|Skeletal diagram showing the preserved remains of the holotype specimen|
Xu et al., 2009
Xu et al., 2009
Limusaurus (meaning "mud lizard") is a genus of theropod dinosaur that lived during the Late Jurassic in western China. The genus contains a single species, Limusaurus inextricabilis. Limusaurus was a small, slender animal, about 1.7 metres (5 ft 7 in) in length, that had a long neck and legs but also highly reduced forelimbs. It underwent a drastic morphological transformation as it aged; while juveniles were toothed, these teeth were completely lost and replaced by a beak with age, corresponding to a shift in diet from an omnivory feeding strategy to an herbivory one. Its fossils were discovered in rocks of the Upper Shishugou Formation in the Junggar Basin, and date to the Oxfordian age, around 161 to 157 million years ago.
Limusaurus is the first definitively known member of the group Ceratosauria from Eastern Asia. While originally considered the most basal member (i.e. closest to the origin) along with its closest relative, Elaphrosaurus, a 2016 analysis showed that both genera are in fact members of the Noasauridae, a group of small and lightly built abelisaurs. The pattern of digit reduction in Limusaurus has been used to support the contested hypothesis that the three-fingered hand of tetanuran theropods is the result of the loss of the first and fifth digits from the ancestral five-fingered theropod hand, which has implications for the evolution of birds. However, it is now considered irrelevant to the subject of digit homology.
Discovery and naming
Limusaurus was described in a 2009 paper authored by Xu Xing and colleagues in the journal Nature. The description incorporated data from two subadult specimens found in close association, which are both stored at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing: the holotype (specimen number IVPP V 15923) is an almost complete and (still connected) skeleton, and the other (IVPP V 15304) is a likewise almost complete and articulated specimen that is missing only the skull. The second specimen is 15% larger than the holotype. These specimens have also been referred to respectively by the erroneous specimen numbers IVPP V 15924 and IVPP V 16134. Both the genus name, Limusaurus (meaning "mud lizard"), and the name of the type species, L. inextricabilis (meaning "impossible to extricate"), refer to how the known specimens appeared to have died and become preserved after being mired in mud pits.
Seventeen additional specimens were described in 2016. These specimens are known from three different aggregations (numbered TBB 2001, TBB 2002, and TBB 2005), with the former two being at the same level and the latter some 6.5 metres (21 ft) higher in the stratigraphic column; they include six juveniles (one year in age or less), ten subadults (two-six years in age), and one adult (more than six years in age). Like the holotype and second specimen, the new specimens are also stored at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology. All of these specimens were recovered during excavations between 2001 and 2006 at the Wucaiwan locality in the Shishugou Formation, located in the Junggar Basin of Xinjiang, China.
Limusaurus was a small and slender animal. The holotype (which was an adult, based on the level of fusion of its bones) is estimated to have been about 1.7 metres (5 ft 7 in) in length and the weight of the animal has been estimated at about 15 kilograms (33 lb). Its neck and legs were proportionally long; the latter were 1.8 times the length of its torso. Several features of the animal, such as the small head with large orbits, toothless jaws, and its long neck and legs, were very similar to those of the Cretaceous ornithomimid theropods, as well as the Triassic non-dinosaurian shuvosaurids, representing a significant case of convergent evolution among these three distinct groups of archosaurs. While Limusurus has sometimes been depicted with feathers and may have had them, there is no evidence of such structures.
The skull was relatively tall and short, roughly half the length of the femur (upper thigh bone). The tip of its jaws was covered by a beak, a feature that was previously unknown in theropods more basal (or "primitive") than coelurosaurs, the group that includes the most bird-like dinosaurs. Uniquely to Limusaurus, the inner edge of the premaxilla, the frontmost bone of the upper jaw, was convex. The nasal bone was distinct in having a "shelf" on its side, was short, wide, less than one third of the length of the , and twice as long as it was wide. As in most dinosaurs, the skull featured five principal fenestrae (openings), including the , eye opening, antorbital fenestra (between the nostril and eye), as well as the and (on the top and on the side of the skull's rear, respectively). As in other ceratosaurians, parts of the bony nostril were formed by the maxilla (upper jaw bone); also, the antorbital fenestra was proportionally small, and the rear part of the nasal bone formed parts of the cavity which contained this opening. The external naris was large and located in a hindwards position, similar to tetanuran theropods. The eye opening was large, while the lateral temporal fenestra was not as large as would be expected from more derived members of the Ceratosauria. The lower part of the lacrimal, the bone that formed the front margin of the eye opening, was unique in being strongly inclined forwards. The jugal bone, which formed the floor of the eye opening, was slender, and its rami (or branches) were rod like, uniquely for this genus.
