Spectember/Spectober 2023 #08: Various Filter-Feeders

Admantus asked for a “freshwater baleen whale”:

A shaded sketch of a speculative freshwater baleen whale. It has a very wide duck-like snout with whisker-like bristles, short baleen inside its mouth, very small reduced eyes, and broad paddle-like flippers.

Rostrorutellum admantusi is descended from small cetotheres that became isolated in a large inland body of water (similar to the modern Caspian Sea), eventually becoming landlocked and gradually reducing in salinity towards fully freshwater.

Highly dwarfed in size, just 2-3m long (~6’6″-9’10”), they’re slow swimmers with broad duck-like snouts that are used to scoop up mouthfuls of sediment and strain out their invertebrate prey in a similar feeding style to gray whales.

Due to the murkiness of the water, and the lack of large predators in their environment, they have poor eyesight and instead use sensory bristles and electroreceptors around their snouts to navigate and detect prey.

And an anonymous submission requested a “whale-like filter-feeding marine crocodile”:

A shaded sketch of a speculative filter-feeding crocodile. It has spatula-like jaws lined with many delicate closely-spaced needle-like teeth, flipper-like limbs, and a long paddle-like tail.

Sestrosuchus aigialus is a 6m long (~20′) crocodilian closely related to the modern American crocodile, living in warm shallow coastal waters.

It’s adapted for an almost fully aquatic lifestyle convergently similar to the ancient thalattosuchians, swimming with undulations of its long tail and steering with flipper-like limbs. But unlike other crocs it’s specialized for filter-feeding, with numerous delicate needle-like teeth in its jaws that interlock to sieve out small fish and planktonic invertebrates from the water.

A couple more suggestions also asked for “fully aquatic pinnipeds” and “future crabeater seal evolution”:

A shaded sketch of a speculative filter-feeding fully aquatic crabeater seal. It has four wing-like flippers, a streamlined body, and elongated jaws with many lobed teeth used to sieve krill.

Euphausiolethrus volucer is a fully aquatic descendant of the crabeater seal. About 5m long (~16’4″), it occupies the ecological niche of a small baleen whale in the krill-abundant Antarctic waters that lack most actual baleen whales.

Its jaws contain numerous finely-lobed teeth that are used to strain krill from the water, and it utilizes all four of its wing-like flippers to swim in an “underwater flight” motion similar to that of plesiosaurs.

Highly social, it tends to congregate in pods that cooperate to herd swarms of krill for easier feeding.

It Came From The Wastebasket #06: Messy Miacids

Most modern meat-eating placental mammals are carnivorans, a group that contains two distinct lineages: the feliforms (cats, hyenas, mongooses, viverrids, civets, linsangs, and euplerids) and the caniforms (dogs, bears, seals, raccoons, and mustelids).

The closest living relatives of these animals are pangolins, and their last common ancestor probably lived sometime between the Late Cretaceous and early Paleocene. But the actual early evolutionary history of the carnivorans themselves is rather murkier.

The earliest known carnivoran-like forms – known as carnivoramorphs – all looked vaguely-genet-like and were an ecologically diverse bunch of small predators, ranging from weasel-sized tree-climbers to fox-sized ground-based hunters, found all across North America and Eurasia during the Paleocene and Eocene. They lacked most of the anatomical specializations of true carnivorans, and didn’t quite fit into either the feliforms or caniforms, but their distinctive carnassial teeth make it obvious they were still very closely related.

From their initial discovery in the late 19th century, through to the late 20th century, these carnivoramorphs were traditionally all lumped together under the name “miacids“. As a result the group quickly turned into a big wastebasket taxon of similar-looking animals, all united more by just not being true carnivorans than by any shared characteristics between themselves.

An illustration of Miacis, an extinct mammal related to early carnivorans. It's a somewhat weasel-like animal with a small triangular head, small rounded ears, a long tubular body, cat-like limbs, and a long bushy tail. It's depicted with brownish fur, with raccoon-like black-and-white markings on its face and a stripey tail.
Miacis parvivorus

But during the last couple of decades this mess has finally started to get cleared up. One distinct lineage of miacid-like animals called viverravids were split off, now thought to be the one of very earliest branches of the carnivoramorph evolutionary tree. Several other “miacids” have also been reassessed and renamed, reclassified as falling into various points in an evolutionary grade between viverravids and true carnivorans, and a couple of species even turned out to actually be caniforms.

A cladogram showing the classification of carnivoramorphs. Miacis is shown as just one of several different branching lineages originating between viverravids and modern carnivorans. A bracket marking indicates that everything before the true carnivorans traditionally used to be considered to be "miacids".

