Given that this blog is called the ‘Archosaur Musings’, and that the term ‘archosaur’ (pronounced ‘ark-o-saur’, not ‘arch-o-saur’) is perhaps not that well known outside the scientific community it seemed a good idea to let everyone know. If you have been on here before you will know that this blog primarily deals with dinosaurs and pterosaurs and will therfore have likely guessed that these are archosaurs, but these are just some and far from all of what falls into the archosaurs.

imgp1414Ideally it would help if I covered the basics of etymology, taxonomy, systematics, phylogeny, anatomical definitions and evolution before getting here to define archosaurs. So bearing this in mind I have cobbled this post together the best I can and with luck all will become clear over the next page or so. If you get lost, I’m sorry, with luck it will be enough for you to work out the details yourselves or be a decent primer for further reading, and my apologies if some of the references aimed at other readers don’t make sense.

We’ll start with the most obvious bit: what it means. ‘Archosaur’ is derived from ancient Greek and roughly translates as ‘ruling lizard’ or in this context more accurately ‘ruling reptile’. Of course really obsessive systematicists will immediately get annoyed at the use of ‘reptile’ being a paraphyletic group but this is etymology, not systematics and anyway, it is still a useful, practical term. You will also see me and others use Archosauria (note the capital ‘A’) which is basically the formal version of the word, with obviously ‘archosaur’ being the common anglicised version.

_toucan3-6Next up, what are archosaurs, or rather what clades or groups fall under this term? The short (and techie) answer is “the most recent common ancestor of birds and crocodiles, and all their descendants”. Which in practical terms means the dinosaurs, crocodiles, birds, pterosaurs and a few other rather less well known groups like the phytosaurs and rauisuchids, plus a few odds and sods that don’t really belong to any group but none the less are archosaurs. They first appeared in late Permian period (around 250 around million years ago) and of course are still with us today, although all but the birds and crocs are now ectinct. Archosaurs are a true, monophyletic clade, that is to say that all archosaurs are the descendents of a single common ancestor, and all of the descendants of that ancestor are considered archosaurs. That may sound unnecessarily circular, but it is important. It also goes a fair way to explaining the name of this blog as although I really don’t do much (well, nothing so far) apart from dinosaurs and pterosaurs ‘archosaurs’ has a rather nicer ring to it (and more people probably know the name) than ‘dinosauromorphs’ (dinosaurs plus a few basal animals that are close relatives), or ‘ornithodirans’ (the term for dinosauromorphs and pterosaurs) and of course long time readers will know I didn’t actually name this blog anyway. Depending on exactly who you ask, some palaeontologists prefer a slightly wider definition of archosaurs which includes a few more basal taxa beyond the crocs and birds and their descendents, but to be honest the point is pretty much moot as far as we are concerned.

One thing to note immediately is that there are of course lots of things that are *not* archosaurs that superficially look similar, or at least were big important animals running around at the same time that you might think were archosaurs. Obviously the lizards, snakes and turtles are excluded, but so two are pelycosaurs (like the famous Dimeterodon), ictyhosaurs, rhynchosaurs, prolacertiforms and plesiosaurs and various basal crocodile-like things. If you examine the tree I have kindly attached you can see how everything is related to everything else within the Archosauria, and I have marked up a few other relatives and clade names of things that are not archosaurs for reference too. Clades are inclusive so birds are of course dinosaurs, dinosaurs are ornithodirans, and ornithodirans are archosaurs and archosaurs are archosauromorphs.
archosaurs tree
The next obvious point is therefore how can you tell what is and what is not an archosaur? Systematicists have a nice big list of features which allow you to identify (in theory at least) any given clade or even any species. You ‘simply’ have to see what features the animal has and then tick it off on the list. If it has all (or actually typically any) of the features on the archosaur list, well then it’s an archosaur. I’ll not put them all down here as frankly they are technical, hard to explain, and boring, but it’s worth putting in a couple of the more obvious ones so that you can spot an archosaur yourself, and prove that I’m not just making this up.

