Abelisaurids were a group of theropod dinosaurs characterized by short snouts, bony ornamentation on their skulls, tiny stiff arms, and stocky legs. Known mostly from the southern continents of Gondwana, they were the dominant predators in these regions and are thought to have been specialized hunters of titanosaurian sauropods.
Rajasaurus narmadensis lived in what is now western India during the Late Cretaceous, about 67 million years ago. Around 7m long (23′), it had very rough-textured thickened bone on the top of its snout, along with a short rounded horn on its forehead that was probably used for display or headbutting behaviors.
India at this time was an isolated island continent located off the east coast of Africa, and Rajasaurus‘ ancestors probably island-hopped across from then-nearby Madagascar – where its closest known relative lived, the very similar-looking Majungasaurus.
Cnidarians – a group of animals that includes modern corals, sea anemones, sea pens, jellyfish, hydra, and a couple of parasitic forms – are one of the most ancient animal lineages, originating at least 580 million years ago in the Ediacaran period.
Actual identifiable fossils of cnidarians that old are incredibly rare, however, and until now there was only one example – the small polyp-like Haootia from Canada.
But a second definite Ediacaran cnidarian has now been described: Auroralumina attenboroughii.
It was discovered in Charnwood Forest, England, in the very same site where the first recognized Precambrian fossils were found in the 1950s. About 20cm tall (~8″) it dates to around 560 million years ago and was made up of a pair of forking stiff-walled tubes which expanded into wide four-sided goblet-like shapes full of stubby tentacles. These densely-tentacled crowns would have been used to capture tiny planktonic organisms from the water around it, making it the current earliest known example of a predatory animal.
The one known fossil specimen has an incomplete base, so it’s uncertain if this was actually the full life appearance of Auroralumina or if it was even larger with more branches and goblets. And although it was preserved in deep-water sediments, it appears to have originated from much shallower waters, being swept down into the depths during a volcanic eruption.
While it superficially resembled a sea anemone, details of its anatomy suggest it was actually much closer related to medusozoans, having similar traits to the immobile polyp stage of the jellyfish life cycle. Its four-way symmetry and boxy shape may also link it to the enigmatic conulariids.
It’s not clear if it was able to bud off swimming medusa stages like its modern relatives – that might be an evolutionary innovation that came along later – but it at least shows that a basic medusozoan body plan was already in place around 20 million years earlier than previously thought.
Around 11 million years ago, during the late Miocene, much of what is now northern Honshu in Japan was submerged under fairly deep ocean waters. This offshore environment was inhabited by a variety of ancient sea-going tetrapods such as turtles, desmostylians, seal-like allodesmines, archaic baleen whales, and early oceanic dolphins… and also one very unexpected bird.
Meet the flightless marine swan.
Annakacygna hajimei, also known as the Annaka short-winged swan, was the same size as a modern black swan at about 1.2m long (~4′), but had a combination of features unlike any of of its living close relatives. Its head was proportionally large, and it had a long spoon-shaped bill like a shoveler duck, lined with comb-like structures for filter-feeding on plankton. It also had widened hips that would have helped keep it stable floating in rough waters, its tail was highly mobile and muscular, and its feet resembled those of diving birds like loons.
With thickened heavy bones and shortened forearms it was clearly completely unable to fly, but its reduced wings appear to have been highly specialized rather than just vestigial. Its shoulders were extra flexible while its wrists had a more limited range of motion, allowing it to fold its wings into a distinctive half-raised position similar to modern mute swans.
It probably used its wings and tail to perform elaborate “busking” visual displays, and also to carry and protect its young on its back while out at sea – basically making itself into a living swan boat.
Cimolestans were one of the major mammal lineages that survived through the K-Pg mass extinction 66 million years ago. Closely related to early placentals, they had a burst of diversification during the first half of the Cenozoic and rapidly evolved into a wide range of specialized forms – some uniquely weird, and others convergently resembling more familiar modern animals like squirrels, bears, ground sloths, and hippos.
And one group known as the pantolestids were incredibly otter-like.
(Because synapsids love them some lutrinization.)
Palaeosinopa didelphoides here lived during the mid-Eocene, about 52 million years ago, in what is now the Mountain West region of the USA. It was similar in size to a small otter, about 1m long (3’3″), and had a streamlined body with a well-muscled neck, short powerful forelimbs, slightly longer hindlimbs, and a very long tail.
Inhabiting a subtropical lake ecosystem, it probably swam using both hindlimb paddling and otter-like tail undulations. Its strong jaws and teeth suggest it was specialized for crunching hard shellfish prey, but so far preserved gut contents have only shown fish bones and scales. Fairly large claws indicate it was also able to dig out burrows similarly to modern otters and beavers.
Although pantolestids were never particularly common animals they were quite widespread, expanding their range from their evolutionary origins in North America across to Europe and eventually into Asia. A cooling and drying climate at the end of the Eocene seems to have driven most of the group into extinction alongside all their other cimolestan relatives – but a few of the Asian species clung on slightly longer as the very last of their kind, with the last known fossils dating to about 28 million years ago in the early Oligocene.
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.