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Ceratodus was a genus of prehistoric lungfish which existed on Earth for a surprisingly long time, from the late Triassic Period approximately 227 million years ago to the beginning of the Eocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period about 55 million years ago – a jaw-dropping span of 172 million years! That’s impressive by ANYBODY’S standards!
Lungfish as a whole are a primitive group of fish. They first appeared during the early Devonian Period about 416 million years ago (MYA), and it’s believed that they represent an evolutionary “missing link” between fish and amphibians. The closest relatives of the lungfish are the coelacanths, meaning “hollow spines”. That’s not surprising, considering that both lungfish and coelacanths have prehistoric origins as well as that both groups are classified as “lobe-finned fish”.
Lungfish do not have individual teeth like many fish today. Instead, they have four large bone plates (two in its upper jaw, and another two in its lower jaw) that were ridged in texture and crowned with thick triangular projections, and were used for crushing and cracking. Many species of modern lungfish feed on worms, freshwater snails, crustaceans, small fish, and amphibians.
Today, there are only six surviving species of lungfish, and all of them are found in hot tropical environments. With the exception of one species found in the Amazon Jungle and another species found in northern Australia, the remaining lungfish species are found in Africa.
- The South American Lungfish (Lepidosiren paradoxa), found in the Amazon River.
- The Marbled Lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus), which is found throughout much of eastern and central Africa.
- The Gilled Lungfish (Protopterus amphibius), which is also found in eastern Africa.
- The West African Lungfish (Protopterus annectens), which is found, not surprisingly, in western Africa.
- The Spotted Lungfish (Protopterus dolloi), which inhabits the Congo Jungle of central Africa.
- The Australian Lungfish, also called the Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri), found in northeastern Australia. Of all of the extant lungfish species, this one is believed to be the most primitive.
Special attention must be given to the Australian Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri), for not only is this species regarded as the most archaic of all of the extant lungfish, but it was once believed to be the sole surviving member of the prehistoric lungfish genus Ceratodus alive in modern times.
Skeleton of Neoceratodus forsteri. From Günther, Albert. “Description of Ceratodus, a Genus of Ganoid Fishes, Recently Discovered in Rivers of Queensland, Australia”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, volume 161 (1871). Plate XXX. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/109041.pdf.
The lower jaw of Neoceratodus forsteri, seen from above. From Krefft, Gerard. “Description of a gigantic amphibian allied to the genus Lepidosiren from the Wide-Bay district, Queensland”. Proceedings of the Zoological Society, volume 16 (April 28, 1870). Page 222. https://ia800405.us.archive.org/16/items/biostor-107043/biostor-107043.pdf.
The genus Ceratodus was established in 1837 by the famed Swiss ichthyologist Louis Agassiz based upon teeth which were found in European rock layers dated to the Triassic and Jurassic Periods. Most Ceratodus fossils that are found consist of isolated tooth plates, and different species have been named based largely upon difference in tooth morphology. Twenty-two species of Ceratodus have been named since the genus was first described in 1837. For a long time, Ceratodus was what is known as a “waste basket taxon” – all North American lungfish fossils were ascribed to this genus, regardless of how different they were from each other. Recently, a careful re-examination of lungfish fossils have revealed that these animals are remarkably different from each other and may constitute numerous genera, not just one. If that’s the case, then the overall lifespan of Ceratodus as a genus may be dramatically shorter than was previously supposed (Günther, Albert. “Description of Ceratodus, a Genus of Ganoid Fishes, Recently Discovered in Rivers of Queensland, Australia”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, volume 161 (1871). Page 512).
Ceratodus, painted by Heinrich Harder. From Animals of the Prehistoric World (1916). Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ceratodus.jpg.
