Crassigyrinus scoticus was an early tetrapod from the early Carboniferous Period, known from ancient coal swamps of Scotland, Nova Scotia, and West Virginia between about 350 and 330 million years ago.
Around 2m long (6’6″), it had an elongated streamlined body with tiny vestigial-looking forelimbs, and a pelvis that wasn’t well-connected to its spine – features that suggest it had re-evolved a fully aquatic lifestyle at a time when its other early tetrapod relatives were specializing more and more for life on land.
Fossils of its skull are all rather crushed, and traditionally its head shape has been reconstructed as unusually tall and narrow. But a more recent study using CT scanning has instead come up with a wider flatter shape more in line with other early tetrapods.
Its mouth also had a very wide gape and a strong bite, and it may have occupied an ecological role similar to that of modern crocodilians, lurking in wait to ambush passing prey.
The evolution of falcons is rather poorly understood. Thanks to genetic evidence we know that they’re closely related to seriemas, parrots, and passerines, but their fossil record is patchy and little is known about the early members of their lineage.
But a group knows as masillaraptorids are giving us a rare glimpse at what some early falconiforms were up to. Known from the Eocene of Europe, these long-legged predatory birds seem to have been caracara-like terrestrial hunters specializing in chasing down prey on foot – although their wings and tails indicate they were also still strong fliers.
Danielsraptor phorusrhacoides lived during the early Eocene, about 55 million years ago, in what is now eastern England. Although only known from partial remains, it was probably around 45-60cm long (~1’6″-2′), and it had a large hooked beak with a surprising amount of convergent similarity to those of the flightless South American terror birds.
Its mixture of falcon-like and seriema-like features may indicate that the common ancestor of both of these bird groups was a similar sort of leggy ground-hunting predator.
Araeoscelis gracilis was a superficially lizard-like animal that lived during the mid-Permian, around 275 million years ago, in what is now Texas, USA. About 60cm long (~2′), it had a slender body, proportionally long legs, and a solidly-built skull with strong teeth, suggesting that it was a fast runner that specialized in cracking open the carapaces of thick-shelled prey.
It was one of the last known members of a lineage known as araeoscelidians, which are usually considered to be very early members of the diapsid reptiles – but a recent study has proposed they might have even more ancient roots than that, possibly being a branch of stem–amniotes instead.
Neolicaphrium recens here might look like some sort of early horse, but this little mammal was actually something else entirely.
Known from southern South America during the late Pleistocene to early Holocene, between about 1 million and 11,000 years ago, Neolicaphrium was the last known member of the proterotheriids, a group of South American native ungulates that were only very distantly related to horses, tapirs, and rhinos. Instead these animals evolved their remarkably horse-like body plan completely independently, adapting for high-speed running with a single weight-bearing hoof on each foot.
Neolicaphrium was a mid-sized proterotheriid, standing around 45cm tall at the shoulder (~1’6″), and unlike some of its more specialized relatives it still had two small vestigial toes on each foot along with its main hoof. Tooth microwear studies suggest it had a browsing diet, mainly feeding on soft leaves, stems, and buds in its savannah woodland habitat.
It was one of the few South American native ungulates to survive through the Great American Biotic Interchange, when the formation of the Isthmus of Panama allowed North and South American animals to disperse into each other’s native ranges. While many of its relatives had already gone extinct in the wake of the massive ecological changes this caused, Neolicaphrium seems to have been enough of a generalist to hold on, living alongside a fairly modern-looking selection of northern immigrant mammals such as deer, peccaries, tapirs, foxes, jaguars… and also actual horses.
Some of the earliest human inhabitants of South America would have seen Neolicaphirum alive before its extinction. We don’t know whether they had any direct impact on its disappearance – but since the horses it lived alongside were hunted by humans and also went extinct, it’s possible that a combination of shifting climate and hunting pressure pushed the last of the little not-horses over the edge, too.
Soft-bodied annelid worms only very rarely fossilize, so the group’s origins during the Cambrian Period are still rather poorly understood. So far about thirteen different species have been found in sites of exceptional preservation, showing that even very early on in their evolution these worms had already diversified into a wide range of ecologies including bottom-feeders, carnivores, swimmers, tube-builders, and even symbiotes sharing living space with early acorn worms.
Ursactis comosa here adds a fourteenth species to the list. Found in a newly-discovered outcrop of the 508-million-year-old Burgess Shale fossil deposits in western Canada, it’s known from nearly 600 specimens clustered together in several large groups, making it the current best-known and most numerous of all Cambrian annelids.
Up to about 1.5cm long (~0.6″), it was a polychaete-like worm bearing bundles of long bristles. There was a pair of large sensory palps on its head, and its body was made up of an unusually small number of segments – just 10, with larger individuals just increasing the size of their segments instead of adding on additional ones like most modern annelids.
Unlike other Cambrian annelids it also shows some evidence of basic tagmatization, differentiating some of the rear segments of its body with much longer bristles.
The large numbers of Ursactis found preserved in one place suggests these worms were exhibiting some sort of swarming behavior. Since ages from juveniles to fully-grown adults are represented together, and their anatomy indicates they were crawling detritivores, they were probably all taking advantage of a particularly nutrient-rich patch of seafloor at the time they were abruptly buried in a mudslide.