Large Cretaceous sphenodontian from Patagonia provides insight into lepidosaur evolution in Gondwana
Sphenodontian reptiles successfully radiated during Triassic and Jurassic times, but were driven almost to extinction during the Cretaceous period. The sparse Early Cretaceous record of sphenodontians has been interpreted as reflecting the decline of the group in favour of lizards, their suspected ecological successors. However, recent discoveries in Late Cretaceous beds in Patagonia partially modify this interpretation. Numerous skeletons of a new sphenodontian, Priosphenodon avelasi gen. et sp. nov., were collected from a single locality in the Cenomanian-Turonian Candeleros Formation, where it is more abundant than any other tetrapod group recorded in the quarry (for example, Crocodyliformes, Serpentes, Dinosauria and Mammalia). Adult specimens of Priosphenodon reached one metre in length, larger than any previously known terrestrial sphenodontian. Here we propose, using available evidence, that sphenodontians were not a minor component of the Cretaceous terrestrial ecosystems of South America, and that their ecological replacement by squamates was delayed until the early Tertiary. The new discovery helps to bridge the considerable gap in the fossil record (around 120 million years) that separates the Early Cretaceous sphenodontians from their living relatives (Sphenodon).