Weird Heads Month #27: The Weirdest Wildebeest

Earlier in this series we saw some ruminants with bizarre-looking headgear, but there was another species in that group that evolved a completely different type of strange head.

Rusingoryx atopocranion was a close relative of modern wildebeest that lived during the late Pleistocene, around 100,000 to 50,000 years ago. Its fossil remains are known from the Kenyan part of Lake Victoria, on Rusinga Island – an area which wasn’t actually an island at the time due to lower lake levels, and was instead part of a hot dry grassland environment.

Standing about 1.2m at the shoulder (~4′), it had an oddly-shaped skull with a pointed snout and a highly domed forehead. But this wasn’t the thick bony dome of a headbutting animal – this structure was narrow and fairly fragile, and had looping nasal passages running through it.

Instead it was something never before seen in any mammal: a bony nasal crest convergently similar to those of hadrosaurid dinosaurs.

Juveniles had less developed crests, developing them as they matured, and one skull that may represent an adult female also has a smaller crest, suggesting that this feature was sexually dimorphic.

Based on just the anatomy of the nasal passages Rusingoryx may have honked at a frequency similar to a vuvuzela, but the added length of its vocal tract could have lowered this pitch even further, closer to infrasound ranges – so more like a tuba! Such low frequencies can travel very long distances and are also below the hearing range of many carnivores, and would have effectively allowed Rusingoryx to shout at each other in “stealth mode”.

Weird Heads Month #19: Sword-Snouted Whales

Cetaceans are just weird animals in general. Fully aquatic mammals best described as “fat screaming torpedoes“, with bizarre head anatomy and their nostrils pulled up to the top of their heads behind their eyes. Some of them are among the largest animals to ever exist, some of them can live to over 200 years old, and some can dive to incredible depths below the ocean surface.

And they’re all descended from tiny deer-like creatures, with their closest living relatives being hippos and other even-toed ungulates.

Some ancient cetaceans were particularly odd-looking, evolving walrus-like tusks or elongated chins – or in the case of Eurhinodelphis longirostris here, an incredibly long swordfish-like snout.

Living during the mid to late Miocene, about 14-7 million years ago, Eurhinodelphis ranged across the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic, with fossil remains known from Western Europe, Turkey, and the East Coast of the United States. It was a fairly small dolphin-like cetacean about 2m long (6’6″), and was part of a lineage of early toothed whales called eurhinodelphinids.

Its upper jaw was around five times longer than the rest of its skull, and toothless past the point where the lower jaw ended. Much like the modern billfish it resembled, it probably used its snout to slash at fast-moving fish, stunning them and making them easier to catch.

Weird Heads Month #09: Butterfly Faces

The nose-forks and head-crests we saw last time weren’t the only unusual headgear in ancient ruminants.

The giraffoids are represented today by just pronghorns, giraffes, and okapi, but in the past they were much more diverse, modifying their prongs and ossicones into multiple sets of horns, or into deer-like and moose-like antler shapes.  

And Prolibytherium was probably the most striking of the lot.

Two different species have been identified, with Prolibytherium magnieri here living in North Africa during the early-to-mid Miocene, about 17-16 million years ago. Its exact evolutionary relationships are uncertain but it was probably part of a group called climacoceratids, deer-like giraffoids which often had thorny branching ossicones that resembled antlers.

It stood around 1.2m tall at the shoulder (~4′), and exhibited dramatic sexual dimorphism – females had slender forked horn-like ossicones, while those of the males flared out into large wide flat shapes that resembled butterfly wings.

Heavy reinforcement in the bones of the back of the males’ skulls helped to support all the extra weight of those huge ossicones, and if they actually used the structures to fight with each other then this may have also provided some protection or shock absorption.

Weird Heads Month #08: Nose-Forks and Handlebar Heads

Modern ruminants are the only living mammals with bony headgear, with four different  lineages each sporting a slightly different type: deer antlers, bovid horns, giraffid ossicones, and the prongs of pronghorns.

We still don’t actually know much about the evolutionary origins of ruminant headgear, although a recent genetic study suggests they’re all derived from a single common ancestral structure (and that deer antlers started off as controlled bone cancer).

And some extinct species were even stranger.

The protoceratids were an early group of North American ruminants whose relationships are uncertain, but may have been related to modern chevrotains. They were convergently deer-like in appearance, with teeth adapted for grazing on tough grasses – and along with having a pair of horns in the usual position on their heads, males also sported an additional pair of ossicone-like growths on their noses.

Synthetoceras tricornatus lived during the Late Miocene, around 10-5 million years ago, and was one of the largest protoceratids, standing about 1.1m tall at the shoulder (3’7″). Its two nose-horns were partially fused into a single long structure with a forked tip, which may have been used for sparring in a similar manner to the antlers of modern deer.