The true carnivorans arose from somewhere within the “miacids” during the mid-Eocene, but it’s still unclear where exactly to draw the taxonomic line between them. Forms like Quercygale and Tapocyon might be very close to the ancestral carnivoran – but they might instead be early feliforms – and some studies have also proposed that nimravids (“false sabertooth cats”) may actually be “advanced” carnivoramorphs instead of early feliforms.

There are also quite a few remaining “miacids” that still need sorting out, especially in the genus Miacis. There have to be other distinct lineages of these carnivoramorphs still hidden in the remaining wastebasket pile, and if we can eventually distinguish them from each other it might help to make early carnivoran relationships a bit clearer.


Desmatophocids were a group of seal-like pinnipeds that appeared very early in the group’s evolution, around 23 million years ago. They were found across the northern Pacific from the west coast of North America to Japan, and were the first pinnipeds to get big, with some species reaching sizes comparable to modern northern elephant seals.

They had a mixture of anatomical features similar to true seals, sea lions, and walruses, but weren’t actually the ancestors of any of those modern groups. Instead they seem to have just been their own separate thing, a very early diverging “cousin” lineage of pinnipeds that convergently developed close resemblances to their later relatives.

Allodesmus demerei here was one of the last known desmatophocids, living in the late Miocene (~9 million years ago) in what is now southwest Washington, USA. 

It would have been a sea lion-like animal, able to walk on all fours when hauled out on land, and showed distinct sexual dimorphism, with males growing to sizes of around 4m long (13′) and females being somewhat smaller. It powered its swimming using its front flippers, and may have mostly foraged in deep dark waters, using both keen vision and sensitive whiskers to locate prey.

The nasal region of its skull also shows some similarities to modern elephant seals, and some reconstructions depict males with the same sort of large proboscis. 

Eons Roundup 9

New year, new PBS Eons commission roundup day!

The ancient walruses Neotherium and Valenictus, from “How the Walrus Got Its Tusks”

The nodosaurid ankylosaur Borealopelta, in both alive and “bloat-and-float” carcass states, from “The Dinosaur Who Was Buried at Sea”

The ankylosaurid ankylosaurs Gobisaurus and Dyoplosaurus, from “How Ankylosaurs Got Their Clubs”

Eons Roundup 8

Once again it’s a PBS Eons commission roundup day!

An unnamed Cerro Ballena rorqual whale and the long-necked seal Acrophoca, from “How the Andes Mountains Might Have Killed a Bunch of Whales”

The poposauroid pseudosuchians Shuvosaurus (life restoration) and Effigia (skeletal) from “When Dinosaur Look-Alikes Ruled the Earth”

Eons Roundup 6

Time for some more recent commissions from PBS Eons!

The hyainailourids Megistotherium osteothastes and Hyainailouros napakensis, from “When Giant Hypercarnivores Prowled Africa

The bear-dogs Daphoenus demilo and Amphicyon giganteus, from “The Forgotten Story of the Beardogs

The early panda Ailuropoda microta, from “The Fuzzy Origins of the Giant Panda


We have a fairly good picture of the evolutionary origins of most groups of aquatic mammals – except for the pinnipeds. The fossil record of early seals is still rather sparse, and for a long time the earliest known species was Enaliarctos, an animal that was already very seal-like and didn’t help much in figuring out whether seals’ closest living relatives are bears or musteloids.

But then Puijila darwini was found in the late 2000s, a transitional form with a near-complete skeleton, filling in a gap in our understanding so conveniently it almost seems too good to be true.

This is the equivalent of Archaeopteryx for seals.

Discovered in Nunavut, Canada, Puijila dates to the early Miocene, about 23-20 million years ago. It was a small freshwater otter-like animal, about 1m long (3’3″), with a long tail and webbed feet adapted for paddling with all four of its limbs.

It lived at around the same time as the more specialized Enaliarctos, so it wasn’t a direct ancestor of modern seals, instead being part of an early offshoot lineage that retained more basal characteristics – but it does gives us a clue as to what the earliest pinnipeds looked like. Along with genetic studies it also helped to clarify that seals’ closest relatives are indeed the musteloids, although they’re estimated to have last shared a common ancestor around 45 million years ago so there’s still a lot of time unaccounted for in the proto-seal fossil record.

Several other fossil species that were previously thought to be musteloids have now also been recognized as close relatives of Puijila, and it seems that they were a fairly widespread group basically filling the ecological niche of otters at a time before true otters existed.

Most surprising and frustrating of all, however, is that some of these other otter-seals actually survived all the way into the Pleistocene, only going completely extinct sometime in the last 2 million years.

