Although the only surviving agnathans in modern times are the lampreys and hagfish, back in the early-to-mid-Paleozoic these “jawless fish” were much more diverse. Many of them were heavily armored with large bony head shields – a feature eventually inherited by early jawed fish like the placoderms – which protected their heads, gills, and some of their internal organs.
And some of the oddest-looking of these armored agnathans was a lineage known as the galeaspids.
Known from southern China, Tibet, and Vietnam, these small fish were bottom-dwellers living in the shallow waters of lagoons and river deltas. Their most distinctive feature was a single large opening on the upper side of their head shields – and despite looking like a particularly goofy mouth this hole was actually a nostril, used for both a sense of smell and as a water intake for their gills. The actual mouth and the gill openings were on the underside of the head.
While early galeaspids had rounded head shields, later forms developed some more unusual shapes, with long spines sticking out to each side and pointed or spatula-shaped snouts.
Tridenaspis magnoculus here lived during the early Devonian in Southwest China, about 407-393 million years ago, and was only about 5cm long (2″). It wasn’t the most extremely pointy of its kind, but still had a weird kite-shaped head shield, a long vertical slit-shaped nostril opening, and rather large upwards-facing eyes.
The armor-headed placoderms were the dominant fish during the Devonian period, evolving a wonderfullydiverserange of shapes and sizes, and occupying ecological niches in both marine and freshwater habitats.
Groenlandaspis antarctica here lived during the mid-to-late Devonian, about 383 million years ago, in the Oates Land region of Antarctica – at that time located further north than it is today, with the local climate being warm and subtropical.
It was a moderately-sized river-dwelling placoderm, around 50cm long (1’8″), and its bony armor formed a sort of pyramid shape with wing-like projections at its sides, a structure that would have acted as a hydrofoil and made it an efficient swimmer. Most of the armor plates were rigidly fused together, except for a hinge point between its head and thorax that allowed it to open its jaws, but unlike its more famous relative Dunkleosteus it couldn’t gape its mouth open particularly wide. It may have been a bottom-feeder, grubbing around in muddy riverbeds and using its small but strong jaws to crush hard-shelled prey.
Various other species of the Groenlandaspis genus have been found all around the world, but there’s something incredibly rare and special about Groenlandaspis antarctica in particular:
We actually know what color it was.
Preserved pigment cells in its fossils indicate that it was red on top and silvery-white on its underside in a countershaded pattern, camouflaging it in the murky silty waters of the ancient Antarctic rivers.
…And also made it look a bit like a prehistoric goldfish.
For the final entry in this series, let’s take a look at a modern weird-headed species – and where better to find some of the strangest and most unique-looking animals alive today than the deep sea?
Malacosteus, also known as the stoplight loosejaw, is a 25cm long (10″) genus of dragonfish found at depths of over 500m (1640′) in oceans all around the world, with the exception of the Mediterranean and polar waters. Two different species are currently recognized, with Malacosteus niger here known from just below the Arctic Circle down to the southern reaches of the subtropics, and Malacosteus australis ranging from there to around 45°S, and up towards the equator in the Indian Ocean.
And there’s a lot to unpack here with the anatomy of this one.
First of all, there’s the fact that its entire head can hinge away from its body, gaping enormous jaws with long fang-like teeth.
The bottom of its lower jaw has no skin membrane connecting the two sides, attached to the rest of its bizarre head only by the hinges and a single exposed muscle, reducing water resistance so it can shoot its trap-jaws out extra fast to snare prey.
Once it catches something it retracts its head, and several sets of pharyngeal teeth further back grab hold of its prey and direct it down its throat.
(Let me remind you that this isn’t an early April Fools joke. This thing is completely real.)
In addition to all that anatomical weirdness, it’s also one of the only deep-sea fish that can both see and produce red-colored light. Most creatures living at that depth have lost the ability to see red since that frequency doesn’t penetrate so far down through water, but the stoplight loosejaw has evolved to take advantage of that by using bioluminescent red light as its own personal night vision goggles.
Using large red photophores under each eye, it can shine a spotlight out ahead of itself and see other deep-sea animals all clearly lit up, while remaining completely invisible to both them and any nearby larger predators. It’s able to perceive the color red thanks to a pigment in its eyes modified from chlorophyll, a visual setup unique to this fish and not known from any other vertebrate.
It also has a smaller green photophore further down on its head – inspiring its common name thanks to the resemblance to traffic lights – and many smaller blue and white ones over its head and body.
So, with its highly specialized jaws and ability to see things other deep-sea animals can’t, the stoplight loosejaw must be hunting something pretty impressive, right?
And as it turns out, it eats… plankton.
The vast majority of its diet appears to be copepods, small zooplanktoic crustaceans that are incredibly common in the waters the loosejaw inhabits. It may simply be “snacking” on such a convenient food source in-between rare encounters with larger prey – but it may also be getting the chlorophyll-based pigment needed for its night vision from eating them.