A colored line drawing of an extinct deer-like animal. It has a pair of horns on its head, along with a long horn on its nose that has a two-pronged forked tip.
Synthetoceras tricornatus

Meanwhile on a different branch of the ruminant family tree, closer related to deer and giraffes, a group known as the palaeomerycids independently developed a similar sort of extra head appendage – but at the opposite end of their skulls.

These ruminants were a little more heavily built than the protoceratids, and specialized in feeding on soft vegetation in humid forest environments. They were a highly successful group, existing for almost 30 million years, ranging across Eurasia, Africa, and North America, and even ventured into South America during the early phases of the Great American Interchange.

Males had two giraffe-like ossicones above their eyes, along with a third crest-like one at the very back of their heads. In some species this formed a single central “horn” shape, while in others it forked out to each side. They also often had long saber-like canine teeth similar to modern water deer and musk deer, which were probably used for fighting while their elaborate headgear was purely for visual display.

Xenokeryx amidalae lived in Spain during the mid Miocene, about 16 million years ago. It stood around 0.8-1m tall at the shoulder (2’7″-3’3″) and had a unique T-shaped “handlebar” crest which ended up inspiring its genus name – a reference to the similar shape of one of Queen Amidala’s headpieces in Star Wars, which was itself based on Mongolian imperial fashion.

A colored line drawing of an extinct deer-like animal. It has fang-like tusks protruding from the sides of its mouth, a pair of giraffe-like ossicones above its eyes, and a T-shaped handlebar-like crast on the back of its head.
Xenokeryx amidalae

Maiabalaena

The earliest baleen whales didn’t actually have any baleen plates in their mouths, and the evolutionary origin of these unique filter-feeding structures is still poorly understood.

It was thought to have been a fairly simple linear process from toothed ancestors to a mix of teeth and baleen and then to fully toothless with just baleen, but more recent discoveries have begun to cast doubt on that idea. The teeth of ancestral baleen whales weren’t suited to filter-feeding at all, instead still being adapted for predatory piercing and chewing – actions which would have been constantly interfering with and damaging any proto-baleen forming alongside them, and making it seem much more unlikely that there would have ever been a transitional form that had both teeth and baleen at the same time.

But then how did baleen whales get their baleen?

Maiabalaena nesbittae here provides a possible solution. Discovered in Oregon, USA, this early baleen whale dates to the early Oligocene, around 33 million years ago, and compared to most of its modern relatives it was comparatively tiny, only about 4.6m long (15′).

And it had no teeth at all, but possibly also no baleen.

Baleen rarely fossilizes, so it’s unclear whether Maiabalaena actually had any or not, but the shape of its skull suggests it probably didn’t – it lacked the broad thickened upper jaw associated with supporting racks of baleen plates. It instead seems to have been adapted for suction feeding similar to modern belugas and beaked whales, using muscular cheeks and tongue to manipulate water pressure and pull small prey like fish and squid straight into its mouth.

Since it lived at a time when the Antarctic Circumpolar Current was forming and cooling the oceans, changing ecosystems and prey availability, it may represent a previously unknown stage in baleen whale evolution – a point when they’d moved towards specializing for suction feeding and lost their teeth entirely, before transitioning again over to filter-feeding with baleen in a completely separate evolutionary development a few million years later.

Eons Roundup 4

Some more recent commission work for PBS Eons!

The entelodonts Eoentelodon and Brachyhyops, from “The Hellacious Lives of the Hell Pigs”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trJpxwMGoCw

The early ichthyosaur Tholodus and the mosasaurPluridens, from “When Ichthyosaurs Led a Revolution in the Seas”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V342aXQs9XY

The early bats Onychonycteris and Icaronycteris, from “When Bats Took Flight”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWeYCULC0UQ

Livyatan

The modern sperm whale is already an impressive animal, being by far the largest of the living toothed whales and famous for its ability to dive over 2km down (1.2 miles) to feed on deep-sea animals like giant squid.

But some of its ancient relatives were terrifying.

Livyatan melvillei here has an appropriately monstrous name, inspired by both the Hebrew name for the Leviathan and Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick. Known from the Pacific coast of South America during the late Miocene, around 10-9 million years ago, it’s estimated to have measured somewhere between 13.5m and 17.5m long (~44′-57′) – comparable in size to an adult male sperm whale.

Unlike the relatively slender mouth of its modern cousin, however, it instead had thick strong jaws full of enormous teeth.

Livyatan melvillei skull by Ghedoghedo | CC BY-SA 4.0
(for an idea of the sheer size of this reconstructed skull – some of those teeth are almost the length of your forearm)

It was part of a loose grouping of what are known as “macroraptorial sperm whales“, which all had similarly toothy jaws and occupied the same sort of ecological niche as modern orcas, specializing in hunting prey like large fish, squid, seals, and other whales.

