Hemingwaya

Hemingwaya sarissa here was one of the earliest known billfish, related to modern sailfish and marlin. Living during the late Paleocene, about 58 million years ago, it inhabited the area around what is now Turkmenistan, in the warm shallow waters of the western Tethys Sea that covered much of central Asia at the time.

It was rather small compared to its modern relatives, just 30-40cm in length (~1′-1’4″), with a long streamlined body armored with six rows of scutes. Its slender snout was lined with tiny teeth, and both its first dorsal fin and first anal fin were tall and elongated. 

It probably wasn’t a very active swimmer, instead hovering near the surface and catching smaller prey with quick bursts of speed.

Patagomaia

Although most Mesozoic mammals were rather small, a few different lineages produced some pretty hefty-sized forms – most notably the metatherian Didelphodon, the gondwantherians Adalatherium and Vintana, and the eutriconodont Repenomamus.

And now we’ve got another one to add to that list.

Patagomaia chainko lived towards the end of the Cretaceous, about 70 million years ago, in what is now Patagonia near the southern tip of South America. Known from some partial leg and hip bones, it was potentially the largest known Mesozoic mammal yet discovered – estimated to have been similar in size to a modern bobcat, roughly 50cm tall at the shoulder (~1’8″) and weighing around 14kg (~31lbs).

Distinctive anatomical features of the bones indicate it was an early therian mammal, the group that contains both modern marsupials and placentals, but it can’t currently be classified any more specifically than that. Mesozoic therian fossils are very rare in the southern continents, so Patagomaia‘s presence in late Cretaceous South America adds to their known range and diversity, as well as providing an example of surprisingly large body size for the time.

Without more material it’s impossible to tell what Patagomaia‘s ecology was. I’ve gone for a fairly generic life appearance here, and while what’s known of its joints and muscle attachments doesn’t indicate climbing specializations, plenty of unexpected tetrapods still like to get up on tree branches.

Minqaria

For a long time there were no hadrosaurid fossils known from Africa.

This seemed to mainly be due to the limits of the geography of their time. Hadrosaurs evolved and flourished during the late Cretaceous, when Africa was isolated from all the other continents, and they didn’t seem to have ever found their way across the oceanic barriers.

…Until in 2021 a small hadrosaur was discovered in Morocco, a close relative of several European species, showing that some of these dinosaurs did reach northwest Africa just before the end of the Cretaceous – and with no land bridges or nearby island chains to hop along, they must have arrived from Europe via swimming, floating, or rafting directly across several hundred kilometers of deep water.

And now another hadrosaur has just been described from the same time and place.

Minqaria bata lived in Morocco at the very end of the Cretaceous, about 67 million years ago. Only known from a partial skull, its full appearance and body size is unknown, but it probably measured around 3.5m long (~11’6″) – slightly larger than its previously discovered relative, but still very small for a hadrosaur. It might represent a case of insular dwarfism, since at the time Morocco may have been an island isolated from the rest of northwest Africa.

Along with its close relative Ajnabia, and at least one other currently-unnamed larger hadrosaur species, Minqaria seems to be part of a rapid diversification of hadrosaurs following their arrival in Morocco, adapting into new ecological niches in their new habitat where the only other herbivorous dinosaur competition was titanosaurian sauropods, and the only large predators were abelisaurs.

If the K-Pg mass extinction hadn’t happened just a million years later, who knows what sort of weird African hadrosaurs we could have ended up with?

Panacanthocaris

Panacanthocaris ketmenica* here was a member of an extinct group of crustaceans known as kazacharthrans – close relatives of modern tadpole shrimp known mainly from Central Asia during the mid-to-late Triassic (but with possible German relatives from both the late Triassic and further back in the late Paleozoic).

Fossils of Panacanthocaris have been found in Kazakhstan and northwest China, dating to about 235-221 million years ago. It was fairly big compared to most of its modern cousins, reaching at least 10cm in length (~4″), and had distinctive spines around the edges of its carapace and its telson.

It’s not clear if it had eyes – there’s a single opening near the front of its carapace that may have housed some, and so I’ve depicted it here with just one naupliar eye similar to the “third eye” of tadpole shrimp.

It probably had a fairly similar lifestyle to its modern relatives, living in shallow freshwater and temporary pools and opportunistically feeding on everything from algae to smaller aquatic animals.

(* Sometimes also called P. ketmenia. May also be the same thing as Iliella spinosa, but until that paper is officially published the current name still stands.)

Miomancalla

The mancallines were a lineage of flightless semi-aquatic birds closely related to auks. Known from the Pacific coasts of what are now California and Mexico, between about 7.5 and 0.5 million years ago, they convergently evolved a close resemblance and similar lifestyle to both the recently-extinct North Atlantic great auk and the southern penguins.

Miomancalla howardi here lived in offshore waters around southern California during the late Miocene (~7-5 million years ago). The largest of the mancallines, it just slightly beat out the great auk in size – standing around 90cm tall (~3′) and weighing an estimated 5kg (11lbs).

Like great auks and penguins it would have been a specialized wing-propelled diver, swimming using “underwater flight” to feed on small bait fish. It probably spent much of its life out at sea, probably only returning to land to molt and breed.