Ceratodus’ length varied depending on the species. Most sources which I have seen give an average length of 3 feet long. However, one species of Ceratodus may have reached truly gigantic proportions, possibly reaching 10 to 12 feet long. This estimate is based upon a single bone plate, which is the largest-known of any lungfish. The tooth plate was found in central Nebraska in rocks dated to the Miocene or Pliocene Epochs of the Tertiary Period. Shimada and Kirkland hypothesized that the tooth had been carried into central Nebraska by river from older rock layers that were located further to the west within Wyoming, in rocks dated to either the late Jurassic or early Cretaceous Periods. However, the tooth isn’t as banged up as you would expect from such a long journey. It’s possible that the tooth is endemic to central Nebraska, and if that is the case, 1) Ceratodus was alive in North America for a much longer geologic time span than previously supposed, or 2) This species is mis-identified and belongs to a new un-described genus of giant lungfish which lived in central North America about 5 million years ago, or 3) This was a species which happened to have unusually large teeth within its jaws, and the overall length of the animal was much smaller than the 4 meter estimate given by Shimada and Kirkland. Unfortunately, only one tooth plate has been discovered. Until more specimens are found, everything that we have to say about this specimen needs to be taken with a great degree of skepticism. (Kenshu Shimada and James I. Kirkland, “A Mysterious King-Sized Mesozoic Lungfish from North America”. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, volume 114, issue 1 (2011). Pages 135-141. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261964060_A_Mysterious_King-Sized_Mesozoic_Lungfish_from_North_America).
For the artwork accompanying this article, I decided to change up my style. For this drawing, I chose to evoke the whimsical style of the paleo-art of Patricia Bujard. If you don’t know who Patricia Bujard is, then I highly recommend that you check out her work. She is a children’s author and illustrator with a love for prehistoric life, and I find her artwork adorable. There aren’t too many people who can make an Allosaurus “cute”, but dag-nabbit, she somehow manages to pull it off. You can see her artwork on her WordPress page, Pete’s Paleo Petshop. My own drawing, which you can see below, was made with an ordinary Crayola black marker.
Ceratodus © Jason R. Abdale. February 9, 2021.
Keep your pencils sharp, and in this case, also keep your markers properly stored so they don’t dry out.
This is Caturus, a prehistoric fish which swam in the oceans during the Mesozoic Era. Fossils of this saltwater fish have been found in North America, Europe, northern Africa, and as far as China within rocks spanning from the beginning of the Triassic Period about 250 MYA up to the middle of the Cretaceous Period, about 100 MYA. However, most fossils have been found in Europe in rock layers dated to the middle and late Jurassic Period, about 170-150 MYA.
Despite a superficial resemblance to a salmon, Caturus was actually more closely related to a bowfin (Amia calva), which is a rather primitive ray-finned fish.
So far, paleontologists have identified fourteen species of Caturus. The largest species, Caturus furcatus, which lived in the shallow sea that covered much of Europe during the late Jurassic period about 150 MYA, reached three feet long; other species were much smaller. One species, Caturus dartoni, is known from North America in rocks dated to the middle Jurassic, about 165 MYA. Only two skeletons of this particular species have been found, the largest measuring 15 inches long.
Caturus. © Jason R. Abdale. September 5, 2020.
This drawing was made on printer paper with No.2 pencil, No.3 pencil, Crayola colored pencils, Prismacolor colored pencils, and Artist’s Loft colored pencils.
When most people hear the words “aquatic reptile”, they usually think of two things: turtles and crocodilians. Some clever people might mention sea snakes, and others might mention marine iguanas. Those who are keen on impressing you may bring up some obscure species like the water monitor, the basilisk lizard, and other species of snakes which venture into water.
In prehistoric times, the list of options that you could choose from was much more expansive. In fact, there were animals around then which aren’t around today which fit into this category. One such group of prehistoric water-going reptiles was known as the “choristoderans” (pronounced as Kore-RISS-toe-DEER-rans).
