Patagopteryx

While birds are one of the few animal groups to have achieved powered flight, they’re also very prone to losing their aerial abilities. Many times over their evolutionary history, multiple different bird lineages have convergently become secondarily flightless – and Patagopteryx deferrariisi was one of the earliest known examples of this.

Living during the Late Cretaceous, about 86-84 million years ago, in what is now the northern part of Argentine Patagonia in South America, Patagopteryx was roughly the size of a modern chicken at around 50cm long.

When it was first discovered it was classified as a ratite, but soon after it was recognized as actually being a much earlier type of bird, an early ornithuromorph only distantly related to any modern groups.

It had small wings, little-to-no keel, and no wishbone, indicating it lacked the large powerful musculature required for flight. Its legs were quite long, with large feet with all four toes facing forward – proportions that suggest it was built more for walking than for high-speed running.

Growth rings in its bones also show that it had a much slower growth rate than modern birds, taking several years to reach adult size.

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April Fools 2024: The Curious Case Of The Chunky-Necked Ceratopsians

Much like the aquatic Compsognathus featured here a couple of years ago, not every novel idea that came out of the Dinosaur Renaissance was a winner.

And one of the oddest examples came from author/illustrator John C. McLoughlin.

His 1979 book Archosauria: A New Look at the Old Dinosaur featured an unusual interpretation of ceratopsian dinosaurs’ characteristic bony frills, proposing that they were actually muscle attachment sites for both powerful jaw muscles and enormous back muscles to help hold up their large heavy heads. This would have completely buried the frill under soft tissue, giving the animals massive thick necks and humped shoulders, and resulted in an especially weird reconstruction of Triceratops with a grotesque sort of wrinkly sewn-together appearance.

This concept didn’t entirely originate from McLoughlin – three years earlier in 1976 he’d illustrated Ronald Paul Ratkevich’s book Dinosaurs of the Southwest, which seems to have been the inspiration for Archosauria’s fleshy-frilled ceratopsians. A few paleontologists had also proposed jaw muscles attaching onto the frills during the 1930s and 1950s, and there’s even a book from as far back as 1915 that also shows the top of a Triceratops’ frill connected to its back! But McLoughlin’s Archosauria image is still by far the most extreme and infamous version of the idea.

There were a lot of things in Archosauria that were actually very forward-thinking for the time period, such as putting fuzz and feathers on small theropods and depicting non-avian dinosaurs as active fast-moving animals. The unique ceratopsian reconstructions, however, never caught on for several big reasons:

Firstly, all that hefty muscle tissue would have locked ceratopsians’ heads firmly in place, unable to move at all, which just doesn’t make sense biomechanically. Then there was the lack of skeletal evidence – muscles that big should have left huge visible attachment scars all over the frill bones, and there was no sign of anything like that on any fossil specimens. Finally, it turns out the ceratopsian head-neck joint was actually highly mobile, suggesting their heads were free to make a wide range of motions in life.

As wrong as they were even at the time, McLoughlin’s ceratopsians were still an interesting speculative idea, and notable for advocating for fleshier dinosaur reconstructions at a time when paleoart was trending towards shrinkwrapping.

Further reading under the cut:

Continue reading “April Fools 2024: The Curious Case Of The Chunky-Necked Ceratopsians”

Minqaria

For a long time there were no hadrosaurid fossils known from Africa.

This seemed to mainly be due to the limits of the geography of their time. Hadrosaurs evolved and flourished during the late Cretaceous, when Africa was isolated from all the other continents, and they didn’t seem to have ever found their way across the oceanic barriers.

…Until in 2021 a small hadrosaur was discovered in Morocco, a close relative of several European species, showing that some of these dinosaurs did reach northwest Africa just before the end of the Cretaceous – and with no land bridges or nearby island chains to hop along, they must have arrived from Europe via swimming, floating, or rafting directly across several hundred kilometers of deep water.

And now another hadrosaur has just been described from the same time and place.

Minqaria bata lived in Morocco at the very end of the Cretaceous, about 67 million years ago. Only known from a partial skull, its full appearance and body size is unknown, but it probably measured around 3.5m long (~11’6″) – slightly larger than its previously discovered relative, but still very small for a hadrosaur. It might represent a case of insular dwarfism, since at the time Morocco may have been an island isolated from the rest of northwest Africa.

