Patagopteryx

While birds are one of the few animal groups to have achieved powered flight, they’re also very prone to losing their aerial abilities. Many times over their evolutionary history, multiple different bird lineages have convergently become secondarily flightless – and Patagopteryx deferrariisi was one of the earliest known examples of this.

Living during the Late Cretaceous, about 86-84 million years ago, in what is now the northern part of Argentine Patagonia in South America, Patagopteryx was roughly the size of a modern chicken at around 50cm long.

When it was first discovered it was classified as a ratite, but soon after it was recognized as actually being a much earlier type of bird, an early ornithuromorph only distantly related to any modern groups.

It had small wings, little-to-no keel, and no wishbone, indicating it lacked the large powerful musculature required for flight. Its legs were quite long, with large feet with all four toes facing forward – proportions that suggest it was built more for walking than for high-speed running.

Growth rings in its bones also show that it had a much slower growth rate than modern birds, taking several years to reach adult size.

Continue reading “Patagopteryx”

Spectember 2023 #01: Kiwi Alvarezsaur

It’s #Spectember time again!

I’m still trying to work through that big pile of speculative evolution concepts from a few years ago, so I’m hoping to make this month sort of a “lightning round” to finally clear out the backlog.

(I’m not going to set a definite posting schedule this year because things are pretty chaotic right now. But I’ll try to fit in as many as I can!)

So let’s start off with a concept from an anonymous submitter, who requested a “kiwi/sengi niche alverezsaur”:

A shaded sketch of a speculative dinosaur. It has a long narrow snout, small eyes, and whiskery facial feathers like a kiwi bird, a round fuzzy body, short chunky arms with large hooked thumb claws, long slender legs, and a long tail with a tufted fan at the tip.

Khamartaia dolabella is similar in size and build to Shuvuuia, about 1m in length (3’3″), with slender legs and stumpy arms with massive thumb claws. Unlike its close relatives, however, it has small eyes and fairly poor vision, relying more on its other senses to forage around during the darkness of night.

It has an acute sense of smell, and its long narrow snout is full of highly touch-sensitive nerves, allowing it to probe around for invertebrate prey in soil, undergrowth, and cracks and crevices. Its chunky thumb claws are used to dig up burrows and to tear through bark to access deeper insect nests.

It mainly relies on its long legs to sprint away from threats, although with its poor eyesight these escapes are often rather ungainly.

Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 2: Walking With Victorian Dinosaurs

[Previously: the Permian and Triassic]

The next part of the Crystal Palace Dinosaur trail depicts the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Most of the featured animals here are actually marine reptiles, but a few dinosaur species do make an appearance towards the end of this section.

A photograph of a Crystal Palace ichthyosaur statue, posed hauled out of the water like a seal or crocodile. It's partially obscured by plant growth, and is in a state of slight disrepair – moss and lichen patches cover its sides, and a plant is growing out of a crack on its back. A moorhen can be seen in the water swimming towards it.

Although there are supposed to be three Jurassic ichthyosaur statues here, only the big Temnodontosaurus platyodon could really be seen at the time of my visit. The two smaller Ichthyosaurus communis and Leptonectes tenuirostris were almost entirely hidden by the dense plant growth on the island.

Two photographs of the Crystal Palace ichthyosaurs. On the left the island is clear of foliage and all three can be seen; and on the right is the current overgrown state.
Ichthyosaurs when fully visible vs currently obscured
Left side image by Nick Richards (CC BY SA 2.0)
Two photographs of the large Crystal Palace ichthyosaur, showing closer views of the eye, flipper, and tail fin. Int he background a second ichthyosaur can be seen through the foliage. A moorhen is pecking around near the flipper.
Head, flipper, and tail details of the Temnodontosaurus. A second ichthyosaur is just barely visible in the background.

Ichthyosaurs were already known from some very complete and well-preserved fossils in the 1850s, so a lot of the anatomy here still holds up fairly well even 170 years later. They even have an attempt at a tail fin despite no impressions of such a structure having been discovered yet! Some details are still noticeably wrong compared to modern knowledge, though, such as the unusual amount of shrinkwrapping on the sclerotic rings of the eyes and the bones of the flippers.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of an ichthyosaur with a modern interpretation. The retro version has long toothy jaws, very large eyes, a seal-like body, four scaly-looking flippers, and a small eel-like fin on its tail. The modern version is a much more dolphin-like animal with smaller eyes, smooth triangular flippers, a dorsal fin, and a vertical crescent-shaped tail fin.
Continue reading “Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 2: Walking With Victorian Dinosaurs”

Strange Symmetries #14: The Tooth About Baryonyx

Almost all toothed theropod dinosaurs had exactly four teeth on each of their premaxillary bones, the paired bones at the very tip of the upper snout.

