Weird Heads Month #29: Giant Saw-Toothed Birds

The pelagornithids, or “pseudotooth birds”, were a group of large seabirds that were found around the world for almost the entire Cenozoic, existing for at least 60 million years and only going completely extinct just 2.5 million years ago.

Their evolutionary relationships are uncertain and in the past they’ve been considered as relatives of pelicaniformes, albatrosses and petrels, or storks, but more recently they’ve been proposed to have been closer related to ducks and geese instead.

Whatever they were, they were some of the largest birds to ever fly, and many of the “smaller” species still had wingspans comparable to the largest modern flying birds.

But their most notable feature was their beaks. Although at first glance they look like they were lined with pointy teeth, these structures were actually outgrowths of their jaw bones covered with keratinous beak tissue. While these bony spikes would have been useful for holding onto slippery aquatic animals like fish and squid, they were actually hollow and relatively fragile so pelagornithids must have mainly caught smaller prey that couldn’t thrash around hard enough to break anything.

The serrations also only developed towards full maturity, and the “toothless” juveniles may have had a completely different ecology to adults.

Pelagornis chilensis here was one of the larger species of pelagornithid, with a wingspan of 5-6m (16’4″-19’8″), known from the western and northern coasts of South America during the late Miocene about 11-5 million years ago.

Like other pelagornithids it was highly adapted for albatross-like dynamic soaring, with long narrow wings that allowed it to travel huge distances while expending very little energy – but with its proportionally short legs it would have been clumsy on the ground and probably spent the vast majority of its life on the wing, only returning to land to breed.

Weird Heads Month #28: Pig-Nosed Tanks

There’s already been quite a few Triassic weirdos in this series, so it’s probably not much of a surprise that we’ve got one more before the end of the month.

Desmatosuchus spurensis here was part of a group called aetosaurs, a lineage of heavily-armored herbivorous archosaurs which convergently resembled the later ankylosaurs but were more closely related to modern crocodilians.

Living in the Southwestern and South Central United States during the late Triassic, about 221-210 million years ago, Desmatosuchus measured around 4.5m long (14’9″) and was covered in thick interlocking bony osteoderms that protected its back, sides, belly, and tail, with longer spines over its neck and shoulders.

It had a triangular skull with a few blunt teeth at the back of its jaws and a toothless snout at the front. Its pointed lower jaw probably had a keratinous beak, while its upper jaw had an odd upturned flared tip. What exactly was going on with that snoot is uncertain, but it may have anchored a shovel-shaped upper keratinous beak – or, since there was a little bit of flexibility between its snout bones, possibly even a pig-like nose!

It probably mostly ate soft vegetation, using its shovel-like snout to dig up roots and tubers, although similarities with the skulls of modern armadillos suggest it may also have fed on insect grubs.

Weird Heads Month #22: Flat Headed Crocs

The heads of modern crocodilians are already pretty amazing, with their high-set eyes and nostrils, moveable ear flaps, numerous dermal pressure receptors, and a distinctive chaotic “scaly” surface texture that’s actually formed from cracks in thick stiff skin.

And back during the Late Cretaceous of West Africa, about 95 million years ago, there was a huge variety of odd-looking crocdyliformes all sharing a river delta environment and specializing in different ecological niches from terrestrial to aquatic. There were species with nicknames like “duck croc“, “boar croc“, and “pancake croc” – but one of the most intriguing of them all was Aegisuchus witmeri, the “shieldcroc”.

Known only from the back end of its skull, Aegisuchus seems to have had a very wide and flat head, possibly similar in shape to those of the “pancake crocs” which it may have been closely related to. From the sheer size of the known remains it must have been rather big, with a skull at least 2m long (6’6″) and a total length of around 10m (32’10”).

But its weirdest feature was a raised circular bony boss in the middle of its forehead. Unlike any other known croc, the bone around this area shows evidence of deep blood vessel channels, suggesting it was anchoring a more extensive keratinous “shield”. Much like the “horns” seen on some crocodilian species this was probably used for territorial and mating displays, but its extensive blood supply may have also allowed it to play a role in body temperature regulation.

