The cranial anatomy of the Mongolian Late Cretaceous multituberculate Kryptobaatar dashzevegi is described based on exquisitely preserved specimens collected from Ukhaa Tolgod and Tugrugeen Shireh in the Gobi Desert by joint expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Most sutural relationships are preserved, enabling a bone-by-bone description of the skull and lower jaws exclusive of the nasal fossa and paranasal sinuses. A reconstruction of the principal components of the cranial nervous, arterial, and venous systems is facilitated by specimens with exposed endocranial surfaces.
Comparisons with previously described multituberculates, other Mesozoic mammaliaforms, and extant mammals allow an assessment of major topics in the evolutionary morphology of the multituberculate and mammaliaform skull, as well as identification of Kryptobaatar as an appropriate model regarding most aspects of the multituberculate skull for future phylogenetic studies. Elements previously unknown or poorly known in multituberculates are described. Included are a complete jugal on the internal surface of the zygoma; the orbital mosaic and foramina, including the optic foramen, the metoptic foramen, the transverse canal, and the foramen for the pituito-orbital vein; and the endocranium with an extensively ossified primary braincase wall formed by the pilae metoptica and antotica. The latter pila is very robust compared with its ossified remnants in non-mammalian cynodonts and monotremes, suggesting that it is a derived multituberculate condition. The co-occurrence of the pilae metoptica and antotica in multituberculates is thus far unique among mammaliaforms, but agrees with the morphology expected to be primitive for Mammalia. This in turn implies an independent loss of an ossified pila metoptica in monotremes, marsupials, and Vincelestes or the loss of the pila metoptica in the ancestry of multituberculates and therians combined with the independent reacquisition of a neomorphic pila metoptica in multituberculates and eutherians. The absence of several elements from the multituberculate skull, controversial in nature, is confirmed, including the prenasal process of the premaxilla, the septomaxilla, the ectopterygoid, and the orbital process of the palatine. Also confirmed is the presence of several controversial elements in the multituberculate skull, including an alisphenoid with a reduced contribution to the braincase and an anterior lamina expanded dorsal to the alisphenoid. Competing anatomical hypotheses for several elements are addressed, including the function of the lateral pterygopalatine trough as muscle attachment and not for the auditory tube, the homology of the postorbital process on the parietal with that on the frontal, the identity of foramina in the anterior lamina as for mandibular nerve branches and not for the mandibular and maxillary nerves, and the function of the jugular fossa as primarily having housed a diverticulum of the cavum tympani and not large cranial nerve ganglia. The cranial arterial system in Kryptobaatar generally resembled that restored for other multituberculates and for other mammaliaforms, in particular the prototribosphenidan Vincelestes. Both Kryptobaatar and Vincelestes had a transpromontorial internal carotid artery, a stapedial artery that ran through a bicrurate stapes, ramus inferior, ramus superior, and an arteria diploëtica magna. The cranial venous system in Kryptobaatar resembled that described for other Mongolian Late Cretaceous multituberculates and for monotremes with the major exits of the dural sinuses having been the prootic