A primitive ornithischian dinosaur from the Late Triassic of South Africa, and the early evolution and diversification of Ornithischia

Richard J Butler, Roger M H Smith, David B Norman
Proceedings. Biological Sciences 2007 August 22, 274 (1621): 2041-6
Although the group played an important role in the evolution of Late Mesozoic terrestrial ecosystems, the early evolutionary history of the ornithischian dinosaurs remains poorly understood. Here, we report on a new primitive ornithischian, Eocursor parvus gen. et sp. nov. from the Late Triassic (?Norian) Lower Elliot Formation of South Africa. Eocursor is known from a single specimen comprising substantial cranial and postcranial material and represents the most complete Triassic member of Ornithischia, providing the earliest evidence for the acquisition of many key ornithischian postcranial characters, including an opisthopubic pelvis. A new phylogenetic analysis positions this taxon near the base of Ornithischia, as the sister taxon to the important and diverse clade Genasauria. The problematic clade Heterodontosauridae is also positioned basal to Genasauria, suggesting that an enlarged grasping manus may represent a plesiomorphic ornithischian condition. This analysis provides additional phylogenetic support for limited ornithischian diversity during the Late Triassic, and suggests that several major ornithischian clades may have originated later than generally believed. There are few morphological differences between Late Triassic and Early Jurassic ornithischians, supporting previous suggestions that the Early Jurassic ornithischian radiation may simply represent the filling of vacant ecological space following Late Triassic terrestrial extinctions.

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