The choristoderans were a group of semi-aquatic reptiles which lived during the Mesozoic Era. Although not as well-known as other non-dinosaurian reptiles of the Mesozoic such as pterosaurs and ichthyosaurs, they nevertheless shared their environments with dinosaurs for a span of approximately 110 million years and even survived the dinosaur extinction. Choristoderans first appeared during the middle of the Jurassic Period about 175 MYA. The oldest-known genus which is recognizably a choristoderan was Cteniogenys, which measured just one and a half feet long and was very lizard-like in appearance. In life, it probably resembled a small monitor lizard and it likely filled a similar ecological niche. However, the heyday for the choristoderans occurred during the early Cretaceous Period from about 144 to 100 MYA, after which they went into decline. They were fortunate to survive the K-T Extinction, but they were always second fiddle to their crocodile neighbors. Most of the surviving species went extinct about 50 MYA, with the remainder just barely hanging on. The last of the choristoderans completely went extinct around 20 MYA.
The choristoderans belonged to a group of vertebrates called the “diapsids”, meaning that they had two holes in their skull behind each eye socket. Lizards, snakes, crocodilians, pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and birds are all classified as diapsids.
At first glance, choristoderans might be mistaken for crocodiles. However, despite their crocodile-like appearance, they are more closely related to lizards than to crocodiles, at least according to a study made by Mike Lee in 2013 (“Turtle origins: insights from phylogenetic retrofitting and molecular scaffolds”). Their placement in the reptile tree is primarily based upon the structure and arrangement of their ear bones, which is more advanced than those seen in lizards but not as advanced as those seen in crocodilians and birds. Also, the skulls of choristoderans are structurally more lizard-like than crocodilian.
The order Choristodera is divided into four families: Champsosauridae, Hyphalosauridae, Monjurosuchidae, and Simoedosauridae. The more primitive the species, the more lizard-like it is in form. The more derived, then the more crocodilian it is in appearance. The most primitive choristoderans were the monjurosuchids, which looked similar to the modern-day Water Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvator). Even at this early stage in their development, there is fossil evidence that some species like Monjurosuchus possessed webbed fingers and toes. Already, they were adapted to living a semi-aquatic lifestyle.
Skeleton of Monjurosuchus splendens, a primitive choristoderan from China. Photograph by Jonathan Chen (June 13, 2019). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monjurosuchus-Beijing_Museum_of_Natural_History.jpg.
Even more advanced were the hyphalosaurids, which bear a remarkable resemblance to the earlier nothosaurs and thalattosaurs of the Triassic Period. Form tends to follow function in evolution, and these creatures almost certainly led a similar lifestyle. The act of species from completely different groups evolving into more-or-less the same shape is called “convergent evolution”.
The champsosaurids and the simoedosaurids are the most crocodile-like in appearance, and together they form the super-family Neochoristodera. Like crocodiles, these creatures were almost certainly living as shallow-water ambush predators, fitted with long slender jaws lined with small conical teeth. Like modern-day gharials, they may have been primarily or even exclusively fish-eaters.
Probably the most famous choristoderan genus was Champsosaurus (pronounced as CHAMP-so-SORE-us). It first appeared about 90 MYA during the Turonian Stage of the late Cretaceous Period, persisted through the K-T Extinction, and finally went extinct during the Paleocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period about 56 MYA. Impressive. Most genera don’t last that long.
Champsosaurus was named by the famed paleontologist Edward D. Cope in the year 1877. Despite not having an easily-recognizable name (most members of the general public have likely never heard of it), it has been rigorously studied by paleontologists ever since then. For example, three academic articles were published about it just in the year 2010, and another article was recently published in April 2020. So, from an academic standpoint, interest in this animal has been pretty consistent.
There are seven species which have been ascribed to the genus Champsosaurus. Most of them measured 5 feet long or thereabouts, but the largest, which was appropriately named Champsosaurus gigas, reached 10 feet long. Most Champsosaurus fossils have been found in south-central Canada and the north-central United States within rocks dated to the late Cretaceous Period from 90 to 66 MYA, but a few have also been found in Belgium and northern France in rocks dated to the Tertiary Period.
