Hupehsuchians were small marine reptiles closely related to ichthyosaurs, known only from the Early Triassic of southwestern China about 249-247 million years ago. They had toothless snouts, streamlined bodies, paddle-like limbs, and long flattened tails, along with a unique pattern of armor along their backs made up of overlapping layers of bony osteoderms.
Grooves in the bones along the outer edges of its upper jaws may be evidence of filtering structures similar to baleen, although with no soft-tissue preservation we don’t know exactly what this would have looked like. Its slender flexible lower jaws probably also supported a large expandable throat pouch, allowing it to filter plankton out of larger volumes of water.
Living during the Eocene (~38 million years ago) in shallow marine waters covering what is now the coast of Peru, this ancient whale is known from several vertebrae, ribs, and parts of its pelvis. As a result its full size is uncertain, but based on the proportions of other basilosaurids it was probably somewhere around 17-20m long (~56′-66′) – similar in length to the larger specimens of Basilosaurus.
However, it had much thicker denser bones, even more so than those of its close relative Antaecetus, suggesting that its full body mass was much higher than the rather slender Basilosaurus – and possibly heavier than even modern blue whales despite being shorter in overall length.
Perucetus’ thickened vertebrae were also fairly inflexible in most directions, indicating it was a sirenian-like slow swimmer with limited maneuverability – but it did have a surprisingly good ability to bend its body downwards. Without skull material it’s unclear what its diet was like, but it may have been a suction-feeder hoovering up seafloor prey like modern grey whales or walruses.
I’ve reconstructed it here with a speculative bristly fleshy downturned snout inspired by the weird skull of Makaracetus, an earlier whale that may have also been a walrus-like bottom-feeder.
It was an early member of the “basilosaurids“, a grouping made up of multiple early cetacean lineages (an “evolutionary grade“) representing some of the first fully aquatic forms. Like other members of this group it probably would have had a rather long and slender body shape – but unlike most of its relatives Tutcetus was comparatively tiny, estimated to only have been around 2.5m long (~8’2″).
The fusion of the skull bones in the one known fossil specimen indicate it was almost fully grown at the time of its death, and the pattern of tooth replacement suggests this small basilosaurid species matured very rapidly – a sort of “live fast, die young” life strategy.
Tutcetus’ small size and early demise also inspired its genus name, with “Tut” referencing the teenage Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
The sitting palaeothere unfortunately lost its head sometime in the late 20th century, and the image above shows it with a modern fiberglass replacement. Then around 2014/2015 the new head was knocked off again, and has not yet been reattached – partly due to a recent discovery that it wasn’t actually accurate to the sculpture’s original design. Instead there are plans to eventually restore it with a much more faithful head.
These early odd-toed ungulates were already known from near-complete skeletons in the 1850s, and are depicted here as tapir-like animals with short trunks based on the scientific opinion of the time. We now think their heads would have looked more horse-like, without trunks, but otherwise they’re not too far off modern reconstructions.
This sculpture went missing sometime after the 1950s, and its existence was almost completely forgotten until archive images of it were discovered a few years ago. Funds were raised to create a replica as accurate to the original as possible, and in summer 2023 (just a month before the date of my visit) this larger palaeothere species finally rejoined its companions in the park.
Compared to the other palaeotheres this one is weird, though. Much chonkier, wrinkly, and with big eyes and an almost cartoonish tubular trunk. It seems to have taken a lot of anatomical inspiration from animals like rhinos and elephants, since in the mid-1800s odd-toed ungulates were grouped together with “pachyderms“.
The next part of the Crystal Palace Dinosaur trail depicts the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Most of the featured animals here are actually marine reptiles, but a few dinosaur species do make an appearance towards the end of this section.
Ichthyosaurs were already known from some very complete and well-preserved fossils in the 1850s, so a lot of the anatomy here still holds up fairly well even 170 years later. They even have an attempt at a tail fin despite no impressions of such a structure having been discovered yet! Some details are still noticeably wrong compared to modern knowledge, though, such as the unusual amount of shrinkwrapping on the sclerotic rings of the eyes and the bones of the flippers.
This past week I’ve been out of town and unable to work on much art, but instead here’s something a little different. I finally got the chance to go visit some familiaroldfaces out in the wilds of south London, so let’s go on a little tour of these iconic Victorian-era retrosaurs…
In 1854 the structure was relocated 14km (~9 miles) south to the newly-created Crystal Palace Park, and a collection of over 30 life-sized statues of prehistoric animals were commissioned to accompany the reopening – creating a sort of Victorian dinosaur theme park – sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins with consultation from paleontologist Sir Richard Owen.
