Testing pterosaur ingroup relationships through broader sampling of avemetatarsalian taxa and characters and a range of phylogenetic analysis techniques.PeerJ. 2020; 8:e9604.P
The pterosaurs first appear in the fossil record in the middle of the Late Triassic. Their earliest representatives are known from Northern Hemisphere localities but, by the end of the Jurassic Period, this clade of flying reptiles achieved a global distribution, as well as high levels of diversity and disparity. Our understanding of early pterosaur evolution and the fundamental interrelationships within Pterosauria has improved dramatically in recent decades. However, there is still debate about how the various pterosaur subgroups relate to one another and about which taxa comprise these. Many recent phylogenetic analyses, while sampling well from among the known Triassic and Early Jurassic pterosaurs, have not included many non-pterosaurian ornithodirans or other avemetatarsalians. Given the close relationship between these groups of archosaurs, the omission of other ornithodirans and avemetatarsalians has the potential to adversely affect the results of phylogenetic analyses, in terms of character optimisation and ingroup relationships recovered. This study has addressed this issue and tests the relationships between the early diverging pterosaur taxa following the addition of avemetatarsalian taxa and anatomical characters to an existing early pterosaur dataset. This study has, for the first time, included taxa that represent the aphanosaurs, lagerpetids, silesaurids and dinosaurs, in addition to early pterosaurs. Anatomical characters used in other recent studies of archosaurs and early dinosaurs have also been incorporated. By expanding the outgroup taxa and anatomical character coverage in this pterosaur dataset, better resolution between the taxa within certain early pterosaur subclades has been achieved and stronger support for some existing clades has been found; other purported clades of early pterosaurs have not been found in this analysis-for example there is no support for a monophyletic Eopterosauria or Eudimorphodontidae. Further support has been found for a sister-taxon relationship between Peteinosaurus zambelli and Macronychoptera, a clade here named Zambellisauria (clade nov.), as well as for a monophyletic and early diverging Preondactylia. Some analyses also support the existence of a clade that falls as sister-taxon to the zambellisaurs, here named Caviramidae (clade nov.). Furthermore, some support has been found for a monophyletic Austriadraconidae at the base of Pterosauria. Somewhat surprisingly, Lagerpetidae is recovered outside of Ornithodira sensu stricto, meaning that, based upon current definitions at least, pterosaurs fall within Dinosauromorpha in this analysis. However, fundamental ornithodiran interrelationships were not the focus of this study and this particular result should be treated with caution for now. However, these results do further highlight the need for broader taxon and character sampling in phylogenetic analyses, and the effects of outgroup choice on determining ingroup relationships.