Coelurosauravus

Remarkably similar-looking gliding reptiles have appeared multiple different times over the group’s evolutionary history, including the modern Draco – and despite being unrelated to each other almost all of them have achieved this in the exact same way, supporting their wing membranes on extremely elongated rib bones.

…Except for the weigeltisaurids.

These early members of the neodiapsid lineage were the very first vertebrates known to have experimented with gliding, all the way back in the late Permian period 260-252 million years ago. And while they superficially resembled all the later rib-gliders, their wings were actually something never seen before or since in a gliding reptile.

Basically, these animals were the closest that Earth life ever came to legitimately evolving a dragon.

Coelurosauravus elivensis here was a weigeltisaurid living in what is now Madagascar, which at the time was part of southern Pangaea. About 40cm long (1’4″), its body was adapted for a life climbing and gliding around in the treetops, with pneumatized air spaces lightening its bones and long slender limbs similar to those of modern tree-climbing lizards.

Its large wings were formed from around 30 pairs of long hollow rod-shaped bones extending out from the sides of its belly. These flexible structures could furl and unfurl with a motion like a foldable fan, and are thought to have been highly modified from osteoderms in the skin, creating an entirely new part of its skeleton. 

Towards the front of the wing the rods were arranged in several closely-packed “bundles”, and one specimen of Coelurosauravus preserves an impression of what seems to be the outline of the wing membrane’s leading edge – showing a stiffened pointed shape resembling the alula of a bird wing, which may have served a similar aerodynamic stabilization function.

From fig 2 in Schaumberg, G. et al (2007). New information on the anatomy of the Late Permian gliding reptile Coelurosauravus. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 81, 160–173. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02988390

But aside from the wings, the most striking feature of weigeltisaurids were their heads. Their skulls featured large crest-like frills resembling those of chameleons and ceratopsid dinosaurs, and their edges were adorned with prominent bumps and spikes. These were probably used for visual display and might have been a sexually dimorphic feature, with males having larger spikier crests than females. The crests may also have anchored large powerful jaw muscles, giving weigeltisaurids a wider gape and faster bite speed, helping them to snap up their fast-moving insect prey.

Huehuecuetzpalli

Bipedal running has convergently evolved multiple times in squamate reptiles, known in over 50 modern species – and fossil evidence shows this is nothing new, with lizards repeatedly developing the ability to sprint on their hind legs for well over 100 million years.

Huehuecuetzpalli mixtecus here lived in east-central Mexico during the mid-Cretaceous, about 105 million years ago. About 25cm long (10″), it was part of an early branch of the iguanomorph lineage, related to the ancestors of modern lizards like iguanas, chameleons, and agamids.

Its limb proportions indicate it would have been a bipedal runner, making it one of the earliest known examples of this type of locomotion in lizards. Its skull also had some features convergent with varanids, suggesting it may have had a similar sort of active-pursuit-hunting ecology.

Perplexisaurus

If there’s any equivalent to carcinization in mammals, it’s turning into an otter-beaver-like semi-aquatic form.

Because it just keeps happening.

Modern examples alone include otters, beavers, muskrats, giant otter shrews, desmans, aquatic genets, yapoks, lutrine opossums, and platypuses – and in the fossil record there were early pinnipeds, remingtonocetids, pantolestids, stagodontids, and Liaoconodon going as far back as the early Cretaceous. Even outside of the true mammals there were also Castorocauda, Haldanodon, and Kayentatherium during the Jurassic, and much further back in the late Permian there was the early cynodont Procynosuchus.

So a non-cynodont synapsid doing the exact same thing really isn’t all that surprising.

Perplexisaurus foveatus was a member of the therocephalians, a group of synapsids that were close evolutionary “cousins” of the cynodonts-and-true-mammals lineage. Similar in size to a modern rat, about 20cm long (8″), it lived in Western Russia during the Late Permian about 268-265 million years ago.

At the time this region was a river plain with a tropical climate, experiencing seasonal floods that turned the whole area into what’s known as “viesses” (a name based on the abbreviation “V.S.S.” standing for “very shallow sea”), vast shallow lake-seas that persisted for weeks or months at a time.

So this little animal has been interpreted as being semi-aquatic, swimming around and feeding on aquatic invertebrates and tiny fish and amphibians. Its skull had numerous pits around the front of its face, suggesting that it had a highly sensitive snout – probably whiskery, allowing it to hunt entirely by touch in dark murky water, but it’s also been proposed to have possibly had an electroreceptive sense similar to modern platypuses.

