After the quick intro to the new taxon, now it’s time to talk in a bit more detail about the bones of Zhuchengtyrannus. All we have is a maxilla and a dentary but that’s actually quite useful. A few ribs and some caudal vertebrae wouldn’t have told us much as these are rather conservative in tyrannosaurs, but happily maxillae are not and have lots of useful and important taxonomic characters in them. It is also worth remembering that pretty much any bone, or even part of one, that is diagnostically different from everything else out there is reasonable to use as the basis for erecting a new taxon (like Brontomerus and various others).
I should of course add, before I go much further, that this is a blog, not a paper. There is more detail and commentary in the actual publication than here in internet land and if you really want to dive in then go read the paper (though again the paper as it stands online is an uncorrected proof, and that has cut off part of the taxonomy stuff!!!). This here is little more (as ever) than a surface discussion of the issues for general consumption and if anything more general than normal as I hope (expect?) that a few more people than normal will be finding the Musings right now as a result of the media coverage.
For those that don’t know their tyrannosaur taxonomy as well as they’d like it’s worth noting that Zhuchengtyrannus is a tyrannosaurine and that puts it in the group of especially large and derived tyrannosaurs and as part of a Late Cretaceous group that was restricted to eastern Asia and North America. We can tell this at least in part because it is a huge theropods from the end Cretaceous of China, but the relatively straight anterior edge of the maxilla supports this, and the shape of the teeth and dentary put it well within the tyrannosaurs in general.
At this juncture, it’s worth remembering that there are different ways of identifying species, or more specifically, distinguishing them from others. Obviously with a fossil we’re working on a morphological species concept (that is, identifying a species buy it’s anatomy), but more specifically we can separate out differences in different ways. First off we can look for genuinely unique features – a giant tooth in socket 5, only one finger on the hand, a skull twice as long as tall etc. Things that appear in our new species that don’t appear in any others (or at least any other close relatives – stripes are characteristic of tigers since even though other cats are stripey, you’d never confuse the two because of the obvious size differences etc.). Secondly though, you can look for unique combinations of characters. One species may have a long and wide skull, another a short and narrow skull. The characters of ‘long’, ‘short’, ‘wide’ and ‘narrow’ are all in play here, but you could distinguish a possible new species with a clearly distinct combination of ‘long and narrow’ or ‘short and wide’.
So onto Zhuchengtyrannus. This is diagnosed in our paper by two unique characters – a short of shelf on the anterior part of the maxilla and an odd notch in the maxillary fenestra (see figure below). Neither of these does, to our knowledge (or indeed that of the referees or various other colleagues we consulted), turn up in any other tyrannosaur specimen ever. There is also a unique combination of characters to further separate it from other tyrannosaurs in the position of the antorbital fossa and size of the maxillary fenestra.
Although the specimen was not entirely complete when recovered (and sadly the maxilla was later damaged as can be seen from the picture of the maxilla in the previous post) it was initially in very good condition. We have good reason to think therefore that all of these characters are valid ones. The bones were not broken (well they are a bit, but not where the critical characters appear) or distorted or altered and there was no sign of disease or pathologies. This is also not an issue of ontogeny (age-related changes). The animal is easily big enough that it’s hard to credit that it was anything other than an adult, and possibly a large one at that. Moreover, there is a decent literature on both ontogenetic changes in tyrnanosaur skulls and on intraspecific variation. Zhuchengtyrannus exhibits several characters that are normally only seen in adult tyrannosaurs (like the heavy sculpting on the maxilla, more on that later) and the characters we use in our diagnoses are not known to vary either through growth, or within putative populations.
For all of this, lumping taxonomists out there might well not regard this as valid (“To synonymy, and beyond!”). There are those who would still have Tarbosaurus as ‘just’ a species of Tyrannosaurus and I can only suspect they won’t like this much as a result (though I don’t know for sure of course). All I can say is that we are happy with the distinctions, and the referees and other colleagues who have examined the material were too. Taxonomy really does operate at little more than a consensus level and while this can all change, already (from what I have seen and discussed so far) the consensus is that this is a perfectly valid taxon. Of course there’s also a good chance that we will get more material of this species (indeed as noted previously, we may already, even if referral is currently an issue) which will help our cause. Given what bones we currently have, Zhuchengtyrannus seems to be as diagnostic as any other large tyrannosaur and while it could be better (we don’t have that much material), it is sufficient.
Even so, this is only the second tyrannosaurine from China and one that very probably overlaps in time, and space, with Tarbosaurus. As such, it is worth making special note of the differences between these two and again there are some more in the palatal shelf and at the back of the maxilla. In short, it should be very hard to confuse the two if you have a maxilla of either in your hands and there is even better reason to think the two are different and thus again that Zhuchengtyrannus is a genuinely new genus.
I was also reminded in comments in yesterday’s post about ‘Tyrannosaurus zhuchengensis‘ which is detailed in the paper, but initially forgotten here! Whoops. back in the 1970’s several tyrannosaurus-like teeth were recovered from this quarry and, in the manner of the day, named as a new species: Tyrannosaurus zhuchengensis. Later on a single isolated metatarsal (foot bone) was assigned to this species. What of this? Well none of these teeth or the metatarsal show any unique features that would make them diagnostic from any other tyrannosaur – in short, if you got a Tarbosaurus or Tyrannosaurus tooth or metatarsal and compared them to the T. zhuchengensis material, you wouldn’t seen any real difference. As such we cannot consider this to be valid and we therefore call Tyrannosaurus zhuchengensis a ‘nomen dubium’ – a dubious name that should never have been created and should no longer be used (and hence the use of quote marks around it in it’s initial appearance here). Of course this material might be a much earlier record of Zhuchengtyrannus, but we can’t be sure, it might belong to the second taxon, or who knows, even another tyrannosaur!
That’s rather more than I intended to say so I’ll cut it ‘short’ there. More to come tomorrow where I’ll delve into the ecology of ZT and then we’ll be onto the glorious artwork and its genesis and importance in science communication.