In 1995, my first year of field work at the Bromacker quarry, Stuart Sumida discovered a fossil that we initially thought was that of the amphibian Seymouria, based on the size and shape of the exposed vertebrae. This tentative identification made sense, because before our collaboration began, Thomas Martens had discovered in the Bromacker a skull of Seymouria, a creature known from localities in the USA. Months later, while I was preparing the specimen, Dave Berman and I realized the fossil wasn’t Seymouria, and that it belonged to the same unnamed animal that Thomas had collected a partial skeleton of before our collaboration began.
In the 1998 field season I discovered a third specimen, which is by far the most spectacular fossil that I have ever discovered. I found it towards the end of the field season when I pried up a piece of rock from the quarry floor. Upon turning over the rock piece, I saw an articulated foot preserved in it. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I knew that at the Bromacker if an articulated foot was found, the rest of the articulated skeleton should be attached to it. The problem was, we didn’t know if I had discovered a front or a hind foot, so we weren’t sure how the specimen was oriented in the quarry and whether it penetrated the nearby rock wall. Dave carefully lifted another piece of rock and thought the bones exposed in it were part of the shoulder girdle. Unfortunately, closer examination revealed that it was a piece of skull roof—another lobotomy—but, lacking x-ray vision, this is how we find fossil bone at the Bromacker. The good news was that the fossil specimen appeared to parallel the quarry wall.
Dave, Stuart, Thomas, then-graduate student Richard Kissel (University of Toronto, Mississauga), and I named the animal Orobates pabsti, which is from the Greek “oros,” meaning mountain, and “bates,” meaning walker, in reference to the Bromacker fossil environment being an intermontane basin. “Pabsti” is in honor of Professor Wilhelm Pabst for his pioneering work on the Bromacker fossil trackways.
We determined that Orobates is very closely related to Diadectes, and like Diadectes, was herbivorous. Orobates differs from Diadectes and other diadectomorphs in the group Diadectidae in a number of features, some of which are as follows: spade-shaped cheek teeth that are oriented on the jaw at an angle of 30–40° to the jaw line, rather than being close to 90°; narrower and shorter vertebral spines; 26 vertebrae between the head and hip (Diadectes has 21); proportions and shapes of individual toe bones; and digit (finger or toe) length.
The Bromacker has long been famous for its exquisitely preserved fossil trackways. Identification of the particular fossil animal that made a given trackway is almost always very difficult, because body fossils often lack completely preserved hands and feet and typically are not found in association with trackways. As a result, trackways are given their own set of names, called ichnotaxa (“ichno” means track or footprint), which are typically referred to major groups of animals instead of individual species. The Bromacker is unique, however, because nearly completely preserved body fossils occur in a rock unit above the trackways, indicating they are very nearly contemporaneous. Five ichnotaxa are known from the Bromacker, and one of them, Ichniotherium, has been attributed to Diadectidae.
Graduate student and trackway expert Sebastian Voigt (now Director at Urweltmuseum GEOSKOP, Burg Lichtenberg, Germany) often visited us at the Bromacker. In 2000, a time when Diadectes was the only known Bromacker diadectid, Sebastian and his advisor Hartmut Haubold (now emeritus at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany) proposed that Ichniotherium cottae made two track types, designated as A and B, that differed according to the speed at which the trackmakers moved. This contrasted previous studies that proposed three species of Ichniotherium at the Bromacker.
Once the skeletal anatomy of Orobates became known, Sebastian realized that there were two species of Ichniotherium, and they were made by Diadectes and Orobates, respectively. He invited Dave and me to co-author a paper to present this hypothesis. We supplied Sebastian with information about skeletal differences between Diadectes and Orobates, and Sebastian used these data to firmly establish that Diadectes made Ichniotherium cottae (type B) tracks and Orobates was the trackmaker of trackways formerly identified as I.sphaerodactylum (aka I. cottae type A). Even though the makers of the trackways are now known, the ichnotaxon names are still used when referring to the trackways.
In Diadectes, the fifth digit of the hind foot is relatively shorter than it is in Orobates, which can be seen in the tracks of I. cottae and I. sphaerodactylum, respectively. Furthermore, in I. cottae trackways, the hind foot track overlaps the track of the front foot, whereas in I. sphaerodactylum the hind foot track typically doesn’t overlap the front foot track. This is because Diadectes has less vertebrae between the head and hip (21 vertebrae) than Orobates (26 vertebrae) does.
A cast of the holotype skeleton of Orobates pabsti is exhibited in the Fossil Frontiers display case in Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibition. Be sure to look for it once the museum re-opens. And stay tuned for my next post, which will feature the amphibian Seymouria sanjuanensis.
For those of you who would like to learn more about Orobates, you can access the abstract here or contact Amy Henrici here. The publication on the track-trackmaker association can be found here.
Amy Henrici is Collection Manager in the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.