Another opening, the of the lower jaw, was generally large in ceratosaurians. In Limusaurus, it was especially large, accounting for 40% of the length of the entire lower jaw, a distinguishing feature of the genus. The (tooth-bearing bone of the lower jaw) was short compared to the rest of the lower jaw, as in other ceratosaurians. The front end of the dentary was down-turned and had a convex inner margin, similar to the related Masiakasaurus. The angular bone of the lower jaw was positioned significantly forwards in relation to the hind end of the mandible, similar to other ceratosaurians. Juveniles had nine teeth in each side of the upper jaw, and twelve in each side of the lower; they were gradually lost as they grew, disappearing by adulthood.
The (neck vertebrae) were elongated as in the closely related Elaphrosaurus. The axis (second neck vertebra) lacked the (excavation) on its front end and the foramina (openings) piercing its neural arch that are seen in derived ceratosaurians. As in other noasaurids, the neural spines of the cervicals were positioned more towards the front end of their vertebrae than is the case in other theropods.
Distinctively, the scapula (shoulder blade) bore a prominent ridge at its front edge. It also had a comparatively high . The sternum was fused into a single, large, continuous plate, another feature that evolved independently in coelurosaurs (convergent evolution). Limusaurus also had a furcula, or wishbone, which previously was unknown among ceratosaurians. The head of the humerus (upper arm bone) was bulging, and the , a forward-directed bony flange of the humerus that served for muscle attachment, was long and angled; these features were typical for ceratosaurians. In the forearm, the radius was longer than the ulna, and the , a bony extension on the upper end of the ulna that served for muscle attachment, was absent in Limusaurus. Both features are considered autapomorphies of the genus. As in other ceratosaurians, ossified wrist bones were absent.
As is typical for abelisaurids, the arms and hands of Limusaurus were considerably reduced, even more so than in Ceratosaurus. Uniquely in Limusaurus, the first finger was missing entirely, and the first metacarpal was shorter than the other metacarpals. The second metacarpal was more robust than the other metacarpals, which is another autapomorphy of the genus. The second finger had three phalanges (finger bones). The third finger only had three phalanges as opposed to four in other early theropods. Although the fourth finger is not preserved, the tip of the fourth metacarpal indicates the presence of a joint and therefore the presence of a phalanx; it is likely that this was the only phalanx of the fourth finger. The (claw bones) were short, stout, and expanded at their base. They had two grooves on their sides, a feature also found in Masiakasaurus.
Of the pelvis, the ilium was small and tilted towards the midline of the body, as is the case in Elaphrosaurus. As in other ceratosaurians, the lower end ("boot") of the pubis was large and expanded. Unique for the genus, it pointed backwards in a hook-like shape and had a ridge on each side. The legs of Limusaurus had proportions that were well-adapted to running, with their lower segments much longer than the femur: the tibiotarsus, the fusion of the tibia (shin bone) and tarsal bones, was 1.2 times the length of the femur, and the foot was 1.3 times the length of the femur. The upper half of the femur was triangular in cross section, a feature shared with Masiakasaurus. The metatarsals of the other three toes were arranged in an arc, with the fourth metatarsal straight and adhering tightly to the third for its entire length; these features are unique to Limusaurus. Another unique feature, the hallux (the first toe) was reduced, being only 17% the length of the third metatarsal. As in other ceratosaurians, the unguals of the foot had two grooves on their sides.
Limusaurus is a member of the Ceratosauria. It had several skull features in common with basal theropods such as other ceratosaurs and coelophysoids, but it also shared a number of traits, including the beak and the fused sternum, convergently with the later coelurosaurs. Originally, it was described as a basal ceratosaurian, with both it and Elaphrosaurus being recovered as the most basal ceratosaurians in various phylogenetic analyses. However, subsequent research has placed it in the more derived (or "advanced") group Abelisauroidea, specifically as a member of the Noasauridae. An analysis conducted in the study of multiple individuals of different ages found Limusaurus and Elaphrosaurus to group in the clade Elaphrosaurinae, within the family Noasauridae. Noasauridae was placed in a position outside Neoceratosauria, the group containing Ceratosaurus and Abelisauridae. The relationships within Noasauridae, from the version of the analysis with separate specimens of Limusaurus, are shown below. It is notable that all the juvenile specimens grouped to the exclusion of adult specimens, showing that its anatomy changed significantly through growth.
A contrasting analysis conducted by Rauhut and Carrano in 2016 found slightly different relationships within Noasauridae. The specimen CCG 20011 (an as-of-yet unnamed taxon formerly referred to the tetanuran Chuandongocoelurus), which was not included in other analyses, was found to be closer to Elaphrosaurus than Limusaurus, with the three taxa representing Elaphrosaurinae. Velocisaurus, Noasaurus and Masiakasaurus were the only taxa within Noasaurinae, as Laevisuchus and Deltadromeus were placed basal to the group of Noasaurinae and Elaphrosaurinae within Noasauridae. A 2019 study by Max Langer and colleagues, which was based on the same data set used by the 2016 study, recovered the same interrelationships within Elaphrosaurinae and added the new taxon Vespersaurus to the Noasaurinae.