Champsosaurus skeleton from Montana, USA on display in the Royal Ontario Museum. Photograph by Daderot (November 21, 2011). Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Champsosaurus_sp.,_Montana,_USA,_Late_Cretaceous_-_Royal_Ontario_Museum_-_DSC00088.JPG.
Upper jaw of Champsosaurus, above view (left) and underside view (right). The skull’s length measures about 13 inches. Illustration by Samuel W. Williston. From The Osteology of the Reptiles (1925). Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Osteology_of_the_Reptiles_p76.png.
Champsosaurus appears to have been able to tolerate both freshwater and saltwater environments. Fossils of a species called Champsosaurus laramiensis have been found in rocks from the Fox Hills Formation, a geological layer which represents a coastal or estuary environment on the edge of the Western Interior Sea. Fossils of mosasaurs and dinosaurs including Tyrannosaurus have also been found in these rocks.
Preserved skin impressions show that, unlike many lizards, choristoderans like Champsosaurus did NOT have overlapping scales. Instead, the skin consisted of tiny non-overlapping scales, with no crocodile-like dorsal scutes, giving it a very smooth-skinned appearance when seen from a distance.
Unlike crocodiles, which have their nostrils on the top of their upper jaw, Champsosaurus had its nostrils on the front tip of its upper jaw. Perhaps they would use their long nose like a snorkel, sticking just the tip out of the water’s surface in order to stay as concealed as possible.
Champsosaurus had a pair of long thin gharial-like jaws lined with tiny conical teeth. Because of its close affinity towards lizards than to crocodiles, it is highly likely that Champsosaurus had lips and a fully enclosed mouth. But that’s just speculation based upon phylogenic relationships to other reptiles. In terms of hard physical evidence, the teeth themselves are quite small, and are inset from the edge of the jawline rather than standing on the rim of the jaw like a crocodile. This suggests that Champsosaurus had lips covering its teeth like a lizard, unlike crocodiles which don’t have lips.
Compared with crocodilians, the eye sockets of choristoderans are positioned much further forwards on the skull, located halfway or two-thirds of the way back from the tip of the snout. This provides more space for jaw muscles, and the temporal fenestrae (the holes in the back of the skull that accommodate the jaw muscles) were very large in proportion with skull size. Champsosaurus, in particular, had very large temporal fenestrae, which indicates that it had strong jaw muscles and could quickly snap its mouth shut within a fraction of a second – an important adaptation if your diet consists primarily of small fish.
Unlike lizards, Champsosaurus might not have had external ears. Analysis of its skull structure shows that Champsosaurus had internal ears, similar to turtles. This is an important adaptation if you are spending much of your life in the water. Therefore, you would not have seen a pair of ear holes on a Champsosaurus head. Instead, there likely just would have been a slight depression (or maybe not even that) on the side of the head marking where the tympanum (the part of the ear that vibrates in order to make a sound) would have been.
If you spend much of your life in the water, walking really isn’t an issue. Therefore, the limbs of choristoderans are not well-developed. In fact, the more “advanced” the species, the weaker its limb bones appear to be. Champsosaurus is no exception to this – its legs are downright puny in comparison with its body. The bones that make up the arms and legs are short and stumpy, and the hands and feet are small, although the feet are noticeably bigger than the hands. The fingers and toes are thin and end with very tiny claws. This was an animal that would have had a hard time pushing itself onto land. However, there is some evidence that females had more robustly-built limbs than the males due to the need to haul themselves onto land in order to lay their eggs.
The tail of Champsosaurus was flattened, and looked more like that of a crocodile or even a mosasaur than to a lizard. Even so, this animal was definitely not a power-swimmer. If it was, then one would expect the tail to be both longer and broader. Instead, the tail seems to be peculiarly under-developed. Keep in mind, though, that this was likely not an animal that was actively chasing after its prey. If all it was doing was hunkering down on the bottom of a lake or river and waiting motionless for fish to carelessly swim by, then it doesn’t need a well-built tail that’s designed for plowing through the water.
