The Permian-Triassic extinction 252 million years ago was the most severe mass extinction in Earth’s history, so incredibly devastating that it’s been nicknamed the “Great Dying” – but there were still some animals that somehow just… didn’t seem to really notice it at all.
Hovasaurus lived in Madagascar both just before and for some time after the Great Dying, dating to around 252-247 million years ago. Growing up to about 90cm long (~3′), it was one of the largest tangasaurids and was also highly specialized for aquatic life in freshwater rivers, with an eel-like tail twice the length of the rest of its body and heavy thickened ribs.
Hundreds of fossils have been found representing life stages from hatchling to adult, and juvenile Hovasaurus actually seem to have been almost fully aquatic – they had proportionally shorter limbs and may have behaved similarly to modern sea turtles, crawling into the water shortly after hatching and only returning to land as adults once they had longer better-developed legs.
It’s not entirely clear why these odd little aquatic reptiles were apparently unaffected by the Great Dying. Perhaps, much like the many freshwater species that survived though the later end-Cretaceous mass extinction, Hovasaurus was simply very good at dealing with sudden changes in its environment and food availability due to the variability of river habitats, and was able to weather though the worst of the extinction without much trouble.
Named after the Atlas Mountains of Morocco where its fossil remains were discovered, Atlasaurus lived during the mid-Jurassic period, around 168-165 million years ago. While it wasn’t the strangest–lookingsauropod by any means, compared to other species its body proportions still show a particularly bizarre combination of features, with a slightly bigger head, unusually short neck, and very long slender legs that made up nearly half of its 9m height (29’6″).
It’s sort of the uncanny valley of sauropods. Everything about it is just a tiny bit wrong.
Its tall shoulders and sloping back resemble the body plan of brachiosaurids so closely that it was initially thought to be an early member of that group, but more recent studies suggest it may have been part of an earlier evolutionary branch of sauropods known as the turiasaurs – which would mean its brachiosaur-like shape was actually the result of convergent evolution.
But what was it doing with such weird proportions?
…We really don’t know. Other short-necked sauropods seem to have been adapted for feeding on lower vegetation only a couple of meters off the ground, but Atlasaurus’ leggy build would have made it a high browser like the brachiosaurids it was mimicking. Its long legs may also have allowed it to move faster, or given it some advantage navigating over rough terrain, but since no other sauropod ever seemed to evolve this way it must have been doing something particularly unique.
Or perhaps it was just an evolutionary fluke. Maybe part of a lineage that had started adapting to short-necked low browsing, then moved back towards the high browsing niche – and happened to end up lengthening their legs instead of their necks to get the necessary height back.
The earliest baleen whales didn’t actually have any baleen plates in their mouths, and the evolutionary origin of these unique filter-feeding structures is still poorly understood.
It was thought to have been a fairly simple linear process from toothed ancestors to a mix of teeth and baleen and then to fully toothless with just baleen, but more recent discoveries have begun to cast doubt on that idea. The teeth of ancestral baleen whales weren’t suited to filter-feeding at all, instead still being adapted for predatory piercing and chewing – actions which would have been constantly interfering with and damaging any proto-baleen forming alongside them, and making it seem much more unlikely that there would have ever been a transitional form that had both teeth and baleen at the same time.
But then how did baleen whales get their baleen?
Maiabalaena nesbittae here provides a possible solution. Discovered in Oregon, USA, this early baleen whale dates to the early Oligocene, around 33 million years ago, and compared to most of its modern relatives it was comparatively tiny, only about 4.6m long (15′).
And it had no teeth at all, but possibly also no baleen.
Baleen rarely fossilizes, so it’s unclear whether Maiabalaena actually had any or not, but the shape of its skull suggests it probably didn’t – it lacked the broad thickened upper jaw associated with supporting racks of baleen plates. It instead seems to have been adapted for suction feeding similar to modern belugas and beaked whales, using muscular cheeks and tongue to manipulate water pressure and pull small prey like fish and squid straight into its mouth.
Since it lived at a time when the Antarctic Circumpolar Current was forming and cooling the oceans, changing ecosystems and prey availability, it may represent a previously unknown stage in baleen whale evolution – a point when they’d moved towards specializing for suction feeding and lost their teeth entirely, before transitioning again over to filter-feeding with baleen in a completely separate evolutionary development a few million years later.
Fragmentary fossils of huge azhdarchidpterosaurs have been found in Canada since the early 1970s, and for a long time they were assumed to belong to Quetzalcoatlus. But more recently these remains were re-examined and shown to actually represent an entirely new genus and species.
Cryodrakon boreas – an excellent name meaning “icy dragon of the north wind” – was officially described in late 2019. With a wingspan of around 10m (32’10”) it was similar in size to its close relative Quetzalcoatlus, but it dates to about 10 million years earlier making it one of the oldest azhdarchids ever found in North America.
It lived about 76 million years ago in Alberta, with its fossils coming from the Dinosaur Park Formation, an area that at the time would have been a coastal plain near the northern parts of the Western Interior Seaway. Despite Alberta being located somewhat closer to the Arctic Circle than it is today, the climate was warm-temperate and temperatures rarely dipped below freezing, with short nights in the summers and only a few hours of daylight in the winters.
