High diversity in the sauropod dinosaur fauna of the Lower Cretaceous Kirkwood Formation of South Africa: Implications for the Jurassic–Cretaceous transition
McPhee et al
The Kirkwood Formation of South Africa has long been recognized as having the potential to fill an important gap in the Mesozoic terrestrial fossil record. As one of the few fossil-bearing deposits from the lowermost Cretaceous, the Kirkwood Formation provides critical information on terrestrial ecosystems at the local, subcontinental (southern Gondwana), and global scale during this poorly sampled time interval. However, until recently, the dinosaurian fauna of the Kirkwood Formation, especially that pertaining to Sauropoda, has remained essentially unknown. Here we present comprehensive descriptions of several relatively well-preserved sauropod vertebrae collected from exposures throughout the formation. We identify at least four taxonomically distinct groups of sauropod, comprising representatives of Diplodocidae, Dicraeosauridae, Brachiosauridae, and a eusauropod that belongs to neither Diplodocoidea nor Titanosauriformes. This represents the first unequivocal evidence of these groups having survived into the earliest Cretaceous of Africa. The taxonomic composition of the Kirkwood Formation shows strong similarities to Upper Jurassic deposits, and raises questions regarding the taxonomic decline across the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary that has been previously inferred for Sauropoda. Investigation of the sauropod fossil record of the first three geological stages of the Cretaceous suggests that reconstruction of sauropod macroevolutionary patterns is complicated by a combination of sampling bias, an uneven and poorly dated rock record, and spatiotemporal disparity in the global disappearance of certain sauropod groups. Nonetheless, the close ecological relationship consistently observed between Brachiosauridae and Diplodocidae, as well as their approximately synchronous decline, suggests some equivalence in response to the changing faunal dynamics of the Early Cretaceous.