Radiodonts were early arthropods with specialized frontal appendages, disc-like mouths, complex compound eyes, and swimming flaps along the sides of their bodies. Once considered to be bizarre “weird wonders” of the Cambrian Explosion that represented a failed evolutionary experiment, we now know that they were actually a highly diverse and successful lineage that lasted for at least 120 million years.
While some radiodonts were the largest animals of their time periods, Stanleycaris hirpex here was one of the smallest known members of the group – although at around 10cm long (~4″) it was still respectably big compared to most other Cambrian animals.
Discovered in the Canadian Burgess Shale deposits (~508 million years ago), it was originally known only from isolated frontal appendages and mouthparts, and had been assumed to be a fairly typical member of the hurdiid family. But the recent discovery of over 200 new fossils, including some exceptionally well-preserved full body specimens, has catapulted it directly from being poorly-known into now being one of the most completely known of all radiodonts.
And it had a very big surprise for us, right in the middle of its face.
It turns out that Stanleycaris had a huge third eye, unlike anything ever seen in a radiodont before. A large unpaired eye was also part of the five-eyed arrangement in opabiniids and Kylinxia, and finding a similar example in radiodonts too raises the possibility that this sort of well-developed “median eye” may have been more widespread in early arthropods than previously thought.
Along with the third eye, some of the Stanleycaris specimens preserve fine internal details of its nervous system and show that its brain was made up of two segments instead of the three seen in modern arthropods. It also had gills positioned on its underside, unlike most other radiodonts which had them on their backs.
The synapsids were an incredibly successful and diverse group during the Permian period, but after the devastating “Great Dying” mass extinction event 252 million years ago only three lineages survived into the Triassic – the cynodonts (close relatives and ancestors of modern mammals), the dicynodonts (beaked tusked weirdos who briefly took over the world), and the therocephalians.
Therocephalians were close relatives of cynodonts, and convergently evolved several very mammal-like anatomical features in their skulls, teeth, and limbs. But unlike their cousins this lineage never fully recovered in the Triassic, and they ultimately disappeared completely around 242 million years ago.
Ericiolacerta parva was one of these short-lived Mesozoic therocephalians, known from the early Triassic (~252-247 million years ago) of South Africa and Antarctica, in regions that were connected at the time as part of the supercontinent of Pangaea. It was a fairly small animal, about 20cm long (~8″), with small sharp teeth that indicate it mainly fed on insects, and semi-opposable thumbs and inner toes that suggest it was also a capable climber.
Holes in the bones of its snout would have carried numerous nerves and blood vessels, which may be evidence of sensitive fleshy lips and possibly whiskers. And while there’s no direct evidence of fur in therocephalians, they do appear to have been active warm-blooded animals – and possible fossilized synapsid hair from the Permian period suggests fuzziness might have been ancestral to all of the “protomammal” lineages that survived into the Triassic.
Umoonasaurus demoscyllus was a small short-necked plesiosaur, about 2m long (6’6″), that lived in the polar shallow seas covering much of what is now Australia 115 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous.
Its known fossil remains include a specimen nicknamed “Eric”, one of the most complete opalized vertebrate skeletons ever found.
While most of its body was fairly generalized for a plesiosaur, its skull was unusually ornamented. A raised ridge along the middle of its snout shows evidence of supporting a larger keratinous crest, and smaller ridges over each of its eyes may have also had similar structures. These crests were fairly delicate so were probably mainly used for visual display, and might have been brightly colored.
Tsaidamotherium hedini was a ruminant ungulate living around 11 million years ago during the late Miocene, in the northeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau in what is now Northwestern China. Although it’s known only from partial skull remains it was probably similar in body size to a large sheep, about 80cm tall at the shoulder (2’7″).
Since its discovery in the 1930s it’s traditionally been classified as part of the muskox lineage, but in 2022 it was proposed to actually be a giraffoid very closely related to the newly-discovered Discokeryx.
Tsaidamotherium had some extremely unusual headgear, with highly asymmetrical “horns” (actually ossicones if was a giraffoid). The left one was small and positioned above the eye, while the right one was shifted back and towards the middle of the forehead, and was expanded out into a wide bony disk that would have supported a large helmet-like domed keratin covering.
Its skull also had a very large nasal cavity resembling that of the modern saiga antelope, suggesting it may have convergently evolved a similar sort of complex air-filtering snout to deal with dry cold air in its mountainous habitat.
Champsosaurus might look a lot like an unarmored crocodilian, but it was actually only very distantly related to them – this animal was part of a completely extinct reptile lineage known as choristoderes, and its very gharial-like appearance was the result of convergent evolution.
Found in freshwater habitats across North America and Europe, several different species of Champsosaurus are known from around the middle of the Late Cretaceous through to the end of the Paleocene, surviving through the devasting K-Pg mass extinction 66 million years ago.
Champsosaurus laramiensis here lived in western North America and ranged right across the time of the extinction event, dating to between about 70 and 62 million years ago. Around 1.5m long (~5′), it had a flattened skull that was very wide at the back, supporting powerful jaw muscles, with a long narrow toothy snout that could sweep rapidly through the water to snap at fish in a similar manner to modern gharials. Its nostrils were right at the tip of its snout, and it may have used it like a snorkel, only sticking the very end out of the water to breathe.
Skin impressions show it was covered in numerous tiny scales, most less than 0.5mm in size (0.01″), which wouldn’t have been particularly visible from a distance.
