Phiomicetus

Named after the canine-headed Ancient Egyptian god, Phiomicetus anubis is the first fossil cetacean to discovered, described, and named entirely by a team of Arab paleontologists.

Living during the mid-Eocene, about 43 million years ago, in a shallow sea-covered region that is now part of Egypt‘s Western Desert, Phiomicetus was an early protocetid – an amphibious foot-powered swimmer, at a transitional point in the evolution of whales from deer-like terrestrial animals to fully aquatic screaming torpedoes.

About 3m long (~10′), it had large jaw muscles and sharp teeth with wear patterns that suggest it was a raptorial hunter grabbing and snapping at prey with powerful bites. It would have probably tackled fairly big prey compared to other protocetids, hunting things like large fish, turtles, and even smaller whales in an ecological role similar to that of modern orcas.

Along with the distantly-related long-snouted Rayanistes it’s one of the earliest known whales from Africa, giving us further glimpses at a time period when early cetaceans were first dispersing out from the South Asian subcontinent via the ancient Tethys Sea.

Allodesmus

Desmatophocids were a group of seal-like pinnipeds that appeared very early in the group’s evolution, around 23 million years ago. They were found across the northern Pacific from the west coast of North America to Japan, and were the first pinnipeds to get big, with some species reaching sizes comparable to modern northern elephant seals.

They had a mixture of anatomical features similar to true seals, sea lions, and walruses, but weren’t actually the ancestors of any of those modern groups. Instead they seem to have just been their own separate thing, a very early diverging “cousin” lineage of pinnipeds that convergently developed close resemblances to their later relatives.

Allodesmus demerei here was one of the last known desmatophocids, living in the late Miocene (~9 million years ago) in what is now southwest Washington, USA. 

It would have been a sea lion-like animal, able to walk on all fours when hauled out on land, and showed distinct sexual dimorphism, with males growing to sizes of around 4m long (13′) and females being somewhat smaller. It powered its swimming using its front flippers, and may have mostly foraged in deep dark waters, using both keen vision and sensitive whiskers to locate prey.

The nasal region of its skull also shows some similarities to modern elephant seals, and some reconstructions depict males with the same sort of large proboscis. 

Hyrachyus

What’s the most unexpected fossil you’d think could be found on the island of Jamaica?

How about an ancient rhino?

Hyrachyus here was an early member of the rhinocerotoids, a lineage of odd-toed ungulates that also includes the true rhinoceroses, the tapir-like and hippo-like amynodontids, the long-legged hyracodontids, and the giant indricotheriines.

This particular genus was very widespread for much of the Eocene, found across Europe, Asia, and North America, crossing back and forth between the continents via the North Atlantic land bridge.

The Jamaican Hyrachyus lived during the mid-Eocene, around 45 million years ago, and was very anatomically similar to the North American Hyrachyus affinis – with the known fossil material not being considered distinct enough to be assigned to a new species yet. It was also about 15-20% smaller than its mainland relative, standing only 25cm tall at the shoulder (10″), but it’s not yet clear if this was a case of insular dwarfism or not.

Its presence in ancient Jamaica suggests that there may have been some sort of land connection between the proto-island and Central America during the early Eocene, when a chunk of what would eventually become western Jamaica was located much closer to the coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua. It’s the only fossil ungulate known from the Caribbean, and one of only a few terrestrial mammals in the region with North American evolutionary roots (the others being the extinct rodents Caribeomys merzeraudi and Oryzomys antillarum, and modern solenodons).

Unfortunately these little rhinos didn’t get much time on their island home. Jamaica subsided fully underwater about 40 million years ago, drowning its unique Eocene ecosystem entirely, and wouldn’t re-emerge and be re-colonized until much later in the Cenozoic.

Heliosus

Just before the 2017 solar eclipse, some unusual fossils were discovered in Southern Wyoming, USA.

Consisting of a partial jawbone and a humerus, and dating to the mid-Eocene (~47 million years ago), the remains clearly belonged to an early even-toed ungulate – but one much bigger than the rabbit-sized herbivores known from that time. This was something closer in size and build to a large modern pig, standing at least 1m tall at the shoulder (3’3″).

It turned out to belong to a member of a somewhat obscure lineage known as the helohyids, a group whose evolutionary relationships are a bit uncertain but are generally considered to be part of the whale-and-hippo lineage. These pig-like animals were large opportunistic omnivores, possibly occupying a similar ecological role to the later entelodonts, with some Late Eocene forms reaching sizes comparable to black bears.

This new helohyid was named Heliosus apophis, inspired by the eclipse, with its genus name meaning “sun pig”, and its species name referencing a sun-devouring Ancient Egyptian deity.

It was one of the earliest known large-bodied members of the group, and shows that these animals must have increased in size very rapidly during their early evolution, going from rabbit-sized to pig-sized within just a couple of million years.