The eugeneodontidans were a group of cartilaginous fish which convergently evolved to resemble sharks but were much closer related to modern chimaeras. Due to their cartilage skeletons usually little more than their teeth are found as fossils, and for a long time their ecology and life appearance has been poorly understood because of just how weird those teeth were.
These fish had unique “tooth whorls” in their lower jaws, and the most famous member of the group is probably Helicoprion, with the exact anatomical placement of its buzzsaw-whorl only being properly figured out in 2013.
But another eugeneodontidan named Edestus was equally strange.
Living during the late Carboniferous, about 306-299 million years ago, Edestus giganteus was the largest species in the genus, reaching estimated lengths of up to 6m (19’8″), similar in size to a modern orca or a particularly large white shark.
Let’s take a closer peek at that mouth.
Yes, that’s a single central row of teeth in both its upper and lower jaws.
Along with body impressions from other related eugeneodontidans like Fadenia, showing a shark-like tail and a complete lack of rear fins, we now have a much better picture of what this bizarre fish probably looked like.
For a long time their lineage was thought to be all “living fossils“, retaining the same basic body plan for the last 400 million years – but more recent discoveries have revealed that these fish were actually much more diverse over the course of their evolutionary history.
Holopterygius nudus was a fairly early member of the group, living during the mid-Devonian about 385 million years ago. The only known fossil specimen was discovered in Germany in the 1970s, but it was originally thought to be a different type of fish entirely and wasn’t identified as being a coelacanth until over 30 years later.
And compared to its living relatives it was tiny, just 7cm long (2.75″), with a distinctive tapering eel-like tail. Its convergent close resemblance to modern cusk-eels suggest it may have occupied a similar ecological niche, living near the sea floor and hiding in tight spaces like crevices and burrows.
Rostropycnodus gayeti here was one of the especially odd-looking forms, known from the mid-Cretaceous of Lebanon about 100-95 million years ago.
It had an elongated snout with the upper jaw longer than the lower, a pointed spiky horn on its forehead, and a massive pectoral region that bulged out at the front of its body. Meanwhile its pectoral fins were modified into big immobile spines, and its pelvic fins were highly reduced and positioned beneath another set of large spines.
And it was tiny, only about 5.5cm long ~(2″).
It would have been a slow swimmer, relying on its spikiness to deter larger predators, and it’s currently unclear what it ate with its unusual spiny snout. Many other pycnodonts had mouths full of round crushing teeth, but Rostropycnodus’ jaws seem to have been mostly toothless – so perhaps it used its snout to probe around in cracks or sediment for small soft-bodied invertebrates.
Although it looked very shark-like it was actually much more closely related to modern chimaeras, and its most distinctive feature was the forward-pointing “unicorn horn” spine just behind its head – a sexually dimorphic structure formed from a highly modified dorsal fin, found only on mature males.
The spine’s function is unknown for certain, but it may have been a sort of clasper involved in courtship and mating, since one fossil seems to preserve a female in the act of biting onto it. Some of its close relatives like Damocles and Stethacanthus also had similarly weird dorsal fins, so whatever these fish were actually doing with these structures it must have been a fairly successful strategy.
Falcatus lived out in the open ocean, with proportionally big eyes giving it good vision in deep dark water, and its large symmetrical tail fin suggests it was a fast maneuverable swimmer that actively chased after small prey. Numerous fossils have been found together, which may also indicate schooling behavior.
Although definite fossils of falcatids are only known from the Carboniferous, recently there’s been some possible evidence of them surviving for much much longer. A few isolated fossil teeth from Europe suggest that some of these fish may have persisted for at least another 180 million years into the Early Cretaceous, living in isolated deep water refugia environments in a similar situation to the modern coelacanth – making them fossils of what would have been “living fossils” at the time!
Coelacanths are famous for being “living fossils”, completely disappearing from the fossil record at the end of the Cretaceous but then being rediscovered alive just 80 years ago. But although they’re often thought to have physically changed very little over the last 300 million years or so, more recent discoveries are starting to show that coelacanth body forms and lifestyles were actually more varied in the distant past.
Meet the wonderfully-named Rebellatrix divaricerca, from the Early Triassic of British Columbia, Canada (~251-247 mya). Measuring around 1.3m long (4′3″), its body shape and large symmetrical forked tail suggest it was adapted for fast swimming. Unlike its slow-moving deep-water modern relatives this coelacanth was a speedy oceanic active predator, convergently similar to tuna or some sharks.
Since it lived in the immediate wake of the end-Permian “Great Dying” mass extinction, Rebellatrix may have rapidly evolved from more standard-looking coelacanths to take advantage of a suddenly vacant ecological niche – or it might be part of a more extensive unusual lineage whose other members simply haven’t been discovered yet.
It was heavily armored, with large plate-like scales creating a boxfish-like carapace, but its most distinctive feature was its multiple long spines – three dorsal spines on its back, a fourth on its head resembling a “horn”, a pair of smaller spines on the sides of its body, and one on its underside formed from partially fused vestigial pelvic fins.