Rhamphorhynchus muensteri was one of the first pterosaurs known to science, and its snaggletoothed snout and long vaned tail have become classic features of many fictional “pterodactyls”. But despite its prevalence in pop culture depictions, it actually seems to have been quite a highly specialized pterosaur compared to its closest relatives – and a few specimens also seem to have an unusual little bit of asymmetry going on.
Living during the Late Jurassic, about 150-145 million years ago, around the warm shallow seas of what is now southeast Germany, Rhamphorynchus had a a wingspan of up to at least 1.8m (~6′), with larger fragmentary fossils suggesting a maximum of around 3m (~9’10”).
It had proportionally long wings, splaying intermeshing needle-like teeth, and a toothless beak at the tip of its jaws. The lower beak hooked strongly upwards, while the upper seems to have varied from upwards-curving to straight to downward-curving in different individuals – and some of these arrangements mean the keratinous beak tips must have crossed when the jaws closed, twisting to each side to asymmetrically pass each other similarly to modern crossbill birds.
Several specimens have been found with fish and cephalopod remains preserved in their guts, and along with the pointy intermeshing teeth this indicates Rhamphorhynchus was probably mainly piscivorous, occupying a similar ecological role to modern seabirds.
The different shapes of the toothless jaw tips may suggest there were several distinct populations of this pterosaur species exploiting slightly different food sources to each other, and the crossing beaks may have been an adaptation to pry the soft parts out of hard-shelled prey.
Halszkaraptorines were a group of small dromaeosaurids known only from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia. They were odd little raptors with flattened snouts, long necks, and flipper-like arms – features that suggest they were specialized for swimming, making them the second known lineage of semi-aquatic non-avian dinosaurs after the spinosaurids.
Natovenator polydontus lived in what is now the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, around 72 million years ago. The size of a small duck, about 45cm long (18″), it had jaws full of many needle-like teeth, a long flexible goose-like neck, and a streamlined body with a wide flattened ribcage convergently shaped like those of modern diving birds.
Although it had long strong legs, these don’t show much in the way of aquatic specializations and would have been used more for walking and running on land. Instead it may have used its flipper-like arms to propel itself through the water, like modern penguins or auks.
It probably had a lifestyle similar to modern mergansers, swimming and diving in lakes and rivers, and preying on fish, amphibians, and aquatic invertebrates.
Despite some minor delays, it’s time once again for #Spectember – when I dive back into the big pile of speculative evolution concepts that you all submitted to me in 2020, and try to get through a few more of the backlog.
(…There’s still over 50 of them left. This is going to take a while.)
So today’s concept comes from an anonymous submitter, who requested an arboreal ornithopod dinosaur:
But now the recent discovery of Jakapil kaniukura is suggesting a lineage of early thyreophorans actually survived for much much longer than previously thought – all the way into the Late Cretaceous, about 97-94 million years ago.
Just 1.5m long (5′), Jakapil lived in what is now southern Argentina, in an ancient desert with a braided river system. It was bipedal, with a short beak, small arms, and a body bristling with spiky armor, and its unusually deep lower jaw and heavily worn teeth indicate it fed on rather tough vegetation that required a lot of chewing to process.
It’s currently only known from somewhat fragmentary remains, so reconstructions of its full appearance are rather speculative and there’s already been some dispute about whether Jakapil actually was a thyreophoran. One proposal is that it shared a lot of anatomical features with early ceratopsians instead, which if true would make it an incredibly weird armored ceratopsian, and also the first definitive member of that group from South America. But the ceratopsian-like features could also just be due to convergent evolution – and a Jakapil-like dinosaur might actually help explain the only other known dubious South American “ceratopsian” Notoceratops, and the similarly-disputed Australian Serendipaceratops.
But whatever it was – late-surviving basal thyreophoran, southern armored ceratopsian, or even a previously unknown lineage of ornithishcians entirely new to science – it’s an exciting and unexpected discovery.
Amargasaurus cazaui was a sauropod dinosaur with a very distinctive-looking skeleton, sporting a double row of long bony spines along its neck and back. It lived in what is now Argentina during the Early Cretaceous, about 129-122 million years ago, and was fairly small compared to many other sauropods, reaching about 10m in length (~33′) with a proportionally short neck compared to its body size.
And despite being known from fairly complete skeletal remains there’s still a lot we don’t know about this dinosaur – especially what was actually going on with those vertebral spines. While it’s sometimes been depicted with skin sails over the spines, for the last couple of decades the general opinion has trended towards them being more likely to have been covered by spiky keratinous horn-like sheaths.
But recently that’s been brought back into question. A detailed study of the microscopic bone structure of Amargasaurus‘ spines shows no evidence for keratin attachment and instead found textures associated with skin coverings, along with an extensive web of ligaments connecting the spines to each other along each row.
Known from the late Cretaceous of southern Chile, about 75-72 million years ago, this small ankylosaur was around 1.5m long (~5′), roughly the size of a large dog. It had a proportionally larger head and more slender limbs than most other ankylosaurs, and a pelvis more resembling a stegosaur, but its most distinctive feature was its tail – it had a completely unique never-before-seen type of tail weapon, with a flat “frond-like” structure formed from several pairs of large fused osteoderms making a shape resembling a macuahuitl.
It seems to have been part of a previously unrecognized very early-branching lineage of Gondwanan ankylosaurs – the parankylosaurians – with its closest relatives Antarctopelta and Kunbarrasaurus also included in this new group. And since the tail regions of both of those other species are poorly known, this means they may also have possessed macuahuitls.
But I’m not talking about the dubious claims of non-avian dinosaur fossils found in places they shouldn’t be. This is about something else entirely: an unassuming little bird known as Qinornis paleocenica.
Living in Northwest China during the mid-Paleocene, about 61 million years ago, Qinornis was roughly pigeon-sized at around 30cm long (12″). It’s known only from a few bones from its legs and feet, but those bones are unusual enough to hint that it might have been something very special.
Uniquely for a Cenozoic bird, some of its foot bones weren’t fully fused together. This sort of incomplete fusion is seen in both juvenile modern birds and in adults of non-avian ornithurine birds from the Cretaceous – and the Qinornis specimen seems to have come from an adult animal.
If it was fully grown with unfused feet, then that would suggest it was actually part of a “relic” lineage living 5 million years after the mass extinction, surviving for quite some time longer than previously thought.
Living in Poland during the Late Triassic (~230 million years ago), it was a quadrupedal animal roughly the size of a large modern dog, about 50cm tall at the shoulder (1’8″) and 2m long (6’6″). The front of its lower jaw was toothless and covered with a keratinous beak, and there may have been a corresponding much smaller beak at the very tip of its upper jaw, too.