Limusaurus is the first definite ceratosaur from eastern Asia to be discovered. It is also one of the earliest members of the group Ceratosauria, living during the Oxfordian stage of the Jurassic period (approximately 161-157 million years ago). Its discovery shows that the Asian dinosaurian fauna was less endemic during the Middle/Late Jurassic period than previously thought and suggests a possible land connection between Asia and other continents during that period.
The most basal theropods have five digits on the hand. Along the lineage that led to birds, however, the number of digits in the hand decreased; by the emergence of the group Tetanurae, which includes birds, two digits had disappeared from the hand, leaving three digits. Traditionally, it has been hypothesized that the digits lost were the two outermost digits, i.e. digits IV and V, in a process known as Lateral Digit Reduction (LDR).
However, the hypothesis of LDR is in contradiction to some embryological studies on birds which show that, from five developmental sites, the digits that develop are the three middle digits (II, III, IV). This inconsistency has been a matter of debate for almost 200 years, and has been used by Alan Feduccia to support the controversial hypothesis that birds are descended not from theropods but from some other group of archosaurs which had lost the first and fifth digits. To explain the discrepancy between morphological and embryological data in the context of bird origins, an alternative scenario to LDR was developed by Tony Thulborn and Tim Hamley in 1982. In this scenario, the digits I and V of theropods were reduced in the process of Bilateral Digit Reduction (BDR), with the remaining digits developing to resemble the former digits I-III. Limusaurus was initially considered as evidence for the BDR hypothesis due to it—and other ceratosaurians—having a reduced first digit, with researchers hypothesizing that a similar pattern of reduction occurred among the tetanurans (the sister group of the ceratosaurians).
Several additional hypotheses have been proposed to improve upon and reconcile the LDR and BDR hypotheses. One predominantly favored hypothesis, first developed by Günter P. Wagner and Jacques Gauthier in 1999, involves a "frameshift" of the digits; the first digit fails to grow in the first developmental site due to not receiving the necessary signals, which has the effect of shifting digits I-III to the positions of II-IV. Thus, while digits I-III from the ancestral theropod are retained, they do not grow in the same location. A version of the frameshift hypothesis modified to incorporate both elements of BDR and fossil evidence from Limusaurus and other theropods, the "thumbs down" hypothesis of Daniel Čapek and colleagues, suggests that this frameshift took place after the reduction of both the first and the fourth digits in the theropod lineage. The major alternative hypothesis supported by Xing and colleagues, known as the "lateral shift hypothesis", considers a partial, step-wise frameshift in which, from a four-fingered hand with reduced digits I and IV, I fully disappears while IV develops into a fully-fledged finger, with II-IV taking on the morphologies of the former I-III.
It is plausible that ceratosaurians underwent BDR independent of the tetanurans, and therefore have no bearing on the issue of avian digit homology. In particular, as demonstrated by teratological analysis, the abbreviation (mesomelia) and loss of digits (hypophalangia) in the forelimb of Limusaurus is likely the result of a developmental anomaly that appeared exclusively in and persisted throughout the evolutionary lineage of ceratosaurians, and is unconnected to the pattern of digital reduction and frameshift that occurred in tetanurans. This is supported by the hands of the ceratosaurians Ceratosaurus, Berberosaurus, and Eoabelisaurus having plesiomorphic (i.e. more similar to the ancestral condition of theropods than to derived abelisaurs) metacarpal bones comparable to those of the more basal theropod Dilophosaurus. The divergent developmental pathways of ceratosaurians and tetanurans is associated with a difference in forelimb function; tetanurans utilized their hands for grasping, while the hands of ceratosaurians almost certainly played no role in predation.
Analysis of growth rings (visible in bone cross-sections and analogous to the growth rings of trees) of the tibiae from the various developmental stages of Limusaurus indicates that the animal was skeletally mature at six years in age. In older specimens, the outermost growth rings are very close together (forming what is known as the external fundamental system), indicating that rapid growth had ceased in these particular individuals.
Specimens of Limusaurus show 78 different anatomical changes that occurred as the animals grew. In particular, their heads became proportionally shallower, their middle hand bones lengthened, and the "hook" of their pubis grew longer. Additionally, the shaft of the quadrate bone in the skull straightened in adults, and the tips of their lower jaws became more downturned.
