Spectember #01: Land Dolphins

Welcome to SPECTEMBER!

This month we’ll be taking a break from real creatures to instead explore some “what if” scenarios for the evolution of life.

If you’re unfamiliar with speculative evolution, it’s basically a biology-focused type of science fiction exploring hypothetical evolutionary paths, whether as alternate histories for the ancient past, possible far future descendants of modern species, or even completely alien life on other worlds. The concept has been around for well over a century at this point, but Dougal Dixon’s 1981 book After Man was probably the biggest influence.

All this month, on weekdays I’ll be posting my own work based on the suggestions from earlier in the year, and on weekends I’ll highlight some of the history of the spec evo genre.

So let’s have some fun – and if you want to join in, #spectember is an open concept and anyone is welcome to take part!

Transcript for the text on the image under the cut:

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Weird Heads Month #31: What Even Is This Fish

For the final entry in this series, let’s take a look at a modern weird-headed species – and where better to find some of the strangest and most unique-looking animals alive today than the deep sea?

Malacosteus, also known as the stoplight loosejaw, is a 25cm long (10″) genus of dragonfish found at depths of over 500m (1640′) in oceans all around the world, with the exception of the Mediterranean and polar waters. Two different species are currently recognized, with Malacosteus niger here known from just below the Arctic Circle down to the southern reaches of the subtropics, and Malacosteus australis ranging from there to around 45°S, and up towards the equator in the Indian Ocean.

And there’s a lot to unpack here with the anatomy of this one.

First of all, there’s the fact that its entire head can hinge away from its body, gaping enormous jaws with long fang-like teeth.

The bottom of its lower jaw has no skin membrane connecting the two sides, attached to the rest of its bizarre head only by the hinges and a single exposed muscle, reducing water resistance so it can shoot its trap-jaws out extra fast to snare prey.

Diagram showing how the stoplight loosejaw's jaw parts articulate.
From Kenaley, C. P. (2012). Exploring feeding behaviour in deep-sea dragonfishes (Teleostei: Stomiidae): jaw biomechanics and functional significance of a loosejaw. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 106(1), 224-240. doi.org/10.1111/j.1095-8312.2012.01854.x

Once it catches something it retracts its head, and several sets of pharyngeal teeth further back grab hold of its prey and direct it down its throat.

(Let me remind you that this isn’t an early April Fools joke. This thing is completely real.)

In addition to all that anatomical weirdness, it’s also one of the only deep-sea fish that can both see and produce red-colored light. Most creatures living at that depth have lost the ability to see red since that frequency doesn’t penetrate so far down through water, but the stoplight loosejaw has evolved to take advantage of that by using bioluminescent red light as its own personal night vision goggles.

Using large red photophores under each eye, it can shine a spotlight out ahead of itself and see other deep-sea animals all clearly lit up, while remaining completely invisible to both them and any nearby larger predators. It’s able to perceive the color red thanks to a pigment in its eyes modified from chlorophyll, a visual setup unique to this fish and not known from any other vertebrate.

It also has a smaller green photophore further down on its head – inspiring its common name thanks to the resemblance to traffic lights – and many smaller blue and white ones over its head and body.

So, with its highly specialized jaws and ability to see things other deep-sea animals can’t, the stoplight loosejaw must be hunting something pretty impressive, right?

And as it turns out, it eats… plankton.

The vast majority of its diet appears to be copepods, small zooplanktoic crustaceans that are incredibly common in the waters the loosejaw inhabits. It may simply be “snacking” on such a convenient food source in-between rare encounters with larger prey – but it may also be getting the chlorophyll-based pigment needed for its night vision from eating them.

Almost-Living Fossils Month #26 – Angry Land-Flamingo-Ducks

The presbyornithids were an early group of waterfowl birds – relatives of modern ducks, geese, swans, and screamers – that first appeared in the Late Cretaceous, about 71 million years ago. With their long necks, long legs, and duck-like bills adapted for filter-feeding, they seem to have essentially been primitive ducks converging on the body shape and lifestyle of flamingos – and as a result they’re sometimes even nicknamed “flamingo ducks”.

They lived in shallow freshwater environments all around the world, and after surviving through the end-Cretaceous extinction they even became some of the most common waterbirds in the early Cenozoic. Some species have been found in large bonebeds containing fossils from thousands of individuals all in one place, suggesting they were very social and lived in huge flocks.

Around the mid-to-late Eocene (~40-37 mya) they seemed to disappear completely, until some fossils from Australia that were originally thought to be from a species of ancient stone-curlew were reassessed in 2016 and found to actually represent the latest-surviving members of the presbyornithids.

Named Wilaru, this bird lived in South Australia during the Late Oligocene and Early Miocene (~28-20 mya). Two different species have been identified: Wilaru tedfordi and its slightly larger and stockier descendant Wilaru prideauxi. With only partial pieces of their skeletons known it’s difficult to estimate their full life size, but based on similar presbyornithids they were probably both somewhere around 1m tall (3′3″).

As well as outliving the rest of their kind, the two Wilaru species were also rather weird compared to the other known flamingo-ducks, with adaptations that indicate they were spending much more time walking around on land than wading in water. Their feet resembled those of modern screamers (which are also more terrestrial) and may have partially or fully lost their webbing, and since they lived alongside various other species of waterfowl and early flamingos they clearly weren’t competing for the same ecological niches. It’s possible they might have also shifted away from their ancestral filter-feeding diet, perhaps becoming more herbivorous, but without any preserved skulls we can’t tell for certain.

