Seeleyosaurus

Seeleyosaurus guilelmiimperatoris here was a smallish plesiosaur (about 3.5m long / 11’6″) found in Germany during the early Jurassic, about 182 million years ago.

And back in the 1890s, a specimen of this species was discovered with soft tissue impressions showing a diamond-shaped tail fin.

But despite us knowing about plesiosaur tail flukes for such a long time, they’re surprisingly under-represented in reconstructions, never seeming to have become associated with the popular image of these animals in the same way that early pterosaur’s tail vanes did. It doesn’t help that no other direct impressions of plesiosaur tail fins have ever been found, or that the Seeleyosaurus specimen’s soft tissue got painted over at some point in the mid-1900s, making it incredibly difficult to study without causing further damage. 

(Perhaps modern non-invasive scanning techniques could be able to see under the paintjob, but as far as I’m aware nobody’s tried that yet.)

These tail fins are usually assumed to have been vertically oriented like those of other aquatic reptiles, moving side-to-side and acting like a rudder. However, there’s also a hypothesis that their fins might have actually been horizontal more like those of modern cetaceans and sirenians, based on several anatomical quirks – such as their tail regions being very wide and flat at the base, and the vertebrae at the tip being unusually pygostyle-like, very different from the way the tail bones of vertically-finned reptiles look.

Silesaurus

Silesaurus opolensis here was a type of dinosauriform – a reptile very closely related to the ancestors of true dinosaurs, but not quite actually a dinosaur itself.

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.

It was originally thought to be a herbivore, but coprolites full of insect remains suggest it was probably more of an omnivore, possibly foraging by pecking in a convergently similar manner to its distant bird cousins.

In fact, one of those pieces of Silesaurus poop was recently found to preserve a new species of tiny beetle in incredible detail.

Eons Roundup 11

It’s time for another batch of PBS Eons commission work!

The marine reptiles Atopodentatus and Henodus, from “The Triassic Reptile With ‘Two Faces'”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8W26SiCylI


The marine turtles Archelon and Euclastes, from “The Return of Giant Skin-Shell Sea Turtles”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tmb8XCwb3FI

Stenaulorhynchus

Taking place during the 50-million year span between two huge mass extinctions, the Triassic was a very weird time. At the start of the period there was world domination by the synapsid Lystrosaurus, then after a few million years of recovery time came an evolutionary “explosion” from the rest of the survivors – filling new roles in their ecosystems and producing a brief but bizarre menagerie of unique species.

And one of the groups that rose to prominence during this time were the rhynchosaurs. Part of the archosauromorph branch of reptiles, they were closely related to the ancestors of crocodilians, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs, and evolved from small superficially lizard-like forms living in southern Africa during the very start of the Triassic, around 250 million years ago. But within just a few million years they became larger and bulkier, specialized for herbivory and scratch digging, and they soon spread all over Pangaea and became incredibly abundant in some fossil deposits.

Stenaulorhynchus stockleyi was one of larger member of this lineage, around 1.2m long (4’), known from Tanzania about 247-242 million years ago. It had a typical triangular rhynchosaurian skull, with wide deep cheeks supporting powerful jaw muscles and multiple rows of grinding teeth, along with a narrow hooked “beak” formed from the premaxillary bones of its snout.

Its unclear what the actual life appearance of the rhynchosaur “beak” was, with some reconstructions having a shrinkwrapped “alien mole-rat” look, others giving them keratinous parrot-like actual beaks, and still others going with fleshy tuatara-like lizard lips. In the past I’ve leaned somewhat towards the latter, but since one fossil does actually show some evidence for a keratinous covering I’ve gone for an extensive full beak this time around.

Tanystropheus hydroides

Tanystropheus is one of the classic Triassic weirdos, a bizarre archosauromorph easily recognizable with its ridiculously long neck.

Mainly known from mid-Triassic deposits on the Swiss-Italian border, dating around 247–235 million years ago, fossils of the species Tanystropheus longobardicus have been found in two different “morphs” – small forms less than 2m long (6’6″), and larger ones up to 6m long (19’8″).

