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.

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 #07: The Wonderful Creeping Thing

The Triassic was an incredibly weird time, full of evolutionary experiments in the wake of the worst mass extinction in Earth’s history.

Teraterpeton hrynewichorum here was part of group known as allokotosaurs, a lineage of mostly-herbivorous archosauromorphs that also included the long-necked bull-horned Shringasaurus.

Living in Nova Scotia during the Late Triassic, around 235-221 million years ago, Teraterpeton (meaning “wonderful creeping thing”) was first named in the early 2000s based on a skull and partial skeleton, with some additional skeletal material being described recently in 2019.

Its head had a confusing mix of anatomical features, with a long beak-like toothless snout at the front of its jaws, small sharp interlocking cheek teeth further back, a huge nasal opening, and a closed-up fenestra at the back of its skull making it look more like the skulls of marine reptiles.

It also had a lizard-like body, perhaps up to 1.8m long (~6′), with rather long slender limbs and large blade-like claws, and more anatomical weirdness in the pelvic region convergently resembling those of distantly related groups like rhynchosaurs and tanystropheids. It had a sprawling posture, but its hind limb musculature suggests it might have been capable of getting up into a more erect stance when walking, somewhat similar to modern crocodilians’ “high walk” gait.

It was clearly quite an ecologically specialized animal, but quite what it was specialized for is still uncertain. It was presumably a herbivore like its close relatives, but it must have been eating a very different diet with its long beak, and its deep claws could have been used for scratch digging to get at roots and tubers.

Another possibility it that it could have been an insectivore with a diet similar to modern aardvarks or armadillos, probing with its beak and digging with its claws for insects, grubs, and other invertebrates. Since termite-like social insect nests do seem to have existed around the same time, it might even have been one the earliest known animals to specialize in myrmecophagy.

Weird Heads Month #05: Crested Snorkelers

Phytosaurs were a lineage of incredibly crocodile-like archosauriformes – essentially “crocodiles before crocodiles” – convergently evolving an incredibly similar appearance at a time when the ancestors of modern crocs were still small and terrestrial.

But while they had toothy snouts and bodies heavily armored with bony ostederms, unlike crocodilians their nostrils were far back on their heads up near their eyes, often in a sort of bony “snorkel” so they could breathe while almost fully submerged underwater.

Mystriosuchus westphali lived in Germany during the Late Triassic, about 215-212 million years ago. Around 4m long (~13′), it was even more aquatic than other phytosaurs, with paddle-like limbs and long slender gharial-like jaws adapted for catching slippery prey.

And along with the typical phytosaur snorkel, it also had raised crests along its upper jaw – which may have supported even larger keratinous display structures.

Weird Heads Month #03: Big Head Mode

In the last entry we had heads that looked much too small… so now how about heads that were too big?

Erythrosuchus africanus was part of an early branch of the archosauriformes, related to the ancestors of crocodiles, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs. Living in South Africa during the mid Triassic, around 247-242 million years ago, it was the largest predator of its time, reaching about 5m long (16’5″).

It was one of the earliest archosaurifomes to develop a more upright-limbed posture, and convergently evolved a very theropod-like head with a deep narrow snout full of large serrated teeth.

A head that was absolutely massive proportional to the rest of its body, measuring about 1m long (3’3″).

As a result of such a big noggin, Erythrosuchus must have also had some bulky musculature in its neck and forequarters to support it. And while its fairly short neck wouldn’t have been very flexible buried in all that tissue, it probably didn’t need to be – some of its main prey would have been large slow-moving dicynodonts, and its hunting strategy may have consisted of simply “aim at food and lunge”.

Hovasaurus

The Permian-Triassic extinction 252 million years ago was the most severe mass extinction in Earth’s history, so incredibly devastating that it’s been nicknamed the “Great Dying” – but there were still some animals that somehow just… didn’t seem to really notice it at all.

And one of these surprisingly resilient species was Hovasaurus boulei.

