Someone who identified themself only as “Hanna” requested a “mammal that’s shiny and iridescent like some insects and spiders”:
Lustrophractus hannae is a relative of modern hairy armadillos that has adapted for a semiaquatic lifestyle.
About 40cm long (~16″), its unusually shiny carapace originally evolved thanks to its ancestors’ burrowing habits. Much like golden moles and some snakes, these armadillos’ scutes and hairs developed microridges that reduced friction and repelled dirt particles, with the side effect of becoming strikingly iridescent – and, conveniently, also rather water repellent, enabling Lustrophractus’ lineage to take up aquatic omnivorous foraging habits.
The iridescence also serves a defensive function, using a bright flash of color to startle and confuse predators.
An anonymous submitter asked for a “penguin/auk-like relative of Pelagornis“:
Odontopinguinus vomitus represents an unusal early branch of the pelagornithids that didn’t take up long-distance soaring, instead specializing for a pursuit diving lifestyle convergently similar to that of the contemporaneous early penguins, and the later auks and plotopterids.
About 1.2m tall (~4′), it has a more slender spear-like beak than its relatives, with forward-pointing pseudotooth serrations. Like other pelagornithids these “teeth” are fairly fragile, so it feeds primarily on soft-bodied fish and squid, pursuing them underwater with wing-propelled underwater “flight”.
Much like procellariiformes they’re also rather stinky birds, producing musky preen oil and projectile vomiting foul-smelling stomach contents at threats and rivals.
And another anon wanted to see a “big flightless marine duck”:
Thalassonetta anambulatus is descended from the already mostly-flightless steamer ducks. At around 2m long (6’6″) it’s massive for a waterfowl, with vestigial wings and large webbed feet used to propel itself while diving.
With its rather elongated and heavy body and loon-like leg configuration it’s no longer able to walk on land – and it’s actually almost fully aquatic, only awkwardly hauling out into isolated island beaches to molt and breed.
It feeds mainly on molluscs, crustaceans, and other marine invertebrates, using the large lamellae in its bill to strain them out of soft seafloor sediments.
Modzilla07 asked for a “eurypterid or anomalocarid-esque isopod”:
Agriopterus modzillaseptenorum is descended from scavenger-predator intertidal cirolanids. At about 10cm long (~4″) it’s a giant compared to most other isopods, but not nearly as big as some of the radiodonts and eurypterids it convergently resembles.
Adapted for a free-swimming lifestyle, its second pair of antennae have been modified into spiny raptorial appendages and its first two pairs of legs have become flat swimming paddles. It’s a voracious little predator, usually snatching small fast-moving prey from the water and raking up soft-bodied animals from the seafloor – but groups will sometimes opportunistically swarm on much larger dead, dying, or injured targets.
An anonymous submitter asked for a “derived carnivorous, pack-hunting agriochoerid“:
Felichoerus ochlos is fairly similar-looking to its herbivorous relatives, but this cat-sized agriochoerid comes from a lineage that initially specialized in eating fleshy fruits – and then shifted towards eating actual flesh.
With its long cat-like body, forward-facing eyes, clawed digits, and flexible limbs, it’s a capable tree climber. Groups of this animal practice cooperative hunting, with one member chasing arboreal prey down to the ground for the rest to mob.
And another anon wanted to see an “obligate carnivore bovine”:
(I see what you did there. A literal carnotaurus!)
The bulltcher (Carnovitulus grassator) is a sheep-sized descendant of small buffalo that gradually took up more and more omnivorous diets, eventually becoming somewhat entelodont-like opportunists. This particular species has shifted over into hypercarnivory, occupying a predator niche in an ecosystem lacking other types of carnivorous mammal.
Like their ancestors they still lack upper front teeth, and instead have modified their dental pad into an almost beak-like tough keratinized structure that their sharp lower teeth can slice and self-sharpen against.
These animals live in small matriarchal herds, with bulls usually hanging around on the edges of the group to protect from threats. Bulls have larger backwards-pointing horns, used to compete with each other for mates – but the size of these structures on their skulls results in them having slightly less powerful jaw muscles than cows.
Herds hunt cooperatively, pursuing and harassing larger prey until it can be brought down and torn apart.
I’m still trying to work through that big pile of speculative evolution concepts from a few years ago, so I’m hoping to make this month sort of a “lightning round” to finally clear out the backlog.
(I’m not going to set a definite posting schedule this year because things are pretty chaotic right now. But I’ll try to fit in as many as I can!)
