Enigmatic Triassic Hellasaur Thursday: Part the, um fourth?, Kyrgyz Kameleon

17 April 2008

If you’re hoping to make it into the fossil record, being a small, arboreal insectivore is probably not the best way to go. Forest soils are veritable compost heaps: acidic and crawling with critters and fungi that would happily mill your remains to humus given half a chance. And your scrawny, flexible skeleton is highly unlikely to endure the vicissitudes of long distance transport to some more suitable sedimentary environment.

Of course if you’re reading this blog chances are good that you’ve already been born so it may be too late to fix this. But don’t worry–there is a back up plan: find a lake, and fall in. Hey, it worked for Longisquama and Sharovipteryx, though a case could be made that they would have saved everyone a lot of trouble if they had just rotted on the forest floor like a respectable forest dweller.


The Triassic Madygen Formation of Kyrgyzstan is among the most important sources of Triassic insect fossils in the world (Fraser 2006). In fact, I’d almost rather write about the titanoptera, an “enigmatic” insect group which included the 30-cm wing-spanned Gigatitan vulgaris that may have looked something like the result of an unholy love-affair between a coackroach and a mantis…on crack. But this is “Hellasaur” Thursday so I’d better stay focused.

Left: LANDSAT image of Madygen Formation outcrops – de.wikipedia

In fact, it was the search for insect fossils that led to the discovery of two the Triassic’s more problematic hellasaurs. The first, Sharovipteryx mirabilis, is bad enough, what with its bizarre hind-limb “delta wing” and its purported link to pterosaur evolution despite its patagium-backward construction. We’ll leave Sharovipteryx be for now because our topic at hand is going to require the full bottle of Excedrin.

Longisquama insignis type specimen.

Behold, Longisquama insignis, “remarkably long-scaled” as the rather prosaic scientific name would have it. “Remarkable” is certainly *one* way to describe Longisquama. Whether the protarded 10 to 15 cm long structures which appear to project from its back are scales is (as Zach noted in the comment to a previous post) up for debate.

Some argue that the strange frond-like structures are the foliage of some unknown plant. They do look vaguely vegetative, although other plant matter on the slab appears to show a very different style of preservation and Fraser notes that they have “a peculiar venation pattern that is inconsistent with any known Triassic foliage types. The structures certainly appear to be physically associated with the skeleton itself, and most who have examined the fossil seem to accept that they belong to the skeleton, though the ‘consensus’ ends abruptly there.

One camp holds that they are feathers (which are, of course, modified scales) (Jones et al. 2000)! If this were true it might seriously upset the notion that birds are derived theropod dinosaurs. However, this view is a decided minority and a vast array of other skeletal evidence as well as the preservation of far more convincing feathers on some theropod fossils weigh heavily in favor of the birds-as-dinosaurs hypothesis. That is, unless maniraptoran theropod “dinosaurs” are secondarily flightless birds that merely look like dinosaurs….

Oregon State University

Anyway, if the nature of these structures remains contentious, then establishing their function has basically been an interpretive free-for-all. A number of authors have tried to turn them into a parachuting or gliding apparatus of some sort. However, unless they supported a membrane, or were filled with helium, it’s hard to imagine how this would have worked. That said, a recent phylogenetic analysis suggests Longisquama may have been closely related to Coelurosauravus a Permian diapsid with a slightly more (though perhaps not altogether) convincing gliding membrane projecting from its sides.

Left: Longisquama as plumulus glider – Oregon State University.

Display –either to attract mates or perhaps to scare off potential predators or intraspecific rivals—is another popular explanation and probably a more convincing one. Elongate plumes in birds are exclusively a sexual selection affair; in fact their value as a sexual symbol may be directly linked to their hindrance to locomotion.

Scissor-tailed FlycatcherTyrannus forficatus

Another, admittedly fanciful, scenario is that the resemblance to a plant frond is not-coincidental. Could the scales of Longisquama be some extreme cryptic adaptation? Perhaps they hid the animal from predators or provided cover allowing Longisquama to ambush its supposed insect prey? Structural mimicry of plants is rampant among arthropods and in addition to more familiar cryptic coloration patterns, a number of land vertebrates use posturing as well as modified skin surfaces to blend into their surroundings

While sexual advertising and cryptic camouflage would appear to be at odds with one another there are animals well-equipped for both. Notably, for our purposes, chameleons, who are at once exceptionally cryptic and at the same time often sport elaborate sexual signaling structures like horns and crests. While chameleons probably don’t adjust their colors to match their background as popularly believed, color switching does allow them to temporarily display their mood to another individual then switch back to their more cryptic “normal” coloration when the mood has passed.

Oregon State University

To continue our cautious, chameleon-like walk out on a very thin limb, it’s interesting to note that Longisquama’s skull, as figured by Senter (2004) (shown left), bears a remarkable superficial similarity to that of a chameleon [Note that other, very bird-like reconstructions of the skull out there are probably inaccurate, especially with regards to the supposed antorbital fenestra which is likely a preservational artifact]. The skull of Longisquama’s cousin Coelurosauravus is perhaps even more chameleon like. I’m not prepared to make an argument for functional convergence here, but to me the resemblance is quite striking.

Longisquama by Matt Celeskey

Longisquama is certainly not closely related to chameleons, but its probable close relatives the enigmatic hellasaurs known as drepanosaurs, have been inferred to have had a chameleon-esque lifestyle. One wonders if this interpretation might be extended to Longisquama. Was it lurking in the Triassic treetops, flashing chromatophoric signals across its crazy dorsal scales and snagging titanopterans with a ballistic tongue?

Left: Longisquama by Matt Celeskey

Or, have I just been out in the sun to long?


Fraser, Nicholas 2006. Dawn of the Dinosaurs Indiana University Press

Jones, Terry D. et al. 2000. “Non-avian Feathers in a Late Triassic Archosaur.” Science 23 June 2000:
Vol. 288. no. 5474, pp. 2202 – 2205 DOI: 10.1126/science.288.5474.2202

Senter, Phil 2004. “Phylogeny of Drepanosauridae (Reptilia: Diapsida).” Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 2: 257-268 DOI: 10.1017/S1477201904001427

4 Responses to “Enigmatic Triassic Hellasaur Thursday: Part the, um fourth?, Kyrgyz Kameleon”

  1. I’ve been considering writing a piece on Titanoptera – they are very neat. The fossil insect I derived my e-mail address from, Gerarus, is counted as a titanopteran under some classifications.

    I must admit, you were a bit more charitable and polite about the reconstruction on Wikipedia than I would have been.

  2. Zach Miller Says:

    Good rundown of perhaps the most contentious fossil diapsid on record. Those “leaves” really do look like they’re radiating from the back, but…meh. I do like that skull reconstruction by Senter, though.

    Do you have his paper? It’s secured (of course), but I love monkey-lizards.

  3. […] and part three is an interview with Rico about his work. Also from the Triassic comes the story of enigmatic hellasaurs, some of the most important insect fossils in the world from the Madygen Formation of Kyrgyzstan, […]

  4. […] Longisquama Lets its Freak Flags Fly – Even among the surreal host of Triassic creatures, Longisquama stands out as a weirdo.  Recent work on the bizarre skin appendages of Longisquama add to our […]

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