Weird Heads Month #24: Hook-Snouted Swimmers

Thalattosaurs were another group of weird Triassic animals, found in coastal marine environments all around the world. Their evolutionary relationships are unclear beyond “they were some sort of diapsid reptile”, and they were well adapted for aquatic life, with streamlined lizard-like bodies, short limbs with webbed feet, and long paddle-like tails.

Most of them had long narrow toothy snouts, but others had odd spear-shaped noses or downturned upper jaws

Hescheleria rubeli here was one of the strangest, living in Europe during the mid Triassic, about 247-235 million years ago. It was one of the smaller known species of thalattosaurs, around 1m long (3’3″), and had a particularly bizarre-looking head.

A close-up of the head of the extinct marine reptile Hescheleria. The front of its snout is sharply downturned, forming a near-right-angled hooked shape, with small sharp teeth at the front of its jaws along with a pair of large conical bony projections in its lower jaw.

Its snout was so sharply curved downward that it formed a right-angled hook relative to the rest of its jaws, sort of resembling the initial interpretation of Atopodentatus but without the vertical split.

There were also small sharp teeth at the front of its mouth, along with a pair of large conical bony projections on its lower jaw.

This weird arrangement must have been highly specialized for something, but its actual function is still unknown. One suggestion is that the large jaw-spikes were used to crunch into hard-shelled prey, although there doesn’t seem to have been any reinforced surface in the upper jaw for them to crush against.

But I personally wonder if maybe these jaws were the equivalent of the hooked kypes seen in the males of some modern salmonid fish – structures associated with dominance fighting.

Weird Heads Month #15: Hammerhead Reptiles

Atopodentatus unicus lived in Southwest China during the early-to-mid Triassic, around 247-240 million years ago. About 3m long (9’10”), it was a marine reptile – probably part of an early branch of the sauropterygians – with an elongated streamlined body and paddle-like limbs.

When it was originally described in 2014 it seemed to have a head unlike anything seen before. The skull of the only known fossil specimen was incomplete and badly crushed, but it was reconstructed as having a downward-hooking upper jaw with a vertical split in the middle forming a zipper-like row of teeth.

An illustration of the old interpretation of Atopodentatus. It has a bizarre vertical split in the front of its snout full of needle-like teeth resembling a zipper.
The original version of Atopodentatus

But then just two years later some more complete skulls were discovered and revealed something completely different: the projections on Atopodentatus‘ snout actually stuck out to each side in a wide flat “hammerhead” shape on both its upper and lower jaws.

Not quite as bizarre as before, but still a Triassic weirdo!

It also seems to have been a rare example of a herbivorous Mesozoic marine reptile, probably rooting around on the seafloor with its shovel-like mouth, using its chisel-shaped front teeth to scoop up mouthfuls of algae and other marine plants and then straining out the water through its closely spaced needle-like back teeth.

Shonisaurus

Most ichthyosaurs were similar in size to the modern dolphins they convergently resembled, but during the Late Triassic some of them got much much bigger.

Shonisaurus popularis lived about 222-212 million years ago, in Nevada, USA — a region that’s currently made up of dry deserts, but which was submerged under a tropical inland sea at the time.

At around 15m long (49′) it was roughly the same size as a modern humpback whale, with a long narrow snout, a fairly deep fusiform body, and four equally-sized flippers. Unlike many other ichthyosaurs it doesn’t seem to have had a dorsal fin, and its tail fluke shape was rather “primitive” indicating it was probably a slow cruising swimmer.

Juveniles had a few small teeth at the tips of their jaws, but larger adults were entirely toothless, suggesting that they may have specialized in different ecological niches at different stages of their lives. Fully-grown Shonisaurus probably mostly fed on prey such as soft-bodied cephalopods and small fish, which must have been incredibly abundant in the ancient Nevadan sea to support a population of such huge marine reptiles.

But Shonisaurus popularis wasn’t even the biggest of the Late Triassic giant ichthyosaurs. Further north in British Columbia, the closely related species Shonisaurus sikanniensis reached lengths of up to 21m (69′), and fragmentary remains from England hint at something even larger still, estimated at around 25m (82′) – close in size to the modern blue whale, and potentially being the largest non-dinosaurian reptile to ever live.

Eons Roundup 4

Some more recent commission work for PBS Eons!

The entelodonts Eoentelodon and Brachyhyops, from “The Hellacious Lives of the Hell Pigs”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trJpxwMGoCw

The early ichthyosaur Tholodus and the mosasaurPluridens, from “When Ichthyosaurs Led a Revolution in the Seas”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V342aXQs9XY

The early bats Onychonycteris and Icaronycteris, from “When Bats Took Flight”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWeYCULC0UQ

Chupacabrachelys

Bothremydids were an extinct group of side-necked turtles that existed from the late Cretaceous to the early Miocene, between about 100 and 20 million years ago. Found across most of the world (with the exception of Antarctica and Australia) they were a diverse group occupying a range of ecological niches, inhabiting both freshwater and near-shore marine habitats.

Although their fossils are mainly just fragmentary remains like pieces of shell, Chupacabrachelys complexus here is actually known from a fairly complete skeleton.