We barely missed having them still alive today!

Eons Roundup 5

Some more recent commission work for PBS Eons!

The lemurs Archaeolemur and Pachylemur, from “When Giant Lemurs Ruled Madagascar”

The meridiungulatesNotiolofos and Antarctodon, from “When Antarctica Was Green”

The Near Eastern wildcat Felis silvestris lybica, from “How We Domesticated Cats (Twice)”

Island Weirdness #59 — Terrestrial Otters & Owls

The Mediterranean island of Crete had very few predators during the Pleistocene, with most being birds of prey. And with the terrestrial carnivore niches in the ecosystem left vacant, it was a semi-aquatic mammal and an owl that ended up taking advantage of that opportunity.

Neither were large enough to threaten the dwarf elephants and hippos, and don’t even seem to have habitually eaten even the smallest of the miniature giant deer. Instead these Cretan predators focused much more on the smaller land vertebrates on the island, preying on birds, shrews, rodents, amphibians, and reptiles.

A stylized illustration of an extinct otter. It has a blunt snout and chunky legs.
Lutrogale cretensis

Lutrogale cretensis (previously known as Isolalutra cretensis) was a close relative of the modern smooth-coated otter. It was about the same size as its living cousin, around 1m long (3’3″), but had stronger jaws and chunkier limbs.

Its skeleton shows features associated with walking and running more than swimming, and it seems that this was something of a “land otter” — still able to swim, but spending most of its time on land similar to the modern small-clawed otter.

Shellfish were likely still the main part of its diet, indicated by its crushing teeth. But it probably also regularly ate whatever small terrestrial vertebrates it could catch, since more aquatic otters are already known to prey on those types on animals when they can.

A stylized illustration of an extinct giant little owl. It has longer legs than its modern relatives, almost resembling a large burrowing owl.
Athene cretensis

Athene cretensis was yet another weird island owl, but this time not a descendant of a Strix or Tyto species. Instead this owl was descended from the Eurasian little owl — except it had become much much larger.

It stood around 60cm tall (2′), over three times bigger than its living relative. Its legs weren’t quite as long as those of the modern burrowing owl, but they were still proportionally much longer than those of little owls and show adaptations for terrestrial movement. Little owls already sometimes chase down prey on foot, and Athene cretensis was probably even more of a ground-based hunter, convergently similar to the Hawaiian stilt-owls and the Cuban terror owls.

Preserved pellets show that it ate small mammals and birds, mainly large mice.

Its wings were still quite large, and it was probably also a good flier — and may even have spread over to some of the Dodecanese islands to the east of Crete, since a wing bone closely resembling that of Athene cretensis has been found on Armathia.

Both of these predators seem to have disappeared around the end of the Pleistocene, at the same time as many of the other native Cretan species about 21,500 years ago. Much like the situation with Candiacervus, this may have been a result of a combination of a rapidly shifting climate and the presence of humans disrupting the already fragile island ecosystem.

Island Weirdness #56 — Cynotherium sardous

Despite being decent swimmers, canids are surprisingly rare in island ecosystems, only seeming to end up there when able to move over land connections with larger landmasses (or when brought there by humans). Even the most remote species, the recently-extinct warrah, is thought to have crossed over a short stretch of sea ice during the last glacial period.

So the existence of a unique canid on the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica is quite unusual.

The Sardinian dhole (Cynotherium sardous) was a small fox-sized canid, just 50cm tall at the shoulder (1’8″), related to the modern African wild dog and dhole. It was probably descended from the much larger wolf-like Xenocyon, which would have been able to reach Sardinia-Corsica during the early-to-mid Pleistocene about 1.2 million years ago, at a time when lower sea levels connected the island to the European mainland via Tuscany.

Isolated with very little large prey, it instead evolved to specialize in hunting small fast-moving animals, flattening its body low to the ground while stalking in a similar manner to modern foxes or Ethiopian wolves. Powerful shoulder muscles allowed it to launch into sudden high-speed lunges, and it had an especially strong flexible neck that would have been used to grab at its zig-zagging targets and shake them to death.

Cynotherium went extinct sometime in the early Holocene, around 11,000 years ago, after the arrival of humans on Sardinia and Corsica.

The earliest definite human remains on Sardinia are at least 20,000 years old, and while it’s unclear if those were permanent settlers it still seems like Cynotherium was able to deal with the effects of a human presence for several thousand years, probably due to its main prey (the Sardinian pika) also surviving at the time. So its disappearance may have been caused by a combination of problems that slowly whittled away at its population, like the warming climate, gradual habitat destruction, and competition from introduced predators like feral dogs — or possibly even new diseases caught from them.