A diagram of the various bones in the skull of Spinosaurus.
Spinosaurus skull by AS | Public domain

The semi-aquatic spinosaurids were an unusual exception to this with six or seven teeth per premaxilla – and one particular member of this lineage seems to have been just a little bit weirder.

Baryonyx walkeri lived during the early Cretaceous, around 130-125 million years ago, in what is now southeast England. About 9m long (~30′), it had distinctive enlarged curving claws on the first fingers of its hands, along with a long narrow snout with a “rosette” at the tip followed by a notch (a shape convergent with the jaws of modern pike conger eels).

And that premaxillary rosette had a strangely asymmetrical arrangement of teeth.

A closer view of the lineart for Baryonyx's premaxillary rosette. The six left teeth are indicated in pink, and the seven right teeth in dark green.

The left side had six teeth, and the right side had seven.

Why? We don’t know!

Baryonyx skull material is rare and fragmentary, so it’s unclear if this was actually a characteristic feature of the species or if the known asymmetric rosette just represents an unusual individual.

Natovenator

Halszkaraptorines were a group of small dromaeosaurids known only from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia. They were odd little raptors with flattened snouts, long necks, and flipper-like arms – features that suggest they were specialized for swimming, making them the second known lineage of semi-aquatic non-avian dinosaurs after the spinosaurids.

This “duck-raptor” interpretation has been a little controversial since it was first proposed in 2017, but we’ve just gotten some more evidence for it in the form of an entirely new halszkaraptorine.

Natovenator polydontus lived in what is now the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, around 72 million years ago. The size of a small duck, about 45cm long (18″), it had jaws full of many needle-like teeth, a long flexible goose-like neck, and a streamlined body with a wide flattened ribcage convergently shaped like those of modern diving birds.

Although it had long strong legs, these don’t show much in the way of aquatic specializations and would have been used more for walking and running on land. Instead it may have used its flipper-like arms to propel itself through the water, like modern penguins or auks.

It probably had a lifestyle similar to modern mergansers, swimming and diving in lakes and rivers, and preying on fish, amphibians, and aquatic invertebrates.

It Came From The Wastebasket #17: Getting Ornithomimus In Order

The ostrich-like “bird-mimic” dinosaur Ornithomimus was named in 1890, based on some hand and foot bones from Late Cretaceous-aged fossil beds in Colorado, USA.

The first ornithomimid known to science, it was initially thought to be a ornithopod, but then a few years later more fossil material revealed it was actually a theropod – and then it spent some time classified as a “megalosaur” before ornithomimids were finally recognized as being coelurosaurs in the early 20th century.

And for nearly a century after its discovery it was treated as a wastebasket taxon for any similar-looking fossil material from North America and Asia, with around 17 different species named within the genus. One of these was split off into Struthiomimus in 1917, but it wasn’t until much later that the rest began to get sorted out.

A review of known Ornithomimus fossils in the early 1970s renamed a couple more species into the new genera Archaeornithomimus and Dromiceiomimus, and dismissed most of the remaining species as dubious or invalid. Just two valid species now remained: the original Ornithomimus velox from Colorado, and Ornithomimus edmontonicus from Alberta, Canada.

An illustration of Ornithomimus, an extinct feathered dinosaur. It has a a small beaked head atop a long slender neck, two wing-like arms with three clawed fingers, long ostrich-like legs, and a counterbalancing tail with longer feathers towards the tip.
Ornithomimus edmontonicus

Since then opinions have gone back and forth about some of the other Ornithomimus species. For a while Dromiceiomimus was merged back into Ornithomimus, but more recently it’s been found to have distinct limb proportions and was probably actually a separate genus after all. Another species that’s usually considered to be part of Struthiomimus is also sometimes instead classified as an Ornithomimus instead.

Really all of the North American ornithomimids are in need of a modern taxonomic revision – especially since Ornithomimus edmontonicus shows enough anatomical variation that it might actually represent a species complex of multiple very similar forms, which might get split apart in the future if anyone can figure out how to reliably distinguish them.

It Came From The Wastebasket #12: Coelurosaur Confusion

Historically Coelurosauria was the counterpart to the Carnosauria, with both of them representing two major lineages of theropod dinosaurs.