Skeleton of Champsosaurus laramiensis. From “The Osteology of Champsosaurus”, by Barnum Brown (1905). Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, volume 9, part 1. Public domain image. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Large_williston_champsosaurus.jpg.
Below is a drawing made of Champsosaurus laramiensis drifting about in a murky pond or stream somewhere in Montana during the late Cretaceous Period. This five-foot-long piscivore would have shared this environment with alligators, crocodiles, turtles, large freshwater fish like gars, sturgeons, and bowfins, and of course dinosaurs like Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus. The drawing was made with No.2 pencil on printer paper.
Anyways, keep your pencils sharp.
Many people, usually un-informed talking heads that appear on populist nature documentaries who want to make claims that will grab your attention, will say that sharks have remained unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. It’s wrong. The Mesozoic Era, the age of the dinosaurs, was a time of great transition for sharks. Sharks had existed on Earth for millions of years before the first dinosaurs appeared, ever since the Devonian Period when creatures like Cladoselache swam in the oceans around 370 million years ago. However, these were very primitive sharks that bore only a slight resemblance to most of the sharks that are found in the oceans today. The closest visual comparisons that we have for many prehistoric species are those that are found in very deep water, even though these sharks are still thoroughly modern in their genetics and evolutionary history. Sharks that are described as “modern” by biologists and paleontologists appeared towards the end of the Mesozoic Era during the late Cretaceous Period. Examples of prehistoric “modern sharks” are Cretoxyrhina and Squalicorax, both of which look like many shark species that are alive today.
During the Mesozoic Era, new shark forms emerged that could be described as transitional, a sort of in-between stage between the primitive sharks of the Paleozoic Era and the modern sharks of the very late Mesozoic. The most recognizable of these transitional species were a group of sharks called the “hybodonts”. Part of the reason why the hybodonts are regarded by many as THE shark group of the dinosaur age is because they lasted for such a long time. The hybodonts first emerged during the Carboniferous Period and they stuck around until the very end of the Cretaceous – that’s a LONG time! The hybodonts, therefore, existed throughout the entire duration of the Mesozoic Era. No wonder that they are considered the archetypal Mesozoic shark. Another reason for their status as the sharks that most people think of as dinosaur-age sharks is that they were widespread. Hybodont sharks existed all over the world during the Mesozoic, and they appeared to have existed in every aquatic niche: freshwater, brackish, and saltwater. Perhaps, like modern-day Bull Sharks, they had the ability to migrate in and out of water with different salinity levels without suffering adverse effects.
The most well-known of all of the hybodont sharks is its eponymous member Hybodus, a genus composed of several species which survived and thrived during the dinosaur age. It measured 6 feet long, and it occupied marine habitats around the world, although it is especially known from fossils found in Europe. Below is a drawing that I made of it based upon numerous fossils and scientific articles that I found. I noticed that the profile of the creature looked remarkably similar to a modern-day Blunt-Nosed Six-Gill Shark (Hexanchus griseus), with its rounded blunt nose and the characteristic humped back. Hybodus’ pectoral fins were surprisingly small and convex along the posterior edge, looking similar to the pectoral fins on numerous species of bottom-dwelling sharks. I get the impression that Hybodus was somewhat lethargic and spent much of its time cruising near the sea bottom, but that’s just my guess. The drawing was made with No. 2 pencil.
Keep your pencils sharp.
The Morrison Formation of the western United States is one of the most famous deposits of late Jurassic strata anywhere in the world. It is here that dinosaur fossils from famous species like Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, and others were discovered and continue to be uncovered by paleontologists to this day. While the Morrison Formation is world-renowned for its superb dinosaur fossils, this landscape was home to many other species that dwelt here 150 million years ago. In addition to dinosaurs, fossils of pterosaurs, crocodiles, lizards, turtles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates have also been uncovered.
