Coelurosauravus

Remarkably similar-looking gliding reptiles have appeared multiple different times over the group’s evolutionary history, including the modern Draco – and despite being unrelated to each other almost all of them have achieved this in the exact same way, supporting their wing membranes on extremely elongated rib bones.

…Except for the weigeltisaurids.

These early members of the neodiapsid lineage were the very first vertebrates known to have experimented with gliding, all the way back in the late Permian period 260-252 million years ago. And while they superficially resembled all the later rib-gliders, their wings were actually something never seen before or since in a gliding reptile.

Basically, these animals were the closest that Earth life ever came to legitimately evolving a dragon.

Coelurosauravus elivensis here was a weigeltisaurid living in what is now Madagascar, which at the time was part of southern Pangaea. About 40cm long (1’4″), its body was adapted for a life climbing and gliding around in the treetops, with pneumatized air spaces lightening its bones and long slender limbs similar to those of modern tree-climbing lizards.

Its large wings were formed from around 30 pairs of long hollow rod-shaped bones extending out from the sides of its belly. These flexible structures could furl and unfurl with a motion like a foldable fan, and are thought to have been highly modified from osteoderms in the skin, creating an entirely new part of its skeleton. 

Towards the front of the wing the rods were arranged in several closely-packed “bundles”, and one specimen of Coelurosauravus preserves an impression of what seems to be the outline of the wing membrane’s leading edge – showing a stiffened pointed shape resembling the alula of a bird wing, which may have served a similar aerodynamic stabilization function.

From fig 2 in Schaumberg, G. et al (2007). New information on the anatomy of the Late Permian gliding reptile Coelurosauravus. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 81, 160–173. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02988390

But aside from the wings, the most striking feature of weigeltisaurids were their heads. Their skulls featured large crest-like frills resembling those of chameleons and ceratopsid dinosaurs, and their edges were adorned with prominent bumps and spikes. These were probably used for visual display and might have been a sexually dimorphic feature, with males having larger spikier crests than females. The crests may also have anchored large powerful jaw muscles, giving weigeltisaurids a wider gape and faster bite speed, helping them to snap up their fast-moving insect prey.

Adalatherium

Even for a fossil species from an isolated island, Adalatherium hui is very weird.

This mammal was part of an enigmatic group known as gondwanatheres, which were probably early members of the theriiform lineage – slightly closer related to modern marsupials and placentals than to monotremes. Found in the southern continents of Gondwana between the Late Cretaceous and the Miocene, these animals were adapted for herbivory with convergently rodent-like ever-growing front teeth that helped them chew through tough plant matter.

They were previously known mainly from isolated teeth and jaw fragments, with some rare full skull material, but Adalatherium is remarkable for being represented by a complete skeleton.

And it’s turned out to be far stranger than anyone expected.

Living in northwestern Madagascar during the Late Cretaceous, about 70-66 million years ago, Adalatherium was one of the larger known Mesozoic mammals at around 60cm long (2′) – although the one known specimen seems to have been a juvenile, so mature individuals were probably slightly larger.

(And based on its body proportions, its close relative Vintana may actually have been even bigger than previously thought. Whether this sort of large size was common in Cretaceous gondwanatheres or if this was just island gigantism is still unknown, though.)

It was probably a marmot-like digging animal, excavating burrows with its large claws and powerful limbs, and since it likely evolved from ancestors that had become isolated on Madagascar over 20 million years earlier it had developed a very unusual mixture of both “primitive” and highly specialized anatomical features. It had more back vertebrae than any other known Mesozoic mammal, upright forelimbs, sprawling hind legs with bowed-out tibias, strong back and leg musculature, and a therian-like pelvis with epipubic bones.

And then there’s the snoot.

The snout region of Adalatherium‘s skull was pockmarked with a large number of foramina, holes that allow the passage of nerves and blood vessels through the bone. It had more of these than any other known mammal, and their presence suggests that it probably had a very sensitive upper lip and whiskery snout. Most mammals with a lot of whiskers just have one very big foramina, but Adalatherium seems to have evolved a different solution to the same problem.

It also had one other bizarre feature – a hole in the top of its nose. A large “internasal vacuity” between its nasal bones is a unique feature not known in any other mammal, and its function is a total mystery.

Since this hole was also surrounded by many foramina it may have supported some sort of soft-tissue sensory structure on top of its nose. So I’ve speculatively depicted it here with a leathery horn-like “shield”.

