The earliest branches of the dinocaridids were the “gilled lobopodians”, which had lobopodian-like legs on their undersides and gills on the upper surfaces of their body lobes. The flap-like structures may have initially evolved just to provide a larger surface area for respiration, but they were quickly co-opted for swimming purposes and opened up a whole new range of ecological opportunities to the ancestral dinocaridids.
And some of the most confusing of them were the paracrinoids, which evolved an incredibly diverse range of body shapes during their group’s relatively short 40 million year existence during the Ordovician.
Despite the name these echinoderms weren’t particularly closely related to true crinoids, instead being part of a completely extinct lineage known as the blastozoans. Their ancestors had been radially symmetric, but paracrinoids largely abandoned that body plan, instead developing irregularly shaped and often asymmetric bodies ranging from round to flattened. They had between two and five “food grooves” on their upper surfaces, derived from the ambulacra, lined with numerous feeding appendages along only the left side of each.
They were shallow-water animals, living either attached to the seafloor by a long stem or anchored into the sediment by a shorter one, suspension feeding with their appendages and transporting the food particles towards the mouth located between the bases of the food grooves.
(…And speaking of mouths, some paracrinoid species appear to have had two of them.)
About 10cm tall (4″), it lived on the seafloor in sheltered waters protected from strong waves by large reefs, and is unusual even among its weirdo relatives for features such as retaining feeding appendages on both sides of its food grooves – although irregularly arranged and with fewer on one side than the other. Its body was shaped rather like a flattened bean, with two food grooves diverging from roughly the centre of the top margin, chunky skeletal plates forming a border around its edges, and a short stem at is base.
It also had an unusually large “anal pyramid” on the opposite side of its body from its mouth, and this may have been used for respiration as well as waste expulsion, similar to modern sea cucumbers.
Thylacocephalans were a bizarre group of extinct marine arthropods that often looked like tiny alien creatures – and whose evolutionary relationships are still uncertain. Despite existing in oceans around the world for at least 350 million years, their fossil record is rather spotty and their internal anatomy is often poorly preserved, making it difficult to figure out anything more specific than “probably some sort of crustacean“.
Living during the early Silurian, around 436 million years ago, in the region that today is part of Wisconsin, USA (found in the same fossil formation as last week’s Venustulus), this species measured up to about 7.5cm long (3″). Its body was enclosed by a large bivalved carapace, with protruding stalked eyes and what may have been a pair of antennae, along with smaller raptorial limbs than its later relatives.
While it was less specialized than other thylacocephalans it was probably a similar sort of swimming predator, catching prey with its spiny limbs.
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.
Much like Platybelodon from a few entries back, chalicotheres look like a fictional creature design rather than something that actually existed.
These animals were odd-toed ungulates related to modern horses, tapirs, and rhinos, who ranged across Africa, Eurasia, and North America for a large chunk of the Cenozoic. Instead of hooves they had large claws on their feet, and they appear to have occupied the same sort of ecological niche as ground sloths or therizinosaurs – sitting or rearing up on their hind legs to browse on high vegetation, using the hook-like claws on their forelimbs to pull down and strip branches.
Tylocephalonyx skinneri here was one of the latter group, known from the Miocene of North America about 16-13 million years ago. Standing about 2m tall at the shoulder (6’6″), it had the same sort of chunky body as other schizotheriines and walked around with its large front claws held up to keep them raised away from the ground.
But there was also an unusual feature on its otherwise rather horse-like head – a large bony dome on top of its skull, like a mammalian version of a pachycephalosaur.
It probably used its dome in the same way as the dinosaurs it convergently resembled, headbutting or flankbutting in fights with each other.
With their odd-looking skulls, long tusks, and their noses and upper lips modified into tentacle-arm-like trunks, modern elephants are the sort of animal that would seem completely unbelievable if we only had fossils of them.
But not nearly as strange as some of their ancient relatives.
Platybelodon is probably the most famously weird member of the proboscideans (the group that contains both modern elephants and their extinct cousins), looking like some sort of deliberately outrageous speculative creature design.
Living during the mid Miocene, around 15-4 million years ago, several different species of Platybelodon ranged across Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America, with Platybelodon grangeri here known from abundant fossils in Asia.
These strange-looking proboscideans stood around 2.2m tall (7’3″) and had fairly standard elephant-like bodies, but also heads with bizarre-looking elongated lower jaws that ended in a wide flat shovel-like shape tipped by two flat tusks, leading to their nickname of “shovel-tuskers”.
