Casatia

Modern beluga whales and narwhals are the only living representatives of the monodontid lineage, found only in cold Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. But this whale family actually first evolved in much warmer climates – and some of them were downright tropical.

Casatia thermophila lived about 5 million years ago during the early Pliocene, in the Mediterranean Sea around Tuscany, Italy. Although known only from a couple of partial skulls and a few vertebrae it was probably similar in size to its modern relatives, around 5m long (16’4″).

It seems to have had a larger number of functional teeth than modern monodontids, and probably didn’t suction feed like its modern close relatives. Instead it may have fed more like most porpoises and dolphins, relying more on speed and snapping jaws to capture prey.

It inhabited the Mediterranean at a time not long after the sea there had mostly dried up and then been rapidly refilled. The presence of warm-water marine species such as bull sharks, tiger sharks, and dugongs in the same fossil beds as Casatia indicates the local climate at the time was hotter than it is today, with tropical temperatures – and suggests that this whale’s ancestors must have originally moved into the replenishing Mediterranean from lower latitudes alongside these other warmth-adapted animals.

This tropical monodontid was also much closer related to modern belugas than modern narwhals are, which raises the possibility that the two living monodontid species actually specialized for colder conditions completely independently of each other rather than descending from a cold-adapted common ancestor. Instead modern belugas and narwhals may have originated from separate warm-water monodontid ancestors who evolved similar cold-tolerant adaptations in parallel as the climate cooled during the onset of the Quaternary ice age, while the rest of their relatives all went extinct.

Retro vs Modern #16: Uintatherium anceps

Discovered in the Western United States during the early 1870s, Uintatherium anceps was part of one of the earlier major conflicts in the the Bone Wars. Nearly 30 different scientific names were applied to various fossil specimens of this mammal in under two decades, and the taxonomic tangle wasn’t properly sorted out until nearly a century later in the 1960s when they were recognized as actually all being the same species.


1870s

Paleontologist Edward Cope considered Uintatherium (under the name “Loxolophodon”) and its close relatives to be proboscideans – part of the elephant lineage – due to some of the similarities in their anatomy. The first reconstruction of these animals showed this version, depicting elephant-like animals with downward-pointing tusks, short tapir-like trunks, and the multiple bony projections on their skulls speculatively shown as attachment points for large antler-like horns.

Cope’s rival Othniel Marsh heavily criticised that interpretation of Uintatherium, arguing that these huge mammals were instead a separate group within the ungulates named dinoceratans – although this wasn’t really as huge of a classification difference as it seems today, since at the time proboscideans were also considered to be ungulates!

The dinoceratan ungulate interpretation quickly won out, and for a while in the 20th century Uintatherium actually became a fairly popular and well-known prehistoric mega-mammal, commonly included in collections of cheap plastic “dinosaurs” and usually depicted as more of a knobbly-headed sabertoothed rhino.


2020s

In recent years the dinoceratans seem to have fallen into obscurity and some degree of paleontological neglect, with little modern work on the group and no major studies for the last couple of decades – although this might be starting to change.

Despite the early ideas about them being ungulates, the evolutionary relationships of dinoceratans have become much more murky over the last century or so. Due to different elements of their anatomy being highly convergent with various other mammals it’s easy to find “false positives” in morphological comparisons, and they’ve been proposed as being connected to a wide variety of groups including “condylarths“, “insectivores“, rodents, and cimolestans. But some mid-2010s research suggests they were in fact ungulates after all, closely related to early South American forms like Carodnia – a lineage whose own evolutionary relationships are murky, but may have close affinities with modern horses, rhinos, and tapirs.

We now know Uintatherium anceps lived across the Western and South Central USA during the mid-Eocene, about 46-40 million years ago, at a time when warm wet climates extended up into the Arctic and lush tropical-style rainforests covered much of the continent.

It was similar in size and build to a modern white rhino, about 4m long (13′) and stood around 1.7m tall at the shoulder (5’7″). It had three distinctive pairs of “horns” on its forehead, snout, and nose, that were similar in structure to the ossicones of giraffids, probably covered in skin and hair rather than keratin. Its elongated canine teeth were protected by bony flanges on its lower jaw, and seem to have been a sexually dimorphic feature that was much more prominent in males.

It also had an oddly concave skull, with its forehead dipping inwards, and an unusually tiny braincase for its size. It probably wasn’t a particularly intelligent animal, but it didn’t really need to be – as one of the first types of herbivorous mammal to get truly huge in the early Cenozoic, a fully-grown Uintatherium probably had no natural predators at all.

