Phytosaurs - family Phytosauridae or Parasuchidae - were a group of large (2 to 12 meters long - average size 3 to 4 meters) semi-aquatic predatory archosaurs that flourished during the Late Triassic period. These long snouted and heavily armoured archosaurs bore a remarkable resemblance to modern crocodiles in size, appearance, and (clearly) lifestyle, an example of convergence or parallel evolution. The name "phytosaur" (plant reptile) is very misleading, and their snapping jaws clearly show that phytosaurs were predators.
Phytosaurs were actually crocodile cousins, as both phytosaurs and proto-crocodiles share a common ancestor among the early Crurotarsi. But familiar-looking crocodiles only appeared in the late Jurassic period, many millions of years after phytosaurs became extinct at the end of the Triassic.
These animals were widely distributed, fossils being recovered from Europe, North America, India, Morocco, Thailand, and Madagascar.
When the first phytosaur fossils were found, it was not immediately obvious what kind of animal/species they were. The first phytosaur species known to science was named Phytosaurus cylindricodon - "plant lizard with cylindrical teeth" - by G. Jaeger in 1828 because he mistakenly believed that petrified mud fillings in the jaw were herbivore teeth. The specimen is too poor to be diagnostic, and this species name is no longer valid. The name of the group - Phytosauria - was coined by the German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer in 1861, on the basis of this first species.
The next species to be described Belodon plieningeri von Meyer, in von Meyer and Plieningeri 1844. The altogether more appropriate name Parasuchia ("alongside the crocodiles, as they resembled crocodiles to a great degree) was coined by Thomas Huxley in 1875 along with his discovery and naming of the Indian species Parasuchus hislopi (Chatterjee, 1978), on the basis of a partial snout. The specimen also is usually considered non-diagnostic, and the name Parasuchus replaced by Paleorhinus. Although the names Parasuchidae and Phytosauridae are variously still used by different specialists, "phytosaur" is the standard generic name for these animals, despite the fact that these animals have been clearly shown to be carnivorous.
Differences from Crocodiles
Despite their great similarities in appearance and lifestyle, there are still a number of minor differences that distinguish phytosaurs from true crocodiles. For one thing, the phytosaur ankle structure is much more primitive than that of any crocodile. Also, phytosaurs lack the bony secondary palate that crocodiles have that enables them to breathe even when the mouth is full of water. It is possible however that phytosaurs had a fleshy palate, as many Mesozoic crocodiles are presumed to have had. Finally, and most noticeably, phytosaurs had nostrils placed near or above the level of the eyes, in contrast to crocodiles where the nostrils are near the end of the snout. This adaptation may have developed to allow them to breathe while the rest of the body was submerged.
The phytosaur skull was characterized by three distinct morphotypes, which relate to feeding and habits and not (as was once thought) evolutionary relationships. These skull patterns are linked to characteristics of the dentition; specifically the differentiation or similarity of the teeth along the jaws.
Dolichorostral ("long snouted") types have a long, slender snout and a large number of conical teeth that are the same throughout. These were most likely piscivorous, able to capture fast slippery prey, but not so good at tackling a land animal. Some examples are Paleorhinus, Rutiodon carolinensis, and Mystriosuchus. At one time it was believed that Paleorhinus and Mystriosuchus belonged to a distinct group of phytosaurs (subfamily of family Mystriosuchinae/Mystriosuchidae Huene, 1915) characterised by this adaptation, but it is now known that Mystriosuchus is actually more closely related to Pseudopalatus, an "altirostral" form (Hungerbühler, 2002).
Brachyrostral ("short snouted") forms are the opposite, they have a massive, broad snout, and a very strong skull and jaws, with the front teeth like fangs for holding the prey, and the rear teeth blade-like for slicing the meat into chunks that can easily be swallowed (an animal with different types of teeth like this is called heterodont). These were powerful animals specialised for feeding on strong struggling prey, such as terrestrial animals that come to the water to drink. Examples of this type are Nicrosaurus and Smilosuchus
Altirostral ("high snouted") animals are intermediate between the two. They had heterodont dentition but not as extremely developed as the brachyrostral type. Angistorhinus and Pseudopalatus are typical examples here. These were most likely generalist feeders.
Modern crocodiles exhibit a similar morphological diversity, for example the broad snouted altirostral alligator and the long snouted dolichorostral gavial.
Phytosaurs were even better armoured than crocodiles, protected by heavy bony scutes (often found as fossils), and the belly reinforced with a dense arrangement of gastralia (abdominal ribs).
Evolutionary History and Relationships
Phytosaurs first appear during the Carnian age, evolving from an unspecified crurotarsan ancestor. There are no clear intermediate forms, as the first phytosaurs were already fully-formed and highly specialised.
The earliest phytosaurs belong to the primitive and unspecialised but very widely distributed genus Paleorhinus. A somewhat more advanced and larger form, Angistorhinus appears at the same time or soon after. Later in the Carnian, both these animals were replaced by more specialised forms like Rutiodon, Leptosuchus, and the huge Smilosuchus (Lucas 1998). The Carnian-Norian extinction meant that these animals died off, and the Early Norian sees new genera like Nicrosaurus and Pseudopalatus, both of which belong to the most derived clade of phytosaurs, the Pseudopalatinae. Later in the middle Norian the advanced and specialised fish-eater Mystriosuchus appears. Fossil remains of this widespread animal is known from Germany, northern Italy, and Thailand. Finally the large Redondasaurus in south-west North America and the long-snouted (altirostral) Angistorhinopsis ruetimeyeri in Europe continued the group into the Rhaetian. Phytosaur footprints (the ichnotaxon Apatopus) are also known from the latest Rhaetian of the East Coast of USA (the Newark Supergroup) (Olsen et al. 2002). This indicates that phytosaurs continued as successful animals until the very end of the Triassic, when, along with other large crurotarsan archosaurs, they were killed off by the end Triassic extinction event. It was to be some fifty million years or so before any similar reptiles would appear (early true crocodiles of the early and middle Jurassic were either small and fully terrestrial or completely marine).
- Carroll, RL (1988), Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, WH Freeman & Co.
- Chatterjee, S (1978), A primitive parasuchid (phytosaur) reptile from the Upper Triassic Maleri Formation of India, Palaeontology 21: 83-127
- Hungerbühler A. (2002), The Late Triassic Phytosaur Mystriosuchus Westphali, With A Revision of the Genus. Palaeontology, March 2002, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 377-418(42)
- Lucas, SG (1998), Global Triassic tetrapod biostratigraphy and biochronology. Paleogeog. Palaeoclimatol., Palaeoecol. 143: 347-384.
- Olsen, P.E., Kent, D.V., H.-D.Sues,, Koeberl, C., Huber, H., Montanari, E.C.Rainforth, A., Fowell, S.J., Szajna, M.J., and Hartline, B.W., (2002) Ascent of Dinosaurs Linked to an Iridium Anomaly at the Triassic-Jurassic Boundary. Science, vol. 296, p. 1305-1307.
- Translation and Pronunciation Guide
- A Preliminary Biomechanical Analysis of Phytosaur Life Habits
- Phytosauria - Palaeos
- Mikko's Phylogeny - cladistic tree
- Great Triassic Assemblages Pt 1 - The Chinle and Newark - some material on phytosaurs