Eurotamandua joresi lived during the mid-Eocene, about 47 million years ago, in the lush subtropical forests that covered what is now central Germany.

When it was first described in the early 1980s it was classified as an anteater due to its close resemblance to some modern species… but there were big problems with this interpretation. Anteaters have a sparse fossil record, but they’re known to have originated during the early Eocene in the isolated island continent of South America – so Eurotamandua’s ancestors making it all the way to Europe within just a few million years would be pretty remarkable!

Also, on closer inspection it didn’t have the distinctive skeletal features of a xenarthran mammal, suggesting it wasn’t an anteater after all.

Instead more recent studies have identified it as a close relative of pangolins, part of an early branch of the group that didn’t have the characteristic large scales.

About 90cm long (~3′), Eurotamandua would have a lifestyle much like the anteaters it convergently resembled, using its large claws to rip open ant nests and a long sticky tongue to feed.


Dinocephalosaurus orientalis was a fully aquatic protorosaur reptile living in what is now southwest China during the mid-Triassic, about 244 million years ago.

Up to 6m long (~19’8″), it had a long serpentine body with paddle-like limbs and an especially elongated neck – but despite the superficial similarities to its semi-aquatic cousin Tanystropheus, Dinocephalosaurus’ long neck appears to have been independently evolved.

Much like the similarly-shaped elasmosaurs, its neck may have had a “stealth” function, allowing it to bring its jaws closer to targets before the rest of its body was visible, then using side-to-side snapping bites to catch its prey in its interlocking “fish-trap” teeth.

A preserved well-developed embryo inside one specimen also suggests that Dinocephalosaurus gave birth to live young, making it one of only two archosauromorph lineages known to have ever evolved this reproductive strategy.


The mancallines were a lineage of flightless semi-aquatic birds closely related to auks. Known from the Pacific coasts of what are now California and Mexico, between about 7.5 and 0.5 million years ago, they convergently evolved a close resemblance and similar lifestyle to both the recently-extinct North Atlantic great auk and the southern penguins.

Miomancalla howardi here lived in offshore waters around southern California during the late Miocene (~7-5 million years ago). The largest of the mancallines, it just slightly beat out the great auk in size – standing around 90cm tall (~3′) and weighing an estimated 5kg (11lbs).

Like great auks and penguins it would have been a specialized wing-propelled diver, swimming using “underwater flight” to feed on small bait fish. It probably spent much of its life out at sea, probably only returning to land to molt and breed.


Most mosasaurs all had very similar body plans: they were streamlined scaly monitor-lizard-like marine reptiles with four rounded paddle-shaped flippers, and many of them also had large shark-like tail fins.

But Megapterygius wakayamaensis here seems to have been doing something a bit different.

Living towards the end of the Cretaceous, about 72 million years ago, in the waters covering what is now western Japan, this mosasaur was around the size of a modern orca, roughly 6m long (~20′).

Unlike other known mosasaurs its flippers were huge, bigger than its own head and distinctively wing-shaped, with the back pair being larger than the front. This is an arrangement oddly reminiscent of the unrelated plesiosaurs, and may suggest a convergent sort of highly maneuverable “underwater flight” swimming ability – but unlike plesiosaurs Megapterygius also still had a powerful fluked tail, so how exactly all of its fins worked together is still unknown.

It’s also the first mosasaur known to preserve potential evidence of a dorsal fin. Some of its back vertebrae show a change in orientation at the point where a fin base would be expected to be, closely resembling the vertebrae shape of cetaceans like the modern harbor porpoise.


Hupehsuchians were small marine reptiles closely related to ichthyosaurs, known only from the Early Triassic of southwestern China about 249-247 million years ago. They had toothless snouts, streamlined bodies, paddle-like limbs, and long flattened tails, along with a unique pattern of armor along their backs made up of overlapping layers of bony osteoderms.

