My previous repost was made to give the background on a recent discovery of Jurassic ceratosaur, Limusaurus inextricabilis, and what it tells us about digit evolution. Here’s Limusaurus—beautiful little beastie, isn’t it?
What’s especially interesting about it is that it catches an evolutionary hypothesis in the act, and is another genuine transitional fossil. The hypothesis is about how fingers were modified over time to produce the patterns we see in dinosaurs and birds.
Birds have greatly reduced digits, but when we examine them embryologically, we can see precisely what has happened: they’ve lost the outermost digits, the thumb (I) and pinky (V), and retain the forefinger, middle finger, and ring finger (II-IV), which have been reduced and fused together. This is called Bilateral Digit Reduction, BDR, because they’ve lost digits from the medial and lateral sides, leaving the middle set intact.
Dinosaurs, when examined anatomically, seem to have a different pattern: they have a thumb (I), forefinger (II) and middle finger (III), and have lost the lateral two digits, the ring and pinky finger (IV-V). This arrangement has been advanced as evidence that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs, since they have different bones in their hands, and getting from one pattern to the other is complicated and difficult and very unlikely.
The alternative hypothesis is that there is no conflict, and that dinosaurs actually underwent BDR and their digits are II-III-IV…but that what has also happened is a frame shift in digit identities. So dinosaurs actually have three digits, which are the index, middle, and ring finger, but they’ve undergone a subtle shift in morphology so that their forefinger develops as a thumb, and so forth.
Now we could resolve all this easily if only the physicists would get to work and build that time machine so we could go back to the Mesozoic and study dinosaur embryology, but they’re too busy playing with strings and quanta and dark matter to do the important experiments, so we’ve got to settle for another plan: find intermediate forms in the fossil record. That’s where Limusaurus steps in.
Limusaurus has a thumb, a tiny vestigial nubbin, and has lost its pinky completely. This is a (I)-II-III-IV pattern, and is evidence of bilateral digit reduction in a basal ceratosaur. In addition, the forefinger has become very robust, and while still distinctly a digit II, has been caught in the early stages of a transformation into a saurian first digit. It’s evidence in support of the dinosaurian II-III-IV hypothesis and the frameshift in digit identity! It’s almost as good as having a time machine.
Want to learn more? Carl Zimmer has a summary of the digit changes, while one of the authors of the paper, David Hone, also discusses the digits (the story is a little more complicated than I’ve laid out), and also has more on the rest of the animal—it’s a herbivorous ceratosaur, which is interesting in itself.
Xu X, Clark JM, Mo J, Choiniere J, Forster CA, Erickson GM, Hone DWE, Sullivan C, Eberth DA, Nesbitt S, Zhao Q, Hernandez R, Jia C-k, Han F-l, Guo Y (2009) A Jurassic ceratosaur from China helps clarify avian digit homologies. Nature 459(18):940-944.