So let’s start off with a concept from an anonymous submitter, who requested a “kiwi/sengi niche alverezsaur”:
Khamartaia dolabella is similar in size and build to Shuvuuia, about 1m in length (3’3″), with slender legs and stumpy arms with massive thumb claws. Unlike its close relatives, however, it has small eyes and fairly poor vision, relying more on its other senses to forage around during the darkness of night.
It has an acute sense of smell, and its long narrow snout is full of highly touch-sensitive nerves, allowing it to probe around for invertebrate prey in soil, undergrowth, and cracks and crevices. Its chunky thumb claws are used to dig up burrows and to tear through bark to access deeper insect nests.
It mainly relies on its long legs to sprint away from threats, although with its poor eyesight these escapes are often rather ungainly.
Hupehsuchians were small marine reptiles closely related to ichthyosaurs, known only from the Early Triassic of southwestern China about 249-247 million years ago. They had toothless snouts, streamlined bodies, paddle-like limbs, and long flattened tails, along with a unique pattern of armor along their backs made up of overlapping layers of bony osteoderms.
Grooves in the bones along the outer edges of its upper jaws may be evidence of filtering structures similar to baleen, although with no soft-tissue preservation we don’t know exactly what this would have looked like. Its slender flexible lower jaws probably also supported a large expandable throat pouch, allowing it to filter plankton out of larger volumes of water.
Living during the Eocene (~38 million years ago) in shallow marine waters covering what is now the coast of Peru, this ancient whale is known from several vertebrae, ribs, and parts of its pelvis. As a result its full size is uncertain, but based on the proportions of other basilosaurids it was probably somewhere around 17-20m long (~56′-66′) – similar in length to the larger specimens of Basilosaurus.
However, it had much thicker denser bones, even more so than those of its close relative Antaecetus, suggesting that its full body mass was much higher than the rather slender Basilosaurus – and possibly heavier than even modern blue whales despite being shorter in overall length.
Perucetus’ thickened vertebrae were also fairly inflexible in most directions, indicating it was a sirenian-like slow swimmer with limited maneuverability – but it did have a surprisingly good ability to bend its body downwards. Without skull material it’s unclear what its diet was like, but it may have been a suction-feeder hoovering up seafloor prey like modern grey whales or walruses.
I’ve reconstructed it here with a speculative bristly fleshy downturned snout inspired by the weird skull of Makaracetus, an earlier whale that may have also been a walrus-like bottom-feeder.
It was an early member of the “basilosaurids“, a grouping made up of multiple early cetacean lineages (an “evolutionary grade“) representing some of the first fully aquatic forms. Like other members of this group it probably would have had a rather long and slender body shape – but unlike most of its relatives Tutcetus was comparatively tiny, estimated to only have been around 2.5m long (~8’2″).
The fusion of the skull bones in the one known fossil specimen indicate it was almost fully grown at the time of its death, and the pattern of tooth replacement suggests this small basilosaurid species matured very rapidly – a sort of “live fast, die young” life strategy.
Tutcetus’ small size and early demise also inspired its genus name, with “Tut” referencing the teenage Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
The sitting palaeothere unfortunately lost its head sometime in the late 20th century, and the image above shows it with a modern fiberglass replacement. Then around 2014/2015 the new head was knocked off again, and has not yet been reattached – partly due to a recent discovery that it wasn’t actually accurate to the sculpture’s original design. Instead there are plans to eventually restore it with a much more faithful head.
These early odd-toed ungulates were already known from near-complete skeletons in the 1850s, and are depicted here as tapir-like animals with short trunks based on the scientific opinion of the time. We now think their heads would have looked more horse-like, without trunks, but otherwise they’re not too far off modern reconstructions.
This sculpture went missing sometime after the 1950s, and its existence was almost completely forgotten until archive images of it were discovered a few years ago. Funds were raised to create a replica as accurate to the original as possible, and in summer 2023 (just a month before the date of my visit) this larger palaeothere species finally rejoined its companions in the park.
Compared to the other palaeotheres this one is weird, though. Much chonkier, wrinkly, and with big eyes and an almost cartoonish tubular trunk. It seems to have taken a lot of anatomical inspiration from animals like rhinos and elephants, since in the mid-1800s odd-toed ungulates were grouped together with “pachyderms“.
The next part of the Crystal Palace Dinosaur trail depicts the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Most of the featured animals here are actually marine reptiles, but a few dinosaur species do make an appearance towards the end of this section.
Ichthyosaurs were already known from some very complete and well-preserved fossils in the 1850s, so a lot of the anatomy here still holds up fairly well even 170 years later. They even have an attempt at a tail fin despite no impressions of such a structure having been discovered yet! Some details are still noticeably wrong compared to modern knowledge, though, such as the unusual amount of shrinkwrapping on the sclerotic rings of the eyes and the bones of the flippers.