But one of the most bizarre of all was the genus Nipponites, whose ribbed shell looked like a bundle of tangled asymmetrical coils.
Nipponites bacchus lived in what is now Hokkaido, Japan, during the late Cretaceous about 90 million years ago. Around 10cm long (~4″), its shell was less tightly coiled up than its better-known relative Nipponites mirabilis, but these looser whorls were formed in the same way via a series of U-bends in different directions during its growth.
Despite their irregular and ungainly appearance, the unique shape of these ammonites seems to have actually been very hydrodynamically stable. They weren’t fast-moving, but they didn’t need to be, probably spending most of their time floating suspended in the water column catching small planktonic prey from around themselves.
This repeated “pristification” suggests that saws are just incredibly useful and relatively “easy to evolve” structures for these types of fish, being both highly sensitive to bioelectric fields and able to physically slash and stab to kill prey.
Onchopristis numida was a sawskate known from what is now Northern and Western Africa during the mid-Cretaceous, about 95 million years ago. Up to about 3m long (~10′), it lived in both saltwater and freshwater, and was probably a bottom-dwelling ambush predator similar to modern angelsharks.
Whenever a denticle was lost from its saw, a larger one would grow to replace it, and over the life of an Onchopristis this resulted in an increasingly extreme amount of saw asymmetry.
Modern pristified fish also have rather asymmetrical saws. Sawfish are commonly born with a different number of denticles on each side, while sawsharks add extra denticles of varying sizes as they age, with the ongoing replacement of lost denticles resulting in more uneven arrangements over their course of their lives.
It’s not clear if the asymmetry gives any sort of advantage to these fish – but if nothing else it probably doesn’t cause them any disadvantage, so there’s no evolutionary pressure to stay more symmetrical.
Palaeopagurus vandenengeli lived in what is now northern England during the Early Cretaceous, about 130 million years ago. Around 4-5cm long (~1.6-2″), it was found preserved inside the shell of the ammonite species Simbirskites gottschei.
Its left claw was much larger than its right, and together they would have been used to block the shell opening when it was hiding away inside. And while the exact shape of its abdomen isn’t known, it probably asymmetrically coiled to the side to accomodate the spiralling shape of the host shell.
Rhamphorhynchus muensteri was one of the first pterosaurs known to science, and its snaggletoothed snout and long vaned tail have become classic features of many fictional “pterodactyls”. But despite its prevalence in pop culture depictions, it actually seems to have been quite a highly specialized pterosaur compared to its closest relatives – and a few specimens also seem to have an unusual little bit of asymmetry going on.
Living during the Late Jurassic, about 150-145 million years ago, around the warm shallow seas of what is now southeast Germany, Rhamphorynchus had a a wingspan of up to at least 1.8m (~6′), with larger fragmentary fossils suggesting a maximum of around 3m (~9’10”).
It had proportionally long wings, splaying intermeshing needle-like teeth, and a toothless beak at the tip of its jaws. The lower beak hooked strongly upwards, while the upper seems to have varied from upwards-curving to straight to downward-curving in different individuals – and some of these arrangements mean the keratinous beak tips must have crossed when the jaws closed, twisting to each side to asymmetrically pass each other similarly to modern crossbill birds.
Several specimens have been found with fish and cephalopod remains preserved in their guts, and along with the pointy intermeshing teeth this indicates Rhamphorhynchus was probably mainly piscivorous, occupying a similar ecological role to modern seabirds.
The different shapes of the toothless jaw tips may suggest there were several distinct populations of this pterosaur species exploiting slightly different food sources to each other, and the crossing beaks may have been an adaptation to pry the soft parts out of hard-shelled prey.
Stegosaurs are some of the most popular and recognizable dinosaurs thanks to their unique appearances, with small heads, elaborate back plates, and spiky thagomizer tails.
Closely related to the ankylosaurs, they first appeared in the mid-Jurassic about 170 million years ago. While they lasted until at least the mid-Cretaceous (~100 milion years ago), their heyday was in the latter half of the Jurassic, ranging all across Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America – and the North American species like the eponymous Stegosaurus developed especially elaborate plates in a distinctive asymmetrical pattern, not arranged in pairs like most other stegosaurs but in alternating rows along each side of the midline of their backs.
Much like its more famous relative its plates seem to have alternated along its back, which may have been an adaptation to maximize visible surface area while minimizing the number of plates, saving on the energy needed to grow such large elaborate ornamentation.
Brachiopods (also known as “lamp shells”) superficially look very much like bivalves, but these two groups aren’t very closely related to each other – although they’re both lophotrochozoans, their last common ancestor probably lived sometime in the Ediacaran at least 560 million years ago, and their similarities in appearance are due to convergent evolution.
