Weird Heads Month #27: The Weirdest Wildebeest

Earlier in this series we saw some ruminants with bizarre-looking headgear, but there was another species in that group that evolved a completely different type of strange head.

Rusingoryx atopocranion was a close relative of modern wildebeest that lived during the late Pleistocene, around 100,000 to 50,000 years ago. Its fossil remains are known from the Kenyan part of Lake Victoria, on Rusinga Island – an area which wasn’t actually an island at the time due to lower lake levels, and was instead part of a hot dry grassland environment.

Standing about 1.2m at the shoulder (~4′), it had an oddly-shaped skull with a pointed snout and a highly domed forehead. But this wasn’t the thick bony dome of a headbutting animal – this structure was narrow and fairly fragile, and had looping nasal passages running through it.

Instead it was something never before seen in any mammal: a bony nasal crest convergently similar to those of hadrosaurid dinosaurs.

Juveniles had less developed crests, developing them as they matured, and one skull that may represent an adult female also has a smaller crest, suggesting that this feature was sexually dimorphic.

Based on just the anatomy of the nasal passages Rusingoryx may have honked at a frequency similar to a vuvuzela, but the added length of its vocal tract could have lowered this pitch even further, closer to infrasound ranges – so more like a tuba! Such low frequencies can travel very long distances and are also below the hearing range of many carnivores, and would have effectively allowed Rusingoryx to shout at each other in “stealth mode”.

Weird Heads Month #23: Dome-Headed Claw-Horses

Much like Platybelodon from a few entries back, chalicotheres look like a fictional creature design rather than something that actually existed.

These animals were odd-toed ungulates related to modern horses, tapirs, and rhinos, who ranged across Africa, Eurasia, and North America for a large chunk of the Cenozoic. Instead of hooves they had large claws on their feet, and they appear to have occupied the same sort of ecological niche as ground sloths or therizinosaurs – sitting or rearing up on their hind legs to browse on high vegetation, using the hook-like claws on their forelimbs to pull down and strip branches.

There were two different lineages of chalicotheres which developed along slightly different evolutionary paths: the knuckle-walking gorilla-like chalicotheriines and the more goat-like schizotheriines.

Tylocephalonyx skinneri here was one of the latter group, known from the Miocene of North America about 16-13 million years ago. Standing about 2m tall at the shoulder (6’6″), it had the same sort of chunky body as other schizotheriines and walked around with its large front claws held up to keep them raised away from the ground.

But there was also an unusual feature on its otherwise rather horse-like head – a large bony dome on top of its skull, like a mammalian version of a pachycephalosaur.

It probably used its dome in the same way as the dinosaurs it convergently resembled, headbutting or flankbutting in fights with each other.

Weird Heads Month #18: Boneheaded Dinosaurs

Pachycephalosaurs are highly recognizable dinosaurs with their thick spiky skulls, and it’s not hugely surprising that they were the evolutionary cousins of the equally weird-headed ceratopsians.

Much like their frilled relatives they had beaks at the tips of their snouts and large gut cavities for digesting plant matter, but they also had surprisingly sharp theropod-like teeth in front of their more standard herbivore teeth further back – suggesting they may also have been opportunistic omnivores, occasionally snacking on carrion or small animals similarly to modern pigs or bears.

Their striking-looking dome heads were probably used for combat, headbutting or flank-butting each other, and many fossil skulls show evidence of injuries that would have been caused by that sort of behavior.

The eponymous Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis lived in North America right at the end of the Cretaceous, about 70-66 million years ago. It was one of the largest of its kind, reaching lengths of around 4.5m (14’9″), and was characterized by a large bony dome-head surrounded by small blunt spikes.

But it turns out that was probably only what it looked like as a fully mature adult.

Recent discoveries of juvenile Pachycephalosaurus skulls confirmed a hypothesis proposed a few years earlier: these dinosaurs changed appearance drastically as they grew up, and younger individuals had been mistaken for separate species. They started off with domeless flat heads, bristling with long spikes (a form previously named Dracorex hogwartsia) then as they matured their domes began to grow (previously Stygimoloch spinifer) and by full maturity they had big domes with the spikes shrunk down to smaller stubbier knobs (the classic Pachycephalosaurus look).

This particular reconstruction depicts a Stygimoloch-like subadult individual, not quite fully mature and still sporting some longer spikes.


What Triassic animal has a name that sounds like a Transformers character?

Triopticus primus!

Living in Texas, USA, during the Late Triassic, about 229-226 million years ago, Triopticus was a type of archosauriform reptile (a “cousin” to crocodiles, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs). Classifying it any more specifically than that is rather difficult since it’s only known from a single partial skull.

It had five large bony bosses on its head that convergently resembled the domes of pachycephalosaurs, suggesting it may have engaged in similar headbutting or flank-butting behavior. At the back of its skull there was also a distinctive deep pit that looked like a “third eye socket”, inspiring it its name – although this feature probably wasn’t actually a parietal eye, instead just being the result of the way several of the bosses came together at that point.

The rest of its appearance is unknown, and this reconstruction is rather speculative as a result. But based on other archosauriformes it was likely to have been a small semi-sprawling quadruped, possibly around 80cm in length (2′7″).


Litovoi tholocephalos, a multituberculate mammal from the Late Cretaceous of Romania (~70-66 mya). Living on what was at the time the large offshore Hațeg Island, this rat-sized animal (about 25cm /10″ long) was part of a lineage of insectivorous multis called the kogaionids, with the same sort of red-colored enamel on its teeth as other species like Barbatodon.

Its brain was surprisingly tiny proportional to its size – one of the smallest known brain-to-body ratios of any mammal, and more similar to those of non-mammalian cynodonts – but it also seems have been highly specialized for processing sensory input, with relatively enormous regions associated with smell, eyesight, balance, and motor control. The olfactory bulbs of its brain were so enlarged, in fact, that they caused its skull to bulge out into an unusually dome-shaped forehead.

Its reduced brain size may have been due to limited food availability on its isolated island home. Brains are very metabolically expensive organs, and some other extinct island mammals like hippos, hominids, and goats are also known to have evolved smaller brain sizes. Modern shrews even seasonally shrink their own brains during winter for similar energy-saving reasons.