Living in what is now western Texas, USA, during the late Cretaceous (~75 mya), it was an average-sized member of the group at around 1m long (3’3″) and was probably marine, swimming around in the shallow tropical waters of the Western Interior Seaway.

It had a particularly unusual skull for a turtle, narrow and triangular and slightly flattened, with elongated eye sockets. The paleontologists who described Chupacabrachelys thought the overall shape was vaguely reminiscent of a canid, and so that ended up inspiring its name — a reference to the mangy coyotes that are occasionally mistaken for the mythical chupacabra.

Leivanectes

Elasmosaurids are often depicted with noodly snake-like or swan-like necks, but they were probably actually quite stiff and inflexible in life. And while we know from fossilized gut contents that they ate relatively small prey like fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods, exactly how they used their distinctive long necks is still uncertain.

There’s some variation in the sizes and shapes of their teeth, so it’s likely each species was specialized for slightly different feeding styles – we’ve even found a filter-feeding one! – and the recently-named Leivanectes bernardoi here adds in a little more diversity, too.

Living about 115-112 million years ago during the mid-Cretaceous of Colombia, Leivanectes would have been fairly large at around 9m long (29′6″), slightly bigger than the other elasmosaurid species known from the same ancient marine deposits. It had a reduced number of teeth in its jaws, but these teeth were also proportionally larger, suggesting that it may have been tackling bigger tougher prey than its relatives.

Unfortunately it’s currently only known from a single partial skull, so we don’t have any other clues about its ecology.

Panzhousaurus

Panzhousaurus rotundirostris, a sauropterygian marine reptile from the mid-Triassic of southwestern China (~245 mya), living just a few million years after the devastating Permian-Triassic mass extinction. This small marine reptile was only about 40cm long (1′4″) and is known from a single near-complete skeleton.

Although it was a distant evolutionary cousin to plesiosaurs (and even more distantly to modern turtles), it was actually most closely related to an early sauropterygian lineage known as the pachypleurosaurs – a group of small lizard-like aquatic reptiles with tiny heads, long necks, and paddle-like limbs.

It had an unusually short and rounded-off snout compared to its relatives, and since it would have lived alongside many other diverse marine reptiles it was probably specialized for a slightly different ecological niche.

Eretmorhipis

Eretmorhipis carrolldongi, a hupehsuchian marine reptile from the Early Triassic of China (~247 mya).

This species was originally named back in 2015, but at the time the only known specimens were missing their heads. It was assumed that its skull would have looked similar to those of other hupehsuchians… but now new fossils have been found, and it seems to have actually been much much weirder!

Eretmorhipis’ head was surprisingly tiny in proportion to its body – sort of like a marine version of Cotylorhynchus – and its shape convergently resembled the modern platypus, with a wide “duck bill” and very small eyes. It may have hunted for food along the seafloor in a similar manner to the platypus, using either a highly sensitive sense of touch or possibly even electroreception to locate small invertebrates like worms and shrimp.

It also had much larger bony osteoderms than its other known hupehsuchian relatives, forming a distinctive protruding spiky ridge down its back. At about 85cm in length (2′9″) it was one of the largest marine animals around at the time, so this structure probably wasn’t needed for defense – but as with other hupehsuchians its actual function is still unknown.

Ichthyosaur Blubber

In early 2017 evidence of blubber was found in plesiosaurs, indicating that they were probably much more chubby than they’re usually reconstructed, and now in late 2018 it’s been found in an ichthyosaur, too!

Living during the Early Jurassic (~183-179 mya) in the shallow seas that covered most of Europe at the time, Stenopterygius was an average-sized ichthyosaur growing up to about 4m in length (13′). A fossil found in Germany has some incredibly good soft-tissue preservation, showing smooth flexible scaleless skin, a layer of insulating blubber very convergently similar to that found in cetaceans, and even evidence of countershaded coloration.

While the confirmation of blubber is amazing, and gives further evidence that ichthyosaurs were warm-blooded, the color preservation might actually be even more interesting. The skin pigmentation is preserved in enough fine detail for branched melanophores to be visible under a microscope – a type of cell associated with the ability to change color. So there’s a possibility that ichthyosaurs could actively darken or lighten their color patterns, for purposes such as better camouflage, UV protection, or temperature regulation.

Paludidraco

Paludidraco multidentatus from the Late Triassic of Spain (~237-227 mya).

This 3m long (9′10″) animal was a member of the nothosaurs, a group of semi-aquatic seal-like marine reptiles that were closely related to plesiosaurs (and both were also evolutionary cousins to modern turtles).

It had long slender jaws full of numerous tiny teeth, creating an interlocking comb that was probably used for filter feeding – scooping up mouthfuls of fine-grained sediment from the seafloor and filtering out small invertebrates or soft plant matter.

The bones of its skeleton were also highly thickened and dense, a condition known as pachyostosis that provided ballast to weigh it down in the water. This would have made it a slow and unmaneuverable swimmer, but a very energy-efficient one, using its natural neutral buoyancy to hover or walk along the seabed.

It was essentially a reptilian manatee, filling a similar sort of ecological niche.