The two valves of their shells are also arranged differently. Bivalve shells grow on their left and right sides and are usually symmetrical, but brachiopods form their shells from the upper and lower surfaces of their bodies.
As a result brachiopod shells are usually unequal in size and shape but have their own plane of bilateral symmetry down the center – but some of them still managed to become asymmetrical anyway.
Torquirhynchia inconstans lived during the Late Jurassic, about 161-145 million years ago, in the warm shallow seas that covered what is now Europe and Iran. Around 3cm across (~1.2″) it had a strongly ridged shell with an asymmetrical closing edge, positioned high on one side and low on the other.
This unusual uneven arrangment is thought to be an adaptation to living on soft sediments. Asymmetrical brachiopods like Torquirhynchia may have lived with one side of their body mostly buried into the seafloor, and twisted their shell edges so the still-exposed half was raised up to better function for water circulation and filter-feeding.
But some bivalves break that arrangement, developing asymmetrical valves that can be massively different in size and shape.
Gryphaea arcuata was an oyster that lived during the Early Jurassic, about 200-174 million years ago, in the warm shallow seas that covered what is now Europe and eastern Greenland. Around 6cm long (~2.4″), its left valve was thick and strongly convex and curled, while the right valve was relatively thin and slightly concave forming a “lid”.
The gnarled curled claw-like shape of Gryphaea fossils led to them being colloquially known as “devil’s toenails” in some of the regions where they’re commonly found, with folk beliefs that they had the power to prevent joint pain.
Their shape was actually an adaptation to living on very soft seafloor sediments. The larger curled valve acted sort of like a boat on the soupy mud, supporting the Gryphaea‘s weight and preventing it from sinking.
But one species hung on a bit longer into the late Permian, about 259-254 million years ago, and this late-surviving lepospondyl was perhaps the oddest of them all.
Diplocaulus minimus was the only lepospondyl known from the supercontinent of Gondwana, found in what is now Morocco in northern Africa. About 70cm long, around half of which was its long tail, it had the distinctive elongated skull of a diplocaulid – but in a bizarrely asymmetrical shape.
The left prong of its skull was long and tapering, but the right was shorter and more rounded. This doesn’t seem to have been due to individual deformity or distortion of the fossil material, since more than one skull has been found with the same features, but the reason for such a striking amount of asymmetry in this species is unknown.
Diplocaulids’ head shapes are thought to have acted as hydrofoils, providing lift while they were swimming. Perhaps Diplocaulus minimus‘ much more wonky skull means this species wasn’t relying on that hydrodynamic function as much as its relatives, and something else was going on with its ecology.
The spiral-coiled shells of snails are their most familiar feature, giving them obvious external asymmetry, but gastropods are also defined by a specific type of internal asymmetry known as torsion.
Torsion is an anatomical process that occurs during larval development, and involves rotating their internal organs, mantle, and shell a full 180° relative to their head and muscular foot. This twists their gut into a U-shape, knots up their nervous system, and brings their respiratory organs and anus up close to their head.
And we still don’t really know why they do it.
One idea (the “rotation hypothesis”) is that it originated as a defensive function after early gastropods began developing their spiral shells. The shell opening may have originally been positioned at early gastropods’ rears, meaning they retracted their bodies back-end-first leaving their heads and sensory structures still vulnerable – but twisting the shell around would allow them to pull their front end in faster instead.
A competing idea (the “asymmetry hypothesis“) instead proposes that the shape of the coiled shell restricted the gills of early gastropods, which may have originally been positioned in mantle cavities on each side of their bodies. In response to this they developed a single larger gill cavity on just one side of their body, and then gradually expanded and rotated this asymmetric feature around to the front for better aeration.
In either case this resulted in some of the rest of their anatomy “coming along for the ride”. And regardless of whatever the original evolutionary advantage of torsion actually was, it made gastropods incredibly successful – they’re a massively diverse group, second only to the insects in terms of sheer number of species, and today they’re found all over the world in almost every habitat from deep sea trenches to high mountain elevations.
Platyceratids seem to have had a unique parasitic relationship with crinoids, attaching themselves to the top of the host’s body and using their radula to drill into them, either robbing food directly from the crinoid’s gut or feeding on its other internal organs.
The long spines on Spinyplatyceras‘ shell probably helped to deter predators. In an interesting case of coevolution the crinoid hosts of some platyceratids developed their own defensive spines, too – and it seems this wasn’t to prevent the snails from infesting them, but to also discourage the snails’ predators. These crinoids may have been frequently indirectly injured during snail-eating predators’ attacks, and it might have actually “cost” them less to keep enduring an infestation than to deal with the collateral damage of the snails being removed.