Diictodon

Even before Lystrosaurus briefly took over the world, the dicynodont synapsids were a highly successful group. These herbivorous beaked-and-tusked mammal-cousins were abundant all over the supercontinent of Pangaea during the Late Permian and occupied a wide variety of ecological niches, ranging from rat-sized to almost bear-sized. (And later during the Triassic some got even bigger.)

Towards the smaller end of that size range were species like Diictodon. Living around 259-254 million years ago in Southern Africa (but with fossils also found in northern China, suggesting a much larger geographic range) this dicynodont grew up to about 45cm long (1’6″) and was a gopher-like creature adapted for digging, with a tubular body and short muscular limbs.

It was a very common animal, making up around half of all vertebrate fossils in some locations. Numerous preserved spiral-shaped burrows have been found concentrated in small areas, going down as much as 1.5m (5′) into the ground.

Several different species have been named within the Diictodon genus, but currently they’ve all been lumped together under the single name of Diictodon feliceps. There’s a lot of anatomical variation between specimens, though, with some notably being smaller and lacking the distinctive tusks seen in others – which may be evidence of sexual dimorphism, with the tuskless individuals possibly being females. (Although differences in inner ear anatomy may also indicate they were a separate species entirely, in which case female D. feliceps might instead be represented by fossils showing smaller tusks.)

I’ve illustrated one of the tuskless forms here, since they don’t generally get as much attention as the tusked ones. It’s also speculatively fluffy and iridescent similar to modern golden moles.

Weird Heads Month #30: Lumpy-Faced Synapsids

Among the synapsids (“proto-mammals”), head ornamentation evolved multiple times in the therapsids, from basal members of the group like Tetraceratops, burnetiamorphs, and dinocephalians to later lineages like dicynodonts and gorgonopsids.

But these sorts of structures don’t seem to have really ever developed in one of the lineages most closely related to the ancestors of modern mammals, a group known as therocephalians.

…With the exception of Choerosaurus dejageri.

Living in South Africa during the late Permian, around 259-254 million years ago, this small synapsid was only about 35cm long (1’2″) but sported some large bulging bony bosses on the sides of both its snout and lower jaw.

The bosses would have been covered by tough skin in life, similar to modern giraffid ossicones.

A study of Choerosaurus‘ skull found that its head was rather delicately built, and the bosses were relatively fragile and lacked the sort of reinforcement needed to resist impacts, suggesting that these structures weren’t used as weapons for fighting each other but were probably more for display – so they may even have been brightly colored.

The upper jaw bosses were also well-supplied with nerves and blood vessels, and would have been quite sensitive to touch.

Tiarajudens

Synapsids just keep evolving saber teeth.

Both proto-mammals and true mammals have independently evolved oversized fangs quite a few different times in a lot of different lineages over the last few hundred million years (even in some modern ones), and one of the first to experiment with such a feature was Tiarajudens eccentricus.

Living in southern Brazil towards the end of the Permian period, about 265-260 million years ago, Tiarujudens was an early member of a group of known as anomodonts. These chunky herbivorous synapsids weren’t directly ancestral to modern mammals, but were instead evolutionary cousins, and their lineage eventually included tusked dicynodonts like the world-conquering Lystrosaurus.

Tiarajudens was around 1-1.2m long (3’3″-3’11”) and sported a pair of very long blade-like canine teeth in its upper jaw. Since the rest of its teeth were clearly adapted for eating plants – with one of the the earliest known examples of flat grinding molars that would have allowed it to chew up tough vegetation – these fangs probably served more of a display or defensive function.

The saber teeth may even have been a sexually dimorphic feature like in modern musk deer. Another anomodont from South Africa, Anomocephalus africanus, is incredibly similar to Tiarajudens except for a lack of fangs – and since South America and Africa were connected as part of Pangaea at the time, it’s possible that these two actually represent males and females of the same species.

Without finding a larger number of fossils we can’t know for certain, but it’s an interesting possibility at least.

Diademodon

Modern mammals are the only surviving members of a much larger evolutionary group known as the synapsids – which back in the Permian period were the dominant land vertebrates.

But much like all other life on Earth at the time, the synapsids were absolutely devastated in the “Great Dying” mass extinction at the end of the Permian, 252 million years ago. Only three lineages survived into the Triassic: the dicynodonts (who briefly took over the world), the therocephalians (who went extinct not long afterwards), and the cynodonts (who eventually gave rise to early mammals).

Diademodon tetragonus here lived right in the wake of the extinction during the Early and Middle Triassic, about 251-242 million years ago. Around 2m long (6′6″), it was one of the largest known cynodonts, and it must have been a fairly successful species since it ranged across a large chunk of Pangaea, known from modern southern Africa, South America and Antarctica.