Along with its close relative Ajnabia, and at least one other currently-unnamed larger hadrosaur species, Minqaria seems to be part of a rapid diversification of hadrosaurs following their arrival in Morocco, adapting into new ecological niches in their new habitat where the only other herbivorous dinosaur competition was titanosaurian sauropods, and the only large predators were abelisaurs.

If the K-Pg mass extinction hadn’t happened just a million years later, who knows what sort of weird African hadrosaurs we could have ended up with?

Miomancalla

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.

Spectember/Spectober 2023 #07: Terror Eagle

September might have ended, but guess what? I am not remotely done with this yet so we’re continuing on.

Now it’s Spectober.

(Also just a reminder: I am not currently taking new requests. I’ve got far too many existing ones that I’m still working through!)

Someone who identified themself only as “Adam” asked for “eagles evolving into terrestrial predators to pursue larger prey”:

A shaded sketch of a speculative flightless eagle. It has a large head with a big hooked beak, with the skin on its head and neck only sparsely feathered like a vulture. It's body is chunky and covered in shaggy feathers, and it has thick legs and stumpy tail. Its small vestigial-looking wings have a large bony knob growing from just below the wrist joint.

A flightless eagle occupying an apex predator niche in the same island chain as the giant herbivorous tegu, Terraetus adamii is descended from a species similar to the modern harpy eagle. It isn’t substantially larger than the biggest modern eagles – standing about 1.2m tall (~4′) – but it’s certainly much more massive, weighing around 25kg (~55lbs).

In the absence of other large terrestrial predators its ancestors originally took up a caracara-like lifestyle, preferring hunting on foot over flying, before gradually becoming totally flightless and converging on terror birds with large heavy skulls, reduced wings, and powerful legs.

Terraetus’ head is only very sparsely feathered, an adaptation for feeding inside the carcasses of large prey, which it dispatches using a combination of kicking and blows from its large hooked beak. It’s usually a solitary hunter that can tackle prey up to two or three times its own weight – preferencing the juveniles of the herbivorous tegu – but during the breeding season pairs will occasionally hunt cooperatively to take down larger targets.

Despite possessing sharp beaks and talons, these weapons aren’t actually used in fights between individuals of this species. Instead they bodily shove each other back and forth, battering at each other with large bony knobs that grow from the hand bones of each wing.

Spectember 2023 #04: Some Aukward Birds

An anonymous submitter asked for a “penguin/auk-like relative of Pelagornis“:

A shaded sketch of a speculative flightless seabird related to the extinct "pseudotooth" bird Pelagornis. It has a long slender beak with serrated tooth-like edges, a penguin-like body, flipper-like wings, large webbed feet, and a stumpy tail.

Odontopinguinus vomitus represents an unusal early branch of the pelagornithids that didn’t take up long-distance soaring, instead specializing for a pursuit diving lifestyle convergently similar to that of the contemporaneous early penguins, and the later auks and plotopterids.

About 1.2m tall (~4′), it has a more slender spear-like beak than its relatives, with forward-pointing pseudotooth serrations. Like other pelagornithids these “teeth” are fairly fragile, so it feeds primarily on soft-bodied fish and squid, pursuing them underwater with wing-propelled underwater “flight”.

Much like procellariiformes they’re also rather stinky birds, producing musky preen oil and projectile vomiting foul-smelling stomach contents at threats and rivals.


And another anon wanted to see a “big flightless marine duck”:

A shaded sketch of a speculative flightless marine duck. It has a goose-like beak with protruding comb-like structures at the sides (giving it the superficial appearance of having teeth), a long neck, a long loon-like body with vestigial folded wings, large cormorant-like webbed feet position far back, and a short tail.

Thalassonetta anambulatus is descended from the already mostly-flightless steamer ducks. At around 2m long (6’6″) it’s massive for a waterfowl, with vestigial wings and large webbed feet used to propel itself while diving.

With its rather elongated and heavy body and loon-like leg configuration it’s no longer able to walk on land – and it’s actually almost fully aquatic, only awkwardly hauling out into isolated island beaches to molt and breed.

It feeds mainly on molluscs, crustaceans, and other marine invertebrates, using the large lamellae in its bill to strain them out of soft seafloor sediments.

Spectember 2023 #01: Kiwi Alvarezsaur

It’s #Spectember time again!