The most obvious change that happened during the growth of Limusaurus is the complete loss of teeth from juveniles to adults. Juveniles began with one tooth in the premaxilla, eight in the maxilla, and eleven in the lower jaw (42 teeth in total). At the next stage, the first, sixth, and eighth teeth in the maxilla, as well as the sixth in the lower jaw have all been lost (34 teeth in total), although the sockets are still present, and there is a small replacement tooth in the socket of the sixth lower tooth. During this stage, use of teeth and normal tooth replacement likely ceased or became reduced, since none of the still-erupted teeth bear any wear marks or resorption. As the specimens grew, the transformation became more radical. In subadult and adult specimens older than one year in age, all the teeth are missing. CT scanning shows that only five empty tooth sockets remain in the adult maxilla; all the sockets in the lower jaw have fused into a single, hollow canal, and the rest of the tooth sockets have been obliterated.
The loss of teeth with age in Limusaurus is the most extreme case of tooth morphology changing with age among dinosaurs. In fact, Limusaurus is one of the only known jawed vertebrates where teeth are completely lost during growth (the others are the red mullet and striped red mullet, several armored catfish, and the platypus). Its complicated pattern of losing teeth from both the front and the back is most similar to that of the avialan Jeholornis. The early halt in tooth replacement possibly resulted from the regression of the replacement tooth buds during the first year, as in the veiled chameleon. The replacement of teeth by a beak during growth in Limusaurus suggests that beaks in other lineages of theropods, and indeed beaked animals in general, may have evolved heterochronically, i.e. that beaks first occurred in adults and then gradually extended to juveniles. This is also indicated by the retention of the developmental signal pathways necessary to induce tooth development in birds.
Feeding and diet
Adult specimens of Limusaurus show morphological traits associated with herbivory that are shared with other groups of herbivorous theropods, including the Ornithomimosauria, Therizinosauria, Oviraptorosauria, and Alvarezsauroidea, along with the troodontid Jinfengopteryx. In particular, adult specimens are characterized by the presence of gastroliths (stomach stones), with older adults having gastroliths that are larger and more numerous than those of younger adults. The size and quantity of these gastroliths are comparable to those of birds in young adults, and those of ornithomimosaurs and oviraptorosaurs in old adults. These groups of theropods all used gastroliths in processing plant matter, suggesting that Limusaurus did the same; the increased amount of gastroliths in older adults may be indicative of the gut's ability to process plant matter more finely as they aged. An isotope analysis of the available specimens of Limusaurus specimens likewise showed that adults consistently match the isotope signatures of other herbivorous dinosaurs. In the same analysis, juveniles and subadults were found to vary greatly in their isotopic signatures; this indicates that juveniles were likely omnivorous (feeding on both animals and plants), but switched to strict herbivory as they aged. This is comparable to the diet shift experienced by the aforementioned mullets and armored catfish.
The paleontologist David A. Eberth and colleagues suggested in 2010 that the large number of Limusaurus specimens in the Shishugou Formation mud pits suggests they were either abundant among the small vertebrate animals in the area, or that the trapped individuals had been drawn there. They found it unlikely that animals were trapped there on any other basis than size, and pointed out that it was difficult to explain why herbivores like Limusaurus would be attracted to sites where other animals were mired, so they considered it most likely that the larger number of Lumusaurus was accidental; the time of miring would have taken weeks to months. These authors also suggested that the abundance of Lumusaurus inferred for the area and the evidence for successive, rapid burials of each individual made it possible that Lumusaurus was gegarious, living in goups. There is some evidence for gregariousness in many small theropods and that there may have been social behaviours related to age, but it is yet unknown whether the bone beds cotaining Limusaurus specimens preserve evidence of sociality and segregation related to age. Paleontologist Rafael Delcourt agreed in 2018 that assemblages of associted Limusaurus and Masiakasaurus suggests these small ceratosaurs lived in groups.
The Shishugou Formation was deposited in a variety of environments, including alluvial fans and alluvial plains, streams, wetlands, and shallow lakes. During the time when Limusaurus lived, the environment would have been consistently warm and dry, judging by the abundance of coal and carbon-rich deposits. The climate was probably highly seasonal due to monsoonal influences, with warm, wet summers and dry winters. The climate enabled the growth of a richly forested environment; the forest would have been dominated by Araucaria trees, with the undergrowth being occupied by Coniopteris tree ferns, Anglopteris and Osmunda ferns, Equisetites horsetails, and Elatocladus shrubs.
The environment of the Shishugou Formation hosted a diverse assemblage of animals. Contemporaries of Limusaurus in the Wucaiwan locality include the theropods Haplocheirus, Zuolong, and Guanlong, the latter of which is, like Limusaurus, frequently found in mud deposits; the sauropod Mamenchisaurus; the ornithischians Gongbusaurus and Yinlong; the tritylodontid Yuanotherium; the mammal Acuodulodon; the crocodyliforms Sunosuchus, Junggarsuchus, and Nominosuchus; and the turtles Xinjiangchelys and Annemys.
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