Created as a group in the early 20th century, coelurosaurs quickly became a dumping ground for all small-bodied theropods – including coelophysoids, compsognathids, ornithomimids, oviraptorosaurs, dromaeosaurids, and troodontids– and for a while this wastebasket taxon also included the large-bodied ceratosaurids and tyrannosauroids, before they were moved over into the carnosaurs.

But during the 1960s and 1970s this arrangement began to break down. A better understanding of groups like dromaeosaurs revealed a confusing mixture of traditional “carnosaur” and “coelurosaur” anatomical features, and paleontologists struggled to figure out where these sorts of theropods actually fit in.

The development of cladistic methods from the 1970s onwards led to efforts to clean up the coelurosaur wastebasket, trying to figure out a more accurate version of these animals’ evolutionary relationships. After briefly collapsing Coelurosauria down to just coelophysoids and “coelurids“, the growing recognition of modern birds as living theropod dinosaurs eventually resulted in the group being properly redefined in the 1980s as “birds, and all theropods closer related to them than to carnosaurs“.

An illustration showing four examples of coelurosaurs, theropod dinosaurs closely related to birds. One the left is Citipati, a bird-like feathery oviraptorosaur that has a cassowary-like crest on its head, a short beak, a long neck, feathered wings, long slender legs, and a short tail with a feather fan at the end. It's mostly colored black and white, with bright blue and yellow face markings and small eyespots on its wing and tail feathers. At the top is Albertosaurus, a tyrannosaur with short bony crests above its eyes, tiny two-fingered hands, long bird-like legs, and a long thick counterbalancing tail. It's colored with a blotchy striped pattern of yellow, red, and dark brown, with bright blue on the crests over its eyes. On the right is Yi, a small bird-like scansoriopterygid with a fluffy feathery coat, four long tail feathers, and large membranous wings supported by a bony extension from its wrist that make it look like a dino-bat or a wyvern. It's colored brownish-grey with a yellow snout and striped markings on its neck, wings, and tail feathers. At the bottom is Sinosauropteryx, a compsognathid with a typical theropod body plan – triangular head, S-shaped neck, three-clawed hands, bird-like legs, and a long tail – but it's covered in fluffy feathers which are especially bushy on its tail. it's colored ginger-and-white, with a black raccoon-like mask marking over its eyes and a stripey tail.
Clockwise from the left (not to scale): Citipati osmolskae, Albertosaurus sarcophagus, Yi qi, Sinosauropteryx prima

The coelophysoids were finally removed entirely, reclassified as a much earlier branch of theropods – but quite a few of the other groups from earlier concepts of Coelurosauria survived this reshuffling, with the compsognathids, ornithomimids, oviraptorosaurs, dromaeosaurs, and troodontids all proving themselves to have really been closely related the whole time. Meanwhile the tyrannosauroids were brought back in, along with the therizinosaurs, alvarezsauroids, and a whole bunch of paravian and avialan lineages.

(Megaraptorans might belong somewhere in the coelurosaurs, too – possibly being tyrannosauroids – but their classification is currently being disputed.)

It Came From The Wastebasket #07: Carnosaur Carnage

Carnosauria was originally named in the 1920s as a grouping for all of the large-bodied theropod dinosaurs known at the time.

For much of the 20th century it was used as a general wastebasket taxon collecting together all big carnivorous forms – including allosaurids, carcharodontosaurids, megalosaurids, spinosaurids, ceratosaurids, abelisauroids, and tyrannosaurids – and for a while it even included a species that later turned out to be closer related to crocodiles than to dinosaurs.

An illustration showing four different carnosaurs: Asfaltovenator, Torvosaurus, Giganotosaurus, and Baryonyx. They're all bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs with small three-clawed arms, bird-like legs, and long counterbalancing tails, but they vary in size, coloration, and most notably head shape. Asfaltovenator and Giganotosaurus have fairly typical boxy theropod heads, while Torvosaurus has a longer snout and Baryonyx has slender crocodile-like jaws.
From left to right: Asfaltovenator vialidadi, Torvosaurus tanneri, Giganotosaurus carolinii, & Baryonyx walkeri

But then cladistic analysis in the 1980s and 1990s revealed that some of these theropods weren’t actually closely related at all. Carnosaurs weren’t a natural lineage but instead were highly polyphyletic, with the physical similarities between them seeming to be more due to convergent evolution than direct shared ancestry.

