For around 50 years some very unusual dinosaur tracks have been found in ancient desert sediments in South America: strange footprints showing the impression of only a single toe, a walking style never before seen in any reptiles.
And recently a fossil of what might be the track maker has actually been found.
Measuring about 1.5m long (~5′), Vespersaurus was fairly lightly built with legs proportioned for running – and its feet were absolutely unique. Although it had the standard three main toes of a theropod, it bore its weight entirely on the middle toe and held the other digits off the ground. The two raised toes on each foot also had large knife-like claws which may have been used during hunting, vaguely similar to the sickle claws on the feet of dromaeosaurs. But unlike dromaeosaurs these claws weren’t highly curved or pointed, suggesting Vespersaurus used more of a scratching and slashing technique rather than the raptors’ puncture-and-restraint strategy.
Much like ancient horses, it may have developed its single-toed stance as an adaptation for more efficient fast running, possibly to avoid larger predators or to chase down small fast-moving prey like hopping desert mammals.
The known one-toed fossil footprints are actually slightly older than the Vespersaurus fossil, and similar tracks in Argentina have been found dating back to the Late Jurassic (~150mya), so there may have been a long lineage of “one-toed” desert-dwelling noasaurids in South America that haven’t been found yet.
The exact evolutionary relationships between the earliest amphibians and amniotes is rather murky, and the recently-discovered Diabloroter bolti here is a member of a group in the middle of this uncertain classification.
It was part of a lineage known as the recumbirostrans – small burrowing aquatic salamander-like creatures, many of which had elongated bodies and short tails. Although traditionally considered to be lepospondyl “amphibians”, more recent studies have suggested that these animals might instead have been very early true amniotes related to early reptiles.
Measuring only about 6cm long (2.4″), Diabloroter is known from a single fossil from Illinois, USA, dating to the Late Carboniferous about 309-307 million years ago. Its anatomy indicates it was probably a herbivore – making it one of the earliest known plant-eating tetrapods – with teeth adapted for scraping at algae-covered surfaces and a rather rotund body that would have housed a large gut region.
It also had fairly well-developed limbs, which were probably used for burrowing like many of its close recumbirostran relatives, but may also suggest it spent a lot of time walking around on land.
One of the earliest known members of this lineage was Scutellosaurus lawleri. Living in Arizona during the Early Jurassic, about 196-183 million years ago, it was a small lightly-built bipedal herbivore, only about 1.2m long (3′11″) – with over half that length being just its unusually long tail.
Its body was covered in rows of hundreds of small bony osteoderms, helping to protect it against larger predators like Dilophosaurus. And this was obviously an evolutionary strategy that worked very well for Scutellosaurus and other early thyreophorans, because within about 20 million years they’d given rise to the first true ankylosaurs and stegosaurs – with the tank-like ankylosaurs being especially successful, spreading to every continent and lasting all the way up until the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.
Living between about 2.5 million and 13,000 years ago, it would have stood around 80cm tall (2′7″), with a wingspan of almost 2m (6′6″) and a fairly hefty body weight of 3kg (6.6lbs). Its feet had less grasping ability than other eagles but it also had particularly strong leg muscles, suggesting it was much better adapted for walking around on the ground.
With its large size, long legs, and terrestrial habits it seems to have convergently evolved to fill the same ecological niche as the modern secretarybird – a grassland-dwelling walking predator that hunted on foot, kicking and stomping small prey animals like snakes, lizards, and rodents.
While this might look like a sci-fi alien design, it was actually a very real Earth animal!
This strange-looking creature was Clausocaris lithographica, a member of a group of unique marine arthropods known as thylacocephalans. Only about 3.5cm long (1.4″), it lived in a shallow tropical lagoon environment during the Late Jurassic of Germany, about 150-145 million years ago.
Like most other thylacocephalans it had a narrow flattened shield-like carapace, three pairs of large grasping limbs, and a battery of swimming appendages further back – along with absolutely enormous bulbous eyes. Based on this anatomy it would have been a highly visual hunter, using its huge eyes to locate prey items and then snagging them with its long spiny limbs.
And we’re not even entirely sure what type of arthropods thylacocephalans actually were. They’re generally thought to be some sort of crustacean, but their highly modified anatomy makes linking up their exact evolutionary affinities very difficult. Whatever they were, they must have been incredibly successful as a group because they first appeared in the early Cambrian (~518 mya) and survived all the way into the Late Cretaceous (~94 mya).
While most modern toothed whales have jaws full of teeth that are all the same simple pointed shape – an adaptation for better holding onto slippery prey – their ancient ancestors had teeth much more like other mammals, with differentiated incisors, canines, and molars.
In-between them were whales like Inticetus vertizi, which lived off the coast of southwestern Peru during the Early Miocene, about 18 million years ago.
At over 3.5m long (11′6″) it was one of the larger known toothed whales around at the time, but it wasn’t the direct ancestor of any living whales. Instead it was more of an evolutionary “cousin” to them, part of an older offshoot lineage that lived alongside the early members of modern toothed whale groups.
Inticetus had a long and unusually wide-based snout, somewhat croc-like in appearance, with sharp pointed teeth at the front and multi-lobed cheek teeth further back. A lack of obvious wear on its back teeth suggests it wasn’t using them to chew up its food, and it may have had a fairly specialized diet – possibly using those back teeth to sieve small prey out of the water in a similar manner to modern lobodontine seals.
Inticetus-like teeth have also been found in Miocene-aged deposits in the eastern USA, the Atlantic coast of France, and southeast Italy, indicating that this ancient whale lineage was quite widespread.
Diademodon tetragonus here lived right in the wake of the extinction during the Early and Middle Triassic, about 251-242 million years ago. Around 2m long (6′6″), it was one of the largest known cynodonts, and it must have been a fairly successful species since it ranged across a large chunk of Pangaea, known from modern southern Africa, South America and Antarctica.
It had pig-like cheekbones and enormous jaw muscles, along with sharp incisors and canine teeth at the front of its jaws and grinding molars at the back. This arrangement suggests that much like modern pigs it may have been an opportunistic omnivore, occasionally snacking on smaller animals and carrion – although an isotope analysis of its teeth indicates the vast majority of its diet was probably still vegetation in shady damp environments.
But perhaps the most impressively-horned croc was Voay robustus here.
Voay lived on the island of Madagascar during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene, between about 100,000 and 2,000 years ago. At about 5m long (16′5″) it was similar in size and build to a large male Nile crocodile – but despite this resemblance its closest living relative is actually the much smaller dwarf crocodile.
It had a fairly short and deep snout and chunky limbs, adaptations associated with a more terrestrial lifestyle that suggest it was specialized for hunting its prey on land rather than just at the water’s edge.
Much like modern horned crocodiles its particularly prominent horns were probably used for territorial displays, and may have been a sexually dimorphic feature with big mature males having the largest examples.
Measuring about 1.2m long (3′11″), it had some unusual features for a temnospondyl – a very rectangular skull with a wide blunt snout, and elongated spines on its vertebrae that gave its body a sort of “hump-backed” shape.
It was part of a lineage of temnospondyls called capitosaurs, which mostly occupied the same sort of aquatic predator niche as modern crocodiles – but unlike its close relatives Sclerothorax’s well-developed spine and limbs suggest it spent much more time walking around on land.
(And while there was another temnospondyl known to have similar extended vertebrae – the sail-backed Platyhystrix – the two weren’t actually closely related to each other.)