. Image credit: Jun Liu and Zhixin Han (CC BY 4.0)

Around 252 million years ago, just before the start of a period of time known as the Triassic, over 90% of animals, plants and other species on Earth went extinct in what was the worst mass extinction event in the planet’s history. It is thought to have happened because of an increase in volcanic eruptions that led to global warming, acid rain and other catastrophic changes in the environment.

The loss of so many species caused ecosystems to restructure as the surviving species evolved to fill niches left by those that had gone extinct. On land, reptiles diversified to give rise to dinosaurs, the flying pterosaurs, and the ancestors of modern crocodiles, lizards, snakes and turtles. Some of these land-based animals evolved to live in water, resulting in many species of marine reptiles emerging during the Triassic period.

This included the saurosphargids, a group of marine reptiles that lived in the Middle Triassic around 247–237 million years ago. They were ‘armoured’ with a shield made of broadened ribs superficially similar to that of turtles, and a covering of bony plates. However, it is unclear how the saurosphargids evolved and how closely they are related to other marine reptiles.

Here, Wolniewicz et al. studied a new species of saurosphargid named Prosaurosphargis yingzishanensis that was found fossilized in a quarry in South China. The animal was around 1.5 metres long and had a chest shield and armoured plates like other saurosphargids. The characteristics of the rock surrounding the fossil suggest that this individual lived in the Early Triassic, several million years before other saurosphargid species.

The team used a phylogenetic approach to infer the evolutionary relationships between P. yingzishanensis and numerous other land-based and marine reptiles based on over 220 anatomical characteristics of the animals. The resulting evolutionary tree indicated that the saurosphargids represented an early stage in the evolution of a larger group of marine reptiles known as the sauropterygians. The analysis also identified the closest land-based relatives of sauropterygians.

These findings provide evidence that marine reptiles rapidly diversified in the aftermath of the mass extinction event 252 million years ago. Furthermore, they contribute to our understanding of how ecosystems recover after a major environmental crisis.