Some carnosaurs were split off and reclassified as more “primitive” types of theropod, while the tyrannosaurs were placed much closer to birds with the coelurosaurs. The remaining “carnosaurs” were just the allosaurids, carcharodontosaurs, and their closest relatives, and some paleontologists now prefer to use the name Allosauroidea for this group to distance it from the previous wastebasket mess.

…But Carnosauria might not be done just yet.

A screenshot from "Phineas and Ferb", with the two main characters in a room lit up by an offscreen disco ball, with one grabbing the arm of the other. Text below them reads "Dude, we're getting the band back together!" Both of their heads have been photoshopped into those of Megalosaurus and Asfaltovenator.

The discovery of Asfaltovenator in 2019 complicated matters once again, with a mixture of anatomical features linking it to both the allosauroids and the megalosauroids (megalosaurids, spinosaurids, and their relatives) – suggesting that these two groups might actually have been closely related to each other in a single lineage after all.

This would potentially return Carnosauria back to something surprisingly close to its original definition, with the various megalosauroids now forming an evolutionary grade leading to the allosauroids.

It Came From The Wastebasket #05: The Trouble With Troodon

Troodontids were small bird-like theropod dinosaurs, lightly built with slender legs and sickle-shaped “raptor” claws on the second toes of their feet. They had fairly big brains proportional to their body size, rather like modern birds, and their large forward-facing eyes had good depth perception. Owl-like asymmetrical ears in some species gave them a very keen sense of hearing, suggesting they may have been nocturnal hunters using sound to pinpoint the location of small prey.

The original specimen of the namesake of the group, Troodon formosus, was a serrated tooth discovered in the 1850s, about 77 million years old and originating from the Late Cretaceous Judith River Formation fossil beds in Montana, USA. It was so little to work with that it was initially mistaken for a lizard tooth, then during the 20th century it was recognized as belonging to a dinosaur and spent time classified as a megalosaurid, then a pachycephalosaur, then finally as a small theropod similar to the Mongolian Saurornithoides.

In the late 1980s it was merged together with multiple other troodontids (including Stenonychosaurus of speculative “dinosauroid” fame), and since Troodon had been the first of all of them to be named it took priority as the genus name.

And then for a while every single Late Cretaceous troodontid specimen from North America was also lumped into Troodon, turning it into a wastebasket taxon.

An illustration of five troodontids standing in a circle facing each other. They're all very bird-like feathered dinosaurs with vaguely owl-like faces, reddish-orange and dark brown plumage, and white spots and bars on their longer wing and tail feathers. There are minor variations in their color shades and markings, but otherwise they all look incredibly similar to each other. The overall composition of the image is similar to that of the "Spider-man pointing at Spider-man" memes.

The problem was that all these troodontids came from locations separated by thousands of kilometers and millions of years of time, and it’s unlikely that they all actually represented just one single species. But they were only known from rare fragmentary remains, making distinguishing them from each other difficult, and the original Troodon tooth didn’t really have any distinctive features either – it turns out most troodontid teeth all look exactly the same!

It was becmoning increasingly dubious whether Troodon was even a valid name at all, and during the 2010s several paleontologists began trying to sort the mess out. The old names Pectinodon and Stenonychosaurus were revived, and some ‘Troodon’ fossils were also split off and given completely new names, becoming Albertavenator and Latenivenatrix*.

* Although Latenivenatrix might not actually be distinct enough from Stenonychosaurus to justify having a separate name.

As of 2022, Troodon itself is now in a sort of taxonomic limbo, with some paleontologists abandoning it as a dubious name while others are still arguing in favor of continuing to use it. The name could potentially be properly rescued if the original tooth can be clearly linked to better fossil material, letting Troodon take over priority again from one of the other better-established troodontids, or by defining a new type species similar to what happened with Iguanodon.

…But with how incredibly generic that tooth is, both of those options would be very difficult.

Rajasaurus

Abelisaurids were a group of theropod dinosaurs characterized by short snouts, bony ornamentation on their skulls, tiny stiff arms, and stocky legs. Known mostly from the southern continents of Gondwana, they were the dominant predators in these regions and are thought to have been specialized hunters of titanosaurian sauropods.

Rajasaurus narmadensis lived in what is now western India during the Late Cretaceous, about 67 million years ago. Around 7m long (23′), it had very rough-textured thickened bone on the top of its snout, along with a short rounded horn on its forehead that was probably used for display or headbutting behaviors.

India at this time was an isolated island continent located off the east coast of Africa, and Rajasaurus‘ ancestors probably island-hopped across from then-nearby Madagascar – where its closest known relative lived, the very similar-looking Majungasaurus.