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 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“.
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.
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.)
Leptostomia begaaensis here is a recently-discovered pterosaur that lived during the mid-Cretaceous period, around 100 million years ago.
Its fossil remains were found in the Kem Kem beds of Morocco – ancient river deposits famous for yielding some of the newer specimens of the bizarre aquatic dinosaur Spinosaurus – and consist of just a couple of small pieces of jaw bones.
But those fragments are rather weird for a pterosaur.
While it’s hard to tell for certain from such meagre remains, Leptostomia might have been part of the azhdarchoid lineage, related to both the elaborately-crested tapejarids and the terrestrial-stalking giants like Quetzalcoatlus. And if it was indded an azhdarchoid it was an especially tiny one, possibly the smallest known member of the whole group. Based on the proportions of its relatives it would have stood just 30cm tall (1′) with a wingspan of 60-70cm (2′-2’4″), roughly comparable in size to a modern pigeon.
And it had an incredibly long beak that tapered to a thin delicate tip, resembling the beaks of modern probe-feeding shorebirds more than any other known pterosaur. It may have been specialized for the same sort of ecological niche, poking around in mud and shallow water for small invertebrates and snapping them up, possibly detecting its hidden prey using super-sensitive nerve endings in the tip of its beak.
Named after the mythical dog Cerberus, Kerberos langebadreae was a member of an early group of carnivorous placental mammals known as hyainailourids.
These large-headed predators were part of the hyaenodont lineage, evolutionary cousins to modern carnivorans that convergently developed similar shearing carnassial teeth in their jaws. Hyainailourids originated in Africa during the late Paleocene or early Eocene, and repeatedly dispersed into Eurasia and North America before eventually going extinct in the mid-Miocene.
Kerberos was one of the earliest of its kind known from Europe, living in Southern France during the mid-Eocene about 41-38 million years ago. It was close in size to a small American black bear, standing around 65cm tall at the shoulder (2’2″), not nearly as large as some of its later relatives but still making it one of the biggest carnivorous mammals in Europe at the time.
It was a heavily-built animal with a fully plantigrade posture, and would have been an active apex predator hunting similarly-sized early ungulates. While it wasn’t anatomically specialized for fast running it didn’t really need to be – it’s important to remember that modern bears have a similar chunky flat-footed build and yet can move surprisingly quickly.
Its incredibly powerful jaw muscles and premolar teeth adapted for bone-cracking also suggest it ate like a hyena, efficiently consuming entire carcasses.
Ever since the earliest tetrapods crawled onto land and developed limbs and digits, some lineages have just… decided the whole “legs” thing was overrated and lost them entirely.
And the earliest known group to do this were the aïstopods. These highly elongated amphibian-like animals had specialized lightly-built skulls with large jaw muscles, and they may have filled a similar ecological niche to modern snakes, hunting small terrestrial invertebrates.
Lethiscus stocki was one of the first members of this snake-like group, living in Scotland during the Early Carboniferous about 340 million years ago. Growing to at least 50cm long (~20″), it was already a very specialized animal despite its basal position among the aïstopods, with eyes set far forward on its face and no trace of vestigial limbs.
CT scans of its skull have shown some surprisingly fish-like anatomy, especially in its braincase, features that were lost very early in tetrapod evolution. This suggests that aïstopods weren’t part of the lepospondyl amphibians like previously thought, but actually originated much much earlier in the tetrapod evolutionary tree – potentially placing them somewhere among the “fishapods” between Ichthyostega and Crassigyrinus.
The docodonts were a group of mammaliaformes (close relatives of the earliest true mammals) which lived across North America, Europe, and Asia from the Middle Jurassic to the Early Cretaceous. Originally only known from teeth and jaw fragments they were traditionally thought to be fairly generic shrew-like insectivores, but more recent discoveries of better fossils have revealed they were actually much more diverse, occupying ecological niches ranging from squirrel-like tree-climbers to mole-like diggers to beaver-otter-like swimmers.
Most of the more complete fossil material of these animals comes from the mid-Jurassic of China, but one species from elsewhere is also known from a partial skeleton.
Haldanodon exspectatus here lived in central Portugal during the Late Jurassic, about 155 million years ago. Around 15-20cm long (6-8″), it had small eyes and short chunky well-muscled limbs with the front paws adapted for digging. Since it inhabited a very swampy environment it probably wasn’t a pure mole-like burrower – extensive tunnels would have constantly flooded – but it may have instead been a similar sort of semi-aquatic animal to modern platypuses and desmans, foraging for invertebrates in the water and excavating burrows in the banks.
Roughened areas of bone on its snout may also have supported a patch of tough keratinous skin, which would have helped protect its face while digging.
“Horns” seem to have convergently evolved multiple times in crocodiles over the last few million years, including in a couple of living species. These triangular crests are formed from the squamosal bone, just above their ears, and tend to be a sexually dimorphic feature used in territorial displays between males, serving to make them look bigger when they arch their necks.
But there’s another horned crocodilian known from much earlier in the Cenozoic – and this one was an alligator!
Ceratosuchus burdoshi lived in Colorado and Wyoming in the western United States during the late Paleocene and early Eocene, about 57-56 million years ago. It was a fairly small alligator, around 1.7m long (5’6″), with a broad snout featuring sharp teeth at the front and blunter teeth further back – an arrangement that suggests it was a generalist predator eating a variety of small prey, using those teeth to first grab and then crush whatever it managed to catch.
It also had large blade-like osteoderm armor on the back of its neck, which may have been arranged in line with its “horns” to make its visual displays look even spikier.
Many modern predatory birds have enlarged claws on their second toes, similar to those of their paravian dinosaur ancestors – with seriemas being a particularly good example.
Seriemas are part of a lineage known as cariamiformes, highly terrestrial birds that were widespread across most of the world but are today represented today by only two living species in South America. During the Cenozoic this group repeatedly evolved into large predatory flightless forms like the the phorusrhacids and bathornithids, and were probably the closest avians ever got to recreating the “carnivorous theropod” body plan and ecological niche.
And yet none of them ever seem to have experimented with more dromaeosaurid-like claws.
…With one known exception.
Qianshanornis rapax here lived in East China during the mid-Paleocene, about 63 million years ago. It was a small cariamiform, probably around 30cm tall (1″), and is only known from fragmentary fossil material – but part of those fragments was a fairly well-preserved foot. And the bones of its second toe were unlike any other known Cenozoic bird, shaped incredibly similarly to those of dromaeosaurids and suggesting it may have had the same sort of big hyperextendible “sickle claw”.
While it had sturdy legs and short wings, and probably spent a lot of time walking on the ground like other cariamiformes, it was probably also still a fairly strong flier based on the known anatomy of its arms and shoulders.
Unfortunately, though, its head and claws were entirely missing, so without more fossil discoveries it’s hard to say anything definite about its ecology. I’ve restored it here based on other predatory cariamiformes, but since it was also closely related to a herbivorous species it’s not clear whether Qianshanornis was truly a dromaeosaur-mimic or if something else was going on with that unique second toe.