Coelacanths are famous for being “living fossils”, completely disappearing from the fossil record at the end of the Cretaceous but then being rediscovered alive just 80 years ago. But although they’re often thought to have physically changed very little over the last 300 million years or so, more recent discoveries are starting to show that coelacanth body forms and lifestyles were actually more varied in the distant past.
Meet the wonderfully-named Rebellatrix divaricerca, from the Early Triassic of British Columbia, Canada (~251-247 mya). Measuring around 1.3m long (4′3″), its body shape and large symmetrical forked tail suggest it was adapted for fast swimming. Unlike its slow-moving deep-water modern relatives this coelacanth was a speedy oceanic active predator, convergently similar to tuna or some sharks.
Since it lived in the immediate wake of the end-Permian “Great Dying” mass extinction, Rebellatrix may have rapidly evolved from more standard-looking coelacanths to take advantage of a suddenly vacant ecological niche – or it might be part of a more extensive unusual lineage whose other members simply haven’t been discovered yet.
Barbaturex morrisoni, a large herbivorous lizard which lived about 40-37 million years ago during the Eocene. Known from Myanmar in Southeast Asia, it’s estimated to have reached lengths of 1.4-1.8m (4′7″-5′10″) and was closely related to modern spiny-tailed lizards.
It had a row of bony knobs along the edges of its lower jaw, which may have supported some sort of display structure. I’ve given it some fleshy double-dewlaps here, and a spiky tail similar to its relatives, but since it’s only known from fragmentary fossils these features are pretty speculative.
Surprisingly Barbaturex was much bigger than a lot of the herbivorous ungulate mammals around at the time, and was also larger than most of the local carnivores – a very different situation to modern ecosystems, where even the biggest plant-eating lizards are still smaller than ungulates.
Eucladoceros dicranios, a deer from the Pliocene and Pleistocene of Europe (~3.5-1 mya). Close in size to a modern moose, standing about 1.8m tall at the shoulder (5′10″), the males of this species had a set of particularly large antlers – measuring up to 1.7 meters across (5′6″) and bristling with at least twelve prongs each – giving it the nickname of “bush-antlered deer”.
The more famous “Irish elk” (Megaloceros giganteus) would later develop even bigger antlers, but Eucladoceros was the earliest known deer to evolve this sort of extremely elaborate headgear.
Zby atlanticus, a sauropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of Portugal (~156-151 mya). While its genus name might look like a keyboard smash, it was actually named after the Russian-French paleontologist Georges Zbyszewski, who spent much of his career studying Portuguese fossils.
It was a close relative of Turiasaurus, the largest dinosaur currently known from Europe – and although Zby itself wasn’t quite so enormous it was still pretty big, probably measuring somewhere around 15-19m long (49′2″-62′4″).
In fact, all the sauropods known from Late Jurassic Portugal seem to have grown to very large adult sizes. The complete lack of medium or small forms suggests that other types of herbivorous dinosaurs may have dominated the region’s lower-browsing niches at the time.
Alienochelys selloumi, a sea turtle from the Late Cretaceous of Morocco (70-66 mya). Although only known from a single skull, it was probably around 2-2.5m long (6′6″- 8′2″), and was closely related to both the modern leatherback turtle and the giant Archelon – and so it wouldn’t have had a solid shell but instead a leathery skin-covered carapace.
But that one skull was also incredibly weird. While most turtles have pointed beaks, Alienochelys had a blunt squared-off face, sort of “pug-nosed”, with its nostrils set high up between its eyes. It seems to have been specialized for crushing hard-shelled prey between the wide flat grinding surfaces of its beak, more similar to the jaws of rays than those of other turtles.
Despite commonly being called “killer whales” modern orcas are actually the largest living members of the oceanic dolphin family. Their ancestors are thought to have diverged from other dolphins between 10 and 5 million years ago – and surprisingly their closest relatives are the much smaller snubfin dolphins found in Australasia.
Living during the Pliocene (5-2 mya) in the Mediterranean, Orcinus citoniensis was an early member of the orca lineage, and was probably a transitional form between their early dolphin ancestors and the modern Orcinus orca.
It was half the size of modern orcas, at about 4m long (~13′). While it had a higher tooth count than its living relatives its teeth were also proportionally smaller, suggesting it wasn’t specialized for tackling large prey and probably fed mainly on fish and squid.
Originally known only from a few fragments, this 2.5-3m long (8′2″-9′10″) animal was first considered to be an indeterminate early archosaur, then a non-archosaurian doswelliid. But new fossil material and a recent analysis have instead placed it as a member of the erpetosuchids, an early group of pseudosuchians (the branch of the archosaurs that includes modern crocodilians).
Erpetosuchids were some of the earliest well-armored archosaurs, with several rows of bony osteoderms along their neck, back, and tail, and scattered oval osteoderms covering their limbs. Their fairly gracile build and slender limbs suggest they were active terrestrial carnivores – but it’s hard to say exactly what they were preying on due to their somewhat odd skulls.
They had only a few teeth at the very front of their upper jaws, with the rest being toothless, but meanwhile the lower jaw was fully-toothed. Their skulls had narrow snouts at the front but became much wider further back, suggesting the presence of powerful jaw muscles, and they had slightly upward-facing eye sockets.
Smaller erpetosuchids are speculated to have been specialized for insect-eating, catching their small prey with their front teeth and then crushing it with the semi-toothless part of their jaws further back. But something the size of Tarjadia probably couldn’t have survived on a purely insectivorous diet, and it must have been doing something else with its weird jaws.
Known from around the North Pacific rim from about 33-15 million years ago, plotopterids were flightless diving birds which used their small but powerful wings to propel themselves through the water. They were convergently similar to penguins in body shape and lifestyle, but not actually closely related to them – instead being relatives of gannets, cormorants, and anhingas.
Smaller plotopterids were about the size of modern cormorants, around 70cm long (2′4″), but the larger known genera like Copepteryx rivalled the southern giant penguins at around 1.8m (6′).
And a second species of Copepteryx known only from a single leg bone (Copepteryx titan) may have been ever bigger. Estimated at over 2m in length (6′6″), it was possibly one of the largest diving birds to have ever lived.