I’m still trying to work through that big pile of speculative evolution concepts from a few years ago, so I’m hoping to make this month sort of a “lightning round” to finally clear out the backlog.

(I’m not going to set a definite posting schedule this year because things are pretty chaotic right now. But I’ll try to fit in as many as I can!)

So let’s start off with a concept from an anonymous submitter, who requested a “kiwi/sengi niche alverezsaur”:

A shaded sketch of a speculative dinosaur. It has a long narrow snout, small eyes, and whiskery facial feathers like a kiwi bird, a round fuzzy body, short chunky arms with large hooked thumb claws, long slender legs, and a long tail with a tufted fan at the tip.

Khamartaia dolabella is similar in size and build to Shuvuuia, about 1m in length (3’3″), with slender legs and stumpy arms with massive thumb claws. Unlike its close relatives, however, it has small eyes and fairly poor vision, relying more on its other senses to forage around during the darkness of night.

It has an acute sense of smell, and its long narrow snout is full of highly touch-sensitive nerves, allowing it to probe around for invertebrate prey in soil, undergrowth, and cracks and crevices. Its chunky thumb claws are used to dig up burrows and to tear through bark to access deeper insect nests.

It mainly relies on its long legs to sprint away from threats, although with its poor eyesight these escapes are often rather ungainly.

Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 2: Walking With Victorian Dinosaurs

[Previously: the Permian and Triassic]

The next part of the Crystal Palace Dinosaur trail depicts the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Most of the featured animals here are actually marine reptiles, but a few dinosaur species do make an appearance towards the end of this section.

A photograph of a Crystal Palace ichthyosaur statue, posed hauled out of the water like a seal or crocodile. It's partially obscured by plant growth, and is in a state of slight disrepair – moss and lichen patches cover its sides, and a plant is growing out of a crack on its back. A moorhen can be seen in the water swimming towards it.

Although there are supposed to be three Jurassic ichthyosaur statues here, only the big Temnodontosaurus platyodon could really be seen at the time of my visit. The two smaller Ichthyosaurus communis and Leptonectes tenuirostris were almost entirely hidden by the dense plant growth on the island.

Two photographs of the Crystal Palace ichthyosaurs. On the left the island is clear of foliage and all three can be seen; and on the right is the current overgrown state.
Ichthyosaurs when fully visible vs currently obscured
Left side image by Nick Richards (CC BY SA 2.0)
Two photographs of the large Crystal Palace ichthyosaur, showing closer views of the eye, flipper, and tail fin. Int he background a second ichthyosaur can be seen through the foliage. A moorhen is pecking around near the flipper.
Head, flipper, and tail details of the Temnodontosaurus. A second ichthyosaur is just barely visible in the background.

Ichthyosaurs were already known from some very complete and well-preserved fossils in the 1850s, so a lot of the anatomy here still holds up fairly well even 170 years later. They even have an attempt at a tail fin despite no impressions of such a structure having been discovered yet! Some details are still noticeably wrong compared to modern knowledge, though, such as the unusual amount of shrinkwrapping on the sclerotic rings of the eyes and the bones of the flippers.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of an ichthyosaur with a modern interpretation. The retro version has long toothy jaws, very large eyes, a seal-like body, four scaly-looking flippers, and a small eel-like fin on its tail. The modern version is a much more dolphin-like animal with smaller eyes, smooth triangular flippers, a dorsal fin, and a vertical crescent-shaped tail fin.
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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.

Danielsraptor

The evolution of falcons is rather poorly understood. Thanks to genetic evidence we know that they’re closely related to seriemas, parrots, and passerines, but their fossil record is patchy and little is known about the early members of their lineage.

But a group knows as masillaraptorids are giving us a rare glimpse at what some early falconiforms were up to. Known from the Eocene of Europe, these long-legged predatory birds seem to have been caracara-like terrestrial hunters specializing in chasing down prey on foot – although their wings and tails indicate they were also still strong fliers.

Danielsraptor phorusrhacoides lived during the early Eocene, about 55 million years ago, in what is now eastern England. Although only known from partial remains, it was probably around 45-60cm long (~1’6″-2′), and it had a large hooked beak with a surprising amount of convergent similarity to those of the flightless South American terror birds.

Its mixture of falcon-like and seriema-like features may indicate that the common ancestor of both of these bird groups was a similar sort of leggy ground-hunting predator.