It was part of a group known as the tangasaurids, a fairly early evolutionary branch of diapsid reptiles from Madagascar and East Africa that originated sometime in the mid-Permian, just before the common ancestor of modern lizards and archosaurs.

Hovasaurus lived in Madagascar both just before and for some time after the Great Dying, dating to around 252-247 million years ago. Growing up to about 90cm long (~3′), it was one of the largest tangasaurids and was also highly specialized for aquatic life in freshwater rivers, with an eel-like tail twice the length of the rest of its body and heavy thickened ribs.

Hundreds of fossils have been found representing life stages from hatchling to adult, and juvenile Hovasaurus actually seem to have been almost fully aquatic – they had proportionally shorter limbs and may have behaved similarly to modern sea turtles, crawling into the water shortly after hatching and only returning to land as adults once they had longer better-developed legs.

Many fossils also preserve clusters of pebbles in their abdominal cavities, which are thought to have been used as extra ballast to help weigh them down in the water when hunting small fish and invertebrates.

It’s not entirely clear why these odd little aquatic reptiles were apparently unaffected by the Great Dying. Perhaps, much like the many freshwater species that survived though the later end-Cretaceous mass extinction, Hovasaurus was simply very good at dealing with sudden changes in its environment and food availability due to the variability of river habitats, and was able to weather though the worst of the extinction without much trouble. 

Or maybe it was just one of the lucky ones.

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

Island Weirdness #26 – The Mauritian Giant Skink

Along with its unique birds, Mauritius was also home to many endemic reptile species. In the absence of terrestrial mammals giant tortoises were the largest herbivores on the island, and various geckos, skinks, and snakes helped to fill out the rest of the vertebrate ecosystem.

Leiolopisma mauritiana was a very large skink, one of the biggest ever known to have existed with a total length of around 80cm (2′7″). Its ancestors originated in Australasia, over 5600km away (~3500 miles) at least 3-4 million years ago – and they must have endured a particularly long ocean rafting journey without any island hopping stops, since none of the other islands along that route seem to have ever had populations of similar skinks.

It probably lived in rocky areas, possibly also being capable of digging burrows, and would have eaten an omnivorous diet of seeds, fruits, invertebrates, and smaller lizards and birds.

By the early 1600s it was already extinct, very soon after the arrival of humans, probably due to predation from invasive mammals like rats. However, its half-sized close relative Leiolopisma telfairii does still survive on rat-free Round Island a short distance to the north of Mauritius, and recent conservation efforts have been rebuilding its population and setting up new colonies on other nearby small islands.

Xinpusaurus

Thalattosaurs were a weird and rather mysterious group of Triassic marine reptiles. It’s not clear where they actually fit on the reptile evolutionary tree (we know they’re diapsids, but nobody can really agree on anything more definite than that), and they had some very strange skulls that seem to have been highly specialized for something, although their actual function is still unknown.

Xinpusaurus kohi here is known from the Late Triassic of China (~232-221 mya). About 1.3m long (4′3″), with half of that being its paddle-like tail, it had an elongated upper jaw that formed a protruding pointed spear-shaped snout.

It’s not clear whether this odd snoot was an adaptation for hunting similar to the long bills of swordfish – there’s quite a bit of variation in length and shape between different individual specimens – or if it was serving some other purpose like the sexually dimorphic noses of some modern lizards.

Barbaturex

Barbaturex morrisoni, a large herbivorous lizard which lived about 40-37 million years ago during the Eocene. Known from Myanmar in Southeast Asia, it’s estimated to have reached lengths of 1.4-1.8m (4′7″-5′10″) and was closely related to modern spiny-tailed lizards.

It had a row of bony knobs along the edges of its lower jaw, which may have supported some sort of display structure. I’ve given it some fleshy double-dewlaps here, and a spiky tail similar to its relatives, but since it’s only known from fragmentary fossils these features are pretty speculative.

Surprisingly Barbaturex was much bigger than a lot of the herbivorous ungulate mammals around at the time, and was also larger than most of the local carnivores – a very different situation to modern ecosystems, where even the biggest plant-eating lizards are still smaller than ungulates.