Who’s that synapsid?
It’s Bulbasaurus phylloxyron!
This creature was a member of the dicynodonts, a group of herbivorous mammal-relatives with beaks and protruding tusks. Its fossils are known from the Late Permian of South Africa, about 259-254 million years ago, and it would have been roughly the size of a cat, around 60cm long (2′).
It wasn’t officially named after the pokémon character Bulbasaur, but instead in reference to the bulbous bosses on its snout. But combined with how the species name “phylloxyron” means “leaf razor”, it doesn’t seem to entirely be a coincidence.
Pisanosaurus mertii from the Late Triassic of Argentina (~228-216 mya).
Known only from a partial skull and a few pieces of its skeleton, this 1m long animal (3′3″) is usually considered to the be the earliest known member of the ornithischian dinosaurs – but some recent studies have thrown that into question, suggesting that it might not even be a dinosaur at all.
Instead it may have been a member of the silesaurids, Triassic dinosauriforms that were close cousins to the dinosaurs but not quite true members of the group. Small and lightly-built, silesaurids had long front limbs and may have been at least partially quadrupedal, and some showed evidence of herbivory with beaks at the tips of their snouts.
Of course, if the “oldest ornithischian” is actually a silesaurid, we’re left with no fossil record at all for ornithischians until the start of the Jurassic. And that brings back up the controversial question of where they actually originated…
Halszkaraptor escuilliei, a dromaeosaurid (“raptor”) dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia (~75-71 mya). It’s known from a single near-complete skeleton and would have been about the size of a modern mallard duck, around 60cm long (2′).
It had some very odd features for a raptor, with many small sharp backwards-pointing teeth, crocodile-like sensory pits on its snout, a long flexible neck, small flipper-like arms, a relatively short tail, and a more upright body posture than its other relatives. All these traits together suggest it may have been semi-aquatic, which is a pretty big deal since the only other group of non-avian dinosaurs known to have developed adaptations for life in the water were the spinosaurids.
The fossil was originally illegally excavated by fossil poachers and was owned by private collectors for several years, but it has now been returned to science and is due to be repatriated to Mongolia. With its odd anatomy and the exact origin of the specimen being unknown, there’s some skepticism about whether Halszkaraptor represents a genuine animal or an elaborate fake chimera – but synchrotron scans of the fossil and its similarity to previously-discovered more fragmentary short-armed raptors like Mahakala suggest that it is real, and it really is that weird.
Orthrozanclus elongata, from the mid-Cambrian of China. Only about 2cm long (~0.8″), this tiny creature was covered in both long spines and extensive armor – with tile-like scales on its back, overlapping dagger-shaped plates around its sides, and a small shell on its head.
It’s the second species of Orthrozanclus to be discovered, extending the genus’ range about 10 million years older than the Canadian O. reburrus.
Although it would have been a member of the Lophotrochozoa (the group that contains modern molluscs, annelid worms, and brachiopods), its exact evolutionary relationships are still uncertain. It might have been a transitional form between Wiwaxia and the halkieriids, or it could be closer related to the brachiopods.