Much like how hyraxes were once far more diverse than their modern representatives, some ancient members of the tapir lineage were similarly weird.
Lophialetes expeditus was one of these odd tapir-relatives, living in Mongolia and China during the mid-Eocene about 48-37 million years ago. Standing around 50cm tall at the shoulder (1’8″) it had a build more resembling a deer or a horse than its pig-like modern cousins, and it was adapted for fast running in open plains, with long slender legs and three-toed hoofed feet that bore most of its weight on the middle digit.
Its skull had a nasal region similar to both modern tapirs and saiga antelope, suggesting the presence of a short trunk-like nose – but since some of its closest relatives didn’t have nearly such well-developed snouts, it seems that Lophialetes evolved its trunk separately to modern tapirs.
The placoderms are most famous for some of the biggest members of the group such as the giant blade-jawed Dunkleosteus. But these ancient armored fish were actually incredibly diverse in their time, occupying many different ecological niches and developing a wide range of body shapes.
Perhaps one of the most unusual was Brindabellaspis stensioi from the Early Devonian of New South Wales, Australia. Living around 405 million years ago in a tropical reef ecosystem, this early placoderm was quite small, only about 45cm long (1′6″), and it was recently revealed to have had an especially weird head.
Its skull was flattened with its eyes facing upwards on top, its nostrils came out of the corners of its eye sockets, and its jaws were positioned very far forward. It also had a long flat snout packed full of sensory nerves, sort of like the bill of the modern platypus but using a modified form of the pressure-sensing lateral line system instead of electroreception.
It was probably some sort of bottom-feeder, using its bill to feel around on the seafloor for small prey – and there may even have been a longer and wider soft tissue extension to its sensitive snout, giving it even more of a duck-like shape.
Eretmorhipis carrolldongi, a hupehsuchian marine reptile from the Early Triassic of China (~247 mya).
This species was originally named back in 2015, but at the time the only known specimens were missing their heads. It was assumed that its skull would have looked similar to those of other hupehsuchians… but now new fossils have been found, and it seems to have actually been much much weirder!
Eretmorhipis’ head was surprisingly tiny in proportion to its body – sort of like a marine version of Cotylorhynchus – and its shape convergently resembled the modern platypus, with a wide “duck bill” and very small eyes. It may have hunted for food along the seafloor in a similar manner to the platypus, using either a highly sensitive sense of touch or possibly even electroreception to locate small invertebrates like worms and shrimp.
It also had much larger bony osteoderms than its other known hupehsuchian relatives, forming a distinctive protruding spiky ridge down its back. At about 85cm in length (2′9″) it was one of the largest marine animals around at the time, so this structure probably wasn’t needed for defense – but as with other hupehsuchians its actual function is still unknown.
Ocepechelon bouyai, a sea turtle from the late Cretaceous of Morocco (~70-66 mya). Closely related to the modern leatherback turtle and the pug-nosed Alienochelys, it’s only known from a single 70cm-long skull (2′4″) – and while its body proportions aren’t known for certain it was probably very big, possibly up to 4m long (13′).
Unlike any other known turtle it had a unique narrow tube-shaped snout. This is thought to be an adaptation for suction feeding, vacuuming up tiny fish, squid, and jellyfish in a similar manner to modern pipefish or beaked whales.
Thalattosaurs were a weird and rather mysterious group of Triassic marine reptiles. It’s not clear where they actually fit on the reptile evolutionary tree (we know they’re diapsids, but nobody can really agree on anything more definite than that), and they had some very strange skulls that seem to have been highly specialized for something, although their actual function is still unknown.
Xinpusaurus kohi here is known from the Late Triassic of China (~232-221 mya). About 1.3m long (4′3″), with half of that being its paddle-like tail, it had an elongated upper jaw that formed a protruding pointed spear-shaped snout.
It’s not clear whether this odd snoot was an adaptation for hunting similar to the long bills of swordfish – there’s quite a bit of variation in length and shape between different individual specimens – or if it was serving some other purpose like the sexually dimorphic noses of some modern lizards.