An anonymous submitter asked for an “arboreal goat with grasping sloth-like claws”:
Cluraix cephalula is a distant descendant of feral goats in a tropical forest environment, representing a small tree-climbing offshoot of a specialized chalicothere-like lineage.
About 70cm long (~2’4″), it clambers around in the high tree canopies, with its forward-facing eyes providing good depth perception in this complex three-dimensional habitat. Its long hooked claw-hooves are used both to cling onto branches and to hook-and-pull clumps of foliage towards itself, stripping the leaves with its flexible fleshy lips.
An anonymous submitter asked for a “derived carnivorous, pack-hunting agriochoerid“:
Felichoerus ochlos is fairly similar-looking to its herbivorous relatives, but this cat-sized agriochoerid comes from a lineage that initially specialized in eating fleshy fruits – and then shifted towards eating actual flesh.
With its long cat-like body, forward-facing eyes, clawed digits, and flexible limbs, it’s a capable tree climber. Groups of this animal practice cooperative hunting, with one member chasing arboreal prey down to the ground for the rest to mob.
And another anon wanted to see an “obligate carnivore bovine”:
(I see what you did there. A literal carnotaurus!)
The bulltcher (Carnovitulus grassator) is a sheep-sized descendant of small buffalo that gradually took up more and more omnivorous diets, eventually becoming somewhat entelodont-like opportunists. This particular species has shifted over into hypercarnivory, occupying a predator niche in an ecosystem lacking other types of carnivorous mammal.
Like their ancestors they still lack upper front teeth, and instead have modified their dental pad into an almost beak-like tough keratinized structure that their sharp lower teeth can slice and self-sharpen against.
These animals live in small matriarchal herds, with bulls usually hanging around on the edges of the group to protect from threats. Bulls have larger backwards-pointing horns, used to compete with each other for mates – but the size of these structures on their skulls results in them having slightly less powerful jaw muscles than cows.
Herds hunt cooperatively, pursuing and harassing larger prey until it can be brought down and torn apart.
Living during the Eocene (~38 million years ago) in shallow marine waters covering what is now the coast of Peru, this ancient whale is known from several vertebrae, ribs, and parts of its pelvis. As a result its full size is uncertain, but based on the proportions of other basilosaurids it was probably somewhere around 17-20m long (~56′-66′) – similar in length to the larger specimens of Basilosaurus.
However, it had much thicker denser bones, even more so than those of its close relative Antaecetus, suggesting that its full body mass was much higher than the rather slender Basilosaurus – and possibly heavier than even modern blue whales despite being shorter in overall length.
Perucetus’ thickened vertebrae were also fairly inflexible in most directions, indicating it was a sirenian-like slow swimmer with limited maneuverability – but it did have a surprisingly good ability to bend its body downwards. Without skull material it’s unclear what its diet was like, but it may have been a suction-feeder hoovering up seafloor prey like modern grey whales or walruses.
I’ve reconstructed it here with a speculative bristly fleshy downturned snout inspired by the weird skull of Makaracetus, an earlier whale that may have also been a walrus-like bottom-feeder.
It was an early member of the “basilosaurids“, a grouping made up of multiple early cetacean lineages (an “evolutionary grade“) representing some of the first fully aquatic forms. Like other members of this group it probably would have had a rather long and slender body shape – but unlike most of its relatives Tutcetus was comparatively tiny, estimated to only have been around 2.5m long (~8’2″).
The fusion of the skull bones in the one known fossil specimen indicate it was almost fully grown at the time of its death, and the pattern of tooth replacement suggests this small basilosaurid species matured very rapidly – a sort of “live fast, die young” life strategy.
Tutcetus’ small size and early demise also inspired its genus name, with “Tut” referencing the teenage Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
The sitting palaeothere unfortunately lost its head sometime in the late 20th century, and the image above shows it with a modern fiberglass replacement. Then around 2014/2015 the new head was knocked off again, and has not yet been reattached – partly due to a recent discovery that it wasn’t actually accurate to the sculpture’s original design. Instead there are plans to eventually restore it with a much more faithful head.
These early odd-toed ungulates were already known from near-complete skeletons in the 1850s, and are depicted here as tapir-like animals with short trunks based on the scientific opinion of the time. We now think their heads would have looked more horse-like, without trunks, but otherwise they’re not too far off modern reconstructions.
This sculpture went missing sometime after the 1950s, and its existence was almost completely forgotten until archive images of it were discovered a few years ago. Funds were raised to create a replica as accurate to the original as possible, and in summer 2023 (just a month before the date of my visit) this larger palaeothere species finally rejoined its companions in the park.
Compared to the other palaeotheres this one is weird, though. Much chonkier, wrinkly, and with big eyes and an almost cartoonish tubular trunk. It seems to have taken a lot of anatomical inspiration from animals like rhinos and elephants, since in the mid-1800s odd-toed ungulates were grouped together with “pachyderms“.
