A sphenodontine (Rhynchocephalia) from the Miocene of New Zealand and palaeobiogeography of the tuatara (Sphenodon)

Marc E.H Jones, Alan J.D Tennyson, Jennifer P Worthy, Susan E Evans, Trevor H Worthy

Abstract

Jaws and dentition closely resembling those of the extant tuatara (Sphenodon) are described from the Manuherikia Group (Early Miocene; 19–16 million years ago, Mya) of Central Otago, New Zealand. This material is significant in bridging a gap of nearly 70 million years in the rhynchocephalian fossil record between the Late Pleistocene of New Zealand and the Late Cretaceous of Argentina. It provides the first pre-Pleistocene record of Rhynchocephalia in New Zealand, a finding consistent with the view that the ancestors of Sphenodon have been on the landmass since it separated from the rest of Gondwana 82–60 Mya. However, if New Zealand was completely submerged near the Oligo-Miocene boundary (25–22 Mya), as recently suggested, an ancestral sphenodontine would need to have colonized the re-emergent landmass via ocean rafting from a currently unrecorded and now extinct Miocene population. Although an Early Miocene record does not preclude that possibility, it substantially reduces the temporal window of opportunity. Irrespective of pre-Miocene biogeographic history, this material also provides the first direct evidence that the ancestors of the tuatara, an animal often perceived as unsophisticated, survived in New Zealand despite substantial local climatic and environmental changes.

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Footnotes

    • Received December 3, 2008.
    • Accepted December 22, 2008.
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