Horseshoe crabs are famous examples of “living fossils“, having changed their external appearance very little over hundreds of millions of years. But some fossil species were much more varied in shape than their morphologically conservative modern relatives, such as Austrolimulus fletcheri here.
Living in freshwater environments in what is now New South Wales, Australia, during the Middle Triassic (~247-242 million years ago), Austrolimulus had incredibly long spines on each side of its head, reaching a span of around 18cm (7″) – wider than its total body length!
The function of these spines is unclear, but they may have acted like a hydrofoil in fast-moving currents, or they may have served a defensive purpose by making Austrolimulus‘ carapace too wide and unwieldy for some predators to deal with.
Just before the 2017 solar eclipse, some unusual fossils were discovered in Southern Wyoming, USA.
Consisting of a partial jawbone and a humerus, and dating to the mid-Eocene (~47 million years ago), the remains clearly belonged to an early even-toed ungulate – but one much bigger than the rabbit-sized herbivores known from that time. This was something closer in size and build to a large modern pig, standing at least 1m tall at the shoulder (3’3″).
It turned out to belong to a member of a somewhat obscure lineage known as the helohyids, a group whose evolutionary relationships are a bit uncertain but are generally considered to be part of the whale-and-hippo lineage. These pig-like animals were large opportunistic omnivores, possibly occupying a similar ecological role to the later entelodonts, with some Late Eocene forms reaching sizes comparable to black bears.
This new helohyid was named Heliosus apophis, inspired by the eclipse, with its genus name meaning “sun pig”, and its species name referencing a sun-devouring Ancient Egyptian deity.
It was one of the earliest known large-bodied members of the group, and shows that these animals must have increased in size very rapidly during their early evolution, going from rabbit-sized to pig-sized within just a couple of million years.
The modern tuatara is the only living representative of an entire major lineage of reptiles known as sphenodontians – an evolutionary “cousin” group to all lizards and snakes, last sharing a common ancestor with them over 240 million years ago.
And during the Triassic and Jurassic these lizard-like animals were a widespread and diverse bunch, found worldwide and occupying many of the ecological roles that were later taken over by true lizards. They ranged from tiny insectivores to omnivores, relatively large herbivores, and specialized shell-crushers – and some even adapted to a fully aquatic fish-eating lifestyle.
Pleurosaurus ginsburgi here lived during the Late Jurassic, about 150-145 million years ago, in the warm shallow seas and lagoons that covered most of Europe at that time. Fossils of this particular species are known from southern France, with the closely related Pleurosaurus goldfussi found in both the same region and the German Solnhofen Limestone.
These swimming sphenodontians could grow to around 1.5 in length (~5′), with elongated bodies, pointed triangular snouts with retracted nostrils, short flipper-like forelimbs, and especially long eel-like tails. Soft tissue impressions also show scaly skin covering their bodies and a “frill” running along the top of the tail.
Taking place during the 50-million year span between two huge mass extinctions, the Triassic was a very weird time. At the start of the period there was world domination by the synapsid Lystrosaurus, then after a few million years of recovery time came an evolutionary “explosion” from the rest of the survivors – filling new roles in their ecosystems and producing a brief but bizarre menagerie of unique species.
And one of the groups that rose to prominence during this time were the rhynchosaurs. Part of the archosauromorph branch of reptiles, they were closely related to the ancestors of crocodilians, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs, and evolved from small superficially lizard-like forms living in southern Africa during the very start of the Triassic, around 250 million years ago. But within just a few million years they became larger and bulkier, specialized for herbivory and scratch digging, and they soon spread all over Pangaea and became incredibly abundant in some fossil deposits.
Stenaulorhynchus stockleyi was one of larger member of this lineage, around 1.2m long (4’), known from Tanzania about 247-242 million years ago. It had a typical triangular rhynchosaurian skull, with wide deep cheeks supporting powerful jaw muscles and multiple rows of grinding teeth, along with a narrow hooked “beak” formed from the premaxillary bones of its snout.
Its unclear what the actual life appearance of the rhynchosaur “beak” was, with some reconstructions having a shrinkwrapped “alien mole-rat” look, others giving them keratinous parrot-like actual beaks, and still others going with fleshy tuatara-like lizard lips. In the past I’ve leaned somewhat towards the latter, but since one fossil does actually show some evidence for a keratinous covering I’ve gone for an extensive full beak this time around.