Tanystropheus hydroides

Tanystropheus is one of the classic Triassic weirdos, a bizarre archosauromorph easily recognizable with its ridiculously long neck.

Mainly known from mid-Triassic deposits on the Swiss-Italian border, dating around 247–235 million years ago, fossils of the species Tanystropheus longobardicus have been found in two different “morphs” – small forms less than 2m long (6’6″), and larger ones up to 6m long (19’8″).

For a long time the smaller fossils were thought to be juveniles, but while they certainly had juvenile-looking facial proportions they also had very different teeth compared to the larger forms. They had pointed teeth at the front of their mouths and multi-cusped cheek teeth further back, and the “adults” had jaws containing only the pointed teeth, suggesting very different diets and lifestyles between the two size classes.

Extreme changes in dentition and diet during maturation aren’t unheard of in fossil species, but something particularly odd was going on here. Larger forms over 2m long always had just the pointed teeth, and there were no signs of intermediate tooth arrangements at all.

And a new study using x-ray microtomography has given an answer: they weren’t actually the same species!

Turns out the smaller Tanystropheus longobardicus were all skeletally mature adults, already fully grown at that size. The larger ones were a completely separate species occupying a different ecological niche to their smaller relatives, and have been named Tanystropheus hydroides in reference to the mythical hydra.

Comparison of the skulls of T. hydroides and T. longobardicus

[ From fig 3 in Spiekman, S. N. et al (2020). Aquatic Habits and Niche Partitioning in the Extraordinarily Long-Necked Triassic Reptile Tanystropheus. Current Biology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.07.025 ]

While the exact lifestyle of Tanystropheus is an ongoing paleontological argument, Tanystropheus hydroides at least appears to have been much more on the aquatic side of things, with nostrils positioned on the top of its snout and its pointed teeth forming a “fish trap” in its jaws.

Stomach contents suggest it mainly ate fast-moving aquatic prey like fish and cephalopods, but its body wasn’t really adapted for strong swimming and so it couldn’t have been catching them via active pursuit. Instead it was probably an ambush predator hunting in a similar manner to some plesiosaurs, using its incredibly long neck and relatively small head to carefully approach prey species without the rest of its body startling them, and then catching them with fast snapping sideways lunges.

Mixosaurus

Mixosaurus cornalianus here was a small early ichthyosaur, only about 0.8-1m long (2’7″-3’3″) and generally considered to be transitional between the eel-like swimming style of basal forms and the more dolphin-like later forms. Living during the Middle Triassic, about 242 million years ago, it inhabited a shallow tropical sea that covered what is now the modern border between Switzerland and Italy.

It was previously thought to be a slow swimmer with a low and poorly-developed tail fin, and whether it even had a dorsal fin or not was unclear. But now new specimens with soft tissue impressions have given us a big surprise.

Not only did it actually have a fairly well-developed semilunate tail fin, but it also had a dorsal fin positioned much further forward on its body than expected, giving it a shape similar to some small sharks and representing the current earliest known dorsal fin of any amniote.

Bundles of stiffening collagen fibers inside its fins were very similar to those known from later Jurassic ichthyosaur species, indicating that this adaptation evolved much earlier in the lineage than previously thought. Along with stomach contents showing it mainly ate both cephalopods and small fish – fairly fast-moving prey – this suggests it was a capable open-water swimmer. It wouldn’t have been quite as speedy as its much more specialized Jurassic relatives, but it may have still been about as efficient as the small modern sharks it resembled.

Ophthalmothule

The cryptoclidids were fairly standard-looking plesiosaurs, with long necks and small heads – but those tiny skull bones were also rather fragile and so there’s very little good fossil material of their heads, making it difficult to figure out both their feeding ecology and their exact evolutionary relationships.

But a recently-discovered specimen from the Svalbard archipelago actually preserved a mostly-complete skeleton, including an unusually intact skull.

Given the name Ophthalmothule cryostea (meaning “frozen bones of the Northern eye”), this cryptoclidid lived about 145 million years ago, right at the boundary between the Jurassic and the Cretaceous.

It measured around 5m long (16’5″) and had proportionally huge eyes that faced upwards on its head – an adaptation for seeing in low-light underwater conditions, maximizing the amount of light reaching it from above.

Those big dark-adapted eyes suggest it may have been nocturnal, or spent a lot of time diving into very deep waters in search of food. Its skull had weak jaw muscles and delicate teeth, and its gut region contained a lot of fine gravelly sediment, so it probably mainly grubbed around for small soft-bodied prey on the sea floor.

At that point in time Svalbard would have been a little further south than it is today, at a subarctic latitude, but the area would have still experienced particularly long nights during the winter. So it’s possible Ophthalmothule also developed such big sensitive eyes to help it survive through those darker seasons.

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.