Thylacares

Thylacocephalans were a bizarre group of extinct marine arthropods that often looked like tiny alien creatures – and whose evolutionary relationships are still uncertain. Despite existing in oceans around the world for at least 350 million years, their fossil record is rather spotty and their internal anatomy is often poorly preserved, making it difficult to figure out anything more specific than “probably some sort of crustacean“.

Possible thylacocephalans are known from as far back as the Cambrian, but one of the earliest definite members of the group was Thylacares brandonensis.

Living during the early Silurian, around 436 million years ago, in the region that today is part of Wisconsin, USA (found in the same fossil formation as last week’s Venustulus), this species measured up to about 7.5cm long (3″). Its body was enclosed by a large bivalved carapace, with protruding stalked eyes and what may have been a pair of antennae, along with smaller raptorial limbs than its later relatives.

While it was less specialized than other thylacocephalans it was probably a similar sort of swimming predator, catching prey with its spiny limbs.

Venustulus

The synziphosurines were ancient marine chelicerate arthropods that were traditionally thought to be early representatives of the horseshoe crab lineage. But more recent studies have shown them to occupy a slightly more basal position on the chelicerate evolutionary tree, instead being related to the common ancestor of sea scorpions, horseshoe crabs, and arachnids.

(Also horseshoe crabs might actually be part of the arachnids, closely related to ricinuleids!)

Venustulus waukeshaensis was one of the earliest known synziphosurines, living in what is now Wisconsin, USA during the early Silurian, about 436 million years ago. It grew to around 8cm long (~3.2″) and had six pairs of appendages on the underside of its body, with the first pair modified into chelicerae and the rest being walking legs.

It also appears to have been blind, lacking any evidence of eyes despite its fossils being fairly well-preserved – suggesting it lived in conditions where vision wasn’t much use, such as dark murky water or burrowing around in seafloor sediment.

Weird Heads Month #17: Trapjaw Ants From Hell

Ants first evolved sometime in the Late Jurassic or Early Cretaceous, but only really began to diversify about 100 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous after the rise of flowering plants.

One of their evolutionary experiments around that time was a group called the haidomyrmecinae – also known as the “hell ants”.

Known from Asia, Europe, and North America, hell ants had bizarre-looking heads, possessing huge upward-curving scythe-shaped mandibles and a horn-like projection between their antennae.

They were fast-moving arboreal predators that would have fed mainly on other invertebrates such as soft-bodied beetle larvae, and unlike most modern ants their workers were probably solitary hunters. They were capable of gaping their mandibles by almost 180°, and when they got close enough to their targets the long sensory hairs around their faces triggered their jaws to snap vertically upwards, impaling their prey against their horn in a unique trap-jaw mechanism.

Some species also reinforced the exoskeleton of their horns with metal particles, strengthening them against impacts from both struggling prey and their own powerful jaws.

Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri was one of the oddest-looking of all known hell ant species. Known from a few specimens preserved in amber, with adult workers up to 6mm long (~0.25″), it lived during the Late Cretaceous of Myanmar about 100-94 million years ago.

It had an especially pronounced horn and very long mandibles, which may have been adaptations for tackling significantly larger prey items than other hell ants.

And due to this being a species known from Burmese amber, sadly we also have to address the controversy surrounding these sorts of specimens. This amber is currently mined in incredibly dangerous conditions, often using child labor, with sales of both jewellery and paleontological specimens directly funding the ongoing violent conflict in the region.

It’s the fossil equivalent of blood diamonds, and a huge ethical dilemma for the paleontology community.

Weird Heads Month #06: Trilobite Trains

Trilobites were one of the most successful groups of early animals, existing for over 300 million years – and during that time they developed a huge diversity of weird heads, with various arrangements of spines, horns, eyestalks, and even long snouts and tridents.

But perhaps one of the oddest was the genus Odontocephalus, known mainly from the early-to-mid Devonian and represented here by Odontocephalus aegeria.

Living about 390 million years ago in northeast North America, this trilobite grew up to around 9cm long (3.5″). And although it wasn’t overall very elaborately ornamented, the front margin of its head had a row of extensions that flared out to meet at their tips, forming something resembling the cowcatchers used on trains.

The actual function of this structure is unknown. It might have been purely used for visual display since trilobites had excellent vision – but Odontocephalus was also a fast-moving bottom-dweller, and its “cowcatcher” may have served the same sort of purpose as its modern equivalent, deflecting small obstacles in its path as it trundled along the seabed.

Island Weirdness #52 — Labidura herculeana

Located in the South Atlantic Ocean, Saint Helena is a small volcanic island that formed several million years ago on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It’s one of the most remote islands in the world, and with no native land mammals and no large predators it developed an ecosystem with several unique flightless birds, and hundreds of endemic invertebrates and plants.

The Saint Helena giant earwig (Labidura herculeana) was, as its name suggests, an enormous species of earwig. Growing as large as 8.4cm long (3.3″) it was the biggest of its kind in the world, and was completely flightless with no hind wings.

It lived in deep burrows in the arid plain and gumwood forest regions of the island, and only came out at night during the summer rains. Since it was probably descended from the shore earwig (Labidura riparia) it was likely a similar sort of opportunistic carnivore, eating smaller invertebrates and carrion.

Humans didn’t reach Saint Helena until the early 1500s, and it wasn’t until 1798 that the earwig was noticed by naturalists and given its scientific name. Then it was more or less forgotten about, and scientific interest in it didn’t start to resume until the 1960s.

But by then it was just very slightly too late.

Extensive habitat destruction and predation by invasive cats, rodents, and centipedes had taken a huge toll on the earwig, and it had become incredibly rare. The last sighting of a live individual was in 1967, and attempts to locate more for potential captive breeding programs in the 1980s and 1990s failed to find any at all.

