It’s another PBS Eons commission roundup day!
It’s another PBS Eons commission roundup day!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Measuring around 60cm long (2′), it had a pair of large forward-facing horn-like spikes at the front of its shell – the function of which isn’t clear, but they may have been useful for defense if it was incapable of fully retracting its head into its shell.
It was part of a family of turtles from Asia and North America known as nanhsiungchelyids, a group that adapted to live fully on land and ended up convergently closely resembling modern tortoises. Other members of this group included the larger Nanhsiungchelys (which was also recently found to have possessed “horns” on its shell!) and the very flat Basilemys.
Ocepechelon bouyai, a sea turtle from the late Cretaceous of Morocco (~70-66 mya). Closely related to the modern leatherback turtle and the pug-nosed Alienochelys, it’s only known from a single 70cm-long skull (2′4″) – and while its body proportions aren’t known for certain it was probably very big, possibly up to 4m long (13′).
Unlike any other known turtle it had a unique narrow tube-shaped snout. This is thought to be an adaptation for suction feeding, vacuuming up tiny fish, squid, and jellyfish in a similar manner to modern pipefish or beaked whales.
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.
Alienochelys selloumi, a sea turtle from the Late Cretaceous of Morocco (70-66 mya). Although only known from a single skull, it was probably around 2-2.5m long (6′6″- 8′2″), and was closely related to both the modern leatherback turtle and the giant Archelon – and so it wouldn’t have had a solid shell but instead a leathery skin-covered carapace.
But that one skull was also incredibly weird. While most turtles have pointed beaks, Alienochelys had a blunt squared-off face, sort of “pug-nosed”, with its nostrils set high up between its eyes. It seems to have been specialized for crushing hard-shelled prey between the wide flat grinding surfaces of its beak, more similar to the jaws of rays than those of other turtles.
It also lived alongside another bizarre-jawed turtle, but that’s a subject for another time.