Adalatherium skull
From fig 2 in Krause, D. W. et al (2020). Skeleton of a Cretaceous mammal from Madagascar reflects long-term insularity. Nature 581, 421–427. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2234-8

Voay

Did you know some crocodiles have “horns”?

Formed from the corners of the squamosal bone at the back of their skulls, just above their ears, these structures are seen in living crocs like the Cuban crocodile and the Siamese crocodile, as well as some fossil species.

But perhaps the most impressively-horned croc was Voay robustus here.

Voay lived on the island of Madagascar during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene, between about 100,000 and 2,000 years ago. At about 5m long (16′5″) it was similar in size and build to a large male Nile crocodile – but despite this resemblance its closest living relative is actually the much smaller dwarf crocodile.

It had a fairly short and deep snout and chunky limbs, adaptations associated with a more terrestrial lifestyle that suggest it was specialized for hunting its prey on land rather than just at the water’s edge.

Much like modern horned crocodiles its particularly prominent horns were probably used for territorial displays, and may have been a sexually dimorphic feature with big mature males having the largest examples.

Voay’s disappearance just a couple of thousand years ago may have been the result of the arrival of human settlers on the island, either from being directly hunted or due to the large native species it preyed on also going extinct around the same time.

Island Weirdness #23 – The Bibymalagasy

One of the most mysterious members of Madagascar’s pre-human ecosystem was a creature known as Plesiorycteropus, or the “bibymalagasy”.

It’s known only from fragmentary remains, including a few limb bones, vertebrae, partial skulls, and partial pelvises – with two different species identified, the larger Plesiorycteropus madagascariensis and the smaller Plesiorycteropus germainepetterae. For a long time it was it was unclear what type of mammal it even was and the best guess seemed to be “some sort of small aardvark-relative” based on anatomical similarities, but various studies disagreed and some even considered it to represent a completely unique order of mammals.

In 2013 an analysis of preserved collagen from one bone finally gave a better answer – Plesiorycteropus was most closely related to tenrecs, which arrived in Madagascar via ocean rafting during the mid-Cenozoic, and the skeletal resemblance to aardvarks was due to convergent evolution.

It was built for scratch-digging, using its strong forelimbs and claws to dig while bracing itself with its hindlimbs and long thick tail. Its snout had large nasal cavities, indicating a good sense of smell, and similarities to the skulls of armadillos suggest it had the same sort of diet of insects, grubs, worms, and other soft foods. It may also have fed on ants and termites.

Since it’s only known from fragments its full size is hard to determine, but rough estimates suggest Plesiorycteropus madagascariensis was “small dog-sized” – possibly having a head-and-body length of 60-80cm (2′-2′7), and a total length of over 1m (3′3″).

Unlike some other extinct Malagasy animals there are no historical or folkloric accounts of anything resembling the bibymalagasy. One bone has been carbon dated to just over 2000 years ago, shortly after the arrival of human settlers, and it seems to have gone extinct very soon after that date.

Island Weirdness #22 – Aepyornis maximus

Along with a lot of unusual mammals, Madagascar was also home to some of the largest birds to ever exist: the giant elephant birds.

Despite being located so close to mainland Africa, these enormous flightless ratites weren’t the closest relatives of ostriches as might be expected. Instead their closest living relatives are the kiwis of New Zealand, and they must have descended from flying ancestors that reached Madagascar across the Indian Ocean sometime during the early-to-mid Cenozoic.

Aepyornis maximus was one of the biggest of these big birds, standing around 3m tall (9′10″) and weighing over 500kg (1,100 lbs). Its eggs were equally massive, up to 34cm long (1’1″) and with a circumference of over 1m (3′3), making them the largest known eggs laid by any vertebrate.

Recent studies of the shape of its brain within its skull show that it had a good sense of smell but very poor eyesight – possibly being near-blind – suggesting that much like its kiwi relatives it was highly specialized for a nocturnal lifestyle.

There were several other species of elephant bird throughout Madagascar, and at least some of them appear to have successfully survived alongside humans for quite some time. Carbon dating of eggshells suggests they were still alive around 1000 years ago, and based on historical mentions they may have persisted as late as the 1600s before finally disappearing.

Island Weirdness #21 – The Malagasy Mini-Hippos

Much like elephants, hippos have frequently made their way onto islands and developed dwarfed forms. These mini-hippos are mostly known from the Mediterranean, but further south they also occurred on Madagascar.