It had pig-like cheekbones and enormous jaw muscles, along with sharp incisors and canine teeth at the front of its jaws and grinding molars at the back. This arrangement suggests that much like modern pigs it may have been an opportunistic omnivore, occasionally snacking on smaller animals and carrion – although an isotope analysis of its teeth indicates the vast majority of its diet was probably still vegetation in shady damp environments.

Lisowicia

Dicynodonts were a group of herbivorous animals with toothless beaks and protruding tusks, part of the synapsid lineage and much closer related to mammals than to reptiles. They were some of the most successful and widespread land vertebrates from the Late Permian to the Middle Triassic, with one genus even briefly taking over the world in the aftermath of the End-Permian mass extinction event.

And it turns out some of them got very big.

Fossils of a surprisingly large dicynodont were first reported in 2008, but it wasn’t until just recently (in late 2018) that this giant creature was finally given an official name – Lisowicia bojani.

Close in size to a modern elephant, at around 2.6m tall (8′6″) and 4.5m long (14′9″), it was by far the largest known example of its kind to have ever lived. And while most other dicynodonts had upright hindlimbs and sprawling forelimbs, Lisowicia seems to have developed a fully upright posture much more similar to that of quadrupedal dinosaurs and modern mammals.

It was also one of the very last of its kind, living during the Late Triassic of Poland, about 208 million years ago (although there was a possible later survivor in Australia). This was around the same time that early sauropod dinosaurs were likewise first starting to experiment with gigantism, suggesting that both groups were convergently evolving to exploit newly-available ecological niches.

Month of Mesozoic Mammals #02: Swimming Cousins

Kayentatherium

Known from the Early Jurassic of Arizona (196-183 mya), Kayentatherium was part of a group of cynodonts called tritylodontids – very close cousins of the true mammals, specialized for herbivory. They had strong jaw muscles, large incisors, and grinding cheek teeth, an arrangement convergently similar to modern rodents, and were some of the latest-surviving non-mammalian synapsids, persisting into the Early Cretaceous.

Kayentatherium wellesi skull by 5of7 || CC BY 2.0

Kayentatherium was one of the larger tritylodontids at just over 1m long (3′3″), and appears to have been semi-aquatic, with oar-shaped hindlimbs and a flattened beaver-like tail. Although not the first non-mammalian synapsid to be interpreted as a swimmer, it was the earliest close relative of the true mammals to develop these sorts of adaptations.

Month of Mesozoic Mammals #01: Cynodont Ancestors

Welcome to March, and the Month of Mesozoic Mammals!

Although traditionally depicted as tiny “boring” shrew-like animals completely overshadowed by the dinosaurs they lived alongside, in the last decade or two we’ve discovered that Mesozoic mammals were actually incredibly diverse. They ranged in size from only a few centimeters to over a meter long, adapted to a wide range of ecological niches, and developed into some of the most successful and long-lived mammal groups of all time.

So this month we’ll be looking at how mammals evolved and experimented during the Age of Dinosaurs, from their earliest Triassic ancestors all the way to the end-Cretaceous extinction.

Starting with…


Thrinaxodon & Trucidocynodon

All mammals are synapsids (related to animals like Dimetrodon), and are descended from a group known as the cynodonts.

Cynodonts originated in the Late Permian, about 260 million years ago, and were one of the few synapsid lineages to survive through the devastating Permian-Triassic extinction. Although not quite mammals themselves, their skeletons were already fairly mammal-like, with semi-upright postures, differentiated thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, a secondary palate that allowed them to eat and breathe at the same time, and pits on their snouts suggesting they had well-developed whiskers – which would also imply the presence of a coat of fur, since whiskers are modified hairs.

An illustration of an extinct cynodont, a close relative of early mammals. It's a vaguely badger-like animal with small ears and a long tail, pictured curled up asleep.
Thrinaxodon liorhinus

Thrinaxodon was an early cynodont about 50cm long (1′8″), living in the Early Triassic of South Africa and Antarctica shortly after the mass extinction (~252-247 mya).

It was capable of digging, with complete specimens found curled up inside their burrows, including pairs that may indicate some form of social behavior and one instance of sharing with a temnospondyl amphibian.


An illustration of an extinct cynodont, a relative of early mammals. It's a somewhat badger-like animal with small ears and a long tail.
Trucidocynodon riograndensis

Trucidocynodon lived later during the Triassic in Brazil (~220 mya) and was one of the biggest known non-mammalian cynodonts at around 1.2m long (4′).

It had more upright limbs than some of its other relatives, and a semi-digitigrade stance that seems to have been adapted for running, suggesting it was an active predator. Considering it was living at a time when predatory crocodile-relatives and early dinosaurs were thought to be the dominant carnivores, its large size is especially surprising.