But I’m not talking about the dubious claims of non-avian dinosaur fossils found in places they shouldn’t be. This is about something else entirely: an unassuming little bird known as Qinornis paleocenica.
Living in Northwest China during the mid-Paleocene, about 61 million years ago, Qinornis was roughly pigeon-sized at around 30cm long (12″). It’s known only from a few bones from its legs and feet, but those bones are unusual enough to hint that it might have been something very special.
Uniquely for a Cenozoic bird, some of its foot bones weren’t fully fused together. This sort of incomplete fusion is seen in both juvenile modern birds and in adults of non-avian ornithurine birds from the Cretaceous – and the Qinornis specimen seems to have come from an adult animal.
If it was fully grown with unfused feet, then that would suggest it was actually part of a “relic” lineage living 5 million years after the mass extinction, surviving for quite some time longer than previously thought.
Remarkably similar-looking gliding reptiles have appeared multipledifferenttimes over the group’s evolutionary history, including the modern Draco – and despite being unrelated to each other almost all of them have achieved this in the exact same way, supporting their wing membranes on extremely elongated rib bones.
These early members of the neodiapsid lineage were the very first vertebrates known to have experimented with gliding, all the way back in the late Permian period 260-252 million years ago. And while they superficially resembled all the later rib-gliders, their wings were actually something never seen before or since in a gliding reptile.
Basically, these animals were the closest that Earth life ever came to legitimately evolving a dragon.
Coelurosauravus elivensis here was a weigeltisaurid living in what is now Madagascar, which at the time was part of southern Pangaea. About 40cm long (1’4″), its body was adapted for a life climbing and gliding around in the treetops, with pneumatized air spaces lightening its bones and long slender limbs similar to those of modern tree-climbing lizards.
Its large wings were formed from around 30 pairs of long hollow rod-shaped bones extending out from the sides of its belly. These flexible structures could furl and unfurl with a motion like a foldable fan, and are thought to have been highly modified from osteoderms in the skin, creating an entirely new part of its skeleton.
Towards the front of the wing the rods were arranged in several closely-packed “bundles”, and one specimen of Coelurosauravus preserves an impression of what seems to be the outline of the wing membrane’s leading edge – showing a stiffened pointed shape resembling the alula of a bird wing, which may have served a similar aerodynamic stabilization function.
But aside from the wings, the most striking feature of weigeltisaurids were their heads. Their skulls featured large crest-like frills resembling those of chameleons and ceratopsid dinosaurs, and their edges were adorned with prominent bumps and spikes. These were probably used for visual display and might have been a sexually dimorphic feature, with males having larger spikier crests than females. The crests may also have anchored large powerful jaw muscles, giving weigeltisaurids a wider gape and faster bite speed, helping them to snap up their fast-moving insect prey.
They had a mixture of anatomical features similar to true seals, sea lions, and walruses, but weren’t actually the ancestors of any of those modern groups. Instead they seem to have just been their own separate thing, a very early diverging “cousin” lineage of pinnipeds that convergently developed close resemblances to their later relatives.
It would have been a sea lion-like animal, able to walk on all fours when hauled out on land, and showed distinct sexual dimorphism, with males growing to sizes of around 4m long (13′) and females being somewhat smaller. It powered its swimming using its front flippers, and may have mostly foraged in deep dark waters, using both keen vision and sensitive whiskers to locate prey.
The nasal region of its skull also shows some similarities to modern elephant seals, and some reconstructions depict males with the same sort of large proboscis.
Bipedal running has convergently evolved multiple times in squamate reptiles, known in over 50 modern species – and fossil evidence shows this is nothing new, with lizards repeatedly developing the ability to sprint on their hind legs for well over 100 million years.
Its limb proportions indicate it would have been a bipedal runner, making it one of the earliest known examples of this type of locomotion in lizards. Its skull also had some features convergent with varanids, suggesting it may have had a similar sort of active-pursuit-hunting ecology.
Known from the Emu Bay Shale fossil deposits in Kangaroo Island, South Australia (~514 million years ago), Nesonektris was one of the larger known vetulicolians, growing to at least 17cm long (~6.5″). Like most of its relatives it had a large streamlined forebody with a mouth opening at the front, and no obvious appendages or sensory structures. A groove down each side may have housed gill openings, and a segmented flexible tail provided propulsion for swimming.
Very little is known about the ecology of these animals. They were clearly adapted for active swimming in the water column, and may have filter-fed on plankton – but some other vetulicolians have been found preserved with their guts full of seafloor sediment, suggesting some sort of detritivorous lifestyle instead.
Their evolutionary relationships are also still uncertain, but preservation of what appears to be a notochord in Nesonektris suggests that vetulicolians may have been part of the chordate lineage, possibly close relatives of tunicates.