Around 2m long (6’6″), it had unusually long tusk-like teeth at the front of its jaws, splaying out almost horizontally forwards and to the sides.
These teeth lay too flat to effectively interlock as a “fish trap”, and their fairly delicate structure and lack of wear marks suggests they also weren’t used for piercing large prey, sifting through gritty sediment, defending against predators, or for fighting each other. But Nihohae did have a highly flexible neck and the ability to quickly snap its jaws from side to side – although with a relatively weak bite force, suggesting it was primarily tackling small soft-bodied prey that could be easily swallowed whole.
Overall its feeding ecology seems to have been similar to modern sawfish, stunning prey such as squid with rapid slashing swipes of its jaws.
Neolicaphrium was a mid-sized proterotheriid, standing around 45cm tall at the shoulder (~1’6″), and unlike some of its more specialized relatives it still had two small vestigial toes on each foot along with its main hoof. Tooth microwear studies suggest it had a browsing diet, mainly feeding on soft leaves, stems, and buds in its savannah woodland habitat.
It was one of the few South American native ungulates to survive through the Great American Biotic Interchange, when the formation of the Isthmus of Panama allowed North and South American animals to disperse into each other’s native ranges. While many of its relatives had already gone extinct in the wake of the massive ecological changes this caused, Neolicaphrium seems to have been enough of a generalist to hold on, living alongside a fairly modern-looking selection of northern immigrant mammals such as deer, peccaries, tapirs, foxes, jaguars… and also actual horses.
Some of the earliest human inhabitants of South America would have seen Neolicaphirum alive before its extinction. We don’t know whether they had any direct impact on its disappearance – but since the horses it lived alongside were hunted by humans and also went extinct, it’s possible that a combination of shifting climate and hunting pressure pushed the last of the little not-horses over the edge, too.
Odobenocetops peruvianus was a small toothed whale that lived during the Miocene, about 7-3 million years ago, in shallow coastal waters around what is now Peru. Around 3m long (~10′), it was a highly unusual cetacean with binocular vision, a vestigial melon, muscular lips, and a pair of tusks – features convergent with walruses that suggest it had a similar lifestyle suction-feeding on seafloor molluscs and crustaceans.
In males the right tusk was much more elongated than the left, measuring around 50cm long (~1’8″) in this species and up to 1.35m (4’5″) in the closely related Odobenocetops leptodon. Since these teeth were quite fragile they probably weren’t used for any sort of combat, and they may have instead served more of a visual display function.
Around 3m tall at the shoulder (~10ft), these hairy proboscideans had very long curving tusks that were used for digging out vegetation from under snow and ice, scraping bark from trees, and for fighting.
The tusks showed a lot of variation in their curvature, and were often rather asymmetrical, a condition also seen in the closely related Columbian mammoth. Like modern elephants mammoths may have also favored using one side over the other for certain tasks, which over their lifetimes could result in uneven wear exaggerating the natural asymmetry even more.
It was smaller than modern pronghorns, around 70cm tall at the shoulder (~2’4″), and males had long antler-like horns with three tines. Bizarrely, one of these horns was always at least twice the size of the other, with “left-horned” and “right-horned” individuals seeming to occur in equal numbers.
Meanwhile in China another Miocene ungulate known as Tsaidamotherium hedini also had strange headgear, with an enlarged right “horn” forming a helmet-like dome on top of its head. This species was featured here on the blog just year, so check out that post for more details about it.
Toothed whales – the branch of cetaceans that includes modern dolphins, porpoises, beaked whales, and sperm whales – have surprisingly asymmetrical skulls, with some of the bones skewed to one side and just the left nostril forming their blowhole.
Some of the most obvious external manifestation of this lopsidedness can be seen in sperm whales, which have their blowhole at the front left side of their head, and in male narwhals, which usually have a single left-side tusk.
This sort of asymmetry first appeared in the skulls of early toothed whales around 30 million years ago. And since the highest amounts of wonkiness have gone on to develop in lineages that hunt in dark, cluttered, or murky waters, this suggests that the trait is somehow linked to the evolution of complex echolocation.
Some ancient members of the river dolphin lineage also had some additional unusual asymmetry, sometimes having slightly sideways-bending snouts.
Ensidelphis riveroi was one of the weirdest of these, living around the coasts of what is now Peru during the Miocene, about 19 million years ago. Around 3m long (~10′), it had a very long narrow toothy snout that curved distinctly off to the right along its length.
It’s not clear what the function of this bend was, or even if the only known skull actually represents the normal condition for this species. But Ensidelphis’ bendy snoot might have been used to probe around in muddy seafloor sediment or to extract prey from crevices, possibly like an underwater version of the modern wrybill.