Erlikosaurus andrewsi, a therizinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia (~90 mya).
Named after Erlik, the Turko-Mongolian god of death, it’s only known from partial remains – but it was the first therizinosaur ever found with a preserved skull, helping to fill in some of our knowledge of these oddball dinosaurs’ anatomy.
It was closely related to Therizinosaurus, but was only about half the size, estimated to have measured around 4-5m long (13′-16’4″). It would have had a toothless beak at the front of its jaws, an adaption for a herbivorous diet, along with long claws on its hands and a coat of fluffy down-like feathers. I’ve also given it some longer quill-like feathers here, similar to those known in Beipiaosaurus.
Grendelius mordax, an ichthyosaur from the Late Jurassic of England (~155-150 mya).
Named after the monster Grendel from the epic poem Beowulf, this 4m long (~13′) marine reptile had a big robust skull with large teeth, proportionally short flippers, and smaller eyes than some of its other relatives. It also had an unusual bony “hump” on its snout above its nostrils.
(About 20 years ago Grendelius was reassigned into Brachypterygius on the basis of the two not being distinct enough from each other to justify having separate genus names – but a more recent study suggests that that they actually were different after all, and the name may be valid again.)
Diplacodon gigan, a brontothere from the Early Eocene of Wyoming, USA (~46-42 mya). Standing around 2.1m tall at the shoulder (~7′) it was named after the kaiju Gigan for its relatively large size – not quite as big as some later brontotheres, but still about 20% larger than other known species of Diplacodon.
It had a pair of blunt bony projections on its snout which would have been covered with skin in life, similar to the ossicones of modern giraffids, with males having larger “horns” than females.
Despite looking very similar to rhinos, brontotheres were actually much more closely related to horses, with the resemblance being a result of convergent evolution for the same sort of big-tanky-herbivore ecological niche.
Vaderlimulus tricki, a horseshoe crab from the Early Triassic of Idaho, USA (~251-247 mya). Named for its resemblance to the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet, it’s the earliest known Mesozoic horseshoe crab from North America and was closely related to another oddly-shaped form from Australia.
It was much smaller than its modern relatives, only about 10cm long (4″), and probably lived in a brackish estuary environment where seawater and freshwater met.
Paludidraco multidentatus from the Late Triassic of Spain (~237-227 mya).
This 3m long (9′10″) animal was a member of the nothosaurs, a group of semi-aquatic seal-like marine reptiles that were closely related to plesiosaurs (and both were also evolutionary cousins to modern turtles).
It had long slender jaws full of numerous tiny teeth, creating an interlocking comb that was probably used for filter feeding – scooping up mouthfuls of fine-grained sediment from the seafloor and filtering out small invertebrates or soft plant matter.
The bones of its skeleton were also highly thickened and dense, a condition known as pachyostosis that provided ballast to weigh it down in the water. This would have made it a slow and unmaneuverable swimmer, but a very energy-efficient one, using its natural neutral buoyancy to hover or walk along the seabed.
It was essentially a reptilian manatee, filling a similar sort of ecological niche.
Litovoi tholocephalos, a multituberculate mammal from the Late Cretaceous of Romania (~70-66 mya). Living on what was at the time the large offshore Hațeg Island, this rat-sized animal (about 25cm /10″ long) was part of a lineage of insectivorous multis called the kogaionids, with the same sort of red-colored enamel on its teeth as other species like Barbatodon.
Its brain was surprisingly tiny proportional to its size – one of the smallest known brain-to-body ratios of any mammal, and more similar to those of non-mammalian cynodonts – but it also seems have been highly specialized for processing sensory input, with relatively enormous regions associated with smell, eyesight, balance, and motor control. The olfactory bulbs of its brain were so enlarged, in fact, that they caused its skull to bulge out into an unusually dome-shaped forehead.