Hupehsuchus nanchangensis was a mid-sized member of the group, about 1m long (3’3″). Newly-discovered fossils of its skull show that its long flattened snout had a distinctive gap between the bones (similar to the platypus-like snout seen in its relative Eretmorhipis) with an overall shape surprisingly convergent with that of modern baleen whales – suggesting that this hupehsuchian may have been a similar sort of filter-feeder.

A diagram comparing Hupehsuchus' skull to that of a modern baleen whale.
Hupehsuchus skull compared to a modern minke whale
From fig 2 & fig 3 of Fang et al (2023). First filter feeding in the Early Triassic: cranial morphological convergence between Hupehsuchus and baleen whales. BMC Ecol Evo 23, 36.

Grooves in the bones along the outer edges of its upper jaws may be evidence of filtering structures similar to baleen, although with no soft-tissue preservation we don’t know exactly what this would have looked like. Its slender flexible lower jaws probably also supported a large expandable throat pouch, allowing it to filter plankton out of larger volumes of water.

São Miguel Scops Owl

When owls find their way onto isolated islands lacking any terrestrial predators, they have a tendency to take up that role for themselves – evolving longer legs and shorter wings, and specializing more towards hunting on foot. From New Zealand to Hawaii to the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to Macaronesia, leggy island ground-owls have independently happened over and over again in the last few million years—

—And, unfortunately, they’ve all also become victims of the Holocene extinction, their fragile island ecosystems too easily disrupted by human activity and the arrival of invasive species.

The São Miguel scops owl (Otus frutuosoi) was found only in the Azores on São Miguel Island. About 18cm tall (~7″), it was slightly smaller than its relative the Eurasian scops owl, with longer legs, a wider body, and much shorter wings.

Its wing proportions indicate it would have been a poor flyer, instead primarily hunting on foot in the dense laurisilva forests. Since there were no terrestrial mammals or reptiles on São Miguel at the time, its diet probably mainly consisted of insects and other invertebrates – and it would have in turn been the potential prey of larger predatory birds like buzzards and long-eared owls.

All currently known subfossil remains of the São Miguel scops owl date only from the Holocene, between about 50 BCE and 125 CE. It’s likely that it was extinct by the 1400s, following the settlement of humans in the Azores, destruction of its forest habitat, and the introduction of rodents, cats, and weasels.


Diprotodontids were large herbivorous marsupials distantly related to modern wombats and koalas, with some species reaching body sizes comparable to rhinos.

Ambulator keanei here was a mid-sized example, closer to bear-sized at around 1m tall at the shoulder (~3’3″). It lived in South Australia during the Pliocene, about 3.9-3.6 million years ago, at a time when the climate was becoming drier and the local habitat was shifting towards open grasslands – and so it was was one of the first diprotodontids known to have specialized its limb anatomy for more efficient long-distance walking.

A bone in its wrist was modified into a heel-like structure, and skin impressions show large cushioning fleshy pads on the undersides of its feet. Its feet were also rotated to bear weight mainly on the outside edges, similar to the condition seen in some ground sloths, and its fingers and toes appear to have been held raised up off the ground while walking.


Neolicaphrium recens here might look like some sort of early horse, but this little mammal was actually something else entirely.

Known from southern South America during the late Pleistocene to early Holocene, between about 1 million and 11,000 years ago, Neolicaphrium was the last known member of the proterotheriids, a group of South American native ungulates that were only very distantly related to horses, tapirs, and rhinos. Instead these animals evolved their remarkably horse-like body plan completely independently, adapting for high-speed running with a single weight-bearing hoof on each foot.

Neolicaphrium was a mid-sized proterotheriid, standing around 45cm tall at the shoulder (~1’6″), and unlike some of its more specialized relatives it still had two small vestigial toes on each foot along with its main hoof. Tooth microwear studies suggest it had a browsing diet, mainly feeding on soft leaves, stems, and buds in its savannah woodland habitat.