Kogiopsis

Kogiopsis floridana was a physeteroid whale that lived near the coast of the southeastern United States from the mid-Miocene to the early Pliocene, about 14-4 million years ago.

Known just from fossilized lower jaws and teeth, with some teeth up to nearly 13cm long (~5″), its full life appearance and size are uncertain – but it may have been slightly larger than a modern bottlenose dolphin at around 4.5m long (~14’9″). It’s traditionally been considered to be part of the kogiid family, closely related to modern pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, but some studies disagree with that classification and instead place it in the true sperm whale lineage.

It was probably a predator in a similar ecological role to modern orcas, adapted for hunting prey like squid, fish, and smaller marine mammals. But unlike orcas it wouldn’t have been the apex predator of its ecosystem, subject to predation pressure by even larger carnivores like macroraptorial sperm whales and everyone’s favorite ridiculously huge shark – and as a result it probably had a “live fast and die young” lifestyle similar to modern kogiids and other small-to-medium-sized Miocene physeteroids, rapidly maturing and only living to around 20 years old.

I’ve reconstructed Kogiopsis here as a kogiid-like animal, with a similar sort of shark-like head shape and “false gill” markings. In the background a second individual is depicted displaying “inking” behavior, releasing a defensive cloud of reddish-brown fluid from a specialized sac in its colon.

Elasmotherium

Elasmotherium sibiricum was a giant rhinoceros that lived during the mid-to-late Pleistocene epoch, between about 800,000 and 39,000 years ago. Found across much of the Eurasian steppe dry grassland environments, it stood around 2.5m tall (8’2″) at the top of its humped shoulders and weighed about 4 tonnes (4.4 US tons), making it close in size and mass to a modern elephant.

It was the last known representative of a particularly ancient lineage of rhinos, last sharing a common ancestor with modern forms over 40 million years ago.

A large bony dome on its forehead is traditionally thought to have supported an enormous keratinous horn like the distantly-related woolly rhino, but a 2021 study has recently challenged that interpretation. The dome structure was actually rather thin-walled and wouldn’t have been able to support the weight of a giant horn, instead probably being covered by a much stumpier backwards-pointing nub – while an enlarged nasal cavity inside the dome also suggests it may have actually functioned as a resonating chamber, similar to the crests of hadrosaurs or the extinct wildebeest Rusingoryx.

It also had a smaller toughened “pad” on its nose that may have been used along with a prehensile upper lip to dig around in the soil for plant roots and tubers.

Phiomicetus

Named after the canine-headed Ancient Egyptian god, Phiomicetus anubis is the first fossil cetacean to discovered, described, and named entirely by a team of Arab paleontologists.

Living during the mid-Eocene, about 43 million years ago, in a shallow sea-covered region that is now part of Egypt‘s Western Desert, Phiomicetus was an early protocetid – an amphibious foot-powered swimmer, at a transitional point in the evolution of whales from deer-like terrestrial animals to fully aquatic screaming torpedoes.

About 3m long (~10′), it had large jaw muscles and sharp teeth with wear patterns that suggest it was a raptorial hunter grabbing and snapping at prey with powerful bites. It would have probably tackled fairly big prey compared to other protocetids, hunting things like large fish, turtles, and even smaller whales in an ecological role similar to that of modern orcas.

Along with the distantly-related long-snouted Rayanistes it’s one of the earliest known whales from Africa, giving us further glimpses at a time period when early cetaceans were first dispersing out from the South Asian subcontinent via the ancient Tethys Sea.

Hyrachyus

What’s the most unexpected fossil you’d think could be found on the island of Jamaica?

How about an ancient rhino?

Hyrachyus here was an early member of the rhinocerotoids, a lineage of odd-toed ungulates that also includes the true rhinoceroses, the tapir-like and hippo-like amynodontids, the long-legged hyracodontids, and the giant indricotheriines.

This particular genus was very widespread for much of the Eocene, found across Europe, Asia, and North America, crossing back and forth between the continents via the North Atlantic land bridge.

The Jamaican Hyrachyus lived during the mid-Eocene, around 45 million years ago, and was very anatomically similar to the North American Hyrachyus affinis – with the known fossil material not being considered distinct enough to be assigned to a new species yet. It was also about 15-20% smaller than its mainland relative, standing only 25cm tall at the shoulder (10″), but it’s not yet clear if this was a case of insular dwarfism or not.

Its presence in ancient Jamaica suggests that there may have been some sort of land connection between the proto-island and Central America during the early Eocene, when a chunk of what would eventually become western Jamaica was located much closer to the coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua. It’s the only fossil ungulate known from the Caribbean, and one of only a few terrestrial mammals in the region with North American evolutionary roots (the others being the extinct rodents Caribeomys merzeraudi and Oryzomys antillarum, and modern solenodons).

