Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments

, Volume 92, Issue 1, pp 119–168 | Cite as

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)

  • Achim G. ReisdorfEmail author
  • Michael Wuttke


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.


Taphonomy Opisthotonic posture Theropods Palaeoecology Plattenkalks Bipedal trackway 



The authors are grateful to Martina Kölbl-Ebert and Oliver Rauhut who provided access to the specimens under their care, for advice, permission to use photos and illustrations as well as fruitful discussions. At our stays in Eichstätt and Munich we enjoyed the support of their teams and colleagues. The same is true with Ursula Göhlich, Louis Chiappe and Helmut Tischlinger who kindly supplied advice, illustrations and photos. Winfried Werner (Zitteliana) kindly gave permission to use illustrations of Ostrom (1978). We wish to thank Pino Völkl and Klaus-Dieter Weiß for irreplaceable background information about Juravenator which otherwise would have been lost. We were given invaluable support in image processing from Thomas Bizer. Daniel Marty generously diagnosed and interpreted the dinosaur trackway and gave permission to publish it in this paper. Oliver Rauhut and an anonymous reviewer critically read the manuscript and made helpful suggestions. This paper greatly improved by generous support with the literature by Reinhold R. Leinfelder, Gerald Mayr, Holger Preuschoft, Oliver Rauhut, and Martin Sander. For fruitful discussions and advice we are grateful to Ulrich Betz, Justin K. Broadrick, Thomas Dumser, Martin Ebert, Franz Fürsich, Hans Hess, Dietmar Jung, Dean Lomax, Matthias Pfäffli, Holger Preuschoft, Günter Schweigert, Krister Smith, Takanobu Tsuihiji, Günther Viohl, and Daniel Wyler. Special thanks to Elke Bitter, Iris Bitter, DeNae Flentje, Jeb Hogan and Andrea Voegelin who improved the English.

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© Senckenberg, Gesellschaft für Naturforschung and Springer 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universität Basel Geologisch-Paläontologisches InstitutBaselSwitzerland
  2. 2.Referat Erdgeschichte, Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-PfalzMainzGermany

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