Wapitisaurus

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.

Glossoceras

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.

Phosphatherium

Phosphatherium escuillei was one of the very earliest known members of the proboscideans, a lineage today represented only by the three living species of elephants.

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.

Hupehsuchus

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.

Hupehsuchus nanchangensis was a mid-sized member of the group, about 1m long (3’3″). Newly-discovered fossils of its skull show that its long flattened snout had a distinctive gap between the bones (similar to the platypus-like snout seen in its relative Eretmorhipis) with an overall shape surprisingly convergent with that of modern baleen whales – suggesting that this hupehsuchian may have been a similar sort of filter-feeder.

A diagram comparing Hupehsuchus' skull to that of a modern baleen whale.
Hupehsuchus skull compared to a modern minke whale
From fig 2 & fig 3 of Fang et al (2023). First filter feeding in the Early Triassic: cranial morphological convergence between Hupehsuchus and baleen whales. BMC Ecol Evo 23, 36. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12862-023-02143-9

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.

Perucetus

While last week’s Tutcetus was the smallest known basilosaurid whale, another recently-announced member of that group was almost the complete opposite.

Perucetus colossus was a chonker. An absolute unit of a whale.

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.

Tutcetus

Tutcetus rayanensis was a whale that lived in warm shallow tropical seas covering what is now Egypt during the Eocene, about 41 million years ago.

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.

Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 3: Walking With Victorian Beasts

[Previously: the Jurassic and Cretaceous]

The final section of the Crystal Palace Dinosaur trail brings us to the Cenozoic, and a selection of ancient mammals.

A photograph of the Crystal Palace palaeotheres, depicted as tapir-like animals. A smaller one on the left is in a sitting pose, while a larger one on the right is in a walking pose.
Image from 2009 by Loz Pycock (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Originally represented by three statues, there are two surviving originals of the Eocene-aged palaeotheres depicting Plagiolophus minor (the smaller sitting one) and Palaeotherium medium (the larger standing one).

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.

There was also something exciting nearby:

A photograph of the restored Crystal Palace Palaeotherium magnum statue. It's a chunky animal with a trunked tapir-like head, wrinkly skin, and a rhino-like body.

The recently-recreated Palaeotherium magnum!

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“.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of Palaeotherium magnum with a modern interpretation. The retro version is a chunky animal with a trunked tapir-like head and rhino-like body. The modern version is more horse-like, with slender legs and three-toed hoofed feet.
Continue reading “Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 3: Walking With Victorian Beasts”

Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 2: Walking With Victorian Dinosaurs

[Previously: the Permian and Triassic]

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.

A photograph of a Crystal Palace ichthyosaur statue, posed hauled out of the water like a seal or crocodile. It's partially obscured by plant growth, and is in a state of slight disrepair – moss and lichen patches cover its sides, and a plant is growing out of a crack on its back. A moorhen can be seen in the water swimming towards it.

Although there are supposed to be three Jurassic ichthyosaur statues here, only the big Temnodontosaurus platyodon could really be seen at the time of my visit. The two smaller Ichthyosaurus communis and Leptonectes tenuirostris were almost entirely hidden by the dense plant growth on the island.

Two photographs of the Crystal Palace ichthyosaurs. On the left the island is clear of foliage and all three can be seen; and on the right is the current overgrown state.
Ichthyosaurs when fully visible vs currently obscured
Left side image by Nick Richards (CC BY SA 2.0)
Two photographs of the large Crystal Palace ichthyosaur, showing closer views of the eye, flipper, and tail fin. Int he background a second ichthyosaur can be seen through the foliage. A moorhen is pecking around near the flipper.
Head, flipper, and tail details of the Temnodontosaurus. A second ichthyosaur is just barely visible in the background.

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.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of an ichthyosaur with a modern interpretation. The retro version has long toothy jaws, very large eyes, a seal-like body, four scaly-looking flippers, and a small eel-like fin on its tail. The modern version is a much more dolphin-like animal with smaller eyes, smooth triangular flippers, a dorsal fin, and a vertical crescent-shaped tail fin.
Continue reading “Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 2: Walking With Victorian Dinosaurs”

Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 1: Walking With Victorian Monsters

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 familiar old faces out in the wilds of south London, so let’s go on a little tour of these iconic Victorian-era retrosaurs…

A photograph of an informational sign in London's Crystal Palace Park. The text on it reads, "The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs 1854, a journey through time and science". Three of the iconic Victorian dinosaur statures are also pictured below the title, showing the Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus, and Megalosaurus.

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs take their name from the original Crystal Palace, a glass-paned exhibition building originally constructed for a World’s Fair in Hyde Park in 1851.

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.

Two images of Victorian London's Crystal Palace building. On the left an old black-and-white photograph from around 1854 shows the original structure, a grand glass-paned building with ornate terraced gardens in front of it. On the right a more modern photo from 2011 shows what little remains today – just the ruins of the terraces and stairs.
The Crystal Palace building then and now
Left image circa 1854 (public domain)
Right image circa 2011 by Mark Ahsmann (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

A photograph of one of the surviving sphinx statues in the Crystal Palace ruins, reclining on a plinth beside some stone steps. It's recently renovated with a coat of terracotta red paint to match its original Victorian-era appearance. In the background the huge Arqiva Crystal Palace telecom tower can be seen.

…But let’s get to what we’re really here for. Dinosaurs! (…And assorted other prehistoric beasties!)

Continue reading “Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 1: Walking With Victorian Monsters”

Nihohae

Nihohae matakoi was a dolphin that lived in the coastal waters around what is now Aotearoa New Zealand during the late Oligocene, about 25 million years ago. Part of a group known as waipatiids, it was much closer related to modern South Asian river dolphins than to modern oceanic dolphins.

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.