Lophialetes expeditus was one of these odd tapir-relatives, living in Mongolia and China during the mid-Eocene about 48-37 million years ago. Standing around 50cm tall at the shoulder (1’8″) it had a build more resembling a deer or a horse than its pig-like modern cousins, and it was adapted for fast running in open plains, with long slender legs and three-toed hoofed feet that bore most of its weight on the middle digit.
Its skull had a nasal region similar to both modern tapirs and saiga antelope, suggesting the presence of a short trunk-like nose – but since some of its closest relatives didn’t have nearly such well-developed snouts, it seems that Lophialetes evolved its trunk separately to modern tapirs.
Pseudosuchians – the evolutionary lineage whose only surviving modern representatives are crocodilians – first originated in the early Triassic and were once an incredibly diverse group. These croc-relatives experimented with fully erect limbs and bipedalism quite a few separate times, and on several occasions ended up evolving remarkably similar body plans to their distant cousins the theropod dinosaurs.
Living in Argentina during the Late Triassic, about 217-215 million years ago, Riojasuchus had a distinctive “hooked” upper jaw and two rows of osteoderm armor plates along its back.
It was only around 1.5m long (4’9″), much smaller than some of the other pseudosuchians and early theropod dinosaurs it lived alongside. Its front limbs were shorter than its hind limbs and it was probably a facultative biped – moving slowly on all fours, but getting up on just its hind legs for bursts of high speed running – which would have helped it avoid being eaten by those larger predators.
Like other ornithosuchids it had very strangle ankles, with the bones in the joint articulating with each other the opposite way around compared to any other type of archosaur. The claws on its hind feet were also unusually tall and narrow, especially on the inner toes.
Its jaws were capable of delivering strong but somewhat slow bites, and the relative structural weakness of its narrow notched jaw would have made it difficult for it to deal with large struggling prey. It likely mostly hunted smaller vertebrates, and may also have been an opportunistic scavenger taking bites out of larger predators’ kills whenever it got the chance.
Shonisaurus popularis lived about 222-212 million years ago, in Nevada, USA — a region that’s currently made up of dry deserts, but which was submerged under a tropical inland sea at the time.
At around 15m long (49′) it was roughly the same size as a modern humpback whale, with a long narrow snout, a fairly deep fusiform body, and four equally-sized flippers. Unlike many other ichthyosaurs it doesn’t seem to have had a dorsal fin, and its tail fluke shape was rather “primitive” indicating it was probably a slow cruising swimmer.
Juveniles had a few small teeth at the tips of their jaws, but larger adults were entirely toothless, suggesting that they may have specialized in different ecological niches at different stages of their lives. Fully-grown Shonisaurus probably mostly fed on prey such as soft-bodied cephalopods and small fish, which must have been incredibly abundant in the ancient Nevadan sea to support a population of such huge marine reptiles.
But Shonisaurus popularis wasn’t even the biggest of the Late Triassic giant ichthyosaurs. Further north in British Columbia, the closely related species Shonisaurus sikanniensis reached lengths of up to 21m (69′), and fragmentary remains from England hint at something even larger still, estimated at around 25m (82′) – close in size to the modern blue whale, and potentially being the largest non-dinosaurian reptile to ever live.
The closest living relatives to modern flamingos are, surprisingly, the grebes. But this relationship is especially ancient, with their last common ancestor probably living sometime between the end of the Cretaceous and the early Eocene.
Such an ancestor is thought to have been a highly aquatic swimming bird, more grebe-like than flamingo-like, but there are few fossils of intermediate forms between that and the modern wading flamingos – with the exception of a group known as the palaelodids.
Palaelodus ambiguus here lived about 29-12 million years ago in Europe, from the early Oligocene to the mid-Miocene. It was similar in size to a small flamingo at about 80cm tall (2’7″), but had proportionally shorter legs and appears to have been capable of both wading and swimming in different depths of water, leading to its nickname of “swimming flamingo”. (Even though modern flamingos do occasionally swim too!)
Its straight pointed beak also suggests it had a much less specialized diet than its modern cousins, probably feeding on small aquatic animals like snails, insect larvae, and fish.
Various other palaelodid species have been found all around the world – even as far as New Zealand – so they seem to have been incredibly common and successful birds during their time. The last definite remains of this group come from the late Miocene, about 7 million years ago, although one Australian fossil may represent a late-surviving relict population that existed until just half a million years ago in the mid-Pleistocene.
Although their fossils are known from both North America and Europe, their European remains are very rare and fragmentary. Currently the best-known specimen is made up of a recently-discovered partial spinal column and a few hand and tail bones.
(Interestingly the paper that names Remigiomontanus also makes a brief mention that the protruding cross-bars on edaphosaurid sails may have anchored larger keratinous coverings, which could have made them look even more spectacularly spiky and suggests their sails may have served an anti-predator function. Hopefully if this is true we’ll see further information get officially published about it sometime!)