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Week 14/15 Big Ten Power Poll: Triassic Fauna

Friends of Dinosaur Park and Arboretum mural by William Sillin

You all know me. Know how I earn a livin’.

Anyway for those who don’t, I’m Zuzu, I’m a vertebrate paleontologist. I just defended my Ph.D. on November 17th so I am literally braindead which is why you didn’t get this last week. However, I thought the theme of this Power Poll to be apt as we move into the next era of the Big Ten. I akso couldn’t lose my streak of science-themed power polls since 2015 (links at bottom of article).

The Triassic was the first geologic period of the Mesozoic Era beginning 252 million years ago after the End-Permian Mass Extinction, the “Great Dying.” In the wake of the extinction, life diversified in strange ways with all the ecological space left vacant. A lot of people associate the Mesozoic as a whole with dinosaurs, but dinosaurs didn’t actually get going until the end of the Triassic, and really radiated in the early Jurassic. And the change from the Triassic to the Jurassic was marked by another devastating extinction at the end of the Triassic Period that occurred 201 million years ago, just 50 million years after the Great Dying, that completely reshuffled terrestrial and marine faunas.

And wouldn’t you know it, a paper I co-lead authored on that very extinction just coincidentally came out yesterday here, so just click it for me so we can confuse the heck out of the journal with the traffic it’s getting (we did do a press release, so I’ll classify this Power Poll as one of the articles stemming from said release.)

You see, the Big Ten is very much like the Triassic Period. The Triassic is known for very strange evolutionary experiments particularly among reptiles and you will see some of these weirdos below. The Big Ten is a weird conference. A weird geographic range (even before the new Pacific teams), a name that means nothing to the actual number of teams of which it is comprised, and various schools with strange personalities and quirks among their fans.

The Triassic Period came to its bitter end when volcanism from the formation of the Atlantic Ocean and separation of Pangea caused climate change as the continents diverged. Something known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) which was a large igneous province—what would have been an amazing, yet hellacious sight of constant volcanic eruptions over a massive region, far beyond what the eye could see—spewed greenhouse gases into the atmopshere (cough cough) which acidified and caused loss of oxygen in the oceans, and aridified the land causing deforestation and wildfires...

Tegner et al. 2020

That’s what this most recent conference realignment feels like.

Now I know I’m a Rutgers fan. I’m not trying to be like some exclusionary jerk of a former loser outcast, someone who becomes kinda cool or established and then turns around treats others the negative way they were. No. I like the new Pacific teams. I just got my PhD from USC, Fight On (I don’t know why the universe wants me to get degrees from Big Ten schools, Rutgers joined the Big Ten while I was in the middle of my studies there too). Rather, I guess that the changing college football landscape is... well the Pac-12 is gone. That’s... depressing. Oklahoma is in the SEC. Cal and Stanford are in the ATLANTIC COAST Conference. Words mean nothing! Chaos! It’s literally extinction and recovery. Extinction of a whole conference. Of rivalries. But a fascinating recovery for the organisms, or teams, that survived. Time will tell who further evolves and who prospers in this brave new college football world.

Also, I’ll be honest. I’ve been in a PhD hole for about... four months. I know very little about most of these teams aside from records and what our lovely OTE writers have voted. So the below animal designations will be based on forward looking thoughts and other vibes. Anyway, it’s learnin’ time.

[all team graph] [WSR Note: LOL WHOOPS. REDACTED TEMPORARILY DUE TO {redacted due to personal reasons}]

1. Michigan WolverinesPlateosaurus

So I mentioned above that dinosaurs survived the End-Triassic Mass Extinction and not just survived it, but thrived afterward. Plateosaurus is an early sauropodomorph that lived in the Late Triassic. Sauropodomorphs were the early ancestors of the colossal long-necked, herbivorous titans that would walk the Jurassic and Cretaceous. Plateosaurus was probably mostly bipedal, not yet walking on four legs like sauropods like the front heavy Brachiosaurus, but it did have a small head compared to its body like most sauropods did (ha). Like Michigan it was successful right up to the end of the Triassic and its descendants continued to be— I expect continued success for Michigan in the B18.

