Falcatakely

Modern birds’ upper beaks are made up mostly from skull bones called the premaxilla, but the snouts of their earlier non-avian dinosaur ancestors were instead formed by large maxilla bones.

And Falcatakely forsterae here had a very unusual combination of these features.

Living in Madagascar during the Late Cretaceous, about 70-66 million years ago, it was around 40cm long (1’4″) and was part of a diverse lineage of Mesozoic birds known as enantiornitheans. These birds had claws on their wings and usually had toothy snouts instead of beaks, and many species also had ribbon-like display feathers on their tails instead of lift-generating fans.

Falcatakely had a long tall snout very similar in shape to a modern toucan, unlike any other known Mesozoic bird, with the surface texture of the bones indicating it was also covered by a keratinous beak. But despite this very “modern” face shape the bone arrangement was still much more similar to other enantiornitheans – there was a huge toothless maxilla making up the majority of the beak, with a small tooth-bearing premaxilla at the tip.

This suggests that there was more than one potential way for early birds to evolve modern-style beaks, and there may have been much more diversity in these animals’ facial structures than previously thought.

Retro vs Modern #20: Deinocheirus mirificus

Discovered in Mongolia in the mid-1960s, and named in 1970, Deinocheirus mirificus was a famous paleontological mystery for over 40 years.


1970-2000s

For a long time all that was known of this dinosaur was a few fragments and an enormous pair of arms – some of the largest of any known theropod at 2.4m long (7’10”) – inspiring its name meaning “wonderful terrible hands”.

Initially it was classified as a new type of carnosaur (which was something of a wastebasket group at the time), but similarities with the “ostrich-mimic” ornithomimosaurs were soon noted in the early 1970s. And despite some paleontologists trying to link Deinocheirus to the similarly big-armed therizinosaurs over the decades, the ornithomimosaur interpretation seemed to have won out by the early 2000s.

Depictions of Deinocheirus during this time period were highly speculative and reflected the uncertainty over its evolutionary relationships, varying from giant carnosaurs to therizinosaur-like forms to “Gallimimus but bigger” – or sometimes simply showing a hilarious pair of monster-arms reaching in from out-of-frame. Many popular dinosaur books just gave up entirely and only illustrated the known fossil material unreconstructed, and an iconic photograph of Mongolian paleontologist Altangerel Perle standing between the arms was commonly used to emphasize the sheer scale of the bones.


2020s

In the early 2000s attempts to find more fossil material at the original discovery site had only turned up a few additional fragments, including some belly ribs with evidence of having been bitten by a Tarbosaurus – suggesting that the specimen represented the scattered dismembered bits left behind by a feeding carnivore, and that the rest of the carcass might not even have fossilized.

But then between 2006 and 2009 a team of international paleontologists working in Mongolia found a couple of unusual partial skeletons at sites that had been looted by fossil poachers. While parts like the skulls and feet had been taken, the two specimens were still fairly complete and one still had enough arm material left to clearly identify it as Deinocheirus.

When the discovery was announced at the 2013 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference it was massive surprise to most of the paleontological community, confirming that Deinocheirus was indeed an ornithomimosaur, and that it was an incredibly weird one. Heavily-built, it was a much chunkier animal than its other relatives, and most surprising of all it had a humped “sailback” formed by long neural spines on its back vertebrae.

Then things got even better.

And stranger.

A “weird skull” had been spotted in the private fossil trade in Europe in 2011, along with some hand and foot material that perfectly matched the missing pieces of one of the new Deinocheirus specimens. The fossils were acquired and donated to a Belgian museum, and then finally were repatriated to Mongolia in 2014, filling in the rest of Deinocheirus’ appearance with a suitably surprising head to go with the rest of its body.

We now know Deinocheirus lived about 70 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous, in what is now the Gobi Desert but at the time was a river-delta-like environment with numerous river channels, shallow lakes, and mudflats.

It grew up to about 11-12m long (~36-39′) and had a long narrow skull with a wide beak and a deep lower jaw – resembling a hadrosaur more than an ornithomimosaur – and it had a rather small brain for a theropod of its size, proportionally closer to that of a sauropod. Its fairly weak jaw muscles suggest it mainly fed on soft vegetation, possibly foraging for aquatic plants in bodies of water like an enormous duck. Gastroliths in its gut helped to grind up its food, and the remains of fish in its stomach suggest that it was also somewhat omnivorous.