Livyatan‘s main food source was probably smaller baleen whales about half its own size, and its only real competition for this prey was the equally huge megalodon shark that shared the same waters.

A huge fossil tooth found in Australia suggests that Livyatan or a very close relative of it survived at least into the early Pliocene, about 5 million years ago. Around this time a cooling climate and dwindling numbers of its preferred prey would have eventually made a population of such enormous apex predators unsustainable, and driven this “killer sperm whale” into extinction – probably around the same time megalodon disappeared, about 3.6 million years ago.

Island Weirdness #60 — Hippopotamus minor

Cyprus is one of the most isolated islands in the Mediterranean, having had no close connections to the mainland for the last 5.3 million years and being uplifted to close to its modern size during the Pleistocene. As a result it had very few land mammals, all of which arrived by swimming or rafting: rodents, shrews, a genet, dwarf elephants, and a dwarf hippopotamus.

Hippopotamus minor (sometimes called Phanourios minor) seems to have been descended from the common hippo, which probably swam across to Cyprus from the Levant region sometime in the mid-to-late Pleistocene, around 400,000 years ago. Isolated with no predators and limited space it rapidly became dwarfed compared to its ancestors, reaching at most 75cm tall at the shoulder (2’6″) — making it the tiniest known island hippo, and slightly smaller than the modern pygmy hippo.

It became much more terrestrial, with more digitgrade feet adapted for walking and climbing over rugged rocky terrain. Its teeth suggest a diet of pig-like browsing on forest vegetation — and much like pigs (and other hippos) they may have been opportunistic omnivores occasionally also eating small animals and carrion.

Despite being so small for a hippo, it was still one of the largest animals living on Cyprus, weighing about the same as the dwarf elephants it lived alongside. It also seems to have been the most common of the mammals on the island, with remains of thousands of individuals having been found.

While larger dwarf hippos are known from several other Mediterranean islands, the Cypriot species is the only one that seems to have survived into the early Holocene.

The earliest known evidence of humans in Cyprus comes from a rock shelter on the southern coast, dating to about 12,000 years ago, consisting of stone tools and a massive concentration of burned animal bones — with over 200,000 of them coming just from Hippopotamus minor. It’s possible that in addition to being so abundant on the island, the dwarf hippos’ evolution in the absence of predators meant they had no fear of humans and were much less aggressive than their larger relatives, making them particularly easy to hunt and kill.

…Or they were just especially tasty.

Later deposits from about 2000 years later show no sign of the hippos at all, with their role in the Cypriot ecosystem completely replaced by introduced species like deer, sheep, and goats.

Island Weirdness #58 — Candiacervus ropalophorus

The island of Crete has been isolated since about 5.3 million years ago, when the dried-out Mediterranean Sea refilled — but at that time it started off as several much smaller islands, and only gained its larger modern shape thanks to tectonic uplift in the Pleistocene.

It only had a small number of endemic land mammals during the Pleistocene, whose ancestors all seem to have reached the island by swimming or rafting from southern Greece: dwarf elephants, a small hippo, an otter, a shrew, large mice, and several deer.

Deer are surprisingly good swimmers, and seem to have colonized Crete by the mid-to-late Pleistocene 300,000 years ago. They were by far the most diverse mammals on the island, with eight species in six size classes, each living in different types of habitat and specializing in their own ecological niche in a similar situation to the older Italian Hoplitomeryx. Their anatomy was modified so much that it’s unclear what their original ancestors actually were, or even if they were all descended from a single colonization or multiple arrivals, but they seem to have been close relatives of the huge Megaloceros.

All eight species are usually classified in the genus Candiacervus, and the smallest and weirdest of them all was Candiacervus ropalophorus.

Ironically for a cousin of the giant deer it was tiny, just 40-50cm tall at the shoulder (1’4″-1’8″), with proportionally short stocky legs more like a goat. It seems to have convergently evolved to occupy the same niche as wild goats do elsewhere, clambering over steep rocky mountainous terrain and eating tough prickly vegetation.

The antlers of the males were huge for their body size, around 77cm long (2’6″), and they were simplified into a long straight beam with only a single small spike at the base. The far ends were wider and rounded, described as club-like or spatula-like, and their odd shape suggests they probably weren’t much use for fighting and wrestling like in other deer. Instead they seem to have been more just for show and visual display.

Meanwhile a second dwarf species, Candiacervus reumeri, had more standard-looking antlers and probably still fought each other.

The largest species, Candiacervus major, was as big as a modern wapiti, with a shoulder height of around 1.65m (5’5″) and body proportions much more like a normal long-legged deer. Its antler shape isn’t actually known yet, but since it lived in thickly forested areas of Crete the stags may have had more streamlined antlers to avoid getting snagged on low branches.

