Ammonites (or “ammonoids” in technical terms) are one of the most recognizable types of fossil, found in such high abundance that they’re frequently used to precisely date rock layers. They’re absolutely everywhere in fossil collections, and are even made into jewelry.
So we must already know everything we possibly could about them, right?
Except… we really don’t know what their soft parts looked like.
The fossil record for ammonite soft tissue is surprisingly empty for a group that existed for over 300 million years. A possible ink sac and a few organs have been found, but nothing else.
Based on their other cephalopod relatives, they probably had at least ten arms (the two longer tentacles shown on this Collignoniceras are a little speculative), along with a siphon for propulsion – but until we find that elusive exceptional preservation we just don’t know for sure.
[Edit: As of 2022, a few more traces of soft tissue have been found!]
Paleodictyon is the name for a net-like pattern found in the marine fossil record, starting in the Late Precambrian/Early Cambrian (~541 mya). Formed from thin tubes in seafloor sediment, each element of the mesh is around 1-3cm in diameter (0.4-1.1″), with entire networks covering areas of up to a square meter (10.7ft²). Some forms also have vertical tubes connecting the mesh to the surface.
And nobody knows what it is.
These patterns have even been found on the modern day seafloor at mid-ocean ridges. Samples have been taken, DNA tests have been performed… and nothing conclusive has yet been found.
Whatever makes these patterns is alive today, but we still don’t know what it is!
There are two main hypotheses about the mysterious identity of the mesh-maker. It might be some sort of small worm-like animal excavating burrows, engineering water flow through the tubes to collect food. Or the whole mesh might be the body imprint of a single creature – either a sponge or a giant foraminiferan.
Hopefully one day somebody will finally catch the Paleodictyon culprit in the act.
Welcome to Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month!
There’s a lot of things we now know about the distant past that seemed impossible only a few decades ago – discovering the colors of fossilized animals, fragments of collagen in dinosaur bones, and even finding near-complete remains of previously enigmatic animals like Deinocheirus.
But there’s also still a lot of things we don’t know. The fossil record is spotty and very incomplete, and even as we answer some questions others remain frustratingly unanswered.
So, every weekday during March I’ll be featuring a different paleontological mystery. Starting with…
We don’t really know where pterosaurs came from.
They appeared suddenly in the Late Triassic (~228 mya) with their anatomy already fully adapted for flight, and there are no traces of transitional forms before that point.
We at least know they were members of the archosaurs, and the sister group to dinosaurs, and their closest known relative seems to have been a small hopping creature named Scleromochlus. The complete lack of any other potential ancestors suggests that proto-pterosaurs must have evolved incredibly rapidly in an environment that just didn’t favor fossilizing their tiny fragile remains.
We might get lucky one day and finally find a pterosaur equivalent of Archaeopteryx, but for now all we have are hypothetical ideas of what such animals might have looked like.
Montealtosuchus arrudacamposi, a crocodyliform from the Late Cretaceous of Brazil (~93-83 mya). About 1.8m in length (6′), it had slightly forward-facing eyes, giving it binocular vision, and long upright limbs – adaptations for active hunting on land.
Basically, it would have looked a little like a “crocodile dog”.
Edestus, a holocephalan fish from the Late Carboniferous (~315-299 mya) of Eurasia and North America. A relative of the “spiral-saw-mouthed” Helicoprion, it continuously grew a single row of teeth in each jaw, creating an arrangement often compared to a pair of pinking shears.
Multiple species of this genus have been named, with varying degrees of tooth bracket curvature, and the largest may have had body sizes similar to modern white sharks – about 6m long (19′8″).
Since Edestus is only known from fossilized tooth brackets, how exactly its jaws worked and what it ate with them is still a mystery. Many reconstructions end up either goofy or horrifying as a result, and so I’ve attempted to make this one look a bit more “normal”. And capable of closing its own mouth.
Edit: This reconstruction was based more on chimaeras than on other eugeneodontids, and is therefore probably very inaccurate. When I originally did this image I wasn’t aware body outlines were known for the group. For a much more accurate version see my 2020 version in the “Weird Heads” series.
Homalodotherium, a South American notoungulate mammal from the Early-to-Middle Miocene of Patagonia (~20-15 mya). Standing about 1.4m tall at the shoulder (4′7″), it seems to have convergently evolved to fill the same selective browsing niche as the North American chalicotheres and the later giant ground sloths.
Despite being an ungulate it had claws rather than hooves, and walked plantigrade on its hind feet but digitigrade on its front feet. It would have been capable of rearing up bipedally to pull down branches with its long forelimbs, with the shape of its nasal bones suggesting it may have also had a prehensile upper lip to help it strip off vegetation while feeding.
Spinoaequalis schultzei, an early diapsid reptile from the late Carboniferous of Kansas, USA (~300 mya). Measuring about 30cm long (1′), it appears to have been semi-aquatic, with limbs like a typical terrestrial reptile but also possessing a long flexible paddle-like tail to aid in swimming – making it one of the earliest amniotes to experiment with “returning to the water”.
Bathornis grallator, a flightless bird about 75cm tall (2′6″) from the Late Eocene and Early Oligocene of Midwestern USA (~37-34 mya).
It was originally mistaken for a long-legged vulture (under the name Neocathartes) when first discovered in the 1940s, but later studies have shown it was actually one of the smaller members of the bathornithids – close cousins of the more well-known South American “terror birds”, successfully occupying terrestrial predator niches alongside large carnivorous mammals.
Lycopsis longirostrus*, a sparassodont mammal from the Middle Miocene of Colombia, South America (~14-12 mya). About 35cm tall at the shoulder (1′2″), it was originally thought to be a dog-like or thylacine-like animal, but studies of a well-preserved specimen have shown that it had an unusual mix of anatomic features in its limb bones, with adaptations for both climbing and running.
It was probably a terrestrial ambush hunter, preying on rodents and other small animals, but also had the ability to grasp and climb trees in its densely forested environment – especially useful for avoiding the land crocodiles that shared its habitat.
( * Often seen misspelled as L. longirostris )
Aaand we’re back to normal updates with a fully working computer again!
Let’s properly start off this year’s art pieces with a particularly weird sauropod dinosaur. This is Brachytrachelopan, known from Argentina at the very end of the Jurassic (~152-145 mya).
A member of the dicraeosaurids, it was a close relative of the spiky-necked Amargasaurus and was roughly the same size at about 10m long (32′9″) – but it also had the shortest neck of any known sauropod, suggesting it was specialized for a completely different diet. It may have been a sort of “iguanodont-mimic”, adapted to a low browsing niche, since actual iguanodonts were absent from its ecosystem.
I’ve given this one a little bit of speculative bristly fuzz, because I can. While all currently known sauropod skin impressions show scales, we don’t have full-body coverage and fuzz was almost certainly present in their ancestors – and both types of integument can also exist on the same animal in the same places.
Also I just like the idea of sauropods with manes and beards.