Weird Heads Month #21: Honking Hadrosaurs

The ceratopsians and pachycephalosaurs weren’t the only ornithischian dinosaurs to do weird things with their skulls.

The hadrosaurs are commonly referred to as “duck-bills” (despite how their beaks weren’t actually duck-like at all), and are famous for the elaborate crests seen on some of the group’s members, with shapes ranging from lobes to helmets to hatchets to spikes – and even some of the apparently crestless species are now known to have sported fleshy combs instead of the bony structures seen in their relatives.

But by far the most recognizable of the crested hadrosaurs is Parasaurolophus walkeri, with its long curved backwards-pointing tubular crest.

This particular species was mid-sized for the genus, growing up to around 10m long (32’10”) and is known from Western North America during the Late Cretaceous, about 76-73 million years ago.

Its crest was intermediate in size and shape between the other two known species. The larger Parasaurolophus tubicen had a longer and slightly straighter crest, while the smaller Parasaurolophus cyrtocristatus had a shorter more strongly curved one. Juveniles developed these crests as they matured, starting off with much smaller bumps on their snouts that gradually grew backwards and upwards.

Some hadrosaur crests were purely for visual display, but in the lambeosaurine lineage that Parasaurolophus belonged to they also incorporated complex looping nasal passages that were probably used as resonating chambers, allowing each species to make a unique-sounding loud bellowing call to communicate with each other.

There are also rumors of a currently-undescribed specimen of Parasaurolpphus that has preserved soft tissue around its crest, possibly a keratinous covering or skin flaps that made it appear even larger and more flamboyant in life than the underlying bone. So I’ve given this reconstruction a speculative structure like that, along with hoof-like claws on its hands similar to those recently revealed for Edmontosaurus.

Weird Heads Month #10: Permian Crowns

The tiny-headed Cotylorhynchus we saw earlier in this series wasn’t the only synapsid with a weird head.

A little more closely related to modern mammals, the dinocephalians were a a diverse group that were found across Pangaea during the middle of the Permian period. Many of them had thickened skulls that may have been used for headbutting each other, and some also developed bony horn-like projections around their faces.

And Estemmenosuchus mirabilis here was particularly elaborately ornamented, earning it a name meaning “wondrous crowned crocodile”. It lived in the Perm region of Russia during the mid Permian, about 268-265 million years ago, and was one of the largest dinocephalians, reaching at least 3m long (9’10”).

It had two big antler-like structures on its head, two wide cheek flanges, and a small nose horn, almost looking like the synapsid version of a ceratopsid dinosaur – and with its big bulky body, fairly erect-legged posture, and herbivorous-or-omnivorous diet it may have been a fairly close ecological equivalent to them, too.

But it’s also possible it was semi-aquatic, and it certainly does have a very hippo-like appearance when reconstructed with a decent amount of soft tissue.

One specimen of Estemmenosuchus even preserved skin impressions around its face, which were described in Russian in the early 1980s. They show scaleless glandular skin with a slightly bumpy texture, similar to that of hairless mammals or some amphibians. Since it occupied a point in the synapsid family tree close to where hair may have originated (somewhere in the Permian therapsids), it’s not clear if it was entirely hairless or if it had just secondarily lost some of it.

Weird Heads Month #09: Butterfly Faces

The nose-forks and head-crests we saw last time weren’t the only unusual headgear in ancient ruminants.

The giraffoids are represented today by just pronghorns, giraffes, and okapi, but in the past they were much more diverse, modifying their prongs and ossicones into multiple sets of horns, or into deer-like and moose-like antler shapes.  

And Prolibytherium was probably the most striking of the lot.

Two different species have been identified, with Prolibytherium magnieri here living in North Africa during the early-to-mid Miocene, about 17-16 million years ago. Its exact evolutionary relationships are uncertain but it was probably part of a group called climacoceratids, deer-like giraffoids which often had thorny branching ossicones that resembled antlers.

It stood around 1.2m tall at the shoulder (~4′), and exhibited dramatic sexual dimorphism – females had slender forked horn-like ossicones, while those of the males flared out into large wide flat shapes that resembled butterfly wings.

Heavy reinforcement in the bones of the back of the males’ skulls helped to support all the extra weight of those huge ossicones, and if they actually used the structures to fight with each other then this may have also provided some protection or shock absorption.

Weird Heads Month #08: Nose-Forks and Handlebar Heads

Modern ruminants are the only living mammals with bony headgear, with four different  lineages each sporting a slightly different type: deer antlers, bovid horns, giraffid ossicones, and the prongs of pronghorns.