Please note that Cheatin’ Ass Michigan actually came in #2 in the polls.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes— Coelophysis

This is another Late Triassic dinosaur and is assigned to Ohio State for similar reasons as Michigan’s dinosaur. I predict future success for Ohio State. Coelophysis is a theropod, an early relative of dinosaurs like Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. But it was small, light and fleet-footed. Many of its fossils are famously recovered from Ghost Ranch in New Mexico (great place). At the same time, though it was part of a dinosaur lineage that would find success in the future... it would get smacked by a Plateosaurus. What’s also cool about Coelophysis though is that it had very variable growth rates and maximum adult sizes (research done by my frens <3). Something that we don’t really see in animals today. Maybe this year was a small Coelophysis Ohio State year.

3. Penn State Nittany LionsShonisaurus

Gabriel Ugueto

Okay so I hate giving such a cool animal to a team that I hate, but it fits. Shonisaurus was a giant ichthyosaur, in fact one of the largest marine predators of all time. But when thinking of Triassic recovery and success most think of the dinosaurs, but ichthyosaurs also thrived past the Triassic. But the giant predatory behemoth icthyosaurs of the Late Triassic like Shonisaurus did die out, smaller more streamlined dolphin-like forms becoming more common. I don’t know guys, I just don’t think Penn State is gonna be able to go toe-to-toe with Michigan, Ohio State, and then USC, Washington, and Oregon. I do predict general conference success though. They had a good 2023 season.

4. Iowa HawkeyesDesmatosuchus

Iowa! No offense! Only defense. Desmatosuchus, believe it or not, is actually related to crocodiles. This armored crocodylomorph was an aetosaur. An imposing, twenty foot long animal with shoulder spikes and osteoderms (pieces of bone embedded in skin), it had offensive limitations. It all armor, no weaponry really. Probably adopted “please don’t” lifestyle which would work against most animals, but not all. Crocodylomorphs like aetosaurs were some of the iconic losses of the Triassic. But not all. Many survived the extinction, sure, which is why we still have crocodiles today. But the Triassic was actually Croc World... replaced by dinosaur world in the Jurassic.

5. Northwestern WildcatsCynognathus

Okay this is where I start to lose the details of the teams. Northwestern is 2nd in the Big Ten West? *checks record* Oh they went 7-5. I don’t know, Cynognathus was a feisty little cynodont, a close relative to mammals which are synapsids. Fun fact about our non-mammal synapsid ancestors. They actually kind of ruled the world before the Triassic, but bought it at the End-Permian Mass Extinction making way for the archosauromorph reptile groups that would dominate the Mesozoic Era. Northwestern experienced a lot of off-field stuff. Maybe they’ll come back one day like mammals would eventually. Their decent performance this season suggests that’s possible, despite their happenings.

6. Maryland TerrapinsNothosaurus

Science Photo Library, John Sibbick

I usually give Maryland some type of turtle and there are some to choose from as turtles were just getting going in the Triassic. But I thought Nothosaurus, a predatory and early relative of plesiosaurs was more fitting. Nothosaurus was in a group of reptiles called Sauropterygians, which encompasses plesiosaurs (the Loch Ness monster looking marine reptiles). Now this is a Triassic and Mesozoic sleeper group. Sauropterygians evolved into aquatic environments right on the heels of Ichthyosaurs... and actually outlasted them in the Mesozoic and as plesiosaurs they evolved into gigantic, terrifying forms. Now Nothosaurus wasn’t quite a plesiosaur... but its later relatives would become them. Maryland is a (frustratingly) solid team. And will likely get more solid, maybe even scary in the future.

7. Wisconsin BadgersDrepanosaurus

Victor Leshyk

Kinda just throwing animals at these teams to see if they stick. Drepanosaurus is among the weirdest reptiles of the Triassic. Likely arboreal, it had exceptionally strange arms and claws and an extra weird little claw or hook-like structure at the tip of its tail, likely for holding onto trees. Why Drepanosaurus for Wisconsin? I don’t know. Something something badgers have weird claws and Wisconsin has been a weird team these few years. Are they good, are they bad? They certainly frustrate me as a Rutgers fan... I don’t know what to make of them, just like how I don’t know what to make of this lil guy, Drepanosaurus.

8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights—Euparkeria

Euparkeria is a little archosauriform, a lineage of reptiles that was on its way to becoming archosaurs (dinosaurs [bird included], pterosaurs, crocodiles), but wasn’t quite one yet. There’s an analogy for the first College Football game in there. What set it apart from other groups of Triassic reptiles that would contribute to its success and its relatives evolving into animals like dinosaurs, was its likely bipedal and more upright and active posture. God I hope Rutgers becomes a dinosaur one day... seems like we’re getting there? But as far as directions that can be gone in, with Euparkeria’s relatives becoming both crocodylomorphs and dinosaurs... will conference realignment be like what the end of the Triassic was for crocodylomorphs (bad) or dinosaurs (good)?

