For the final entry in this series, let’s take a look at a modern weird-headed species – and where better to find some of the strangest and most unique-looking animals alive today than the deep sea?
Malacosteus, also known as the stoplight loosejaw, is a 25cm long (10″) genus of dragonfish found at depths of over 500m (1640′) in oceans all around the world, with the exception of the Mediterranean and polar waters. Two different species are currently recognized, with Malacosteus niger here known from just below the Arctic Circle down to the southern reaches of the subtropics, and Malacosteus australis ranging from there to around 45°S, and up towards the equator in the Indian Ocean.
And there’s a lot to unpack here with the anatomy of this one.
First of all, there’s the fact that its entire head can hinge away from its body, gaping enormous jaws with long fang-like teeth.
The bottom of its lower jaw has no skin membrane connecting the two sides, attached to the rest of its bizarre head only by the hinges and a single exposed muscle, reducing water resistance so it can shoot its trap-jaws out extra fast to snare prey.
Once it catches something it retracts its head, and several sets of pharyngeal teeth further back grab hold of its prey and direct it down its throat.
(Let me remind you that this isn’t an early April Fools joke. This thing is completely real.)
In addition to all that anatomical weirdness, it’s also one of the only deep-sea fish that can both see and produce red-colored light. Most creatures living at that depth have lost the ability to see red since that frequency doesn’t penetrate so far down through water, but the stoplight loosejaw has evolved to take advantage of that by using bioluminescent red light as its own personal night vision goggles.
Using large red photophores under each eye, it can shine a spotlight out ahead of itself and see other deep-sea animals all clearly lit up, while remaining completely invisible to both them and any nearby larger predators. It’s able to perceive the color red thanks to a pigment in its eyes modified from chlorophyll, a visual setup unique to this fish and not known from any other vertebrate.
It also has a smaller green photophore further down on its head – inspiring its common name thanks to the resemblance to traffic lights – and many smaller blue and white ones over its head and body.
So, with its highly specialized jaws and ability to see things other deep-sea animals can’t, the stoplight loosejaw must be hunting something pretty impressive, right?
And as it turns out, it eats… plankton.
The vast majority of its diet appears to be copepods, small zooplanktoic crustaceans that are incredibly common in the waters the loosejaw inhabits. It may simply be “snacking” on such a convenient food source in-between rare encounters with larger prey – but it may also be getting the chlorophyll-based pigment needed for its night vision from eating them.
Living in South Africa during the late Permian, around 259-254 million years ago, this small synapsid was only about 35cm long (1’2″) but sported some large bulging bony bosses on the sides of both its snout and lower jaw.
The bosses would have been covered by tough skin in life, similar to modern giraffid ossicones.
A study of Choerosaurus‘ skull found that its head was rather delicately built, and the bosses were relatively fragile and lacked the sort of reinforcement needed to resist impacts, suggesting that these structures weren’t used as weapons for fighting each other but were probably more for display – so they may even have been brightly colored.
The upper jaw bosses were also well-supplied with nerves and blood vessels, and would have been quite sensitive to touch.
The pelagornithids, or “pseudotooth birds”, were a group of large seabirds that were found around the world for almost the entire Cenozoic, existing for at least 60 million years and only going completely extinct just 2.5 million years ago.
Whatever they were, they were some of the largest birds to ever fly, and many of the “smaller” species still had wingspans comparable to the largest modern flying birds.
But their most notable feature was their beaks. Although at first glance they look like they were lined with pointy teeth, these structures were actually outgrowths of their jaw bones covered with keratinous beak tissue. While these bony spikes would have been useful for holding onto slippery aquatic animals like fish and squid, they were actually hollow and relatively fragile so pelagornithids must have mainly caught smaller prey that couldn’t thrash around hard enough to break anything.
The serrations also only developed towards full maturity, and the “toothless” juveniles may have had a completely different ecology to adults.
Pelagornis chilensis here was one of the larger species of pelagornithid, with a wingspan of 5-6m (16’4″-19’8″), known from the western and northern coasts of South America during the late Miocene about 11-5 million years ago.
Like other pelagornithids it was highly adapted for albatross-like dynamic soaring, with long narrow wings that allowed it to travel huge distances while expending very little energy – but with its proportionally short legs it would have been clumsy on the ground and probably spent the vast majority of its life on the wing, only returning to land to breed.
Living in the Southwestern and South Central United States during the late Triassic, about 221-210 million years ago, Desmatosuchus measured around 4.5m long (14’9″) and was covered in thick interlocking bony osteoderms that protected its back, sides, belly, and tail, with longer spines over its neck and shoulders.
It had a triangular skull with a few blunt teeth at the back of its jaws and a toothless snout at the front. Its pointed lower jaw probably had a keratinous beak, while its upper jaw had an odd upturned flared tip. What exactly was going on with that snoot is uncertain, but it may have anchored a shovel-shaped upper keratinous beak – or, since there was a little bit of flexibility between its snout bones, possibly even a pig-like nose!
It probably mostly ate soft vegetation, using its shovel-like snout to dig up roots and tubers, although similarities with the skulls of modern armadillos suggest it may also have fed on insect grubs.
Standing about 1.2m at the shoulder (~4′), it had an oddly-shaped skull with a pointed snout and a highly domed forehead. But this wasn’t the thick bony dome of a headbutting animal – this structure was narrow and fairly fragile, and had looping nasal passages running through it.