For a long time the smaller fossils were thought to be juveniles, but while they certainly had juvenile-looking facial proportions they also had very different teeth compared to the larger forms. They had pointed teeth at the front of their mouths and multi-cusped cheek teeth further back, and the “adults” had jaws containing only the pointed teeth, suggesting very different diets and lifestyles between the two size classes.

Extreme changes in dentition and diet during maturation aren’t unheard of in fossil species, but something particularly odd was going on here. Larger forms over 2m long always had just the pointed teeth, and there were no signs of intermediate tooth arrangements at all.

And a new study using x-ray microtomography has given an answer: they weren’t actually the same species!

Turns out the smaller Tanystropheus longobardicus were all skeletally mature adults, already fully grown at that size. The larger ones were a completely separate species occupying a different ecological niche to their smaller relatives, and have been named Tanystropheus hydroides in reference to the mythical hydra.

Comparison of the skulls of T. hydroides and T. longobardicus

[ From fig 3 in Spiekman, S. N. et al (2020). Aquatic Habits and Niche Partitioning in the Extraordinarily Long-Necked Triassic Reptile Tanystropheus. Current Biology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.07.025 ]

While the exact lifestyle of Tanystropheus is an ongoing paleontological argument, Tanystropheus hydroides at least appears to have been much more on the aquatic side of things, with nostrils positioned on the top of its snout and its pointed teeth forming a “fish trap” in its jaws.

Stomach contents suggest it mainly ate fast-moving aquatic prey like fish and cephalopods, but its body wasn’t really adapted for strong swimming and so it couldn’t have been catching them via active pursuit. Instead it was probably an ambush predator hunting in a similar manner to some plesiosaurs, using its incredibly long neck and relatively small head to carefully approach prey species without the rest of its body startling them, and then catching them with fast snapping sideways lunges.

Ophthalmothule

The cryptoclidids were fairly standard-looking plesiosaurs, with long necks and small heads – but those tiny skull bones were also rather fragile and so there’s very little good fossil material of their heads, making it difficult to figure out both their feeding ecology and their exact evolutionary relationships.

But a recently-discovered specimen from the Svalbard archipelago actually preserved a mostly-complete skeleton, including an unusually intact skull.

Given the name Ophthalmothule cryostea (meaning “frozen bones of the Northern eye”), this cryptoclidid lived about 145 million years ago, right at the boundary between the Jurassic and the Cretaceous.

It measured around 5m long (16’5″) and had proportionally huge eyes that faced upwards on its head – an adaptation for seeing in low-light underwater conditions, maximizing the amount of light reaching it from above.

Those big dark-adapted eyes suggest it may have been nocturnal, or spent a lot of time diving into very deep waters in search of food. Its skull had weak jaw muscles and delicate teeth, and its gut region contained a lot of fine gravelly sediment, so it probably mainly grubbed around for small soft-bodied prey on the sea floor.

At that point in time Svalbard would have been a little further south than it is today, at a subarctic latitude, but the area would have still experienced particularly long nights during the winter. So it’s possible Ophthalmothule also developed such big sensitive eyes to help it survive through those darker seasons.

Weird Heads Month #15: Hammerhead Reptiles

Atopodentatus unicus lived in Southwest China during the early-to-mid Triassic, around 247-240 million years ago. About 3m long (9’10”), it was a marine reptile – probably part of an early branch of the sauropterygians – with an elongated streamlined body and paddle-like limbs.

When it was originally described in 2014 it seemed to have a head unlike anything seen before. The skull of the only known fossil specimen was incomplete and badly crushed, but it was reconstructed as having a downward-hooking upper jaw with a vertical split in the middle forming a zipper-like row of teeth.

An illustration of the old interpretation of Atopodentatus. It has a bizarre vertical split in the front of its snout full of needle-like teeth resembling a zipper.
The original version of Atopodentatus

But then just two years later some more complete skulls were discovered and revealed something completely different: the projections on Atopodentatus‘ snout actually stuck out to each side in a wide flat “hammerhead” shape on both its upper and lower jaws.

