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Hello there!

September 2021 update:

There’s been a major lack of activity here for a while due to a combination of computer failure and our web hosting account completely running out of disk space.

Whoops.

New computer has been acquired, files have been recovered, and the host has been paid for a plan upgrade, so now I can finally work on getting the backlog of the last few months’ posts uploaded.


Welcome to the long-overdue new version of Nix Illustration!

Pardon our dust – we’re working on getting everything properly set up here, and also importing in around six years’ worth of archived content from elsewhere.

(…Very, very slowly.)

Please note that unless otherwise stated, all original non-commissioned work here is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license (CC BY-NC 4.0) – you are welcome to use images for non-profit or personal purposes, provided you credit me and give proper attribution.

Please contact me via tumblr or email (mail@nixillustration.com) to enquire about custom commission work or commercial image licensing.

In the meantime, you can find more complete selections of work at any of these places:
Tumblr | Pillowfort | Twitter | Patreon

Current status:
all 2019 content uploaded
–older works in progress

Whatcheeria

Whatcheeria deltae here was an early tetrapod from the Early Carboniferous, about 340 million years ago, descended from the earlier fish-like forms and closely related to the ancestors of modern amphibians and amniotes.

Hundreds of fossils of this species have been found in Iowa, USA. Most represent juveniles, but rare larger specimens suggest fully-grown adults reached at least 2m long (6’6″).

Its large chunky limbs and flat feet seem to have been well-adapted for walking, with body proportions similar to later temnospondyl amphibians. But its cartilaginous ankles and the presence of lateral lines on its skull suggest it was still primarily aquatic, possibly walking along on the bottom of the ancient lakes, rivers, and swamps it inhabited.

It also had an unusually long neck and oddly-shaped skull for such an early tetrapod – most other known species had rather wide and flat skulls, but Whatcheeria‘s head was instead proportionally taller and narrower. Along with heavily reinforced sutures between the bones of its skull, it would have had a very powerful bite and been able to resist the twisting forces of large struggling prey in its jaws, suggesting it was a specialized crocodile-like predator.

Echinochimaera

Echinochimaera meltoni here was a cartilaginous fish found in the Bear Gulch Limestone deposits in Montana, USA, dating to the Early Carboniferous about 326-318 million years ago.

It was an early member of the chimaera lineage, but unlike its mostly-scaleless modern relatives its body was covered in small shark-like placoid scales.

It also showed a large degree of sexual dimorphism, with males and females almost looking like different species entirely. Males are identified by the presence of claspers and were up to 15cm long (6″), with four pairs of spiny “horns” on their heads, larger more pointed dorsal fins, and rows of spines along their tails. Females were less than half the size of males at just 7cm long (2.75″), with only one pair of smaller “horns” and none of the additional spines.

The rounded bodies and relatively small paddle-like tail fins of both sexes suggest they weren’t very strong swimmers, probably relying on their large dorsal fin spines to defend themselves – which may have been venomous much like those of modern chimaeras.

Stegouros

While some ankylosaurs are famous for their specialized tail clubs, Stegouros elengassen here had something else entirely going on with its rear end.

Known from the late Cretaceous of southern Chile, about 75-72 million years ago, this small ankylosaur was around 1.5m long (~5′), roughly the size of a large dog. It had a proportionally larger head and more slender limbs than most other ankylosaurs, and a pelvis more resembling a stegosaur, but its most distinctive feature was its tail – it had a completely unique never-before-seen type of tail weapon, with a flat “frond-like” structure formed from several pairs of large fused osteoderms making a shape resembling a macuahuitl.

It seems to have been part of a previously unrecognized very early-branching lineage of Gondwanan ankylosaurs – the parankylosaurians – with its closest relatives Antarctopelta and Kunbarrasaurus also included in this new group. And since the tail regions of both of those other species are poorly known, this means they may also have possessed macuahuitls.

Gordodon

Some of the earliest large terrestrial herbivores on Earth were the edaphosaurids – a very early-branching group of synapsids, the evolutionary lineage whose only modern surviving members are mammals. Like their more famous cousin Dimetrodon these animals sported huge elaborate sails on their backs formed from highly elongated vertebral spines, but despite the similarity in appearance they actually seem to have evolved these structures completely independently.

Known from a single partial skeleton discovered in southern New Mexico, USA, the edaphosaurid Gordodon kraineri dates to around the very end of the Carboniferous or the very earliest Permian, about 299 million years ago.

It was fairly small for an edaphosaurid at about 1.5m long (~5′), and seems to have had transitional anatomy between earlier and later members of the group. Its sail spines were thicker than those of earlier species but still less heavyset than those of later forms, and while each spine had numerous side projections these structures were small, thorn-like, and randomly distributed, unlike the more organized thick crossbars seen in Edaphosaurus.

Its head was proportionally small compared to its body, but still relatively large for an edaphosaurid, and it had an unusually long neck for an early synapsid. But its most distinctive features were its jaws and teeth – it had a narrow snout with a pair of large incisor-like teeth at the front of both its upper and lower jaws, followed by a large toothless gap (a diastema) and then a short row of small peg-like teeth. Like Edaphosaurus it also would have had batteries of grinding tooth plates inside its upper and lower jaws, but probably not as extensively.

Overall its tooth arrangment looked more like a modern herbivorous mammal than an early synapsid, much more highly specialized than anything else known to be alive at the time – the next synapsid known to convergently evolve similar teeth lived around 90 million years later!