As you can see from the above list, there are many aquatic or semi-aquatic animals that are mentioned. This may sound bizarre because, as anyone who has even a vague knowledge of the Morrison Formation knows, this landscape was arid and dry for much of the year during the late Jurassic; click here for a video that talks about this. However, since fossilization is most likely to occur in areas that are prone to flooding, it would make sense that many of the fossils that we find come from creatures that made their homes in and around the water.
One of those creatures was Morrolepis, one of the fish species that lived in western North America during the Late Jurassic. Morrolepis belonged to a group of primitive fish called the palaeoniscoids, which superficially resemble something that you’d find in the deep ocean – very large eyes, short snout, big mouth, big snaggly teeth, and a general appearance that can be best described as “prehistoric”. The creature was officially named Morrolepis schaefferi in 1998 by Jim Kirkland, although there are other species of this genus that have been found elsewhere, notably in Europe. This creature only measured eight inches long, far larger than its contemporary, the minnow-sized Hulettia, but at the same time it was far smaller than its other major contemporary, the three-foot-long lungfish Ceratodus. By the way, lungfish were the most common fish found in the Morrison Formation. Being able to breathe when you’re out of water is very helpful if you live in a landscape that has a long dry season and is prone to droughts.
We know quite a bit about Morrolepis’ anatomy based upon the fossils that have been uncovered, but how would it have lived? We know from geology that Morrolepis’ remains were found inland. Therefore, it was not a marine species, but was instead a freshwater species. The Morrison Formation was, as said before, a largely dry area, but there were a few places where there were permanent sources of fresh water. The landscape was mostly flat, and rivers that flow through flat terrain usually flow very slowly because the incline of the land is barely noticeable. Moreover, flat-land rivers tend to be very wide but very shallow, unless they happen to be cutting through a gorge or ravine. So, it appears that Morrolepis was at home in standing or slow-moving water, such as ponds, lakes, and slow-moving rivers. Water bodies that are standing or slow-moving usually have a lot of aquatic vegetation. This is because seeds and spores of aquatic plants have a better chance of taking root and growing because the current won’t sweep them away, like in faster-moving streams and rivers. Therefore, in water bodies such as this, there is a sufficient amount of aquatic plants and algae. In some circumstances, the water might appear to be green due to the heavy concentration of algae (visit Kissena Park in Queens, New York if you don’t believe me; the lake there looks like pea soup). So, what we have so far is a slow-moving river that is wide but shallow, and probably has a fair amount of aquatic vegetation in it – ambush country.
Predatory fish that live in this type of environment are almost exclusively ambush predators, waiting under cover for prey to pass by too close, and then suddenly lunging forward and gobbling them up. Morrolepis had large eyes set close to the front of the head, ideal for spotting its prey. Also, if the water was indeed so thick with algae that it appeared to be dyed green, visibility would be very low. Large eyes would compensate for the murky water. A large mouth lined with noticeably long spiky teeth would seem to be a good go-to method for swallowing down small prey in water that had low visibility. With a gaping maw like that, even if your aim was not 100% accurate, you still stood a fair chance of catching your victim anyway. Unlike other palaeoniscoid fish, Morrolepis is distinctive for having large fins (most palaeoniscoids have small fins in proportion to body size), with the dorsal fin and the anal fin set back much closer towards the tail than in its relatives. Morrolepis’ tail was asymmetrical, resembling the tail of a sturgeon or a shark. In fact, the whole animal sort of resembles a modern deep sea shark in terms of its general body plan. Morrolepis appears to have had the body plan of a hoverer or a slow cruiser, being able to use its large tail for a powerful forward thrust. This is a feature of ambush predators like pikes and gars.
Due to the environment that it lived in, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine that Morrolepis was patterned in blotches or wavy stripes, and presumably would have been colored in various shades of tan, brown, and green to camouflage it in the murky muddy water and match the surrounding submerged vegetation.