The various Candiacervus species went extinct towards the end of the Pleistocene, around the start of the Last Glacial Maximum 21,500 years ago. Originally this was thought to be long before humans ever reached the island, but more recent discoveries have brought that into question.

Humans do actually seem to have encountered living Candiacervus ropalophorus, since petroglyphs in Asphendou Cave appear to depict the dwarf deer and so must be at least 21,500 years old. Additionally, even older stone tools on the southern coast of Crete from at least 130,000 years ago match those made by archaic humans (probably Homo erectus) who may have arrived over sea from northern Africa.

So it’s possible the weird Cretan deer survived alongside humans for some time, but then their habitat started to degrade as the climate shifted rapidly colder and drier. Some remains show that many individuals were suffering from secondary hyperparathyroidism and metabolic bone disease, signs of severe nutritional deficiencies, and their weakening population may have ultimately been unable to deal with both the malnutrition and the additional pressures of human hunting.

Island Weirdness #54 — Big Bunnies & Strange Sheep

At the end of the Miocene, about 6 million years ago, the movement of tectonic plates caused the narrow connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to close — and over the next several hundred thousand years the Mediterranean dried up almost completely.

5.3 million years ago the Strait of Gibraltar formed, re-establishing the connection with the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean refilled incredibly rapidly, possibly in as little as two years. As a result, various species that had colonized across the dried-out Mediterranean from the continental mainland were left stranded out on islands that had been re-formed throughout the sea.

And on what is now Menorca a population of rabbits found themselves isolated, with little competition and no large terrestrial predators.

A stylized illustration of an extinct giant rabbit. It doesn't resemble a modern rabbut much at all, with a small head, tiny eyes and ears, a fat body and thick somewhat bear-like limbs.
Nuralagus rex

Nuralagus rex was the evolutionary result, an enormous rabbit 50cm tall at the shoulder (1’8″). It was heavily built with a stiff spine — making it unable to hop — and had weaker senses than its ancestors, with small eyes and stubby ears. It would have been a slow-moving animal ambling around the scrublands of Menorca, digging for its main foods of roots and tubers.

It’s unclear what happened to this big bunny, but it seems to have disappeared around the end of the Pliocene, about 3-2.5 million years ago. Possibly the onset of global cooling at the beginning of the Pleistocene ice ages changed the climate too quickly for it to adapt to, or the dropping sea levels that connected Menorca with nearby Mallorca introduced new competition from the other island that Nuralagus couldn’t cope with.


A stylized illustration of an extinct goat-like sheep. It has a short snout, oddly forward-facing eyes, short pointed horns, and a chunky body.
Myotragus balearicus

And one of the animals that spread into Menorca from Mallorca was Myotragus.

About the same size as the giant rabbits, at 50cm tall (1’8″), Myotragus balearicus was a close relative of modern sheep that had undergone dwarfing on Mallorca since its ancestors’ isolation 5.3 million years ago.

It was possibly one of the most unusual mammals ever, with a combination of features not seen anywhere else. Its snout was relatively short and rabbit-like, with ever-growing front teeth in its lower jaw, and its eyes faced directly forward, giving it stereoscopic vision more like a primate than a herbivore. Its brain and sense organs were highly reduced compared to its ancestors, its legs were shorter and stockier, and its feet had lost much of their flexibility, making it unable to run or jump.

But strangest of all was its metabolism, as indicated by growth lines in its bones. It was essentially cold-blooded, functioning more like a reptile than a mammal, growing at a slow rate that varied or even stopped entirely depending on the conditions of its environment. It would have taken around 12 years for it to reach maturity, an incredibly long time for its size, and so it would have reproduced very very slowly — but this metabolic strategy also allowed it to conserve a lot of energy and survive long periods of scarce food availability.

Myotragus‘ extreme weirdness obviously worked to its advantage, because it was quite common on Mallorca-Menorca and unlike many of the other native species it survived through the much colder drier conditions of the Pleistocene.

It was still around in the Holocene when humans reached the islands in about 3000 BCE, and this slow-moving sluggish goat-like animal with a rather uncanny face must have been a very strange sight to them.

There was a hypothesis that the early settlers actually attempted to domesticate Myotragus, based on remains found in caves with what appeared to be trimmed horns. But in recent years this has been disputed, since some of the “trimmed” horns pre-date human arrival and may be better explained as the result of Myotragus individuals chewing on the bones of others for the mineral content.

Shortly after the arrival of humans Myotragus and the other remaining endemic mammals on the islands (a giant dormouse and a giant shrew) disappeared entirely, suggesting that a combination of hunting, competition from introduced livestock, and predation from dogs was finally too much for these strange sheep to handle.