Not quite as bizarre as before, but still a Triassic weirdo!

It also seems to have been a rare example of a herbivorous Mesozoic marine reptile, probably rooting around on the seafloor with its shovel-like mouth, using its chisel-shaped front teeth to scoop up mouthfuls of algae and other marine plants and then straining out the water through its closely spaced needle-like back teeth.

Weird Heads Month #07: The Wonderful Creeping Thing

The Triassic was an incredibly weird time, full of evolutionary experiments in the wake of the worst mass extinction in Earth’s history.

Teraterpeton hrynewichorum here was part of group known as allokotosaurs, a lineage of mostly-herbivorous archosauromorphs that also included the long-necked bull-horned Shringasaurus.

Living in Nova Scotia during the Late Triassic, around 235-221 million years ago, Teraterpeton (meaning “wonderful creeping thing”) was first named in the early 2000s based on a skull and partial skeleton, with some additional skeletal material being described recently in 2019.

Its head had a confusing mix of anatomical features, with a long beak-like toothless snout at the front of its jaws, small sharp interlocking cheek teeth further back, a huge nasal opening, and a closed-up fenestra at the back of its skull making it look more like the skulls of marine reptiles.

It also had a lizard-like body, perhaps up to 1.8m long (~6′), with rather long slender limbs and large blade-like claws, and more anatomical weirdness in the pelvic region convergently resembling those of distantly related groups like rhynchosaurs and tanystropheids. It had a sprawling posture, but its hind limb musculature suggests it might have been capable of getting up into a more erect stance when walking, somewhat similar to modern crocodilians’ “high walk” gait.

It was clearly quite an ecologically specialized animal, but quite what it was specialized for is still uncertain. It was presumably a herbivore like its close relatives, but it must have been eating a very different diet with its long beak, and its deep claws could have been used for scratch digging to get at roots and tubers.

Another possibility it that it could have been an insectivore with a diet similar to modern aardvarks or armadillos, probing with its beak and digging with its claws for insects, grubs, and other invertebrates. Since termite-like social insect nests do seem to have existed around the same time, it might even have been one the earliest known animals to specialize in myrmecophagy.

Weird Heads Month #05: Crested Snorkelers

Phytosaurs were a lineage of incredibly crocodile-like archosauriformes – essentially “crocodiles before crocodiles” – convergently evolving an incredibly similar appearance at a time when the ancestors of modern crocs were still small and terrestrial.

But while they had toothy snouts and bodies heavily armored with bony ostederms, unlike crocodilians their nostrils were far back on their heads up near their eyes, often in a sort of bony “snorkel” so they could breathe while almost fully submerged underwater.

Mystriosuchus westphali lived in Germany during the Late Triassic, about 215-212 million years ago. Around 4m long (~13′), it was even more aquatic than other phytosaurs, with paddle-like limbs and long slender gharial-like jaws adapted for catching slippery prey.

And along with the typical phytosaur snorkel, it also had raised crests along its upper jaw – which may have supported even larger keratinous display structures.

Weird Heads Month #03: Big Head Mode

In the last entry we had heads that looked much too small… so now how about heads that were too big?

Erythrosuchus africanus was part of an early branch of the archosauriformes, related to the ancestors of crocodiles, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs. Living in South Africa during the mid Triassic, around 247-242 million years ago, it was the largest predator of its time, reaching about 5m long (16’5″).

It was one of the earliest archosaurifomes to develop a more upright-limbed posture, and convergently evolved a very theropod-like head with a deep narrow snout full of large serrated teeth.

A head that was absolutely massive proportional to the rest of its body, measuring about 1m long (3’3″).

As a result of such a big noggin, Erythrosuchus must have also had some bulky musculature in its neck and forequarters to support it. And while its fairly short neck wouldn’t have been very flexible buried in all that tissue, it probably didn’t need to be – some of its main prey would have been large slow-moving dicynodonts, and its hunting strategy may have consisted of simply “aim at food and lunge”.