9. Illinois Fighting IlliniTanystropheus

Mark Witton

Yes, this animal is real! I’ve definitely assigned it to a team in a Power Poll before. But it’s so strange and cool and my first paper is on one of these weirdos. Tanystropheus is an archosauromorph reptile, meaning it’s on the dinosaur, bird, and crocodile side of the reptile evolutionary tree as opposed to the lizard side. This genus was the biggest, about eighteen feet in length and had the longest neck to body ratio of any known animal and was semi-aquatic. They were semi-aquatic, probably needing water to support their weird body shape. How does it capture Illinois? Uhhhhh.... Oh I know. Illinois was good last year and they’re bad this year. Tanystropheus’ lineage somehow evolved to such extreme proportions indicating success early on, but such odd morhology probably became a detriment at some point. They did not survive past the Triassic.

10. Nebraska CornhuskersSharovipteryx

Julio Lacerda

I don’t even know, man. I just wanted you guys to see this animal. Back leg wings. Sorry Husker fans, I literally have no idea what Nebraska did this year. A cursory Google search says you went 5-7, opening with two losses, then ending your season a four game losing streak. Maybe that’s the result of being weird and flying with your legs. I bet it’s a rocky start, some gliding in the middle there, then you start to descend until you reach the next branch. I tried. Sharovipteryx. They did not make it into the Jurassic.

11. Minnesota Golden GophersMetoposaurus

Cullen Townsend

I never give any love to amphibians in these polls because they are not amniotes (amniotic egg havers like reptiles and mammals). But amphibians like Metoposaurus were pretty cool. These animals likely had crocodile-like ecologies—before crocodiles even existed. Mind you, they are amphibians, related to salamanders and frogs. However, the end of the Triassic was not good to Temnospondyls like Metoposaurus. Only a few squeaked through. Minnesota had a rough season relative to last year’s. For next season and beyond, will they be one of the cool temonspondyls that survived, or the ones that didn’t?

12. Purdue BoilermakersPeteinosaurus

Peter Montgomery

Pterosaurus are what’s called the sister group/clade to dinosaurs (their closest relatives that they share a common ancestor with, but aren’t in the same group). So if dinosaurs evolved in the Late Triassic, that means pterosaurs did too. Peteinosaurus is one of the oldest known pterosaurs and was small, possessing a two foot wingspan. It doesn’t necessarily fit Purdue in that Pterosaurs became wildly successful as the first vertebrates with powered flight and were very estblished in the Mesozoic, diversifying into a variety of forms in the Jurassic and Cretaceous, but they both start with “P”! (I also kind of hate them, they’re creepy looking.)

13. Michigan State SpartansIcarosaurus

Icarosaurus is a strange flying reptile known only from New Jersey, the only specimen known discovered in a slab in 1960. Tiny, about ten centimeters, it was a kuehneosaurid, which were essentially a little gliding reptiles, probably on the lizard side of the reptile evolutionary tree. I picked it for Michigan State for its namesake. Icarus. Michigan State burned its wings. Kuehnosaurids didn’t survive the Triassic. But not all hope is lost for Michigan State. After the fossil was found it was given to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in NYC, but the finder reclaimed it years later and sold it at auction (this is bad for fossils and bad for science by the way). However, the person who bought it for $167,000 eventually donated it back to the AMNH.

14. Indiana HoosiersLystrosaurus

These little guys are unique because they’re one of the major groups to survive the End-Permian Extinction. They are dicynodonts, synapsids, so more closely related to us and other mammals than to reptiles. They were hebrivores, possessing a beak with tusks they are actually very key animals to understanding faunal turnover and changes after the End-Permian extinction and help us understand the types of animals that survice such devastating events and endure. Indiana is a very B1G Big Ten school. Enduring. Established. A classic. But alas, Lystrosaurus though they persevered through the greatest extinction of all time, they would not make it through to the end of the Triassic.

Bonus Animal:

The Big Ten Conference— Erythrosuchus

A five meter long big-headed archosauriform monster gobbling up other teams, I mean animals. As Matthew Hooper would say, “Those proportions are correct.”

Okay that’s it. Hope you learned something!

(Past power poll links for more learning: Dinosaurs, Non-dinosaur extinct animals, Marine tetrapods, Geologic time scale, Semi-aquatic tetrapods, Crocodilians, Major Evolutionary Milestones, Archosauromorph Reptiles)