1. Antorbital fenestra between naris and orbit. This is pretty easy to spot since for even a layman the orbit and naris (or eye socket and nostril) are easily identifiable, and then you just have to look for a big fat hole in the skull between them.

2. Laterally flattened serrated teeth. Not much to add to that really, except of course that this is the acquired evolutionary condition in archosaurs (i.e. they evolved these teeth and their ancestors did not have them) which means that it might be lost or change later on (like in birds most obviously).

3. A posterior mandibular fenestra. Again another nice easy one, simply find the lower jaw and look for a hole somewhere near the back.

archo-skullAnd here they are as seen in the rauisuchiuan Prestosuchus. The teeth, antorbital fenestra, and the mandibula fenestra are all clearly visible (black arrows) and while we are here, you can see the upper and lower temporal fenestrae (white arrows) that also mark it out as a diapsid (a much larger and more important group of reptiles that includes snakes and lizards). That really is about it for now. You should have a decent idea of what anis and is not an archosaur, what they look like, and how they are related. I will expand on some of these ideas at some point in the future such as the details of taxonomy, spotting reversals (like tooth loss) that can confuse people, and of course providing more details about some of the groups that make up the Archosauria.

Hopefully that should give you a good head-start on the archosaurs, though I freely admit I don’t write much about anything other than theropods and pterosaurs on here.

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13 Responses to “What are archosaurs?”

  1. 1 DK 15/07/2012 at 12:03 pm

    So dinosaurs aren’t dinosauramorpha?

    • 2 David Hone 15/07/2012 at 12:11 pm

      Yes they are. I guess you’ve got mixed up in the cladogram figure which is a bit over simplistic – the the ‘dinosauromorphs’ really means the non-dinosaurian Dinosauromorpha. But dinosaurs are certain within Dinosauromopha (which is in the text).

      • 3 DK 16/07/2012 at 9:04 am

        Fantastic. Yes, I got tripped up by the cladogram. I’m very visual so I hope to see more such cladograms and diagrams in your wonderful posts. Thanks so much for your blog!


  2. 4 Badri Venkatavaradan 03/12/2012 at 8:01 am

    What about ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs? I always thought they were also archosaurs.

  3. 6 MJ 27/12/2012 at 12:03 pm

    Quick question: I am supposed to create a research poster on a monophyletic group and was going to go for pterosaurs. Not sure however, if they really are monophyletic?

    If they arent, could you give examples of some groups that are? :)


  4. 8 Stella 04/11/2013 at 7:27 am

    Hello, what an amazing site you have. I don’t want to bother you, so if you are too busy to respond I will not be offended! If you do have time…

    I have a son named Archer. I was pretty chuffed to hear that there are such things as Archosaurs – I don’t know any dinosaur experts personally, so think I can get away with pronouncing it “ARCH a saur” in my house. I was wondering whether there is any such thing as an ‘Archosaurus’, and, if so, whether you have a picture of it somewhere on your site (or know of one in a book I can get hold of)- I would love to print it out and put it on the wall. I found an image on your site of an “archaeopteryx” – would that be about as close to an ‘Archosaurus’ as I can get?
    Thanks for your time!

    • 9 David Hone 06/11/2013 at 3:20 pm

      Hello, there is actually an ‘Archosaurus’, but oddly it is not currently considered an archosaur. Lots of things have odd names like that (Proceratosaurus is not a ceratosaur and Eopteranodon is not a pteranodontid) though Archosaurus is close to the origins of the archosaurs. Early archosaurs were rather croc-like, but Archaeopteryx is basically an early bird, so while still an archosaur, rather different to the first forms. Hope this helps.

  1. 1 The Pelvis « Fins to Feet Trackback on 14/07/2010 at 9:08 am
  2. 2 The not missing mandibular fenestra of Eudimorphodon « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 15/12/2010 at 8:07 am
  3. 3 Meet the Researcher « SBES Trackback on 09/02/2011 at 12:48 pm
  4. 4 Prendre la température des dinosaures. | EVO-BIO Trackback on 05/07/2011 at 7:10 pm

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