It was one of the few South American native ungulates to survive through the Great American Biotic Interchange, when the formation of the Isthmus of Panama allowed North and South American animals to disperse into each other’s native ranges. While many of its relatives had already gone extinct in the wake of the massive ecological changes this caused, Neolicaphrium seems to have been enough of a generalist to hold on, living alongside a fairly modern-looking selection of northern immigrant mammals such as deer, peccaries, tapirs, foxes, jaguars… and also actual horses.

Some of the earliest human inhabitants of South America would have seen Neolicaphirum alive before its extinction. We don’t know whether they had any direct impact on its disappearance – but since the horses it lived alongside were hunted by humans and also went extinct, it’s possible that a combination of shifting climate and hunting pressure pushed the last of the little not-horses over the edge, too.

Strange Symmetries #23: Convergent Earvolution

Although it’s not visible externally, owls have one of the most striking modern examples of asymmetry. The ears of many species are uneven, with the right ear opening positioned higher up than the left, giving them the ability to pinpoint the sounds of their prey much more accurately.

But surprisingly this isn’t a unique anatomical trait that only ever evolved once in their common ancestor.

Instead, multiple different lineages of owls have actually convergently evolved wonky ears somewhere between four and seven separate times.

The boreal owl (Aegolius funereus), also known as Tengmalm’s owl, is a small 25cm long (~10″) true owl found across much of the northern parts of both Eurasia and North America. While most other owls’ asymmetrical ear openings are formed just by soft tissue, the boreal owl’s lopsided ears are actually visible in the bones of its skull.

But despite how many times owls have convergently evolved asymmetrical ears, and how successful this adaptation has been for them, for a long time it seemed to be something that no other animals have ever mimicked.

In the early 2000s asymmetric ears were reported in the skulls of some troodontid dinosaurs, which seem to have been nocturnal hearing-based hunters similar to owls, but proper details on this feature still haven’t been formally published.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, another example was finally announced.

The night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) is a small ground-dwelling parrot found in Australia, close to the same size as the boreal owl at around 22cm long (~9″). Critically endangered and very elusive, it’s rarely seen and little is known about it – and it was presumed extinct for much of the 20th century, until more recent sightings of living individuals confirmed that the species is still hanging on.

Recent studies of preserved museum specimens have revealed that it seems to have poor night vision but excellent hearing, and that its right ear opening is noticeably asymmetrical, bulging out sideways from its skull. Much like owls the night parrot relies on acute directional hearing to navigate in darkness, but since its diet consists mainly of seeds it’s probably not using this ability to locate food sources. Instead it may be listening out to keep track of the precise locations of other parrots, and for the approach of predators – so its sharp sense of hearing may be the reason this unique bird has so far just barely managed to survive the presence of invasive cats and foxes.

Strange Symmetries #15: Serrated Saw-Snoots

Long flattened snouts lined with pointy tooth-like denticles have convergently evolved at least three separate times in cartilaginous fish: in modern sawsharks and sawfish, and in the extinct sawskates.

This repeated “pristification” suggests that saws are just incredibly useful and relatively “easy to evolve” structures for these types of fish, being both highly sensitive to bioelectric fields and able to physically slash and stab to kill prey.

Onchopristis numida was a sawskate known from what is now Northern and Western Africa during the mid-Cretaceous, about 95 million years ago. Up to about 3m long (~10′), it lived in both saltwater and freshwater, and was probably a bottom-dwelling ambush predator similar to modern angelsharks.

Whenever a denticle was lost from its saw, a larger one would grow to replace it, and over the life of an Onchopristis this resulted in an increasingly extreme amount of saw asymmetry.

Modern pristified fish also have rather asymmetrical saws. Sawfish are commonly born with a different number of denticles on each side, while sawsharks add extra denticles of varying sizes as they age, with the ongoing replacement of lost denticles resulting in more uneven arrangements over their course of their lives.

It’s not clear if the asymmetry gives any sort of advantage to these fish – but if nothing else it probably doesn’t cause them any disadvantage, so there’s no evolutionary pressure to stay more symmetrical.