Squaloraja

Discovered in the late 1820s by pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning, the odd-looking fossil of the cartilaginous fish Squaloraja polyspondyla seemed to have characteristics of both sharks and rays.

It was initially thought to be a “missing link” transitional form between those two groups, but later it was identified as being something else entirely – it was actually part of the chimaera lineage, much closer related to modern ratfish, and its ray-like features were due to convergent evolution for a bottom-feeding lifestyle.

Living during the early Jurassic period, about 200-195 million years ago, Squaloraja fossils are now known from the south coast of England, southern Belguim, and northern Italy. Around 30cm long (1’), this weird fish had a massive wide flat snout that looked like an even more extreme version of the long noses seen in some of its modern relatives, and this enormous snoot would have been absolutely packed with sensory receptors to help it locate small aquatic prey hidden in the muddy seafloor.

Some specimens also have a distinctive long horn-like spine on their foreheads, and since these individuals also have claspers it seems like this was a sexually dimorphic feature. Much like the smaller head claspers on modern chimaeras, male Squaloraja probably used this “horn” to hang onto females’ pectoral fins during mating – and with it being such a large elaborate structure it may also have been used for visual display purposes, too.

Cambrian Explosion Month #16: Phylum Chordata – Vertebrata

Vertebrates are by far the most numerous and diverse group of chordates today, with over 65,000 known species including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Genetic studies show that they’re closely related to the weird bag-like tunicates, and their shared common ancestor was probably something lancelet-like.

And the earliest true vertebrates would have looked something like Haikouichthys ercaicunensis.

Continue reading “Cambrian Explosion Month #16: Phylum Chordata – Vertebrata”

Doryaspis

While Doryaspis nathorsti here looked a bit like a weird prehistoric sawfish, it was actually an ancient jawless fish more closely related to modern lampreys and hagfish.

Measuring just 15cm long (6″), this odd little fish lived in the shallow seas of what is now the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, around 407 million years ago during the early Devonian period when the region was located in much more tropical latitudes.

It was part of a group called the heterostracans, a lineage of jawless fish with heavy armor covering the fronts of their bodies. They had no paired fins and relied solely on their powerful tails for propulsion, and some like Doryaspis also developed large stiff wing-like projections from the sides of their armor that acted like hydrofoils to provide extra lift while swimming.

But the strangest feature of Doryaspis is that pointy serrated saw-like “snout” – which wasn’t actually a snout at all, but instead formed from a part of its jawless mouth roughly equivalent to the lower lip and chin.

It’s unclear what the purpose of this appendage was, but it might have been used for prey detection, probing around the muddy seafloor in a similar manner to sawfish or the big-chinned porpoise Semirostrum.

Harpagofututor

Sometimes sexual dimorphism in the fossil record is hard to identify for certain – and sometimes it’s incredibly obvious.

Harpagofututor volsellorhinus here is a wonderful example of the second category. This 17cm long (~7″) cartilaginous fish was a distant relative of modern chimaeras, and lived during the Early Carboniferous about 326-318 million years ago in the shallow tropical sea that formed the Bear Gulch Limestone deposits in Montana, USA.

While all specimens show an elongated eel-like body, they come in two different forms: one with a fairly normal skull, and one with a pair of huge jointed cartilaginous appendages in front of its eyes that resemble antennae or antlers.

The presence of large claspers on the “antlered” forms indicated they were males, with the weird appendages probably being used either for display or as “grappling hooks” to hang onto females during mating.

(Modern male chimaeras also have clasping structures on their heads!)

Meanwhile a couple of non-antlered specimens preserved with unborn offspring still inside their bodies confirmed that these unadorned forms of Harpagofututor were indeed females. Some of their young were quite large and well-developed, suggesting live birth, and with multiple different fetal growth stages found within a single mother it’s also a rare example of fossilized superfetation.

Tridenaspis

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.

Groenlandaspis

The armor-headed placoderms were the dominant fish during the Devonian period, evolving a wonderfully diverse range 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.

Weird Heads Month #31: What Even Is This Fish

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.

Diagram showing how the stoplight loosejaw's jaw parts articulate.
From Kenaley, C. P. (2012). Exploring feeding behaviour in deep-sea dragonfishes (Teleostei: Stomiidae): jaw biomechanics and functional significance of a loosejaw. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 106(1), 224-240. doi.org/10.1111/j.1095-8312.2012.01854.x

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.

Weird Heads Month #11: Scissor-Toothed “Sharks”

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.

A close up drawing of the head of the extinct shark-like fish Edestus. It has a single central row of large teeth in its upper and lower jaws.

Yes, that’s a single central row of teeth in both its upper and lower jaws.

Edestus‘ whorls grew in curving “banana-shaped” brackets that resembled an enormous pair of pinking shears, with new teeth being added on at the back and the oldest teeth occasionally being ejected off from the front. How this jaw arrangement worked was a longstanding paleontological mystery, with various bizarre ideas being proposed over the years – until a particularly well-preserved skull was analyzed in early 2019, revealing a two-jointed system in its lower jaw that allowed it to move its tooth brackets quickly back and forth, using a “snap-and-slice” motion to grab hold of prey like fish and soft-bodied cephalopods and cut them in half.

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.

Holopterygius

Coelacanths are represented today by just two surviving species, one in East Africa and one in Indonesia, both very similar in appearance and ecology to each other.

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

The extinct pycnodonts were a group of mostly circular-shaped fish, convergently similar to modern reef fish like marine angelfish or butterflyfish – but some of them developed much much weirder appearances.

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.