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”.

Riojasuchus

Pseudosuchians – the evolutionary lineage whose only surviving modern representatives are crocodilians – first originated in the early Triassic and were once an incredibly diverse group. These croc-relatives experimented with fully erect limbs and bipedalism quite a few separate times, and on several occasions ended up evolving remarkably similar body plans to their distant cousins the theropod dinosaurs.

One of the earliest branches of the pseudosuchians to do this were the ornithosuchids, the best known of which is Riojasuchus tenuisceps here.

Living in Argentina during the Late Triassic, about 217-215 million years ago, Riojasuchus had a distinctive “hooked” upper jaw and two rows of osteoderm armor plates along its back.

It was only around 1.5m long (4’9″), much smaller than some of the other pseudosuchians and early theropod dinosaurs it lived alongside. Its front limbs were shorter than its hind limbs and it was probably a facultative biped – moving slowly on all fours, but getting up on just its hind legs for bursts of high speed running – which would have helped it avoid being eaten by those larger predators.

Like other ornithosuchids it had very strange ankles, with the bones in the joint articulating with each other the opposite way around compared to any other type of archosaur. The claws on its hind feet were also unusually tall and narrow, especially on the inner toes.

Its jaws were capable of delivering strong but somewhat slow bites, and the relative structural weakness of its narrow notched jaw would have made it difficult for it to deal with large struggling prey. It likely mostly hunted smaller vertebrates, and may also have been an opportunistic scavenger taking bites out of larger predators’ kills whenever it got the chance.

Panzhousaurus

Panzhousaurus rotundirostris, a sauropterygian marine reptile from the mid-Triassic of southwestern China (~245 mya), living just a few million years after the devastating Permian-Triassic mass extinction. This small marine reptile was only about 40cm long (1′4″) and is known from a single near-complete skeleton.

Although it was a distant evolutionary cousin to plesiosaurs (and even more distantly to modern turtles), it was actually most closely related to an early sauropterygian lineage known as the pachypleurosaurs – a group of small lizard-like aquatic reptiles with tiny heads, long necks, and paddle-like limbs.

It had an unusually short and rounded-off snout compared to its relatives, and since it would have lived alongside many other diverse marine reptiles it was probably specialized for a slightly different ecological niche.

Triopticus

What Triassic animal has a name that sounds like a Transformers character?

Triopticus primus!

Living in Texas, USA, during the Late Triassic, about 229-226 million years ago, Triopticus was a type of archosauriform reptile (a “cousin” to crocodiles, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs). Classifying it any more specifically than that is rather difficult since it’s only known from a single partial skull.

It had five large bony bosses on its head that convergently resembled the domes of pachycephalosaurs, suggesting it may have engaged in similar headbutting or flank-butting behavior. At the back of its skull there was also a distinctive deep pit that looked like a “third eye socket”, inspiring it its name – although this feature probably wasn’t actually a parietal eye, instead just being the result of the way several of the bosses came together at that point.

The rest of its appearance is unknown, and this reconstruction is rather speculative as a result. But based on other archosauriformes it was likely to have been a small semi-sprawling quadruped, possibly around 80cm in length (2′7″).

Paludidraco

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.

Tarjadia

Tarjadia ruthae from the Middle Triassic of Argentina (~242-235 mya).

Originally known only from a few fragments, this 2.5-3m long (8′2″-9′10″) animal was first considered to be an indeterminate early archosaur, then a non-archosaurian doswelliid. But new fossil material and a recent analysis have instead placed it as a member of the erpetosuchids, an early group of pseudosuchians (the branch of the archosaurs that includes modern crocodilians).

Erpetosuchids were some of the earliest well-armored archosaurs, with several rows of bony osteoderms along their neck, back, and tail, and scattered oval osteoderms covering their limbs. Their fairly gracile build and slender limbs suggest they were active terrestrial carnivores – but it’s hard to say exactly what they were preying on due to their somewhat odd skulls.

Skull of Tarjadia, from Fig 2 in Ezcurra, M. D., et al (2017). Deep faunistic turnovers preceded the rise of dinosaurs in southwestern Pangaea. Nature ecology & evolution, 1(10), 1477. doi: 10.1038/s41559-017-0305-5

They had only a few teeth at the very front of their upper jaws, with the rest being toothless, but meanwhile the lower jaw was fully-toothed. Their skulls had narrow snouts at the front but became much wider further back, suggesting the presence of powerful jaw muscles, and they had slightly upward-facing eye sockets.

Smaller erpetosuchids are speculated to have been specialized for insect-eating, catching their small prey with their front teeth and then crushing it with the semi-toothless part of their jaws further back. But something the size of Tarjadia probably couldn’t have survived on a purely insectivorous diet, and it must have been doing something else with its weird jaws.

Nicrosaurus

Nicrosaurus kapffi from the Late Triassic of Germany, about 221-205 million years ago. Although rather crocodile-like in appearance, this 4-6m long (13′-19′8″) animal was actually part of an extinct group called phytosaurs – long-snouted heavily-armored reptiles with their nostrils high up on their heads near their eyes.

Phytosaurs’ exact evolutionary relationships are still disputed, with opinions currently going back and forth between them being archosauriformes or an early branch of the croc lineage within the true archosaurs. But either way they weren’t directly ancestral to modern crocodilians, and instead developed a very similar body plan via convergent evolution.

While some phytosaurs had very slender gharial-like snouts and probably fed mostly on fish, others like Nicrosaurus had much more robust jaws and seem to have secondarily adapted to a terrestrial predator lifestyle. They had longer limbs and a more upright posture than their semi-aquatic relatives, and enlarged fangs at the hooked tips of their jaws that may have been used to deliver a powerful stabbing blow to their prey.

Nicrosaurus also had a raised bony crest running along its snout, which I’ve depicted here as supporting an even larger soft-tissue display structure.

Shringasaurus

Shringasaurus indicus, an archosauromorph reptile from the Middle Triassic of India (~247-242 mya). About 3-4m long (9′10″-13′1″), it was part of a group known as the allokotosaurs, specialized herbivores with lizard-like bodies, and was related to the strange long-beaked Teraterpeton.

Partial remains of about seven different Shringasaurus individuals of varying ages have been found, with several of them having large curving horns over their eyes convergently similar to those of the later ceratopsids. A couple of adult specimens lack horns entirely, suggesting the feature was sexually dimorphic with only the males developing ornamentation – a very rare arrangement among archosauromorphs, but similar to some horned mammals.