Taxonomic revision of Eoalligator (Crocodylia, Brevirostres) and the paleogeographic origins of the Chinese alligatoroids

PeerJ. 2016 Aug 24;4:e2356. doi: 10.7717/peerj.2356. eCollection 2016.


Background. The primarily Neotropical distribution of living alligatoroids raises questions as to when and how the ancestors of Alligator sinensis migrated to China. As phylogeny provides a necessary framework for historical biogeographic issues, determining the phylogenetic positions of the Chinese alligatoroids is a crucial step towards understanding global alligatoroid paleobiogeography. Besides the unnamed alligatoroids from the Eocene of Guangdong Province, three Chinese fossil taxa have been referred to Alligatoroidea: Alligator luicus, Eoalligator chunyii and Eoalligator huiningensis. However, none of these fossil taxa has been included in a phylogenetic analysis. The genus Eoalligator was established to accommodate E. chunyii from Guangdong Province. E. huiningensis from Anhui Province was later erected as a second species, despite no distinctive similarities with E. chunyii. By contrast, the putative crocodyline Asiatosuchus nanlingensis was established based on material from Guangdong Province, close to the E. chunyii specimens geographically and stratigraphically. Furthermore, specimens of A. nanlingensis and E. chunyii share four distinctive characters, but display no evident differences. As a result, the taxonomic relationships of these three species require restudy. Methods. In this paper, all specimens of E. chunyii and E. huiningensis are reassessed in detail, and compared to specimens of A. nanlingensis. Detailed re-descriptions and revised diagnoses are provided, and a cladistic analysis is carried out to assess the phylogenetic positions of E. chunyii, E. huiningensis and A. nanlingensis. Results. The analysis recovers E. chunyii and A. nanlingensis as sister taxa among basal Crocodylidae, while P. huiningensis is posited as an alligatoroid. Two key characters support the monophyly E. chunyii + A. nanlingensis: sulcus within surangular, and anteroposteriorly oriented surangular-articular suture. The former character is unique to E. chunyii and A. nanlingensis among crocodyloids, although a smaller and more posteriorly positioned surangular fossa is known in Diplocynodon. Detailed comparisons show the two species to be synonymous, with E. chunyii as the junior synonym of A. nanlingensis based on page priority. Because E. chunyii was erected as the type species of Eoalligator, the genus is now invalid. We establish the new genus Protoalligator to accommodate "Eoalligator" huiningensis, an alligatoroid whose exact phylogenetic position is uncertain. In particular, P. huiningensis retains primitive characters such as a lacrimal that extends further anteriorly than the prefrontal, and a notch at the premaxilla-maxilla suture. However, P. huiningensis also appears to share one important derived character, a complete nasal bar, with alligators. Our taxonomic revisions imply that four alligatoroids are currently known from China, and these species must have dispersed from North America to Asia in more than one event.

Keywords: Alligatoroidea; Crocodyloidea; Eoalligator; Paleobiogeography; Phylogeny; Protoalligator; Taxonomy.

Grant support

This research was funded by National Natural Science Foundation of China (41172017 and 41472017), and IRG-China/South Africa Research Cooperation Programme (No. 95449). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.