The taxonomy and systematics of the earliest plesiosaurians is poorly resolved. This limits our understanding of the diversification of one of the most successful clades of secondarily aquatic tetrapods. Here we provide a robust diagnosis of Thalassiodracon hawkinsii from the Pre-planorbis Beds (Triassic—Jurassic boundary interval) of the United Kingdom, and suggest that at least two other, previously unrecognized plesiosaurians are present in the same deposits. Computed tomography of an exceptionally preserved skull, and examination of previously undescribed (or briefly described) specimens yields new anatomical data. Thalassiodracon has a dorsomedian ridge on the premaxilla, a squamosal bulb, four premaxillary teeth, and a heterodont maxillary dentition. Several features of Thalassiodracon, including the squmosal bulb, broad anterior termination of the pterygoids, heterodont dentition, and single foramen in the lateral surface of the exoccipital, are plesiomorphic or represent pliosauroid synapomorphies. Among pliosauroids, Thalassiodracon shares a parietal that extends far anteriorly, a broad, interdigitating posterior termination of the premaxilla, and a short posteroventral process of the postorbital with Hauffiosaurus and pliosaurids. Thus, we suggest pliosaurid affinities for Thalassio dracon, in contrast to most recent phylogenetic studies. The early stratigraphic position of Thalassiodracon coincides with the earliest occurrence of Rhomaleosauridae (the sister taxon of Pliosauridae). The relatively long neck and small skull of Thalassiodracon indicate that the robust skeleton and macropredaceous habits of rhomaleosaurids and pliosaurids were derived independently.
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Vol. 31 • No. 3