Aegisuchus would have had a fairly weak bite, and may have fed more like a pelican than a modern croc, snapping up fish and other small animals with its gaping mouth. Its jaw mechanics also resembled those of the Triassic amphibian Gerrothorax’s “toilet seat head”, so it could have had a similar hunting strategy, laying motionless on riverbeds with its mouth wide open, waiting for prey to swim close enough to catch.

Weird Heads Month #18: Boneheaded Dinosaurs

Pachycephalosaurs are highly recognizable dinosaurs with their thick spiky skulls, and it’s not hugely surprising that they were the evolutionary cousins of the equally weird-headed ceratopsians.

Much like their frilled relatives they had beaks at the tips of their snouts and large gut cavities for digesting plant matter, but they also had surprisingly sharp theropod-like teeth in front of their more standard herbivore teeth further back – suggesting they may also have been opportunistic omnivores, occasionally snacking on carrion or small animals similarly to modern pigs or bears.

Their striking-looking dome heads were probably used for combat, headbutting or flank-butting each other, and many fossil skulls show evidence of injuries that would have been caused by that sort of behavior.

The eponymous Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis lived in North America right at the end of the Cretaceous, about 70-66 million years ago. It was one of the largest of its kind, reaching lengths of around 4.5m (14’9″), and was characterized by a large bony dome-head surrounded by small blunt spikes.

But it turns out that was probably only what it looked like as a fully mature adult.

Recent discoveries of juvenile Pachycephalosaurus skulls confirmed a hypothesis proposed a few years earlier: these dinosaurs changed appearance drastically as they grew up, and younger individuals had been mistaken for separate species. They started off with domeless flat heads, bristling with long spikes (a form previously named Dracorex hogwartsia) then as they matured their domes began to grow (previously Stygimoloch spinifer) and by full maturity they had big domes with the spikes shrunk down to smaller stubbier knobs (the classic Pachycephalosaurus look).

This particular reconstruction depicts a Stygimoloch-like subadult individual, not quite fully mature and still sporting some longer spikes.

Weird Heads Month #14: Horns and Frills

We can’t go through this month without having an appearance from the most famous group of weird-headed dinosaurs: the ceratopsids!

Their distinctive-looking skulls were highly modified from those of their ancestors, with large bony frills extending from the back of their heads, various elaborate horns and spikes, enormous nasal cavities, large hooked beaks at the front of their snouts, and rows of slicing teeth further back.

And while typically depicted as purely herbivorous, ceratopsids’ powerful parrot-like beaks and lack of grinding teeth suggest they may actually have been somewhat more omnivorous – the Cretaceous equivalent of pigs – still feeding mainly on plant matter but also munching on carrion and opportunistically eating smaller animals when they got the chance.

Machairoceratops cronusi here lived during the late Cretaceous of Utah, USA, about 77 million years ago. Only one partial skull has ever been found belonging to an individual about 4.5m long (14’9″), but it wasn’t fully grown and so probably reached slightly larger sizes.

It had two long spikes at the top of its frill, similar to its close relative Diabloceratops but curving dramatically forward and downwards above its face. Whether they were purely for display or used in horn-locking shoving matches is unknown, but either way it was a unique arrangement compared to all other known ceratopsids.

Weird Heads Month #12: Double-Crested Dinosaurs

Dilophosaurus wetherilli is a fairly recognizable dinosaur thanks to its memorable appearance in the Jurassic Park franchise – but unfortunately that also means the popular image of it is completely wrong.

Rather than a small frill-necked venom-spitting creature, this early theropod was actually rather large, reaching around 7m long (~23′), and along with its distinctive double crests it also had a narrow snout with large teeth and a distinctive notch at the front of its lower jaw.

It lived in North America during the early Jurassic, about 196-183 million years ago, and while it wasn’t venomous its notched jaws were probably capable of delivering powerful bites to small struggling prey, much like the similar-looking ornithosuchids in the Triassic. Some structural similarities to the skulls of spinosaurids suggest it may have primarily eaten fish.

Its two bony crests were probably used for visual display, with juveniles only having small crests that fully developed as they matured. They also may have had a more extensive keratinous covering, so it’s not clear what their actual shape and full extent was in life.

Weird Heads Month #01

It’s been a whole four years since Weird Backs Month, so we’re long overdue for a companion series:

Weird Heads Month!

