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 #25: The Case of the Missing Trunk

The rhino-like toxodontids from earlier in this series weren’t the only weird-headed South American ungulates. Another group known as the litopterns evolved in a different direction, becoming long-legged fast-moving animals convergently filling the same sort of ecological niches as modern horses, deer, bovids, camelids, and giraffids.

Macrauchenia patachonica was one of the strangest members of this lineage, living from the Late Miocene to the end of the Pleistocene, between about 7 million years ago and just 12,000 years ago.

It stood around 1.8m at the shoulder (5’11”) and resembled a large camel or llama with thee-toed hoofed feet, but its head was… confusing.

Its skull had a bizarre combination of features, with a shape closer to a sauropod dinosaur than a mammal, a cartoonish-looking set of teeth, and its nostrils set up high above its eyes, more like a cetacean blowhole than a terrestrial herbivore.

Due to its retracted nostrils it’s commonly been restored with an elephant-like or tapir-like trunk. And while a trunk gives Marauchenia a wonderfully weird and memorable appearance, there’s just one problem with that interpretation.

There’s no evidence for it.

Aside from its nostrils being far back on its head, it didn’t have any other features associated with anchoring the complex musculature of a trunk. In fact, a recent study found that its skull characteristics were much closer to those of moose than tapirs!

It seems more likely that it had a moose-like bulbous fleshy nose – possibly giving it an enhanced sense of smell or functioning as a resonating chamber – perhaps with slightly retracted external nostrils like a giraffe or sauropod to prevent it from being stabbed in the nose when feeding on spiky vegetation.

Whatever it was doing with its weird schnoz, it was clearly a highly successful species, since it was found across most of South America in a wide range of habitats.

Weird Heads Month #21: Honking Hadrosaurs

The ceratopsians and pachycephalosaurs weren’t the only ornithischian dinosaurs to do weird things with their skulls.

The hadrosaurs are commonly referred to as “duck-bills” (despite how their beaks weren’t actually duck-like at all), and are famous for the elaborate crests seen on some of the group’s members, with shapes ranging from lobes to helmets to hatchets to spikes – and even some of the apparently crestless species are now known to have sported fleshy combs instead of the bony structures seen in their relatives.

But by far the most recognizable of the crested hadrosaurs is Parasaurolophus walkeri, with its long curved backwards-pointing tubular crest.

This particular species was mid-sized for the genus, growing up to around 10m long (32’10”) and is known from Western North America during the Late Cretaceous, about 76-73 million years ago.

Its crest was intermediate in size and shape between the other two known species. The larger Parasaurolophus tubicen had a longer and slightly straighter crest, while the smaller Parasaurolophus cyrtocristatus had a shorter more strongly curved one. Juveniles developed these crests as they matured, starting off with much smaller bumps on their snouts that gradually grew backwards and upwards.

Some hadrosaur crests were purely for visual display, but in the lambeosaurine lineage that Parasaurolophus belonged to they also incorporated complex looping nasal passages that were probably used as resonating chambers, allowing each species to make a unique-sounding loud bellowing call to communicate with each other.

There are also rumors of a currently-undescribed specimen of Parasaurolpphus that has preserved soft tissue around its crest, possibly a keratinous covering or skin flaps that made it appear even larger and more flamboyant in life than the underlying bone. So I’ve given this reconstruction a speculative structure like that, along with hoof-like claws on its hands similar to those recently revealed for Edmontosaurus.

Weird Heads Month #16: Big Honking Snoots

The dinoceratans featured here a few days ago were some of the first large mammalian herbivores to evolve in the Cenozoic, but during the Eocene they were joined by another group: the even bigger brontotheres.

Part of the odd-toed ungulate lineage, brontotheres convergently resembled rhinos but were actually much more closely related to horses. And much like the dinoceratans they also had some unusual heads, with some species evolving concave foreheads and sexually dimorphic ossicone-like pairs of blunt horns on their noses.

But others went really weird.

Embolotherium andrewsi lived in Mongolia during the late Eocene, around 37-34 million years ago. Standing around 2.5m tall at the shoulder (8’2″), it was one of the largest brontotheres and also one of the oddest-looking.

It had a large bony “battering ram” at the front of its snout, formed from modified nasal bones – and while some reconstructions tend to shrinkwrap this structure as a horn, the fact that the nasal cavity appears to have extended all the way to its tip suggests that it was actually supporting a huge bulbous nose.

Since Embolotherium also doesn’t seem to have been sexually dimorphic like other brontotheres, its enormous ridiculous-looking snoot may instead have been a resonating chamber used for sound production and communication.

Weird Heads Month #14: Horns and Frills

We can’t go through this month without having an appearance from the most famous group of weird-headed dinosaurs: the ceratopsids!

Their distinctive-looking skulls were highly modified from those of their ancestors, with large bony frills extending from the back of their heads, various elaborate horns and spikes, enormous nasal cavities, large hooked beaks at the front of their snouts, and rows of slicing teeth further back.

And while typically depicted as purely herbivorous, ceratopsids’ powerful parrot-like beaks and lack of grinding teeth suggest they may actually have been somewhat more omnivorous – the Cretaceous equivalent of pigs – still feeding mainly on plant matter but also munching on carrion and opportunistically eating smaller animals when they got the chance.

Machairoceratops cronusi here lived during the late Cretaceous of Utah, USA, about 77 million years ago. Only one partial skull has ever been found belonging to an individual about 4.5m long (14’9″), but it wasn’t fully grown and so probably reached slightly larger sizes.

It had two long spikes at the top of its frill, similar to its close relative Diabloceratops but curving dramatically forward and downwards above its face. Whether they were purely for display or used in horn-locking shoving matches is unknown, but either way it was a unique arrangement compared to all other known ceratopsids.