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.
But Brontornis might not actually have been a terror bird at all – it may have instead been a giant cousin of ducks and geese.
The known fossil material is fragmentary enough that it’s still hard to tell for certain, but there’s some evidence that links it to the gastornithiformes, a group of huge herbivorous birds related to modern waterfowl.
If it was a gastornithiform, that would mean it represents a previously completely unknown lineage of South American giant flightless galloanserans. And, along with the gastornithids and the mihirungs, it would represent a third time that group of birds convergently evolved this sort of body plan and ecological role on entirely different continents during the Cenozoic.
Aquilarhinus palimentus here was an early hadrosaurid dinosaur known from the Late Cretaceous of Texas, USA, living about 80 million years ago. Around 5m long (16″5″), it had a prominent humped nose that seems to have been an evolutionary prelude to the larger and much more elaborate crests found in later hadrosaurs.
It also had an unusually wide and shovel-like beak, unlike any other known hadrosaur, which was probably a specialization for a different diet than its relatives. Since it lived along coastal marshlands it may have used its broad jaws to scoop up large mouthfuls of soft vegetation – or, much like the “shovel-tusker” proboscideans that were once thought to have a similar lifestyle, it may actually have been doing something else entirely with that beak.