Its reduced brain size may have been due to limited food availability on its isolated island home. Brains are very metabolically expensive organs, and some other extinct island mammals like hippos, hominids, and goats are also known to have evolved smaller brain sizes. Modern shrews even seasonally shrink their own brains during winter for similar energy-saving reasons.
Caelestiventus hanseni, a pterosaur from the Late Triassic of Utah, USA. Living about 208-210 million years ago, it was very closely related to Dimorphodon – but unlike its younger coastal-dwelling relative it instead lived in a desert environment made up of a massive sand dune sea with occasional interdunal lakes.
It’s the earliest known example of a desert pterosaur, over 60 million years older than other examples, suggesting that even fairly early in their evolutionary history these flying animals had already adapted to a much wider range of habitats than previously thought.
Although only known from a partial skull and a single wing bone, it was probably one of the largest Triassic pterosaurs with a wingspan of over 1.5m (4′11″). It had a “keel” on its lower jaw that may have supported a soft-tissue crest or a pelican-like throat pouch, and there were several different types of teeth in its mouth – large pointed fangs at the front, “leaf-shaped” blades further back in its upper jaw, and numerous much smaller teeth along its lower jaw.
The skull roof also preserved the impression of Caelestiventus’ brain shape, showing that it had very well-developed vision but a poor sense of smell.
Thanahita distos, a recently-named species from the mid-Silurian of the UK (~430 mya).
This little lobopodian was very closely related to the famous Cambrian Hallucigenia, but it lived over 70 million years later – giving us the first evidence that these weird worms weren’t just short-lived “evolutionary experiments”, but must have actually been a very successful lineage that thrived for quite a long time.
Measuring around 3.5cm long (1.4″), it had seven pairs of legs tipped with one or two claws each, and at least two pairs of shorter tentacles on its neck. The head region of the only known fossil specimen wasn’t preserved, so it’s unclear exactly what its front end looked like – but it would have probably been quite similar to Hallucigenia with a slender oval head, two simple eyes, and a small round mouth ringed by tiny teeth.
Unlike its spiky relative, however, Thanahita’s back was covered in rows of numerous small raised soft-tissue “tufts”. I’ve reconstructed it here with them brightly warning colored, mimicking stinging coral polyps.
Thalattosaurs were a weird and rather mysterious group of Triassic marine reptiles. It’s not clear where they actually fit on the reptile evolutionary tree (we know they’re diapsids, but nobody can really agree on anything more definite than that), and they had some very strange skulls that seem to have been highly specialized for something, although their actual function is still unknown.
Xinpusaurus kohi here is known from the Late Triassic of China (~232-221 mya). About 1.3m long (4′3″), with half of that being its paddle-like tail, it had an elongated upper jaw that formed a protruding pointed spear-shaped snout.
It’s not clear whether this odd snoot was an adaptation for hunting similar to the long bills of swordfish – there’s quite a bit of variation in length and shape between different individual specimens – or if it was serving some other purpose like the sexually dimorphic noses of some modern lizards.
Coelacanths are famous for being “living fossils”, completely disappearing from the fossil record at the end of the Cretaceous but then being rediscovered alive just 80 years ago. But although they’re often thought to have physically changed very little over the last 300 million years or so, more recent discoveries are starting to show that coelacanth body forms and lifestyles were actually more varied in the distant past.
Meet the wonderfully-named Rebellatrix divaricerca, from the Early Triassic of British Columbia, Canada (~251-247 mya). Measuring around 1.3m long (4′3″), its body shape and large symmetrical forked tail suggest it was adapted for fast swimming. Unlike its slow-moving deep-water modern relatives this coelacanth was a speedy oceanic active predator, convergently similar to tuna or some sharks.
Since it lived in the immediate wake of the end-Permian “Great Dying” mass extinction, Rebellatrix may have rapidly evolved from more standard-looking coelacanths to take advantage of a suddenly vacant ecological niche – or it might be part of a more extensive unusual lineage whose other members simply haven’t been discovered yet.