The Palace building itself burned down completely in 1936, and today only the ruins of its terraces remain in the northeast of the park grounds.
Six sphinx statues based on the Great Sphinx of Tanis also survive up among the Palace ruins, flanking some of the terrace staircases. They fell into serious disrepair during the latter half of the 20th century, but in 2017 they all finally got some much-needed preservation work, repairing them and restoring their original Victorian red paint jobs.
…But let’s get to what we’re really here for. Dinosaurs! (…And assorted other prehistoric beasties!)
Around 2m long (6’6″), it had unusually long tusk-like teeth at the front of its jaws, splaying out almost horizontally forwards and to the sides.
These teeth lay too flat to effectively interlock as a “fish trap”, and their fairly delicate structure and lack of wear marks suggests they also weren’t used for piercing large prey, sifting through gritty sediment, defending against predators, or for fighting each other. But Nihohae did have a highly flexible neck and the ability to quickly snap its jaws from side to side – although with a relatively weak bite force, suggesting it was primarily tackling small soft-bodied prey that could be easily swallowed whole.
Overall its feeding ecology seems to have been similar to modern sawfish, stunning prey such as squid with rapid slashing swipes of its jaws.
Biofluorescense is the term for when living organisms “glow” under certain types of light. Although it’s not usually directly visible to human eyes, wavelengths such as ultraviolet can reveal it – and we’re still only just starting to discover how widespread it really is in nature.
This phenomenon has been found in all major groups of modern amphibians, with most of them glowing green under UV, suggesting that it originated in their ancestors at least 300 million years ago.
Living during the late Triassic (~220 million years ago), fossils of Funcusvermis were found in what is now Arizona, USA. It’s only known from fragmentary remains, but those pieces are distinctive enough to identify it as the earliest known relative of modern caecilians.
It had a caecilian-like jaw with two rows of teeth, but unlike its worm-like modern relatives it still had small legs and wasn’t as highly specialized for burrowing. The shape of its vertebrae suggest it had a tubular body, and while its exact proportions and full length are unknown it may have been comparable in size to the smallest modern caecilians, around 10cm long (~4″).
Its combination of anatomical features gives further support to the idea that all modern amphibians share a common ancestor among the dissorophoid temnospondyls. The more distantly related but also caecilian-like Chinlestegophis may be a case of convergent evolution, representing a separate branch of temnospondyls that were coincidentally exploring a similar sort of lifestyle at around the same time.
When owls find their way onto isolated islands lacking any terrestrial predators, they have a tendency to take up that role for themselves – evolving longer legs and shorter wings, and specializing more towards hunting on foot. From New Zealand to Hawaii to the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to Macaronesia, leggy island ground-owls have independently happened over and over again in the last few million years—
—And, unfortunately, they’ve all also become victims of the Holocene extinction, their fragile island ecosystems too easily disrupted by human activity and the arrival of invasive species.
Its wing proportions indicate it would have been a poor flyer, instead primarily hunting on foot in the dense laurisilva forests. Since there were no terrestrial mammals or reptiles on São Miguel at the time, its diet probably mainly consisted of insects and other invertebrates – and it would have in turn been the potential prey of larger predatory birds like buzzards and long-eared owls.
All currently known subfossil remains of the São Miguel scops owl date only from the Holocene, between about 50 BCE and 125 CE. It’s likely that it was extinct by the 1400s, following the settlement of humans in the Azores, destruction of its forest habitat, and the introduction of rodents, cats, and weasels.
While the most iconic types of plesiosaur were long-necked with small heads and short blunt snouts, some of these marine reptiles actually developed the opposite sort of arrangement, with groups like the polycotylids and the pliosaurs independently evolving short necks, larger heads, and long snouts.
…Except some of them didn’t keep it quite that simple.
Some earlier polycotylids like Thililua had fairly long necks, too, but all of Serpentisuchops’ closest relatives were short-necked species, so it seems to have actually re-evolved this condition rather than inheriting it from its ancestors. Since no other marine reptiles in its habitat had this particular body plan, it was probably occupying a very specific ecological niche – the presence of attachment points for powerful neck muscles suggest it was able to swing its head sideways to snap its jaws at prey at high speed, with its longer neck giving it more reach than other polycotylids.