Hippopotamus madagascariensis (also sometimes called Hexaprotodon madagascariensis or Choeropsis madagascariensis; its exact classification is uncertain) was similar in size and appearance to the modern West African pygmy hippo – which it might have been closely related to, or may have just ended up resembling through parallel evolution.

Standing under 1m tall at the shoulder (3′3″) and measuring about 1.8m long (5′11″) it lived in the forested highlands and was much more terrestrial than its larger cousins. Its eyes were further down on the sides of its head, and it was better adapted for walking and running around on land, with proportionally longer legs and a more digitigrade posture.

It also had an unusually small brain for its size – about 30% smaller than expected – which may have been an energy-saving adaptation.

Two other species of dwarf hippo have been identified on Madagascar – the similarly-sized but more aquatic Hippopotamus lemerlei in the west of the island, and the larger and poorly-known Hippopotamus laloumena in the east. It’s not clear when exactly the ancestors of these various hippos first arrived on the island, and they may even represent three independent colonization events.

The last known subfossils date to about 1000 years ago, but surprisingly accurate accounts of similar creatures in Malagasy folklore raise the possibility that small isolated populations of these hippos may have survived into more recent times. One of the most intriguing examples is the kilopilopitsofy, described as having large floppy ears and supposedly being sighted as recently as the 1970s.

Island Weirdness #20 – Megaladapis

While some of the lemurs of Madagascar were surprisingly sloth-like, another lineage of these primates evolved in a different direction entirely.

Megaladapis was built similarly to a koala, with a rather squat body and hands and feet adapted for clinging onto branches. Three different species have been identified, with the largest measuring around 1.5m long (4′11″).

Its skull resembled that of a cow, with eyes on the sides of its head, a long snout, and powerful chewing jaw muscles for processing its diet of tough leaves. It also had a very unusual nose for a primate, with nasal bones similar to rhinos – suggesting it may have had an enlarged prehensile upper lip used for grasping foliage.

Much like some of the sloth lemurs, carbon dating of subfossil remains indicates that these “koala lemurs” may have survived until surprisingly recently – possibly only going extinct about 500-600 years ago.

Island Weirdness #19 – Archaeoindris fontoynontii

The small and medium-sized sloth lemurs of Madagascar were incredibly convergent with modern tree sloths, and the biggest member of the group likewise seems to have been the closest they came to evolving a ground sloth equivalent.

Archaeoindris was the largest known lemur – and one of the largest primates – similar in size to a modern gorilla at about 1.5m tall (4′11″). It would have been a slow-moving animal which fed mostly on leaves, and while it was still capable of climbing around in larger trees it was probably much too bulky for upside-down suspension like its smaller relatives, and would likely have had to regularly traverse the ground to reach new feeding sites.

It seems to have been a fairly rare member of the ecosystem, living only in the Central Highlands, and the last known remains date to just over 2000 years ago – around the same time that humans first reached that area of the island. Sadly a combination of factors such as the giant lemurs’ slow reproductive rate, habitat loss, and hunting pressure was too much for their population to recover from all at once, and they probably went extinct very soon after that date.

Island Weirdness #18 – Palaeopropithecus

The island of Madagascar has been isolated from other landmasses for almost 90 million years, and as a result there are many lineages present there found nowhere else on Earth.

Lemurs are one of the island’s most famous residents, having arrived from Africa via a rafting event sometime early in the Cenozoic and evolving to fill the ecological niches occupied elsewhere by monkeys and apes. But while there are around 100 lemur species alive today, there used to be more before the arrival of humanssubfossil remains from the last 25,000 years hint at an ecology with even greater diversity, and types of lemurs much larger than any still living today.

The sloth lemurs, as their name suggests, resembled modern sloths in a remarkable case of convergent evolution. With long limbs and long hooked fingers and toes they were adapted for swinging through trees and hanging from branches, feeding on a wide range of plant material such as leaves, fruit, and seeds.

Palaeopropithecus was one of the larger members of this group, and the most specialized for sloth-like upside-down suspension. Three different species have been identified, with the biggest (Palaeopropithecus maximus) possibly measuring around 1m long (3′3″).

It probably spent almost its entire life in the trees, and would have been slow and awkward on the ground. Malagasy folklore about a creature known as the tretretretre or tratratratra, which couldn’t navigate on smooth flat surfaces, may even represent a cultural memory of Palaeopropithecus from before its extinction – which may have happened as recently as within the last 500-1000 years.