I like to imagine Morrolepis as an ambush predator with good eyesight, and was likely covered in stripy or blotchy brown/green camouflage, which inhabited standing or slow-moving bodies of water. Below is a drawing that I have made of this creature. This illustration was made after consulting numerous photographs and scientific illustrations of Morrolepis fossils and comparing them with fossils of other palaeoniscoid fish. The drawing was made with a fine-tip black marker and colored pencils. Please provide any commentary or feedback below.
This is Harpactognathus, a rhamphorhynchid pterosaur from the Morrison Formation of the late Jurassic Period. It was one of the largest, if not THE largest, pterosaurs that called the Morrison Formation home. Although it is only known from fragmentary remains, including a large chunk of its upper jaw, paleontologists believe that Harpactognathus had an 8-foot wingspan, making it the size of an eagle. As to how long it would be, that’s uncertain. Rhamphorhynchids are known for having long tails, often ending in diamond-shaped or kite-shaped fins, which were likely brightly colored. Unfortunately, no remains of Harpactongathus’ tail have been found yet. Based upon the appearance of its skull, with long interlocking teeth resembling a Venus fly trap, it is almost certain that Harpactognathus was a fish-eater.
There have been numerous comparisons made over the years between Late Jurassic North America and the modern-day African savanna. Therefore, I decided to portray Harpactognathus with a color scheme similar to the African Fishing Eagle. This drawing was made with a combination of No. 2 pencil, No. 3 pencil, colored pencils, and markers.
The Hell Creek Formation of the north-central United States is famous for its dinosaur fossils, notably those of Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and others whose names are well-known to children and adults. However, this fossilized environment was home to more than just dinosaurs. The Hell Creek Formation was home to a wide range of fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. One of the animals that called this landscape home during the late Cretaceous was Habrosaurus.
Despite its name, Habrosaurus was not a dinosaur, and it wasn’t even a reptile. It was, in fact, an amphibian, and a large one at that. Habrosaurus dilatus was a three-foot long siren, a type of salamander that bears more of a resemblance to an eel than the lizard-like forms that we associate salamanders with. Unlike most salamanders, sirens are fully-aquatic amphibians that retain gills throughout their whole lives, unlike other amphibian species that possess gills only in the early development stages of their lives. Sirens also possess small rudimentary lungs, and are able to breath air. There are four species of sirens that are alive today, and all of them are found within North America. Depending upon the species, they can have one to three gill slits on each side of the head. They have completely lost their hind limbs, and their front limbs have shrunk considerably, with three or four short stubby fingers on each hand. Sirens have tiny eyes and no eyelids, and possess a long tail reminiscent of an eel or a sea snake – ideal for swimming. Sirens prefer to live in slow-moving or static bodies of water with lots of underwater vegetation and muddy bottoms. They might occasionally come onto land during the night if the ground is wet or if it’s raining.
Habrosaurus is, to date, the oldest-known siren genus. So far, there are two species known: H. prodilatus, which was found in Alberta, Canada in rocks dating to the Campanian Phase (83-70 MYA) of the late Cretaceous, and H. dilatus, which is much more widespread in the western United States, being found in Montana and Wyoming (with more specimens being found in Wyoming) and dating to the Maastrichtian Stage (70-65 MYA) of the late Cretaceous, as well as being found in the early Paleocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period. This means that H. dilatus was one of several species to survive the K-T Extinction, if only for a short while. It may be possible that H. dilatus is simply the evolved form of H. prodilatus.
Habrosaurus dilatus was named by the eminent paleontologist Charles W. Gilmore in 1928. To my knowledge, six specimens have been found of this animal, and all of them have been found in stream channel deposits. The presence of this type of animal, as well as its impressive size of three feet in length, indicates the presence of large bodies of fresh water, such as slow-moving rivers or ponds. However, the possibility of a dry year was ever-present, and for a fully-aquatic or mostly-aquatic animal like Habrosaurus, that could spell doom. During dry periods or droughts, modern-day sirens are able to dig burrows into the mud and encase themselves in a cocoon, like a lungfish, and Habrosaurus might have adopted the same strategy.
