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.
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.
Nicrosaurus kapffi from the Late Triassic of Germany, about 221-205 million years ago. Although rather crocodile-like in appearance, this 4-6m long (13′-19′8″) animal was actually part of an extinct group called phytosaurs – long-snouted heavily-armored reptiles with their nostrils high up on their heads near their eyes.
Phytosaurs’ exact evolutionary relationships are still disputed, with opinions currently going back and forth between them being archosauriformes or an early branch of the croc lineage within the true archosaurs. But either way they weren’t directly ancestral to modern crocodilians, and instead developed a very similar body plan via convergent evolution.
While some phytosaurs had very slender gharial-like snouts and probably fed mostly on fish, others like Nicrosaurus had much more robust jaws and seem to have secondarily adapted to a terrestrial predator lifestyle. They had longer limbs and a more upright posture than their semi-aquatic relatives, and enlarged fangs at the hooked tips of their jaws that may have been used to deliver a powerful stabbing blow to their prey.
Those extinct horses weren’t the only ancient creatures with unexplained noses. Some dinosaurs had equally weird things going on with their snouts – and while hadrosaurs’ big honkin’ snoots are fairly well-known, there were other ornithischians with their own bizarre nasal anatomy.
Many ceratopsids had an enormous nasal opening forming a giant bony “window” through their snout, with the chasmosaurines like the famous Triceratops having additional bony projections and hollowed regions within these holes. They probably supported some huge elaborate cartilage structures in life, but what they were for is still a mystery. They may have helped with heat dissipation or moisture conservation, aided sound production, provided a highly sensitive sense of smell, housed a vomeronasal organ, held part of an air-filled pneumatic system… or, getting more speculative, possibly even some sort of inflatable nasal display structure.
Some ankylosaurids, meanwhile, went with multiple holes instead. Minotaurasaurus here had two additional openings around its nostrils, and Pinacosaurus could have up to five – the purpose of which is unknown. Many ankylosaurs also had forward-facing nostrils (a rare trait in archosaurs) and incredibly complex looping airways through their skulls. These may have allowed for mammal-like “air conditioning”, regulating the heat and moisture content of each breath, or perhaps enhanced their sense of smell or served some sort of resonance chamber function. Or, again, maybe even nose balloons.
Horse evolution is often represented as a simple progression from Eohippus* to modern Equus, but it was actually a lot more complicated than that – and some ancient horses had some very odd things going with their snouts…
(* For a long time Eohippus was considered synonymous with Hyracotherium, but more recently has been split back off as its own genus again.)
And the purpose of these holes is still unknown. Although superficially similar depressions are seen in various other perissodactyl groups, they vary in position and structure and probably weren’t all homologous.
Ideas have included resonating chambers, some sort of glands, inflatable sacs, or attachment sites for complex lip musculature.
Meanwhile Hippidion from the Pleistocene of South America (2 million – 10,000 years ago) had especially long and domed nasal bones. This must have supported an enormous nasal area – possibly giving it a saiga-like air-conditioning system, a highly sensitive sense of smell, or perhaps even some sort of prehensile proboscis-like snout.
Unless we find some exceptional soft-tissue preservation, the facial anatomy of these equids is going to remain enigmatic.