There also seems to have been some sexual dimorphism in this species, with females having much more well-developed limb bones – allowing them to occasionally haul themselves out onto the shore to lay eggs, while males were probably fully aquatic and unable to support themselves on land.
Despite looking more like some sort of scaly tubeworm, Rhenopyrgus viviani here was actually an echinoderm, distantly related to modern starfish, brittle stars, sea urchins, crinoids, and sea cucumbers.
It was part of an extinct Paleozoic echinoderm lineage known as edrioasteroids, which lived attached to the seabed or on hard surfaces like the shells of other marine animals, using the tube feet on their five arms to catch food particles from the water around them.
Living during the Silurian, about 435 million years ago, in what is now Quebec, Canada, it stood around 3-4cm tall (1.2-1.6″), firmly anchored into the seafloor sediment by a bulbous sac-shaped base. Its long stalked body was somewhat flexible, and it was able to partially contract the top feeding region down under a “collar” of large scale-like armor plates.
In the late 1990s a partial skeleton of a ceratopsian was discovered in New Mexico, USA. These remains were initially thought to belong to Torosaurus, but after more of the specimen was recovered in the mid-2010s it became clear the bones actually represented an entirely new species of horned dinosaur – officially named in 2022 as Sierraceratops turneri.
Sierraceratops lived during the Late Cretaceous, around 72 million years ago, in what at the time was the southern region of the island continent of Laramidia. About 4.6m long (~15′), it had fairly short chunky brow horns, long pointed cheek horns, and a relatively large frill.
It was part of a unique lineage of ceratopsians that were endemic to southern Laramidia, with its closest known relatives being Bravoceratops from western Texas and Coahuilaceratops from northern Mexico.
Modern beluga whales and narwhals are the only living representatives of the monodontid lineage, found only in cold Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. But this whale family actually first evolved in much warmer climates – and some of them were downright tropical.
Casatia thermophila lived about 5 million years ago during the early Pliocene, in the Mediterranean Sea around Tuscany, Italy. Although known only from a couple of partial skulls and a few vertebrae it was probably similar in size to its modern relatives, around 5m long (16’4″).
It seems to have had a larger number of functional teeth than modern monodontids, and probably didn’t suction feed like its modern close relatives. Instead it may have fed more like most porpoises and dolphins, relying more on speed and snapping jaws to capture prey.
It inhabited the Mediterranean at a time not long after the sea there had mostly dried up and then been rapidly refilled. The presence of warm-water marine species such as bull sharks, tiger sharks, and dugongs in the same fossil beds as Casatia indicates the local climate at the time was hotter than it is today, with tropical temperatures – and suggests that this whale’s ancestors must have originally moved into the replenishing Mediterranean from lower latitudes alongside these other warmth-adapted animals.
This tropical monodontid was also much closer related to modern belugas than modern narwhals are, which raises the possibility that the two living monodontid species actually specialized for colder conditions completely independently of each other rather than descending from a cold-adapted common ancestor. Instead modern belugas and narwhals may have originated from separate warm-water monodontid ancestors who evolved similar cold-tolerant adaptations in parallel as the climate cooled during the onset of the Quaternary ice age, while the rest of their relatives all went extinct.
Ghost pipefishes are close relatives of pipefish and seahorses, and today are represented by six different species found in shallow tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific. But while this lineage is estimated to have originated around 70 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous, their fossil record is very sparse – only three fossil representatives are currently known from the entire Cenozoic.
Calamostoma lesiniforme is one of the oldest of these, dating to the early Eocene around 50-48 million years ago. Known from the Monte Bolca fossil beds in northern Italy, it lived in a warm shallow reef environment during a time when that region of Europe was covered by the western Tethys Ocean.
Up to about 9cm long (3.5″), it was already very similar in appearance to modern ghost pipefishes, with a long tubular snout, star-shaped bony plates in its skin, two dorsal fins, and fairly large pelvic fins that formed an egg-brooding pouch in females. It probably had the same sort of lifestyle as its modern relatives, floating pointing downwards and camouflaging itself among seagrasses, algae, and corals.
One specimen preserves a small amount of color patterning, showing hints of dark banding on the pelvic and tail fins. But since modern ghost pipefish can change their coloration to better mimic their surroundings, it’s unclear whether these markings were common to all Calamostoma or were just part of this particular individual’s camouflage.
Modern birds’ upper beaks are made up mostly from skull bones called the premaxilla, but the snouts of their earlier non-avian dinosaur ancestors were instead formed by large maxilla bones.
And Falcatakely forsterae here had a very unusual combination of these features.
Living in Madagascar during the Late Cretaceous, about 70-66 million years ago, it was around 40cm long (1’4″) and was part of a diverse lineage of Mesozoic birds known as enantiornitheans. These birds had claws on their wings and usually had toothy snouts instead of beaks, and many species also had ribbon-like display feathers on their tails instead of lift-generating fans.
Falcatakely had a long tall snout very similar in shape to a modern toucan, unlike any other known Mesozoic bird, with the surface texture of the bones indicating it was also covered by a keratinous beak. But despite this very “modern” face shape the bone arrangement was still much more similar to other enantiornitheans – there was a huge toothless maxilla making up the majority of the beak, with a small tooth-bearing premaxilla at the tip.
This suggests that there was more than one potential way for early birds to evolve modern-style beaks, and there may have been much more diversity in these animals’ facial structures than previously thought.