Brontornis

Brontornis burmeisteri was one of the largest flightless birds known to have ever existed, standing around 2.8m tall (9’2″) and estimated to have weighed 400kg (~880lbs).

Known from the early and mid-Miocene of Argentina, between about 17 and 11 million years ago, it’s traditionally considered to be one of the carnivorous terror birds that dominated predatory roles in South American ecosystems during the long Cenozoic isolation of the continent.

But Brontornis might not actually have been a terror bird at all – it may have instead been a giant cousin of ducks and geese.

The known fossil material is fragmentary enough that it’s still hard to tell for certain, but there’s some evidence that links it to the gastornithiformes, a group of huge herbivorous birds related to modern waterfowl.

If it was a gastornithiform, that would mean it represents a previously completely unknown lineage of South American giant flightless galloanserans. And, along with the gastornithids and the mihirungs, it would represent a third time that group of birds convergently evolved this sort of body plan and ecological role on entirely different continents during the Cenozoic.

Tarrasius

The spinal column in tetrapods is made up of five different regions of distinctly-shaped vertebrae: cervical (neck), thoracic (upper back attached to ribs), lumbar (lower back without ribs), sacral (pelvic) and caudal (tail).

Non-tetrapod vertebrates like fish have spines that are much less differentiated, with just body and tail segments. So for a long time multiple distinct spine regions were thought to be something completely unique to tetrapods – a specialization developed early in their evolutionary history that served to better support their weight when moving around on land.

But one little fossil fish makes this idea… problematic.

Tarrasius problematicus lived during the early Carboniferous, about 345 million years ago, in shallow tropical marine waters in what is now southern Scotland. Around 9cm long (3.5″), it was an early type of ray-finned fish with a scaleless body and a long scaled eel-like tail with a single continuous dorsal fin.

And it also had some very unusual vertebrae for a non-tetrapod fish.

Its spine shows five different regions all corresponding to those seen in tetrapods, despite it not being closely related to them. But unlike early tetrapods Tarrasius was no land-walker, with its lack of hind fins indicating it was instead a streamlined fully aquatic fast swimmer.

It’s not clear why this fish developed such an incredibly convergent backbone, but it may have helped to stiffen its body so its more flexible tail could provide more efficient thrust, swimming like a modern tadpole.

It also suggests that a pre-existing genetic basis for regionalization – specific patterns of Hox gene expression – was actually an ancestral trait for all bony fish or jawed vertebrates. Tarrasius and early tetrapods may have just happened to specialize their spines in the same way for different purposes, with only the tetrapods going on to see long-term evolutionary success with it.

Adalatherium

Even for a fossil species from an isolated island, Adalatherium hui is very weird.

This mammal was part of an enigmatic group known as gondwanatheres, which were probably early members of the theriiform lineage – slightly closer related to modern marsupials and placentals than to monotremes. Found in the southern continents of Gondwana between the Late Cretaceous and the Miocene, these animals were adapted for herbivory with convergently rodent-like ever-growing front teeth that helped them chew through tough plant matter.

They were previously known mainly from isolated teeth and jaw fragments, with some rare full skull material, but Adalatherium is remarkable for being represented by a complete skeleton.

And it’s turned out to be far stranger than anyone expected.

Living in northwestern Madagascar during the Late Cretaceous, about 70-66 million years ago, Adalatherium was one of the larger known Mesozoic mammals at around 60cm long (2′) – although the one known specimen seems to have been a juvenile, so mature individuals were probably slightly larger.

(And based on its body proportions, its close relative Vintana may actually have been even bigger than previously thought. Whether this sort of large size was common in Cretaceous gondwanatheres or if this was just island gigantism is still unknown, though.)

It was probably a marmot-like digging animal, excavating burrows with its large claws and powerful limbs, and since it likely evolved from ancestors that had become isolated on Madagascar over 20 million years earlier it had developed a very unusual mixture of both “primitive” and highly specialized anatomical features. It had more back vertebrae than any other known Mesozoic mammal, upright forelimbs, sprawling hind legs with bowed-out tibias, strong back and leg musculature, and a therian-like pelvis with epipubic bones.

And then there’s the snoot.

The snout region of Adalatherium‘s skull was pockmarked with a large number of foramina, holes that allow the passage of nerves and blood vessels through the bone. It had more of these than any other known mammal, and their presence suggests that it probably had a very sensitive upper lip and whiskery snout. Most mammals with a lot of whiskers just have one very big foramina, but Adalatherium seems to have evolved a different solution to the same problem.