Juveniles had less developed crests, developing them as they matured, and one skull that may represent an adult female also has a smaller crest, suggesting that this feature was sexually dimorphic.
Based on just the anatomy of the nasal passages Rusingoryx may have honked at a frequency similar to a vuvuzela, but the added length of its vocal tract could have lowered this pitch even further, closer to infrasound ranges – so more like a tuba! Such low frequencies can travel very long distances and are also below the hearing range of many carnivores, and would have effectively allowed Rusingoryx to shout at each other in “stealth mode”.
During the Cambrian explosion, a time full of incredibly weird-looking evolutionary experiments, Opabinia regalis was one of the weirdest of all – so ridiculous, in fact, that when its anatomy was first revealed at a presentation the audience laughed.
Known from the mid-CambrianBurgess Shale fossil deposits in Canada, this bizarre creature lived around 508 million years ago and had a body measuring just 4-7cm long (~1.5-2.75″).
It had five stalked eyes on its head, and a long flexible proboscis that resembled a vacuum cleaner hose ending in a pincer-like grasping structure. Its mouth was located on the bottom of its head, behind the base of its proboscis, and the opening pointed backwards forming a U-bend in its digestive tract.
The rest of its segmented body had overlapping swimming lobes and a tail fan, and small triangular structures that may have been legs on its underside.
It was probably a bottom-feeding predator or a detritvore, swimming along above the seafloor using its proboscis to snatch up small soft prey or organic material and passing it up to its mouth.
It also seems to have been a fairly rare member of the Burgess Shale ecosystem, with less than 50 specimens known from the thousands of fossils found there.
For a while Opabinia was thought to represent a completely new phylum, but after further discoveries of similar animals like Anomalocaris it’s now considered to be a “stem-arthropod”, a close evolutionary cousin to modern insects, arachnids, myriapods, and crustaceans. Its exact relationships with other stem-arthropods are still being debated, however, and some studies suggest its closest living relatives may actually be tardigrades.
It stood around 1.8m at the shoulder (5’11”) and resembled a large camel or llama with thee-toed hoofed feet, but its head was… confusing.
Its skull had a bizarre combination of features, with a shape closer to a sauropod dinosaur than a mammal, a cartoonish-looking set of teeth, and its nostrils set up high above its eyes, more like a cetacean blowhole than a terrestrial herbivore.
Due to its retracted nostrils it’s commonly been restored with an elephant-like or tapir-like trunk. And while a trunk gives Marauchenia a wonderfully weird and memorable appearance, there’s just one problem with that interpretation.
There’s no evidence for it.
Aside from its nostrils being far back on its head, it didn’t have any other features associated with anchoring the complex musculature of a trunk. In fact, a recent study found that its skull characteristics were much closer to those of moose than tapirs!
It seems more likely that it had a moose-like bulbous fleshy nose – possibly giving it an enhanced sense of smell or functioning as a resonating chamber – perhaps with slightly retracted external nostrils like a giraffe or sauropod to prevent it from being stabbed in the nose when feeding on spiky vegetation.
Whatever it was doing with its weird schnoz, it was clearly a highly successful species, since it was found across most of South America in a wide range of habitats.
Thalattosaurs were another group of weird Triassic animals, found in coastal marine environments all around the world. Their evolutionary relationships are unclear beyond “they were some sort of diapsid reptile”, and they were well adapted for aquatic life, with streamlined lizard-like bodies, short limbs with webbed feet, and long paddle-like tails.
Hescheleria rubeli here was one of the strangest, living in Europe during the mid Triassic, about 247-235 million years ago. It was one of the smaller known species of thalattosaurs, around 1m long (3’3″), and had a particularly bizarre-looking head.
Its snout was so sharply curved downward that it formed a right-angled hook relative to the rest of its jaws, sort of resembling the initial interpretation of Atopodentatus but without the vertical split.
There were also small sharp teeth at the front of its mouth, along with a pair of large conical bony projections on its lower jaw.
This weird arrangement must have been highly specialized for something, but its actual function is still unknown. One suggestion is that the large jaw-spikes were used to crunch into hard-shelled prey, although there doesn’t seem to have been any reinforced surface in the upper jaw for them to crush against.
But I personally wonder if maybe these jaws were the equivalent of the hooked kypes seen in the males of some modern salmonid fish – structures associated with dominance fighting.
Much like Platybelodon from a few entries back, chalicotheres look like a fictional creature design rather than something that actually existed.
These animals were odd-toed ungulates related to modern horses, tapirs, and rhinos, who ranged across Africa, Eurasia, and North America for a large chunk of the Cenozoic. Instead of hooves they had large claws on their feet, and they appear to have occupied the same sort of ecological niche as ground sloths or therizinosaurs – sitting or rearing up on their hind legs to browse on high vegetation, using the hook-like claws on their forelimbs to pull down and strip branches.
Tylocephalonyx skinneri here was one of the latter group, known from the Miocene of North America about 16-13 million years ago. Standing about 2m tall at the shoulder (6’6″), it had the same sort of chunky body as other schizotheriines and walked around with its large front claws held up to keep them raised away from the ground.
But there was also an unusual feature on its otherwise rather horse-like head – a large bony dome on top of its skull, like a mammalian version of a pachycephalosaur.
It probably used its dome in the same way as the dinosaurs it convergently resembled, headbutting or flankbutting in fights with each other.