Its characteristic huge arms were actually one of the least strange things about it, and were actually proportionally smaller compared to its body size than other ornithomimosaurs. They were heavily muscled, though, with large curved claws, and may have been used to dig up food from mud and soft soil or to pull clumps of vegetation closer.

Its skeleton was highly pneumatized, full of lightening air sacs, but it was still a very big and bulky animal with relatively short legs that suggest it was rather slow-moving. Its feet resembled those of both hadrosaurs and tyrannosaurs, with blunt claws and adaptations for heavy weight-bearing in a bipedal stance.

The large sailback may have been a display structure, and the tip of its tail resembled a pygostyle and so may have sported a fan of feathers. The rest of its body was probably feathered similar to what’s known from other ornithomimosaurs, although potentially more sparsely due to its huge size.

Halszkaraptor

Halszkaraptor escuilliei, a dromaeosaurid (“raptor”) dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia (~75-71 mya). It’s known from a single near-complete skeleton and would have been about the size of a modern mallard duck, around 60cm long (2′).

It had some very odd features for a raptor, with many small sharp backwards-pointing teeth, crocodile-like sensory pits on its snout, a long flexible neck, small flipper-like arms, a relatively short tail, and a more upright body posture than its other relatives. All these traits together suggest it may have been semi-aquatic, which is a pretty big deal since the only other group of non-avian dinosaurs known to have developed adaptations for life in the water were the spinosaurids.

The fossil was originally illegally excavated by fossil poachers and was owned by private collectors for several years, but it has now been returned to science and is due to be repatriated to Mongolia. With its odd anatomy and the exact origin of the specimen being unknown, there’s some skepticism about whether Halszkaraptor represents a genuine animal or an elaborate fake chimera – but synchrotron scans of the fossil and its similarity to previously-discovered more fragmentary short-armed raptors like Mahakala suggest that it is real, and it really is that weird.

Utahraptor

Utahraptor ostrommaysorum lived during the Early Cretaceous (~130-124 mya) in Utah, USA, and was the largest known dromaeosaurid. Reaching lengths of around 6m long (20′), it’s often compared in size to the fictional raptors of Jurassic Park.

Recent discoveries show it had some weird proportions compared to its relatives – a thick stocky body, chunky legs, smaller arms, a shorter and more flexible tail, and a large deep skull with an oddly curved lower jaw.

But we still don’t know very much about it… yet.

There’s a huge slab of rock full of Utahraptor fossils just waiting to be extracted and studied. There are at least six raptors in there ranging from babies to adults, hinting at the presence of a family group or even pack hunting behavior, and potentially other animals and new discoveries too – but the main roadblock for this project is lack of funding.

The paleontologists involved have turned to crowdfunding to attempt to raise enough money for essential equipment and the services of a professional fossil preparator, but they’re still only at about 10% of their goal.

So this first week of April is #UtahraptorWeek in the paleontology community, raising awareness of this fascinating giant raptor and how close we are to finding out so much more about it. Spread the word, and if you’re able to please consider helping out the Utahraptor Project on GoFundMe.

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #13 – The Case of the Absent Archaeopteryx

One of the most famous of all fossil organisms, and a classic example of a transitional form, Archaeopteryx is currently known from 12 body fossil specimens.

Except one of them is missing.

The Maxberg specimen was part of the private collection of Eduard Opitsch, the owner of the Bavarian quarry where it was originally discovered in 1956. Despite being partially disintegrated, and missing its head and tail, it was still an immensely important discovery – at the time, it was only the third recognized Archaeopteryx ever found.

After briefly attempting to sell the new Archaeopteryx, Opitsch eventually allowed it to be held at the local Maxberg Museum. In 1974 he permitted casts to be made from it – but then suddenly removed it from public display and refused all further requests to access or study it.

(This may have been a reaction to the 1973 announcement of the more complete Eichstätt specimen. Opitsch, who was described as having “a difficult personality”, became increasingly defensive about the fossil, seeming to feel this new discovery was getting more attention and was deliberately devaluing his own.)

From then on the Maxberg specimen was lost to science.

When Opitsch died in 1991 his heir attempted to locate the fossil – it was rumored to be kept under his bed – but it was nowhere to be found. There’s some speculation that he was buried with it, literally taking his prized Archaeopteryx to the grave as a final act of spite. Another possibility is that it was stolen and sold in secret, perhaps to this day hidden away in a wealthy owner’s private collection.

It’s been missing for over 25 years, but there’s still lingering hope that the missing Maxberg specimen will one day resurface.

For now, though, all we have left are a few casts, photographs, and x-rays.