Unfortunately these little rhinos didn’t get much time on their island home. Jamaica subsided fully underwater about 40 million years ago, drowning its unique Eocene ecosystem entirely, and wouldn’t re-emerge and be re-colonized until much later in the Cenozoic.

Heliosus

Just before the 2017 solar eclipse, some unusual fossils were discovered in Southern Wyoming, USA.

Consisting of a partial jawbone and a humerus, and dating to the mid-Eocene (~47 million years ago), the remains clearly belonged to an early even-toed ungulate – but one much bigger than the rabbit-sized herbivores known from that time. This was something closer in size and build to a large modern pig, standing at least 1m tall at the shoulder (3’3″).

It turned out to belong to a member of a somewhat obscure lineage known as the helohyids, a group whose evolutionary relationships are a bit uncertain but are generally considered to be part of the whale-and-hippo lineage. These pig-like animals were large opportunistic omnivores, possibly occupying a similar ecological role to the later entelodonts, with some Late Eocene forms reaching sizes comparable to black bears.

This new helohyid was named Heliosus apophis, inspired by the eclipse, with its genus name meaning “sun pig”, and its species name referencing a sun-devouring Ancient Egyptian deity.

It was one of the earliest known large-bodied members of the group, and shows that these animals must have increased in size very rapidly during their early evolution, going from rabbit-sized to pig-sized within just a couple of million years.

Borealodon

Modern mysticete whales all have baleen plates in their mouths, but before the evolution of these specialized filter-feeding structures the early members of their lineage still had toothy jaws.

Borealodon osedax here was one of those “toothed mysticetes”, living about 30-28 million years ago during the mid-Oligocene off the coast of Washington state, USA.

Unlike modern baleen whales it was small, about the size of a modern porpoise at around 2m long (6’6″), and the wear on its multi-cusped teeth suggest it was a predator taking slicing bites of fish – possibly using suction-assisted feeding like its close relatives the aetiocetids.

Its fossilized remains are also a rare example of an ancient whale fall, with characteristic bore holes in its bones from Osedax worms.

Paraceratherium

While the largest animal known to ever exist is an aquatic mammal (the modern blue whale), mammals on land have never managed to attain the same sort of massive sizes seen in the sauropod dinosaurs. This is probably due to a combination of factors, including their reproductive strategies, metabolisms, and physiological differences like lacking internal air sacs – but even being limited to overall smaller body sizes, some of the mega-mammals known to have evolved during the Cenozoic were still absolutely enormous.

And one of the largest was Paraceratherium transouralicum.

(The exact name of this animal has a long and complicated history, and in various times and places it’s also been known as Indricotherium, Baluchitherium, and Pristinotherium.)

Found across much of Eurasia during the Oligocene, about 34-23 million years ago, Paraceratherium was part of an ancient lineage of long-legged hornless rhinoceroses. It stood around 4.8m tall at the shoulder (15’9″) – big enough that most modern humans would be able to walk right underneath its belly without even having to duck – and it had elongated limbs and a long neck that gave it an overall appearance much more like a giant weird horse than a rhino.

There was a pair of downward-pointing tusks at the front of its upper jaw, and the shape of the nasal region of its skull suggests its nose formed a short prehensile tapir-like trunk, which would have been used to help grab and strip leaves from high branches.

I’ve also reconstructed it here with a speculative dewlap on its neck, used for both display and thermoregulation.

Aegicetus

The protocetids were some of the first oceanic cetaceans, occupying a transitional position in the evolution of whales, with four paddle-like limbs and nostrils only partway up their snouts.

Early members of this group swam like otters, using a combination of undulating their bodies and paddling with large hind limbs, but somewhere in the Late Eocene they switched over to propelling themselves entirely with their tails and gave rise to even more whale-like forms like the basilosaurids.

And Aegicetus gehennae was right in the middle of that switch.

Discovered in the Wadi Al-Hitan (“Valley of the Whales”) fossil site in Egypt, Aegicetus lived around 37-35 million years ago. It was similarly-sized to earlier protocetids like Georgiacetus, measuring about 3.5m long (11’6″), but its hind limbs were proportionally smaller. Its hips were also completely disconnected from its vertebrae, giving it much more flexibility to undulate its body and tail – and preventing it from supporting its weight on land, suggesting that it spent its entire life in the water.

It wasn’t a direct ancestor to more “advanced” cetaceans, since it lived alongside several species of basilosaurids. Instead it seems to represent a late-surviving example of what the earlier protocetid-basilosaurid transitional forms would have looked like.