We still don’t actually know much about the evolutionary origins of ruminant headgear, although a recent genetic study suggests they’re all derived from a single common ancestral structure (and that deer antlers started off as controlled bone cancer).

And some extinct species were even stranger.

The protoceratids were an early group of North American ruminants whose relationships are uncertain, but may have been related to modern chevrotains. They were convergently deer-like in appearance, with teeth adapted for grazing on tough grasses – and along with having a pair of horns in the usual position on their heads, males also sported an additional pair of ossicone-like growths on their noses.

Synthetoceras tricornatus lived during the Late Miocene, around 10-5 million years ago, and was one of the largest protoceratids, standing about 1.1m tall at the shoulder (3’7″). Its two nose-horns were partially fused into a single long structure with a forked tip, which may have been used for sparring in a similar manner to the antlers of modern deer.

A colored line drawing of an extinct deer-like animal. It has a pair of horns on its head, along with a long horn on its nose that has a two-pronged forked tip.
Synthetoceras tricornatus

Meanwhile on a different branch of the ruminant family tree, closer related to deer and giraffes, a group known as the palaeomerycids independently developed a similar sort of extra head appendage – but at the opposite end of their skulls.

These ruminants were a little more heavily built than the protoceratids, and specialized in feeding on soft vegetation in humid forest environments. They were a highly successful group, existing for almost 30 million years, ranging across Eurasia, Africa, and North America, and even ventured into South America during the early phases of the Great American Interchange.

Males had two giraffe-like ossicones above their eyes, along with a third crest-like one at the very back of their heads. In some species this formed a single central “horn” shape, while in others it forked out to each side. They also often had long saber-like canine teeth similar to modern water deer and musk deer, which were probably used for fighting while their elaborate headgear was purely for visual display.

Xenokeryx amidalae lived in Spain during the mid Miocene, about 16 million years ago. It stood around 0.8-1m tall at the shoulder (2’7″-3’3″) and had a unique T-shaped “handlebar” crest which ended up inspiring its genus name – a reference to the similar shape of one of Queen Amidala’s headpieces in Star Wars, which was itself based on Mongolian imperial fashion.

A colored line drawing of an extinct deer-like animal. It has fang-like tusks protruding from the sides of its mouth, a pair of giraffe-like ossicones above its eyes, and a T-shaped handlebar-like crast on the back of its head.
Xenokeryx amidalae

Weird Heads Month #01

It’s been a whole four years since Weird Backs Month, so we’re long overdue for a companion series:

Weird Heads Month!

Ever since heads first evolved as a defined body part, over 500 million years ago, evolution has been experimenting with them. There are many modern examples of animals that have modified parts of their heads and faces in a variety of strange-looking ways – elephants, deer, narwhals, hornbills, sawfish, bats, stalk-eyed flies, hammerheads, barreleyes, and star-nosed moles, to name only a few – and species in the fossil record were just as diverse and weird.

So let’s start off with…


Weird Heads Month #01: Wacky Flying Headgear

One of the most immediately recognizable examples of extinct animals with strange head structures are the pterosaurs, almost always depicted in pop culture with a large Pteranodon-like head crest.

But that wasn’t anywhere near as weird as pterosaur crests got.

Nyctosaurus gracilis here had an absolutely ridiculous elaborate crest, sporting an enormous antler-like structure on the back of its skull that grew to lengths longer than its own body.

Living around the Western Interior Seaway of the Midwestern United States during the Late Cretaceous, around 85 million years ago, it was a fairly small pterosaur standing about 40cm tall without the crest (1’4″) and with a 2m wingspan (6’6″). Its wings were long and narrow, and had completely lost the three small clawed fingers seen on other pterosaurs, suggesting it may have been less capable of moving around on the ground. It’s thought to have been a specialized soaring flier that spent most of its life on the wing at sea, much like a modern albatross.

Made up of two long thin spars arising from a common base, Nyctosaurus‘ crest has sometimes been reconstructed with a large sail-like membrane of skin – but since there’s no evidence at all of soft-tissue attachment on the bones, this seems unlikely. Juveniles were crestless, with only fully mature adults developing their spectacular headgear, so it was probably some sort of display structure.

It’s also not clear whether there was any sexual dimorphism in Nyctosaurus, since well-preserved skulls with intact crests are incredibly rare. But as with most other crested pterosaurs it’s likely that all mature individuals had crests, just with a difference in size and shape between sexes.