Lessiniabatis

Lessiniabatis aenigmatica was a rather strange stingray.

It lived around 50-48 million years ago during the early Eocene, in a shallow warm sea covering what is now Italy, with its three known fossil specimens all coming from the fish-rich Monte Bolca fossil beds.

About 60cm long (~2′), it had a round pancake-like body similar to many modern seafloor-dwelling stingrays – but uniquely it was also almost tailless, with only a tiny, slender, stingless tail.

It wasn’t a particularly strong swimmer, instead probably spending most of its time buried in the muddy seafloor sediment. When on the move it likely swam along just above the surface of the seafloor using undulations of its fins, foraging for smaller bottom-dwelling animals like worms, molluscs, crustaceans, and fish.

Megapterygius

Most mosasaurs all had very similar body plans: they were streamlined scaly monitor-lizard-like marine reptiles with four rounded paddle-shaped flippers, and many of them also had large shark-like tail fins.

But Megapterygius wakayamaensis here seems to have been doing something a bit different.

Living towards the end of the Cretaceous, about 72 million years ago, in the waters covering what is now western Japan, this mosasaur was around the size of a modern orca, roughly 6m long (~20′).

Unlike other known mosasaurs its flippers were huge, bigger than its own head and distinctively wing-shaped, with the back pair being larger than the front. This is an arrangement oddly reminiscent of the unrelated plesiosaurs, and may suggest a convergent sort of highly maneuverable “underwater flight” swimming ability – but unlike plesiosaurs Megapterygius also still had a powerful fluked tail, so how exactly all of its fins worked together is still unknown.

It’s also the first mosasaur known to preserve potential evidence of a dorsal fin. Some of its back vertebrae show a change in orientation at the point where a fin base would be expected to be, closely resembling the vertebrae shape of cetaceans like the modern harbor porpoise.

Lewisuchus

Last week I mentioned the one oddball dinosauriform that had crocodilian-like osteoderm armor, so let’s take a look at that one too.

Lewisuchus admixtus lived in what is now northwest Argentina during the late Triassic, around 236-234 million years ago. About 1m long (3’3″), it was an early member of the silesaurids – a group of dinosauriforms that weren’t quite dinosaurs themselves, but were very closely related to the earliest true dinosaurs.

(They’ve also been proposed as instead being early ornithisichians, but we’re not getting into that today.)

Much like its later silesaurid relatives Lewisuchus had a long neck and slender limbs, and was probably mainly quadrupedal, possibly with the ability to briefly run bipedally to escape from threats. Its serrated teeth suggest it was carnivorous, likely feeding on both smaller vertebrates and the abundant insects found in the same fossil beds.

Uniquely for an early dinosauriform it also had a single row of bony osteoderms running along its spine. Although it lived at close to the same time as the similarly-armored Mambachiton their last common ancestor was at least 10 million years earlier, and no other early dinosaur precursors with osteoderms are currently known – so this was probably a case of Lewisuchus independently re-evolving the same sort of feature.

Mambachiton

Mambachiton fiandohana lived during the mid-Triassic, about 237 million years ago, in what is now Madagascar – which at the time wasn’t yet an island, still being connected to both east Africa and India as part of southern Pangaea.

It represents the earliest known branch of the avemetatarsalians, or “bird-line archosaurs”, a major group of the archosaur reptiles that also includes pterosaurs and dinosaurs/birds

It’s only known from a few fragments but it was probably around 2m long (~6’6″), and would have been a carnivorous lizard-like animal with a long neck and semi-erect quadrupedal limb posture.

Unexpectedly for a bird-line archosaur it also had a staggered double row of bony osteoderms along its back, suggesting that the very earliest avemetatarsalians had some crocodilian-like armor. This seem to have very quickly been lost, though – there’s no sign of osteoderms in the next branches to split off after Mambachiton, the aphanosaurs and pterosauromorphs – and although they occur again later in one dinosauriform and various non-avian dinosaurs, this appears to be multiple cases of independent re-evolution rather than retaining the original ancestral trait.

Triopus

Although Triopus draboviensis here might look like an isopod or a trilobite, this small arthropod was actually part of a rather rare group called cheloniellids.

Known from the early Ordovician to the early Devonian (~480-408 million years ago), only about 7 different species of cheloniellid have been described so far. Their evolutionary relationships were uncertain and controversial for a long time, but currently they’re thought to be distant cousins of trilobites within the Artiopoda.

Living in what is now Czechia during the late Ordovician, about 460-450 million years ago, Triopus is only known from two partial fossils. It was around 4cm long (~1.6″), and like other cheloniellids it had a body made up of wide radiating exoskeleton segments that fully covered its legs, and probably also a pair of whip-like appendages at the rear.

Its body was more domed than those of its relatives, who were generally very flattened, suggesting it was specialized for a slightly different lifestyle or habitat. Without any preserved appendages it’s not clear what its ecological role was, but since other cheloniellids had horseshoe-crab-like feeding structures it may have been a similar sort of generalist, preying on small invertebrates and scavenging carrion on the seafloor.