, Volume 92, Issue 1, pp 119-168
Date: 08 Feb 2012

Re-evaluating Moodie’s Opisthotonic-Posture Hypothesis in Fossil Vertebrates Part I: Reptiles—the taphonomy of the bipedal dinosaurs Compsognathus longipes and Juravenator starki from the Solnhofen Archipelago (Jurassic, Germany)

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Abstract

More or less complete and articulated skeletons of fossil air-breathing vertebrates with a long neck and tail often exhibit a body posture in which the head and neck are recurved over the back of the animal. Additionally, the tail is typically drawn over the body, while the limbs have a rigid appearance. In palaeontological literature, this “opisthotonic posture” of such fossils still requires a causal interpretation in an etiological context. According to this hypothesis, there is a presumption of a cerebral disorder generating perimortem muscle spasms that are preserved by rapid burial or other sequestration of a skeleton in the fossil record. We re-evaluate this “opisthotonic posture hypothesis” by analysing the non-avian theropods Compsognathus longipes and Juravenator starki from the famous South Franconian plattenkalks of the Upper Jurassic Solnhofen Archipelago. Decay experiments with the extant domestic fowl Gallus gallus L. and analysis of the theropods’ constructional morphological constraints reveal that the opisthotonic posture is not a peri- but a postmortem phenomenon. By analysing the timeline of decomposition, it is possible to recognise different stages of decay, depending on the varying decay resistance of soft tissues. Adipocere formation must have blocked further decay until embedding was completed by minimal sedimentation. Analyses of the palaeoenvironment of the basins of the Solnhofen Archipelago show that the conditions of deposition of individual basins cannot be considered to be similar, even inside the same time frame. Therefore, a generalised approach of looking at the depositional setting must be excluded. Assumptions by Faux and Padian (2007) that the accepted palaeoenvironmental reconstruction of the Solnhofen Fossillagerstätte has to be questioned in the light of the opisthotonic posture hypothesis enforce the need for a review of palaeoecological factors of the Franconian Plattenkalks from a taphonomic perspective.

This article is a contribution to the special issue “Taphonomic processes in terrestrial and marine environments”