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TSoSC #3: The floating lily fields of Guanling by Gogosardina TSoSC #3: The floating lily fields of Guanling by Gogosardina
Triassic Seas of South China #3: Among the floating lily fields of Guanling

Acrylics, digital and photography, 2012-2013

3rd in a series for the following review paper =
Michael J. Benton, Qiyue Zhang, Shixue Hu, Zhong-Qiang Chen, Wen Wen, Jun Liu, Jinyuang Huang, Changyong Zhou, Tao Xie, Jinnan Tong & Brian Choo (accepted manuscript), Exceptional vertebrate biotas from the Triassic of China, and the expansion of marine ecosystems after the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, Earth Science Review. www.sciencedirect.com/science/…

ca. 233,000,000 bp, Late Triassic (early Carnian), near the city of Guanling, Guizhou, China (Xiaowa Formation).
Note = the Guanling Formation produces the Middle Triassic Luoping biota, the Guanling biota, shown here, is from the Late Triassic Xiaowa Formation.

In the midst of a major marine transgression, the shorelines have retreated and the seafloor, dozens if not hundreds of metres beneath the surface, is an anoxic wasteland populated only by a few specialised bivalves. A different story plays out in the sunlit surface waters in the form of a truly unique early Mesozoic habitat = the Traumatocrinus floating lily field. In the absence of marine wood-borers, the trunks and branches of Triassic trees remain afloat at sea for many years, providing anchorage for great colonies of huge pseudopelagic crinoids. Small fish and cephalopods flock to the lily fields, seeking food or shelter. They in turn support one of the heaviest concentrations of predatory marine reptiles found anywhere in the Triassic world. Thalattosaurs and ichthyosaurs dominate this oddly skewed fauna at the expense of sauropterygians, who are represented only by a few small placodonts. Also foraging among the crinoids are some of the world's first turtles.

INVERTEBRATES
Traumatocrinus hsui - giant sea lilies
Perfect colonies of this huge encrinid crinoid are the signature fossil of the Guanling biota. Each individual consists of a long ropy stalk ending in a cluster of frond-like arms that trapped plankton and edible detritus from the surrounding water. Mature colonies reached gargantuan proportions, with stalks up to 11 metres in length. Long before basking sharks and baleen whales, the great wandering filter-feeders of the open ocean were floating colonies of giant echinoderms.

As free-swimming larvae, swarms of infant crinoids affixed themselves to pieces of floating wood. The sediments of Guanling are filled with the remains of smaller colonies whose rafts were too small or badly decomposed to support their growing bulk, sinking to a premature doom. Elsewhere the world, Traumatocrinus fossils are found as broken segments, likely the remains of colonies that drifted ashore and perished. Only on large, fresh logs that remained far out at sea could the crinoids reach their full majesty.

The colonies must have had a profound impact on their surroundings. Today, the shelter offered by large pieces of flotsam, natural or man-made, attract swarms of small fish that in turn draw in big ocean predators. The sheer volume of marine reptiles at Guanling (ichthyosaur and thalattosaur fossils outnumber the fish!) is likely a result, at least in part, of the floating sea lilies and the unique habitat they provided.

Traumatocrinus did not survive the end of the Carnian, but other crinoids would continue this pseudopelagic lifestyle until well into the Jurassic. The appearance of shipworm (wood-boring bivalves) in the Middle Jurassic probably doomed this niche by drastically reducing the time afloat of seaborne logs.

Trachyceras multituberculatus - ammonoid
Up to 7cm shell diameter. Shells of these small ammonoids are found in dense concentrations at Guanling

FISHES
Fish fossils are rare at Guanling, much rarer than the marine reptiles. Some authors have taken this piscine scarcity at face value and assumed that Guanling represents some sort of unusually stressed, fish-free environment. To me, the abundance of big predatory reptiles (along with crinoids and cephalopods) makes this unlikely and suggests an alternative scenario = Guanling represents such a highly productive, predator-rich community that fish were rarely preserved simply because their bodies were gobbled up by all the reptiles. A similar situation presents itself in the Late Cretaceous Niobrara Formation of Kansas where you find plenty of fossils of giant marine predators, but few of the numerous small fish that must have supported all these huge appetites.