It also had one other bizarre feature – a hole in the top of its nose. A large “internasal vacuity” between its nasal bones is a unique feature not known in any other mammal, and its function is a total mystery.

Since this hole was also surrounded by many foramina it may have supported some sort of soft-tissue sensory structure on top of its nose. So I’ve speculatively depicted it here with a leathery horn-like “shield”.

Adalatherium skull
From fig 2 in Krause, D. W. et al (2020). Skeleton of a Cretaceous mammal from Madagascar reflects long-term insularity. Nature 581, 421–427. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2234-8

Cambrian Explosion Month #26: Phylum Mollusca – Tentacle Time

Cephalopods‘ highly distinctive body plan and incredible intelligence make them some of the most charismatic marine animals. Today they’re mainly represented by the soft-bodied coleoids (octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish), with the modern giant squid and colossal squid being the largest living invertebrates. In comparison the shelled nautiluses seem like weird oddballs, but they’re actually far more typical examples of the group than their squishier cousins – as part of the conchiferan lineage the ancestors of all modern cephalopods were also shell-bearing molluscs, and for much of their evolutionary history shelled forms like ammonites and orthoceridans were extremely abundant.

The exact evolutionary relationships of cephalopods within the conchiferan family tree aren’t clear, but their closest relatives might be modern monoplacophorans and they probably descended from limpet-like “monoplacophoran-grade” ancestors in the early Cambrian. The current oldest potential cephalopod fossils come from about 522 million years ago, but the first definite cephalopods in the fossil record come from much later in the period.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion Month #26: Phylum Mollusca – Tentacle Time”

Spathicephalus

Spathicephalus mirus here was part of a group of amphibian-like animals called the baphetoids, a lineage that weren’t quite true tetrapods themselves but were still very closely related to them.

Living in Scotland during the mid-Carboniferous period, about 326 million years ago, this 1.5m long (~5′) stem-tetrapod had an incredibly unusual head compared to its relatives – wide and flat, almost square in shape, with its jaws lined with hundreds of tiny chisel-like teeth.

Most other stem-tetrapods had deep skulls with large teeth, adapted for fish-eating, so clearly Spathicephalus was specialized for a very different diet. Some comparisons have been made to flat-headed ambush predator plagiosaurid temnospondyls like Gerrothorax, but a better ecological comparison might actually be filter-feeders like “pancake crocs“.

Gavialimimus

During the late Cretaceous period, about 72-66 million years ago, the Oulad Abdoun Basin region of Morocco was submerged under the Atlantic ocean – and the water above it was absolutely teeming with mosasaurs.

Fossils of at least a dozen different species of these predatory marine reptiles have been found in the area, and they seem to have all been occupying different ecological roles to avoid being in direct competition with each other. Many had conical piercing teeth adapted for gripping onto slippery soft-bodied prey, but others had rounded blunt teeth for crushing hard shells, and some even had sharp shark-like teeth for tearing flesh.

And one of the most surprising recent discoveries from this diverse ecosystem was Gavialimimus almaghribensis.

This 7m long (23′) mosasaur was part of the plioplatecarpine lineage, but it had uniquely long and narrow jaws with pointy interlocking teeth and highly retracted nostrils. Its snout shape resembled that of a crocodilians like modern gharials more than any of its short-skulled close relatives, and it was probably specialized for a similar diet of small fast-moving fish.

Smilesaurus

Despite having a genus name that sounds more like it should belong to a cartoon dinosaur mascot for dental hygiene, Smilesaurus ferox was actually a real gorgonopsian, a predatory synapsid distantly related to modern mammals.

Living in South Africa during the Late Permian, around 259-254 million years ago, Smilesaurus was comparable to a medium-sized dog at around 1m long (3’3″). It had some of the longest sabre-like canine teeth of any known gorgonopsian, proportionally comparable to those of sabertoothed cats – and it may have hunted in a similar manner, using powerful grasping limbs to pin down struggling prey and then dispatching it with slashing bites.

…And it also turns out that when you don’t horribly shrink-wrap a gorgonopsian, you end up with something that looks rather like a bear-hippo.

(For some similarly chonky gorgonopsians, check out Tas’ @i-draws-dinosaurs reconstructions here. Bullet Man was definitely a bit of an inspiration in this.)