It was originally interpreted as a swamp-dwelling animal using its weird jaw to scoop up soft aquatic vegetation, with a fairly short flat trunk. But more recent studies of the wear patterns on its teeth suggest it actually used them more like a scythe than a shovel, cutting through tough grasses and branches – a feeding style that would also require it to have a much more modern-elephant-like trunk, using it to hold on to plants while it was sawing through them.
And Estemmenosuchus mirabilis here was particularly elaborately ornamented, earning it a name meaning “wondrous crowned crocodile”. It lived in the Perm region of Russia during the mid Permian, about 268-265 million years ago, and was one of the largest dinocephalians, reaching at least 3m long (9’10”).
It had two big antler-like structures on its head, two wide cheek flanges, and a small nose horn, almost looking like the synapsid version of a ceratopsid dinosaur – and with its big bulky body, fairly erect-legged posture, and herbivorous-or-omnivorous diet it may have been a fairly close ecological equivalent to them, too.
But it’s also possible it was semi-aquatic, and it certainly does have a very hippo-like appearance when reconstructed with a decent amount of soft tissue.
One specimen of Estemmenosuchus even preserved skin impressions around its face, which were described in Russian in the early 1980s. They show scaleless glandular skin with a slightly bumpy texture, similar to that of hairless mammals or some amphibians. Since it occupied a point in the synapsid family tree close to where hair may have originated (somewhere in the Permian therapsids), it’s not clear if it was entirely hairless or if it had just secondarily lost some of it.
Two different species have been identified, with Prolibytherium magnieri here living in North Africa during the early-to-mid Miocene, about 17-16 million years ago. Its exact evolutionary relationships are uncertain but it was probably part of a group called climacoceratids, deer-like giraffoids which often had thorny branching ossicones that resembled antlers.
It stood around 1.2m tall at the shoulder (~4′), and exhibited dramatic sexual dimorphism – females had slender forked horn-like ossicones, while those of the males flared out into large wide flat shapes that resembled butterfly wings.
Heavy reinforcement in the bones of the back of the males’ skulls helped to support all the extra weight of those huge ossicones, and if they actually used the structures to fight with each other then this may have also provided some protection or shock absorption.
One of the most immediately recognizable examples of extinct animals with strange head structures are the pterosaurs, almost always depicted in pop culture with a large Pteranodon-like head crest.
But that wasn’t anywhere near as weird as pterosaur crests got.
Nyctosaurus gracilis here had an absolutely ridiculous elaborate crest, sporting an enormous antler-like structure on the back of its skull that grew to lengths longer than its own body.
Living around the Western Interior Seaway of the Midwestern United States during the Late Cretaceous, around 85 million years ago, it was a fairly small pterosaur standing about 40cm tall without the crest (1’4″) and with a 2m wingspan (6’6″). Its wings were long and narrow, and had completely lost the three small clawed fingers seen on other pterosaurs, suggesting it may have been less capable of moving around on the ground. It’s thought to have been a specialized soaring flier that spent most of its life on the wing at sea, much like a modern albatross.
Made up of two long thin spars arising from a common base, Nyctosaurus‘ crest has sometimes been reconstructed with a large sail-like membrane of skin – but since there’s no evidence at all of soft-tissue attachment on the bones, this seems unlikely. Juveniles were crestless, with only fully mature adults developing their spectacular headgear, so it was probably some sort of display structure.
It’s also not clear whether there was any sexual dimorphism in Nyctosaurus, since well-preserved skulls with intact crests are incredibly rare. But as with most other crested pterosaurs it’s likely that all mature individuals had crests, just with a difference in size and shape between sexes.
While this might look like a sci-fi alien design, it was actually a very real Earth animal!
This strange-looking creature was Clausocaris lithographica, a member of a group of unique marine arthropods known as thylacocephalans. Only about 3.5cm long (1.4″), it lived in a shallow tropical lagoon environment during the Late Jurassic of Germany, about 150-145 million years ago.
Like most other thylacocephalans it had a narrow flattened shield-like carapace, three pairs of large grasping limbs, and a battery of swimming appendages further back – along with absolutely enormous bulbous eyes. Based on this anatomy it would have been a highly visual hunter, using its huge eyes to locate prey items and then snagging them with its long spiny limbs.
And we’re not even entirely sure what type of arthropods thylacocephalans actually were. They’re generally thought to be some sort of crustacean, but their highly modified anatomy makes linking up their exact evolutionary affinities very difficult. Whatever they were, they must have been incredibly successful as a group because they first appeared in the early Cambrian (~518 mya) and survived all the way into the Late Cretaceous (~94 mya).