Pholidopleurus xiaowaensis (30cm SL) - slender blue fishes shoaling in the background.

Peltopleurus brachycephalus (8cm SL) - small black-headed fishes congregating around the crinoid crowns.

Birgeria guizhouensis (1.5 m SL) - big grey fishes. The various Birgeria spp. were sleek predatory actinopterygians with reduced scale cover, perhaps the Triassic equivalent to modern spanish mackeral and amberjack.

Guizhoucoelacanthus guanlingensis (c.1 m SL) - blue coelacanth in foreground.

Generic hybodont shark - based on isolated ichthyoliths, there was a diverse array of small elasmobranchs at Guanling. Alas no articulated body fossils have been found.

MARINE REPTILES
Odontochelys semitestacea - turtles in right foreground
About 40 cm long. The smallest and most famous of the Guanling reptiles, this is the world's oldest and most primitive turtle. This really was a hero in a half-shell = the ventral part of the shell (the plastron) was fully developed but the back armour consisted only of small neural plates. Unlike modern turtles, Odontochelys also had a full set of teeth.

Odontochelys has been described as an inhabitant of marginal seas or river deltas. I am not convinced of this. The fossils of the Guanling biota are set in black shale with no bioturbation, evidently a deep, anoxic seabed. The only remains of terrestrial life are bits of wood and other vegetation which may have drifted in from a great distance. Fossils of terrestrial arthropods found in older sites (Luoping, Panxian, Xingyi) are nowhere to be seen, nor are there any of the predatory sauropterygians and semi-aquatic archosaurs which also frequented these presumably more coastal settings. By my reckoning, Guanling represents a community that was far out to sea. However, the holotype of Odontochelys is 100% complete so the body probably hasn't travelled far from where it died.

Speculation = Odontochelys was a fully marine turtle, spending at least part of its life far from shore as a resident of the floating lily fields. It and the other smaller reptiles (placodonts and xinpusaurs) would seek prey among the giant crinoids, hauling themselves out onto the log rafts to rest and bask.

Qianichthyosaurus zhoui - small ichthyosaurs in the foreground.
Up to 2m long with females sexually mature at 1.3m. These sleek toretocnemids were abundant and, based on the presence of preserved pregnant females, breeding in the area. Qianichthyosaurus and the thalattosaur Xinpusaurus account for the vast bulk of Guanling reptile fossils.

Guanlingsaurus (= Shastasaurus) liangae - huge ichthyosaurs in the background.
At over 10m in length, the shastasaurid Guanlingsaurus dwarfed the other vertebrates in the region. With long, slender bodies and short, toothless snouts, it has been proposed that Guanlingsaurus was a suction-feeder of soft-bodied prey akin to modern beaked whales, although this hypothesis has been challenged.

Xinpusaurus bamaolinensis - small 1.5m long thalattosaur in left foreground.
In no other part of the world did the thalattosaurs attain such success as they did at Guanling, with at least five species. X. bamaolinensis was the oddest, with sharp elongated snout and a heterodont dentition of sharp fangs up front and crushing teeth at the back. Most sources recognise two Guanling xinpusaurs (separate long and short-snouted forms) although it has been proposed that there is only a single ontogenetically variable species to which the name X. suni would have priority.

Miodentosaurus brevis - big slender reptile in middle distance.
A sleek 5m long giant among thalattosaurs, Miodentosaurus had an unusually short snout with only a few small teeth restricted to the tips of the upper and lower jaws while the unguals were flat and blunt unlike the sharp claws of others of its family. Clearly this creature had a specialised diet, though precisely what it ate is not clear.

