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Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis
Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis

[Image: sarahsaurus-dinosaur-101005-02.jpg]

Fossil range: Early Jurassic

Scientific classification 
Kingdom: Animalia 
Phylum: Chordata 
Class: Reptilia 
Superorder: Dinosauria 
Order: Saurischia 
Suborder: Sauropodomorpha 
Genus: Sarahsaurus 
Species: Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis 

Sarahsaurus is a genus of basal sauropodomorph dinosaur which existed in what is now northeastern Arizona, USA during the lower Jurassic period. Fossils have been found from the Early Jurassic Kayenta Formation near Gold Spring, Arizona, which is Sinemurian to Pliensbachian in age. It was first named by Timothy B. Rowe, Hans-Dieter Sues and Robert R. Reisz in 2010 and the type species is Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis. Sarahsaurus is the third basal sauropodomorph dinosaur to have been identified in North America. It is thought to have appeared through a dispersal event that originated in South America and was separate from those of the other two sauropodomorphs.

Sarahsaurus is known from a nearly complete articulated holotype skeleton referred to as TMM 43646-2, another partial skeleton known as TMM 43646-3, and a nearly complete but poorly preserved skull known as MCZ 8893.

Physical Description
The new dinosaur, named Sarahsaurus, was a 14-foot-long, 250-pound (4.2 meters, 113 kilograms) sauropodomorph, a relatively small ancestor of sauropods, the largest animals to ever walk the Earth. 

New Fossil Suggests Dinosaurs Not So Fierce After All

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The remains of the dinosaur, Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis, were discovered in Arizona in 1997. Since the researchers could not reach the site by car, they had to spend days lugging chunks of the rock-encased fossil back to camp.

ScienceDaily (Oct. 5, 2010) — A new species of dinosaur discovered in Arizona suggests dinosaurs did not spread throughout the world by overpowering other species, but by taking advantage of a natural catastrophe that wiped out their competitors.

Tim Rowe, professor of paleontology at The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences, led the effort to describe the new dinosaur along with co-authors Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC and Robert R. Reisz, professor and chair of biology at the University of Toronto. The description appears in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Oct. 6.

Sarahsaurus, which lived about 190 million years ago during the Early Jurassic Period, was 14 feet long and weighed about 250 pounds. Sarahsaurus was a sauropodomorph, a small but closely related ancestor to sauropods, the largest land animals in history.

Conventional wisdom says that soon after dinosaurs originated in what is now South America, they rapidly spread out to conquer every corner of the world, so smart and powerful they overwhelmed all the animals in their path. Sarahsaurus challenges that view.

One of the five great mass extinction events in Earth's history happened at the end of the Triassic Period 200 million years ago, wiping out many of the potential competitors to dinosaurs. Evidence from Sarahsaurus and two other early sauropodomorphs suggests that each migrated into North America in separate waves long after the extinction and that no such dinosaurs migrated there before the extinction.

"We used to think of dinosaurs as fierce creatures that outcompeted everyone else," said Rowe. "Now we're starting to see that's not really the case. They were humbler, more opportunistic creatures. They didn't invade the neighborhood. They waited for the residents to leave and when no one was watching, they moved in."

Sarahsaurus had physical traits usually associated with gigantic animals. For example, its thigh bones were long and straight like pillars, yet were not much larger than a human's thigh bones. Sarahsaurus shows that sauropodmorphs started out small and later evolved to a very large size.

"And so it's starting to look like some of our ideas about how size and evolution work are probably in need of revision," said Rowe, "and that some of the features we thought were tied to gigantism and the physics and mechanics of the bones may not be right."

Rowe is also intrigued by the new dinosaur's hands.

"We've never found anything like this in western North America," he said. "Its hand is smaller than my hand, but if you line the base of the thumbs up, this small hand is much more powerfully built than my hand and it has these big claws. It's a very strange animal. It's doing something with its hands that involved great strength and power, but we don't know what."

Sarahsaurus is named in honor of Sarah (Mrs. Ernest) Butler, an Austin philanthropist and long time supporter of the arts and sciences. Butler chaired a fundraising committee for the Dino Pit, an interactive exhibit Rowe helped create at the Austin Nature and Science Center that encourages children to dig up their own fossil replicas. The Dino Pit had been talked about for 20 years, but fundraising efforts stalled until Butler became chair.

"I told her if she really raised a million dollars to build the Dino Pit, I'd name a dinosaur after her," he said.

A team of researchers and students led by Rowe discovered Sarahsaurus on a field trip in Arizona in 1997. To reach publication, the team had to obtain excavation permits, excavate the site over three years, remove each fossil fragment from surrounding rock, measure and analyze each piece, and CT scan pieces to study internal structures.

"It took me 13 years, but I'm delighted by the great success of the Dino Pit, which hundreds of thousands of kids have now visited. And also that we had the luck to make a find of suitable importance to carry Sarah's name."

This research was funded in part by an Assembling the Tree of Life grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF AToL 0531767).

