Testing co-evolutionary hypotheses over geological timescales: interactions between Mesozoic non-avian dinosaurs and cycads

Richard J Butler, Paul M Barrett, Paul Kenrick, Malcolm G Penn
Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 2009, 84 (1): 73-89
The significance of co-evolution over ecological timescales is well established, yet it remains unclear to what extent co-evolutionary processes contribute to driving large-scale evolutionary and ecological changes over geological timescales. Some of the most intriguing and pervasive long-term co-evolutionary hypotheses relate to proposed interactions between herbivorous non-avian dinosaurs and Mesozoic plants, including cycads. Dinosaurs have been proposed as key dispersers of cycad seeds during the Mesozoic, and temporal variation in cycad diversity and abundance has been linked to dinosaur faunal changes. Here we assess the evidence for proposed hypotheses of trophic and evolutionary interactions between these two groups using diversity analyses, a new database of Cretaceous dinosaur and plant co-occurrence data, and a geographical information system (GIS) as a visualisation tool. Phylogenetic evidence suggests that the origins of several key biological properties of cycads (e.g. toxins, bright-coloured seeds) likely predated the origin of dinosaurs. Direct evidence of dinosaur-cycad interactions is lacking, but evidence from extant ecosystems suggests that dinosaurs may plausibly have acted as seed dispersers for cycads, although it is likely that other vertebrate groups (e.g. birds, early mammals) also played a role. Although the Late Triassic radiations of dinosaurs and cycads appear to have been approximately contemporaneous, few significant changes in dinosaur faunas coincide with the late Early Cretaceous cycad decline. No significant spatiotemporal associations between particular dinosaur groups and cycads can be identified - GIS visualisation reveals disparities between the spatiotemporal distributions of some dinosaur groups (e.g. sauropodomorphs) and cycads that are inconsistent with co-evolutionary hypotheses. The available data provide no unequivocal support for any of the proposed co-evolutionary interactions between cycads and herbivorous dinosaurs - diffuse co-evolutionary scenarios that are proposed to operate over geological timescales are plausible, but such hypotheses need to be firmly grounded on direct evidence of interaction and may be difficult to support given the patchiness of the fossil record.

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