Psephochelys polyosteoderma - armoured reptile in left foreground
About 60cm long. The only Guanling sauropterygians were small cyamodontoid placodonts, bizarre forms that resembled reptilian banjos with flattened, armoured-plated torsos and slender tails. Their crushing dentition suggests a diet of hard-shelled prey.
Add a Comment:
 
:icondvhuizen:
DVhuizen Featured By Owner Aug 16, 2018  Student Filmographer
Would have loved to see something like this in real life. Alas, all the cool shit has gone extinct.
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:icontsahel:
tsahel Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2017  Hobbyist Digital Artist
stunning !
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:icontimmcjimfrompl:
TimMcJimFromPL Featured By Owner May 31, 2017
Nice.
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:iconmidway2009:
Midway2009 Featured By Owner May 31, 2017  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Unbelievable! :eyepopping:
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:iconpersona-morgane:
Persona-Morgane Featured By Owner Feb 12, 2017  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
It's amazing !
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:iconalexanderlovegrove:
Alexanderlovegrove Featured By Owner Jul 31, 2015
I wonder if with all the plastic and rubbish we've dumped into the sea that something like these crinoids might evolve again!
Reply
:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Sep 1, 2015  Professional Traditional Artist
Would probably take a while, but if we keep up throwing non-biodegradable garbage into the sea who knows? Although if we kept it up the seas would become too polluted for most life anyway
.
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:iconalexanderlovegrove:
Alexanderlovegrove Featured By Owner Sep 4, 2015
yeah, good point, unfortunately.
Reply
:iconfairyxwingz:
FairyxWingz Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2015  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Beautiful, and alien in a way. It is inspiring to see such a majestic piece of work with not only creative fines behind it, but scientific knowledge too.
Great work!
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:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Sep 1, 2015  Professional Traditional Artist
Thanks for that. Hope to produce more Triassic scenes in the near future.
Reply
:iconailanthus3000:
ailanthus3000 Featured By Owner May 6, 2015
Totally alien looking ecosystem, to know from the fossil record that it was real! NEAT!
Reply
:icontrottingperyton:
TrottingPeryton Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2015  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
It's like you went back in time.
Reply
:iconrhinos-rule:
Rhinos-Rule Featured By Owner Nov 26, 2014
Believe it or not, the detail on well illustrated ocean pictures make me feel chipper..

Well done my friend!:)
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:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Edited Nov 26, 2014  Professional Traditional Artist
Glad to be of service! :) (Smile)
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:iconrhinos-rule:
Rhinos-Rule Featured By Owner Nov 27, 2014
No prob, I cherish the ocean more than anything in the world...

I've been astonished with life in the sea and the sea itself since I was two yrs old believe it or not, so this brings back some of my old memories for me!:)
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:iconbrandon-bowling:
brandon-bowling Featured By Owner Apr 19, 2014
So much eye-catching detail. Wonderful!
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:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2014  Professional Traditional Artist
Thanks - went all out trying to cram as much detail as possible in this one.
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:iconsnakeman2013:
Snakeman2013 Featured By Owner Jan 1, 2014
beautiful scene here.
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:iconmaximsinitsa:
MaximSinitsa Featured By Owner Dec 20, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Beautiful work. I like this scientific stuff
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:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Dec 21, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Thanks! As an artist I find that making the scientific stuff is far more fulfilling than pure whimsy. 
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:iconmaximsinitsa:
MaximSinitsa Featured By Owner Dec 21, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Totally agree with you
Reply
:iconpremiumhobo:
PremiumHobo Featured By Owner Aug 26, 2013
Which fish had those enormous crionoid-like fins? Are those real?? *_*
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:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Aug 27, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Im sorry, what fish are you talking about?
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:iconpremiumhobo:
PremiumHobo Featured By Owner Aug 30, 2013
The ones on the top of the painting
Reply
:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Sep 1, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
There are no fish at the top of the painting, only the crinoid colonies on their log rafts.
Reply
:iconpremiumhobo:
PremiumHobo Featured By Owner Sep 2, 2013
Ah ok!! Now I can see it! :D
Reply
:iconladymedusa218:
Ladymedusa218 Featured By Owner Jul 19, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
this is awesome! i love how you used what todays fish and marine reptiles do with kelp and other floating plant matter in the oceans for shelter and rest from predators 
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:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Aug 27, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Thanks - and yes I was partially inspired by floating kelp and the animals it attracts!
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:iconbubblekirby:
bubblekirby Featured By Owner Jul 11, 2013
Hey Gogosardina, are you the one known as the Ozgod?
Reply
:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Jul 14, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Now, that's a name I've not heard in a long time. A long time.
Reply
:iconrannveigfunderud:
rannveigfunderud Featured By Owner Jul 7, 2013  Student Traditional Artist
Awesome!
Reply
:iconvasix:
vasix Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This is just amazing, but tell me, how was the suction-feeding Shastasaurus theory actually challenged? Also, this work is probably one of your best. Such a lifelike feel to all the animals, and their environment
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:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Jul 14, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Thanks - the newly described juvenile Guanlingsaurus has much smaller hyoids than previously envisaged (although this could be due to ontogeny). Suction feeding in ichthyosaurs in general was questioned based on the absence of an ossified hyoid corpus that is typically expanded in suction-feeding cetaceans = suggest that ichthyosaur hyoids were insufficiently robust for suction feeding.