Ever since heads first evolved as a defined body part, over 500 million years ago, evolution has been experimenting with them. There are many modern examples of animals that have modified parts of their heads and faces in a variety of strange-looking ways – elephants, deer, narwhals, hornbills, sawfish, bats, stalk-eyed flies, hammerheads, barreleyes, and star-nosed moles, to name only a few – and species in the fossil record were just as diverse and weird.

So let’s start off with…


Weird Heads Month #01: Wacky Flying Headgear

One of the most immediately recognizable examples of extinct animals with strange head structures are the pterosaurs, almost always depicted in pop culture with a large Pteranodon-like head crest.

But that wasn’t anywhere near as weird as pterosaur crests got.

Nyctosaurus gracilis here had an absolutely ridiculous elaborate crest, sporting an enormous antler-like structure on the back of its skull that grew to lengths longer than its own body.

Living around the Western Interior Seaway of the Midwestern United States during the Late Cretaceous, around 85 million years ago, it was a fairly small pterosaur standing about 40cm tall without the crest (1’4″) and with a 2m wingspan (6’6″). Its wings were long and narrow, and had completely lost the three small clawed fingers seen on other pterosaurs, suggesting it may have been less capable of moving around on the ground. It’s thought to have been a specialized soaring flier that spent most of its life on the wing at sea, much like a modern albatross.

Made up of two long thin spars arising from a common base, Nyctosaurus‘ crest has sometimes been reconstructed with a large sail-like membrane of skin – but since there’s no evidence at all of soft-tissue attachment on the bones, this seems unlikely. Juveniles were crestless, with only fully mature adults developing their spectacular headgear, so it was probably some sort of display structure.

It’s also not clear whether there was any sexual dimorphism in Nyctosaurus, since well-preserved skulls with intact crests are incredibly rare. But as with most other crested pterosaurs it’s likely that all mature individuals had crests, just with a difference in size and shape between sexes.

Bambolinetta

Between about 9 and 7 million years ago, the modern regions of Tuscany, Corsica, and Sardinia were once part of a single island in the ancient Mediterranean Sea.

And since evolution often goes in weird directions on isolated islands, it’s no surprise that some unusual species developed there.

One of which was a very odd duck.

A map of the Mediterranean region during the Late Miocene, showing the location of the Tusco-Sardinian island.
From fig 4 in Williams, M. F. (2008). Cranio-dental evidence of a hominin-like hyper-masticatory apparatus in Oreopithecus bambolii. Was the swamp ape a human ancestor?. Bioscience Hypotheses, 1(3), 127-137. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bihy.2008.04.001

Bambolinetta lignitifila lived during the Late Miocene, about 7.5 million years ago. Known from a single partial skeleton discovered in the mid-1800s, it was initially thought to be a fairly normal dabbling duck and wasn’t properly re-examined until 2014, when its strange features were finally recognized.

It was a medium-sized duck, probably around 50cm long (1’8″), but it had much chunkier wing bones than its relatives, with noticeably shortened forearms – looking much more like the wings of an auk or penguin, and suggesting that it was a similar sort of wing propelled diver. This is incredibly weird for a duck, since every other known diving species uses feet for propulsion instead, and so Bambolinetta may be the only known waterfowl to ever develop this type of underwater locomotion.

It’s not clear whether it was still capable of flying or not. There were few predators in its habitat, so it may well have become completely flightless – and that could also be the reason it later went extinct. Sea levels in the region began to drop around 7 million years ago, reconnecting the Tusco-Sardinian island to the European mainland, and Bambolinetta‘s high level of ecological specialization and its potential island tameness would have given it little defence against an influx of new unfamiliar predators.

Atlasaurus

Sauropod dinosaurs were just generally weird animals, but there’s something… not quite right about Atlasaurus imelakei.

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 strangestlooking sauropod 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.

A photograph of an Atlasaurus model. Its been reconstructed very skinny, which only serve to emphasize its weird proportions.
And more shrinkwrapped depictions really don’t help with that. [image source]

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.

Cryodrakon

Fragmentary fossils of huge azhdarchid pterosaurs 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.

Like other azhdarchids Cryodrakon would have spent a lot of its time on all fours on the ground. While moving like that it would have been almost 5m tall (16’5″), similar in size to a modern giraffe, stalking smaller animals and eating whatever it could catch and fit into its mouth.