It probably had a very different diet to its relatives, with its specialized teeth and fairly slender body suggesting it may have been a selective feeder, cropping the softer more nutritious parts of plants like the fleshy seeds and cones of gymnosperm plants.

Its discovery also hints that herbivorous edaphosaurids in general were much more diverse than we previously thought, and there may be even more surprising forms out there still to be discovered.

Cambrian Explosion #61: Crustacea – Little Wigglers

We’re finally at the end of this series, and to finish off let’s look at one of the few types of Cambrian true crustaceans that are known only from fully mature adults: the skaracarids.

These tiny soft-bodied meiofaunal animals are known from late Cambrian areas of “Orsten-type preservation” in Sweden and South China, with a possible additional fragmentary occurrence in Poland – suggesting that they had a global distribution.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #61: Crustacea – Little Wigglers”

Cambrian Explosion #60: Crustacea – Larvae Larvae Everywhere

One of the characteristic features of the crustacean lineage are their larval forms, passing through various tiny larval stages. They often look nothing like their eventual adult forms and historically weren’t even recognized as being the same species, with their complex lifecycles not being properly recognized until the late 1800s.

A lot of Cambrian crustaceans are only known from their larvae, preserved in exquisite microscopic detail in sites of “Orsten-type preservation”. Only disarticulated fragments of larger-bodied forms have been found in a few places, and it isn’t until much later in the Paleozoic that fossil crustaceans actually seem to become abundant in marine ecosystems.

It’s not clear why there’s such a bias in their early fossil record compared to most other arthropods, but possibly they were just very very rare animals early on. Adult forms may have mostly lived in places where they just didn’t fossilize, while their tiny larvae sometimes dispersed into different environments with a better chance of preservation.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #60: Crustacea – Larvae Larvae Everywhere”

Cambrian Explosion #59: Stem-Crustacea – Actual Ancient Aliens & Bivalved Buddies

The majority of known fossils of Cambrian crustaceans are in the form of minuscule microfossils with “Orsten-type preservation” – formed in oxygen-poor seafloor mud and exceptionally well-preserved in three-dimensional detail. They can only be discovered and studied after dissolving away the rock around them with acid and picking through the residue under a microscope, then they’re scanned with an electron microscope to see their fine details.

And it turns out some of these tiny early crustaceans looked really weird.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #59: Stem-Crustacea – Actual Ancient Aliens & Bivalved Buddies”

Cambrian Explosion #58: Hymenocarina

The pancrustaceans are a grouping of mandibulates that contains all of the crustaceans and hexapods (insects and their closest relatives) along with their various stem-relatives.

They’re critical components of most ecosystems on the planet, and are major parts of the nutrient cycle. In aquatic environments the crustaceans dominate, with modern copepods and krill being some of the most abundant living animals and making up enormous amounts of biomass providing vital food sources for larger animals. On the land springtails and ants are especially numerous, and the air is full of flying insects, the only invertebrates to ever develop powered flight. Some groups of insects have also co-evolved complex mutualistic partnerships with flowering plants and fungi.

Hexapods and insects don’t appear in the fossil record until the early Devonian, but they’re estimated to have first diverged from the crustaceans* in the early Silurian (~440 million years ago), around the same time that vascular plants were colonizing the land.

(* Hexapods are crustaceans in the same sort of way that birds are dinosaurs. They originated from within one of the major crustacean lineages with their closest living relatives possibly being the enigmatic remipedes.)

But crustaceans and their pancrustacean ancestors go back much further into the Cambrian, and we’ll be finishing off this month and this series with some of those early representatives.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #58: Hymenocarina”

Cambrian Explosion #57: Tuzoiida

What were tuzoiids?

We don’t know.

Despite hundreds of specimens having been found, and around 20 different species being described, these arthropods are an ongoing puzzle.

They’re known from between about 518 and 505 million years ago, in deposits associated with tropical and subtropical regions all around the world. They had large spiny bivalved carapaces up to 18cm long (7″), shaped like an upside-down domed taco shell, with a distinctive reticulated net-like surface ornamentation – but the rest of their ecology and anatomy is very unclear.

Most fossils are just empty carapaces, which appear to have been made of unmineralized chitin. Rare examples of soft-part preservation show they had a pair of stalked eyes sticking out the front, and a pair of short simple antennae, but impressions of the rest of their bodies are fragmentary and indistinct enough to not be particularly helpful.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #57: Tuzoiida”

Cambrian Explosion #56: Euthycarcinoidea

The euthycarcinoids were a group of euarthropods known from the mid-Cambrian to the mid-Triassic (~500-254 million years ago), surviving through multiple mass extinctions including the devastating “Great Dying” at the end of the Permian that finished off the trilobites. But despite an evolutionary history spanning around 250 million years they have a very sparse fossil record, extremely rare and known from less than 20 species across their entire time range.

For a long time their affinities were uncertain, and they’ve been variously suggested to have been crustaceans, trilobites, or chelicerates, or even to have been a lineage of earlier stem-euarthropods. But since the early 2010s better understanding of their anatomy has placed them in the mandibulates, probably as the closest relatives of the myriapods and helping to close the gap between the aquatic ancestors of that group and their earliest known terrestrial forms.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion #56: Euthycarcinoidea”