Cheng Jia, Da-Yong Jianga, Ryosuke Motanib, Wei-Cheng Haoa, Zuo-Yu Suna & Tao Caic (2013) A new juvenile specimen of Guanlingsaurus (Ichthyosauria, Shastasauridae) from the Upper Triassic of southwestern China. JVP 33(2)
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:iconvasix:
vasix Featured By Owner Jul 14, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Alright, and Guanlingsaurus could therefore be completely predatory now?
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:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Jul 14, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
It was already a predator, with or without suction feeding.
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:iconvasix:
vasix Featured By Owner Jul 15, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Sorry, I was probably meaning "active predator" :( my bad I guess...
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:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Jul 15, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Without the benefit of preserved gut-contents, what Guanlingsaurus was doing is anyones' guess atm. Suction-feeding has not been fully refuted = leopard seals and sea-lions have no obvious osteological adaptations for suction-feeding (when compared with whales) but are fully capable of doing it (in captivity at least). Or maybe Guanlingsaurus pecked at the crinoids like an oversized butterflyfish pecking at coral polyps?
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:iconavancna:
avancna Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I remember reading about how a walrus was apparently observed sucking the brains out of a harbor seal pup via its nostrils.
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:iconvasix:
vasix Featured By Owner Jul 16, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I wonder....such a butterflyfish-lifestyle for a large animal like Guanlingsaurus seems far-fetched, especialyl for adults. Until more evidence is uncovered, then let's leave the topic up to debate
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:iconfragillimus335:
Fragillimus335 Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Wow, almost has a fantasy feel to it...but so accurate!
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:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Thanks - there was certainly an arduous amount of anatomical tinkering over the course of putting this together.
Reply
:iconhyrotrioskjan:
Hyrotrioskjan Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2013  Professional General Artist
It's so beautiful, it brings tears in my eyes, I give 11 of 10 points :thumbsup:
Reply
:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Yeah, I felt misty-eyed the first time I stood away from the monitor and looked at the whole semi-completed image coming together.
Reply
:iconshanghaisarah:
ShanghaiSarah Featured By Owner Jun 26, 2013
Stunning work with such beautiful colours, details & composition! Very informative
Reply
:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Thanks - although I began work on this beforehand, when it was decided to incorporate this fossil fauna into a major scientific review, I knew I needed to take extra care to both present a good cross-section of the animals as well as to demonstrate the uniqueness of the habitat.
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:iconelectreel:
electreel Featured By Owner Jun 26, 2013
This scenario is so outlandish and at the same time so realistic-looking! Thank you for sharing the knowledge of this generally unknown fauna, especially the icthyosaurs.
Reply
:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Yeah, it's odd that the South Chinese Triassic faunas haven't garnered the same degree of international attention as say, the Jehol Biota. Kinda hoping to help change that.
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:iconrevan005:
Revan005 Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013
Great work!
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:iconbubblekirby:
bubblekirby Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013
This is an incredible piece! I had no idea such a unique ecosystem ever existed.
Reply
:icongogosardina:
Gogosardina Featured By Owner Jun 25, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
Neither did I until the middle last year. The more I researched, the more mindblown I became - its odd that the Triassic marine biotas of Yunnan/Guizhou don't get nearly as much airplay (at least outside of China) as say, the Jehol biota.
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