Hard-headed: prehistoric Texas reptile boasted bony domed skull

Thu Sep 22, 2016 4:58pm EDT
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a warm, lush region of West Texas crisscrossed with rivers, a bizarre reptile roamed the Triassic Period landscape about 228 million years ago, boasting a bony domed head unlike almost any creature that ever appeared on Earth.

Scientists on Thursday described the reptile, named Triopticus primus, based on a fossilized partial skull dug up in 1940 near Big Spring, Texas, that had long languished in a drawer in a University of Texas paleontology collection.

Its head resembled a battering ram: dome-shaped and composed of thickened bone.

The only other animals with comparable craniums were dinosaurs called pachycephalosaurs that appeared about 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period and were only distantly related to Triopticus.

Even the internal structure of Triopticus and pachycephalosaurs skulls was similar.

There has been a long debate among paleontologists about how pachycephalosaurs used their heads, whether for head-butting like bighorn sheep, self-defense or some other purpose. Scientists are similarly uncertain about Triopticus.

"It's difficult for us to say what the domed morphology would have been for or what would have 'encouraged' the evolution of this structure," said Virginia Tech paleontologist Michelle Stocker, who led the study published in the journal Current Biology.

The appearance of similar characteristics in creatures that are not closely related, like the wings of birds, bats and the extinct flying reptiles called pterosaurs, is called convergent evolution.   Continued...

The holotype skull of Triopticus primus is seen during preparation under the microscope at the University of Texas, in Austin, Texas, U.S., in this undated handout photo.  Matthew Brown/Handout via REUTERS