The last traces of the species were some isolated subfossil pincers found in the mid 1990s, and the giant earwig was officially declared extinct in 2014.

Island Weirdness #43 — Flightless Flies

One of the most defining features of the true flies is a pair of wings, but various different lineages have actually become flightless.

Flightlessness is very rare in the long-legged fly family (Dolichopodidae), however, with only about 12 out of over 5000 species known to have lost functional wings — and eight of those are endemic to the Hawaiian islands.

The Koʻolau spurwing long-legged fly (Emperoptera mirabilis, sometimes classified as Campsicnemus mirabilis) was found only on Mount Tantalus in the southern Koʻolau Range of Oʻahu, close to Honolulu. About 2mm long (>0.1″), its wings were reduced to thin stiff spines, and it moved around by walking and hopping in leaf litter in the moist cool forest at elevations of about 300m (~1000ft).

Like most other long-legged flies it would have been predatory, hunting other tiny invertebrates.

The Koʻolau spurwing was actually still common on Tantalus as recently as the early 1900s, but multiple searches since the 1980s have failed to find any more of them at all. The species is most likely completely extinct, probably due to a combination of predation from invasive ants and habitat destruction from feral wild boar rooting up the forest floor.

Of the other flightless Hawaiian long-legged flies several other species are now possibly extinct — only one out of the five known Emperoptera species still definitely survives on the highest slopes of Mount Kaʻala, and one of the three Campsicnemus is either very rare or also extinct.

The Hawaiian islands also have three endemic species of flightless crane fly in the genus Dicranomyia, all of which are incredibly rare.

Kalligrammatids

Did you know butterflies weren’t the first insects to look like butterflies?

Lepidopterans (the group of insects containing moths and butterflies) have been around since the Late Triassic – but it wasn’t until the diversification of flowering plants during the Cretaceous that recognizable moths would have evolved, and true butterflies didn’t actually appear until the early Cenozoic.

Before then, back in the mid-Jurassic about 165 million years ago, a completely different group of insects convergently evolved remarkably butterfly-like features such as large colorful scaled wings and long sucking proboscises.

Known as the kalligrammatids, these insects were giant members of the lacewing group, related to modern forms like antlions and owlflies. But unlike their predatory relatives the kalligrammatids were specialized pollinators, possibly having a mutualistic relationship with the flower-like cones of bennettitales or the pollination drops of some types of conifers. They seem to have originated in China and were found across Asia and Europe by the Late Jurassic, but a few fossils from South America suggest they were even more widespread and may just have a poor fossil record.

They reached wingspans of up to 16cm (~6″), comparable to some of the largest modern butterflies, and often sported conspicuous anti-predator markings on their wings such as stripes and eyespots – so it’s not surprising that they’re often nicknamed the “butterflies of the Jurassic”.

A fossil of a butterfly-like insect. Stripes and eye-spot markings are preserved on its wings.
Markings preserved on the wings of Oregramma illecebrosa, from Yang et al (2014) | CC BY 2.0

Rather ironically, the extinction of the kalligrammatids was probably linked to the rise of the flowering plants that the true butterflies would later be so dependent on. As flowers diversified and plants like the bennettitales declined, the kalligrammatids dwindled and disappeared, with the last known fossil record coming from the mid-Cretaceous of Brazil about 113 million years ago.

But while they were around, I do wonder if they also exhibited some similar behaviors – such as mud-puddling for extra nutrients, and specifically the habit of drinking the tears of larger animals that we see in some species. Perhaps some non-avian dinosaurs like this Dilong occasionally put up with kalligrammatids sitting on their faces!

Eons Roundup 3

Some more recent work I’ve done for PBS Eons!

The eurypterids Hibbertopterus and Brachyopterus, from “When Giant Scorpions Swarmed the Seas
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sQXTXbuLYo

The short-faced bears Plionarctos and Arctotherium, from “The Mystery Behind the Biggest Bears of All Time
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtsOhmBb92E

The big cats Panthera blytheae and Panthera atrox, from “The Ghostly Origins of the Big Cats
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPJnqWke5n8

Clausocaris

While this might look like a sci-fi alien design, it was actually a very real Earth animal!

This strange-looking creature was Clausocaris lithographica, a member of a group of unique marine arthropods known as thylacocephalans. Only about 3.5cm long (1.4″), it lived in a shallow tropical lagoon environment during the Late Jurassic of Germany, about 150-145 million years ago.

Like most other thylacocephalans it had a narrow flattened shield-like carapace, three pairs of large grasping limbs, and a battery of swimming appendages further back – along with absolutely enormous bulbous eyes. Based on this anatomy it would have been a highly visual hunter, using its huge eyes to locate prey items and then snagging them with its long spiny limbs.

And we’re not even entirely sure what type of arthropods thylacocephalans actually were. They’re generally thought to be some sort of crustacean, but their highly modified anatomy makes linking up their exact evolutionary affinities very difficult. Whatever they were, they must have been incredibly successful as a group because they first appeared in the early Cambrian (~518 mya) and survived all the way into the Late Cretaceous (~94 mya).

Sanctacaris

Nicknamed “Santa Claws”, Sanctacaris uncata was a marine arthropod from the Middle Cambrian (~505 mya) Burgess Shale deposits of Canada. Its exact evolutionary relationships are unclear, but it’s thought to have been very closely related to or part of an early branch of the chelicerates – the lineage that includes modern arachnids and horseshoe crabs.

Measuring up to about 9cm long (3.5″), it had forward-facing eyes and five pairs of grasping appendages on the underside of its head, adaptations that suggest it was an active predator convergently similar to anomalocaridids. It probably swam around grabbing onto whatever small prey items it could catch, trapping them in its “limb basket” while it ate them.