Journal Reference:
Timothy B. Rowe, Hans-Dieter Sues, Robert R. Reisz. Dispersal and diversity in the earliest North American sauropodomorph dinosaurs, with a description of a new taxon. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1867 

Sauropodomorph dinosaurs originated in the Southern Hemisphere in the Middle or Late Triassic and are commonly portrayed as spreading rapidly to all corners of Pangaea as part of a uniform Late Triassic to Early Jurassic cosmopolitan dinosaur fauna. Under this model, dispersal allegedly inhibited dinosaurian diversification, while vicariance and local extinction enhanced it. However, apomorphy-based analyses of the known fossil record indicate that sauropodomorphs were absent in North America until the Early Jurassic, reframing the temporal context of their arrival. We describe a new taxon from the Kayenta Formation of Arizona that comprises the third diagnosable sauropodomorph from the Early Jurassic of North America. We analysed its relationships to test whether sauropodomorphs reached North America in a single sweepstakes event or in separate dispersals. Our finding of separate arrivals by all three taxa suggests dispersal as a chief factor in dinosaurian diversification during at least the early Mesozoic. It questions whether a ‘cosmopolitan’ dinosaur fauna ever existed, and corroborates that vicariance, extinction and dispersal did not operate uniformly in time or under uniform conditions during the Mesozoic. Their relative importance is best measured in narrow time slices and circumscribed geographical regions.
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Newly described fossils could help reveal why some dinos got so big

October 10, 2018, University of Texas at Austin

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Artist's interpretation of Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis. The dinosaur was about the size of a car and had powerful forelimbs with large claws. It lived during the Early Jurassic in North America. Credit: Brian Engh

By the time non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, plant-eating sauropods like the Brontosaurus had grown to gargantuan proportions. Weighing in as much as 100 tons, the long-neck behemoths are the largest land animals to ever walk the earth.

How they grew so large from ancestors that were small enough to be found in a modern-day petting zoo has remained a mystery. A new, in-depth anatomical description of the best preserved specimens of a car-sized sauropod relative from North America could help paleontologists with unraveling the mystery.

Adam Marsh, a paleontologist at Petrified Forest National Park, led the description of the dinosaur while earning his master's degree from The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences. The findings were published on Oct. 10 in the journal PLOS ONE. Marsh co-authored the paper with his advisor, Jackson School Professor Timothy Rowe.

The dinosaur—called Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis— lived about 185 million years ago during the Early Jurassic. It could hold important clues about sauropods' size because it belonged to the dinosaur grouping that preceded them. Its evolutionary placement combined with the exquisite preservation of the specimens is giving researchers a detailed look into its anatomy and how it relates to its larger cousins.

"Sarahsaurus preserves in its anatomy the anatomical changes that were happening in the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic that were occurring in the evolutionary lineage," Marsh said. "It can help tell us how getting big happens."

The description is based on two skeletons discovered in Arizona by Rowe in 1997. The bones belong to the Navajo Nation, which owns the land where the fossils were discovered, and are curated by the Jackson School Museum of Earth History Vertebrate Paleontology Collections. The bones are slightly crushed, and in some cases still linked together into body parts such as the hand and tail. The only major missing part is the skull.

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Nearly complete skeleton of Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis; the only major missing piece is the skull. Paleontologist Adam Marsh used this skeleton and one other to describe the anatomy of Sarahsaurus. Credit: The Jackson School Museum of Earth History Vertebrate Paleontology Collections / The University of Texas at Austin.

"The specimens are well preserved in three dimensions and remarkably complete, which is very rare in the fossil record," said collections Director Matthew Brown. "Such complete specimens help paleontologists better understand the fragmentary and incomplete fossils remains we typically find."

Marsh describes Sarahsaurus as a "ground sloth-like" dinosaur. It stood upright, walked on its hind-legs and had powerful forelimbs with a large, curved claw capping the first finger of each hand. It had a lot in common with the earliest sauropod ancestors—like walking on two legs—but it was also starting to show features that would foreshadow how its massive relatives would evolve—such as an increase in body size and a lengthening of the neck vertebrae.

"It's starting to gain the characters of getting large compared to the earliest members of the group," Marsh said.

Size and neck-length are features that sauropods would take to extremes as they evolved. By studying these traits and others in Sarahsaurus, and seeing how they compare to those of other dinosaurs, scientists can help reveal how these changes occurred across evolutionary history and how different dinosaurs relate to one another.

For example, the anatomical review helped clarify the relationship between Sarahsaurus and two other sauropod relatives that lived in North America during the Early Jurassic. The researchers found that the three don't have a common North American ancestor—instead they evolved from dinosaur lineages that came to North America independently.

Marsh is currently working on another study that could shed more light on how sauropods evolved. Led by Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and research associate at the Jackson School's vertebrate collections, the project involves tracking anatomical differences in dinosaur limb bones to determine which features relate to evolution and which relate to the age of an animal. Marsh said that the two Sarahsaurus skeletons examined for this paper are a great addition to the project.

"We've got two individuals from basically the same hole in the ground with different bumps and grooves on their femora," Marsh said. "It lends itself really well to this comprehensive anatomical description and it's going to be really important for comparisons of early dinosaur anatomy."

Journal Reference:
Marsh AD, Rowe TB (2018) Anatomy and systematics of the sauropodomorph Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis from the Early Jurassic Kayenta Formation. PLoS ONE 13(10): e0204007.

Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis, from the Kayenta Formation of Arizona, is one of only three sauropodomorph dinosaurs known from the Early Jurassic of North America. It joins Anchisaurus polyzelus, from the older Portland Formation of the Hartford Basin, and Seitaad reussi, from the younger Navajo Sandstone of Utah, in representing the oldest North American sauropodomorphs. If it is true that sauropodomorphs were absent from North America during the Late Triassic, the relationship among these three dinosaurs offers a test of the mechanisms that drove recovery in North American biodiversity following the end-Triassic extinction event. Here we provide the first thorough description of Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis based on completed preparation and computed tomographic imaging of the holotype and referred specimens. With new anatomical data, our phylogenetic analysis supports the conclusion that Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis is nested within the primarily Gondwanan clade Massospondylidae, while agreeing with previous analyses that the three North American sauropodomorphs do not themselves form an exclusive clade. A revised diagnosis and more thorough understanding of the anatomy of Sarahsaurus aurifontanalis support the view that independent dispersal events were at least partly responsible for the recovery in North American vertebrate diversity following a major extinction event.

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