Back in the 1980s, a fossil of a partial reptile skull was discovered in British Columbia, Canada, dating to the Early Triassic about 250 million years ago. Its triangular skull shape, large eye sockets, and what seemed to be distinctive spiky frills on the back of its head initially caused it to be identified as a relative of the gliding weigeltisaurids.
But the aptly-named Wapitisaurus problematicus would have had to be a very unusual member of this group. With an estimated length of up to 2m (6’6″) it was much larger than any other known weigeltisaurid, it was the only one known from the Triassic side of the “Great Dying” mass extinction event, it was found in a completely different part of the world, and its teeth seemed more like those of marine reptiles like thalattosaurs.
In recent years new discoveries and re-analysis of weigeltisaurid fossil material have resulted in much better modern understanding of their skull structure – and with that came the realization that Wapitisaurus really didn’t seem to match with them after all.
So a new study has finally identified what this problematic reptile really was… and it turns out the teeth didn’t lie! It was a marine thalattosaur all along!
Wapitisaurus had rather large eyes compared to most other North American thalattosaurs, and although the front parts of its jaws are missing it probably had a long slightly hooked snout similar to its close relative Thalattosaurus. It’s also now one of the oldest known members of the thalattosaur lineage, showing that some of their specialized skull features like retracted nostrils had actually appeared very quickly during their evolutionary history.
…Oh, and those “spiky frills” on the back of Wapitisaurus’ skull? They were actually all teeth from both the upper jaw and the palate, on broken shards of bone that had been displaced to just the right spot to muddle up its identity for over three decades.
Although the only nautiloids living today have characteristic tightly coiled shells, earlier in their evolutionary history these cephalopods were much more diverse.
And Glossoceras gracile here is an example of one of the more unusual groups of nautloids: the ascocerids.
Living during the Late Silurian, about 422 million years ago, in wheat is now Gotland, Sweden, Glossoceras was only around 5cm long as an adult (~2″). Like other ascocerids it started out its life looking like a fairly standard early nautiloid, with a long straight shell that curved slightly upwards, but as it approached maturity things got weird – the front part of the shell grew out into a much more bulbous flask-like shape, and the old juvenile section broke off entirely.
The gas-filled buoyancy chambers of its adult shell were positioned directly above its body chamber rather than behind like in other nautiloids, giving it very good stability in the water. The shell walls were also very thin and lightweight, which would have made it a much more maneuverable swimmer.
Living in what is now Morocco during the late Paleocene and early Eocene, around 56 million years ago, it would have been about the size of a cat, roughly 30cm at the shoulder (~1′) and 60cm long (~2′). It had a fairly low flat head with a proportionally short snout, while the back end of its skull behind it eyes was elongated, supporting large powerful jaw muscles.
Wear patterns on its teeth suggest it ate a lot of tough vegetation, and it may have been a semiaquatic animal behaving somewhat like modern tapirs or pygmy hippos – spending a lot of the daytime lounging in water, and emerging onto land to forage during the night.
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.