Unlike other presbyornithids they also had large spurs on their wings – and based on the behavior of modern spurred waterfowl this suggests they were much less social. They were probably rather aggressive animals, living solitary or in pairs and fighting each other over mates and territory.

This major departure from the lifestyle of their ancestors may have been what allowed Wilaru to survive for so much longer than all the other presbyornithids. They might potentially have lasted a few more million years into the mid-Miocene, but a cooling and drying climate – especially a sudden temperature drop about 14 million years ago – may ultimately have altered their habitat and food sources too quickly for them cope with.

Almost-Living Fossils Month #12 – The Other Nautiluses

Nautiloids are represented today by just two living genera (Nautilus and Allonautilus), but they have a lengthy evolutionary history going back almost 500 million years.

The peak of their diversity was during the first half of the Paleozoic, with many different shapes of shells from coiled to straight, then they began to decline when their relatives the ammonites and coleoids appeared and began to compete for similar ecological niches. Although a few groups of nautiloids survived through the end-Permian mass extinction, most of them had disappeared by the end of the Triassic, leaving just one major remaining lineage known as the Nautilina (or Nautilaceae).

During the mid-to-late Jurassic (~165 mya) two new groups split away from the ancestors of the modern nautiluses – the cymatoceratids and the hercoglossids.

Cymatoceratids such as Cymatoceras sakalavum here had shells with a ribbed texture. Living during the Early Cretaceous, about 112-109 million years ago, this particular species is known from Japan and Madagascar and could reach a shell diameter of over 15cm (6″).

Hercoglossids, meanwhile, were much more smooth in appearance, but both groups also had more complex undulating sutures between their internal chambers than modern nautiluses do.

These nautiluses made it through the end-Cretaceous mass extinction and had a brief period of renewed success, filling the ecological roles left vacant by the extinct ammonites. But by the end of the Oligocene (~23 mya) both the cymatoceratids and hercoglossids vanished, possibly unable to deal with cooling oceans and the evolution of new predators.

Some of the hercoglossids’ Cenozoic descendants, the aturiids, managed to last a little longer into the Early Pliocene (~5 mya) before another period of cooling seems to have finished them off. Past that point, all that was left of the once-massive nautiloid lineage were their cousins the nautilids, who gave rise to today’s few living representatives.

(It’s also worth noting that the classification of the cymatoceratids seems to be in flux right now. Some paleontologists currently don’t consider Cymatoceras itself to actually be part of the group, instead being a nautilid much closer related to modern nautiluses. If this is the case then the cymatoceratids may not have actually survived past the Late Cretaceous – but the Cymatoceras genus alone still counts as an “almost-living” fossil since its various species ranged from the Late Jurassic to the Late Oligocene.)

Almost-Living Fossils Month #09 – Horned Sharks

All modern species of sharks and rays are part of a single lineage of cartilaginous fish known as neoselachians, and the closest evolutionary “cousins” to all of them were the hybodontiformes.

First appearing way back during the Devonian, about 400 million years ago, these early sharks were widespread around the world and incredibly successful as a group, living in both marine and freshwater environments.

Although due to their cartilaginous skeletons hybodontiformes are mostly known from fossilized teeth, there are still some complete specimens known that show us their overall body shape. They had two dorsal fins, each with a long spine in front, and an asymmetrically-shaped tail. Some of them also had small horn-like spines on their heads – this seems to be a sexually dimorphic trait, since the ones with “horns” also have claspers which show they were males – and they generally had powerful jaws with teeth specialized for crushing.

They were probably fairly slow swimmers most of the time, but would have still been capable of occasional bursts of higher speed, and various species were adapted to a wide range of food sources. Some had wider flatter teeth for cracking open hard-shelled seafloor invertebrates, and others were more opportunistic hunters that would have crunched on pretty much anything they could fit in their mouths.

Hybodontiformes were the dominant type of shark around the world before the end-Permian “Great Dying” mass extinction (~252 mya), and then went on to recover and flourish once again up until the mid-Jurassic.

Hybodus hauffianus was one of the Early Jurassic species, living around 183 million years ago in Europe. About 2m long (6′6″), it had two different types of teeth in its mouth – sharper ones in the front and flatter ones in the back – suggesting it was a generalist predator eating whatever it could catch. We do know its diet at least included the fast-swimming squid-like belemnites, since some fossils preserve clusters of their internal hard skeletons in Hybodus’ stomach region.

Towards the end of the Jurassic neoselachians began to diversify and take over most of the marine shark ecological niches, and the hybodontiformes became increasingly restricted to freshwater. During the Cretaceous they continued to do fairly well in those environments, but most of them still disappeared around the time of the end-Cretaceous extinction (~66 mya). Since most other sharks weren’t actually particularly affected by the extinction event, it’s not clear whether the hybodontiformes were more vulnerable for some reason or whether it was the ongoing competition from neoselachians that drove the majority of them extinct at that time.

Still, a few of them did seem to make it through to the Cenozoic, although they were absent from the fossil record until the Miocene. Freshwater deposits in Sri Lanka have evidence of a late-surviving member of the group living perhaps as recently as 5 million years ago – so they would have only gone completely extinct sometime after that, and we probably missed seeing them alive by only a few million years at most.