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

Borealodon

Modern mysticete whales all have baleen plates in their mouths, but before the evolution of these specialized filter-feeding structures the early members of their lineage still had toothy jaws.

Borealodon osedax here was one of those “toothed mysticetes”, living about 30-28 million years ago during the mid-Oligocene off the coast of Washington state, USA.

Unlike modern baleen whales it was small, about the size of a modern porpoise at around 2m long (6’6″), and the wear on its multi-cusped teeth suggest it was a predator taking slicing bites of fish – possibly using suction-assisted feeding like its close relatives the aetiocetids.

Its fossilized remains are also a rare example of an ancient whale fall, with characteristic bore holes in its bones from Osedax worms.

Paraceratherium

While the largest animal known to ever exist is an aquatic mammal (the modern blue whale), mammals on land have never managed to attain the same sort of massive sizes seen in the sauropod dinosaurs. This is probably due to a combination of factors, including their reproductive strategies, metabolisms, and physiological differences like lacking internal air sacs – but even being limited to overall smaller body sizes, some of the mega-mammals known to have evolved during the Cenozoic were still absolutely enormous.

And one of the largest was Paraceratherium transouralicum.

(The exact name of this animal has a long and complicated history, and in various times and places it’s also been known as Indricotherium, Baluchitherium, and Pristinotherium.)

Found across much of Eurasia during the Oligocene, about 34-23 million years ago, Paraceratherium was part of an ancient lineage of long-legged hornless rhinoceroses. It stood around 4.8m tall at the shoulder (15’9″) – big enough that most modern humans would be able to walk right underneath its belly without even having to duck – and it had elongated limbs and a long neck that gave it an overall appearance much more like a giant weird horse than a rhino.

There was a pair of downward-pointing tusks at the front of its upper jaw, and the shape of the nasal region of its skull suggests its nose formed a short prehensile tapir-like trunk, which would have been used to help grab and strip leaves from high branches.

I’ve also reconstructed it here with a speculative dewlap on its neck, used for both display and thermoregulation.

Eons Roundup 9

New year, new PBS Eons commission roundup day!

The ancient walruses Neotherium and Valenictus, from “How the Walrus Got Its Tusks”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKDGYGV2LK8


The nodosaurid ankylosaur Borealopelta, in both alive and “bloat-and-float” carcass states, from “The Dinosaur Who Was Buried at Sea”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-UZXBF63z4


The ankylosaurid ankylosaurs Gobisaurus and Dyoplosaurus, from “How Ankylosaurs Got Their Clubs”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRt-4SdzWrk

Aegicetus

The protocetids were some of the first oceanic cetaceans, occupying a transitional position in the evolution of whales, with four paddle-like limbs and nostrils only partway up their snouts.

Early members of this group swam like otters, using a combination of undulating their bodies and paddling with large hind limbs, but somewhere in the Late Eocene they switched over to propelling themselves entirely with their tails and gave rise to even more whale-like forms like the basilosaurids.

And Aegicetus gehennae was right in the middle of that switch.

Discovered in the Wadi Al-Hitan (“Valley of the Whales”) fossil site in Egypt, Aegicetus lived around 37-35 million years ago. It was similarly-sized to earlier protocetids like Georgiacetus, measuring about 3.5m long (11’6″), but its hind limbs were proportionally smaller. Its hips were also completely disconnected from its vertebrae, giving it much more flexibility to undulate its body and tail – and preventing it from supporting its weight on land, suggesting that it spent its entire life in the water.

It wasn’t a direct ancestor to more “advanced” cetaceans, since it lived alongside several species of basilosaurids. Instead it seems to represent a late-surviving example of what the earlier protocetid-basilosaurid transitional forms would have looked like.

Kerberos

Named after the mythical dog Cerberus, Kerberos langebadreae was a member of an early group of carnivorous placental mammals known as hyainailourids.

These large-headed predators were part of the hyaenodont lineage, evolutionary cousins to modern carnivorans that convergently developed similar shearing carnassial teeth in their jaws. Hyainailourids originated in Africa during the late Paleocene or early Eocene, and repeatedly dispersed into Eurasia and North America before eventually going extinct in the mid-Miocene.

Kerberos was one of the earliest of its kind known from Europe, living in Southern France during the mid-Eocene about 41-38 million years ago. It was close in size to a small American black bear, standing around 65cm tall at the shoulder (2’2″), not nearly as large as some of its later relatives but still making it one of the biggest carnivorous mammals in Europe at the time.

It was a heavily-built animal with a fully plantigrade posture, and would have been an active apex predator hunting similarly-sized early ungulates. While it wasn’t anatomically specialized for fast running it didn’t really need to be – it’s important to remember that modern bears have a similar chunky flat-footed build and yet can move surprisingly quickly.

Its incredibly powerful jaw muscles and premolar teeth adapted for bone-cracking also suggest it ate like a hyena, efficiently consuming entire carcasses.