Habrosaurus had rows of blunt teeth arranged in the roof of its upper jaw, which indicates that these jaws were designed for crushing rather than grabbing. Presumably, it fed upon tiny mollusks and arthropods, such as snails and shrimp. Modern-day sirens feed mainly upon worms, aquatic snails, shrimp, and occasionally algae. Like fish, sirens possess lateral lines to find prey by indicating differences in water pressure and underwater vibrations.
An appropriate modern-day analog for the three-foot long Habrosaurus dilatus is the Greater Siren (Siren lacertina), which also grows to three feet long and is the largest siren species in the world today.
Below is a simple drawing of a Habrosaurus that I made with a felt-tipped marker. This style is a considerable departure from my usual style of highly-detailed pencil drawings, but I wanted to do some artistic experimenting.
This is a drawing of Lonchidion, a hybodont shark from the Mesozoic Era. There were at least eleven different species, one of which was found in the Hell Creek Formation. I won’t get into all of the particulars regarding this genus or the Hell Creek species in particular (L. selachos). Their size depended upon the species, some being very small. Lonchidion selachos may have been three feet long, judging by the size of its dorsal spines. The drawing is based upon the preserved remains of other hybodont sharks, because specimens from the Hell Creek Formation consist mostly of teeth, well-preserved specimens of any Lonchidion species are very rare, and as far as I am aware, they looked more or less like other well-known hybodonts.
Hybodont sharks are identified by their large dorsal fin spines as well as the four large spines atop their heads, which are really overly-enlarged denticle scales found all over the rest of the body. Hybodonts first appeared during the Carboniferous Period, but it was during the Jurassic that they came into their own. However, by the Cretaceous Period, they were being replaced by so-called “modern” sharks very similar to the ones we see today. Lonchidion was one of the last surviving members of its kind before the whole hybodont group (the few species that remained, anyway) was completely wiped out at the end of the Mesozoic Era 65 million years ago.
Here are color pencil drawings of two genera of prehistoric fish. Their fossils have been found in central Europe in rocks dating to the late Triassic Period. Both of these fish belong to a group called the pycnodonts, and it seems that they fed primarily upon mollusks and small crustaceans. Pycnodonts first appeared during the late Triassic Period, and became completely extinct during the Eocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period.
The first one is called Brembodus ridens. Among its features was a short spike on its back formed by extensions of the skull bones. This might have been meant to deter predators, like a modern-day triggerfish.
The second fish is called Eomesodon liassicus. It looked remarkably similar to a modern-day tang or surgeonfish, except I’m not sure if the typical surgeonfish caudal blade (a sharp pointed piece of bone, located on both sides of the base of the tail, which could be extended if needed) has been found in association with specimens of this particular genus. As to the color, it’s pure guesswork on my part.
Hope you enjoy, and I look foward to any feedback.
Let’s change from dinosaurs to some other prehistoric life. Here are two prehistoric sharks. The large gray one on top is called Cretoxyrhina mantelli, more commonly known as the Ginsu Shark. The smaller blue one underneath is called Squalicorax falcatus, more commonly known as the Crow Shark. These two species are only a handful of prehistoric animals that have common names ascribed to them – most paleo-critters have only their scientific names.
Both of these prehistoric sharks lived in what was called the Niobrara Sea, also called the Western Interior Sea, which covered the central third of North America during the late Cretaceous Period. Both of these sharks are classified as being lamniform sharks, also known as mackerel sharks. This is the same group which includes the Mako and the Great White. “Modern” sharks first appeared on Earth towards the end of the Mesozoic Era, and both of these species are good examples of early modern sharks.
Cretoxyrhina was a large twenty-foot shark. It lasted from 100-82 MYA, and it was probably the top predator in its environment during that time. However, during the Cretaceous Period, a new group of marine carnivores appeared called mosasaurs. These creatures were literally oceanic lizards – in fact, their closest relatives are today’s monitor lizards, like the ten-foot Komodo Dragon. But mosasaurs got much bigger than this, with some reaching over forty feet long. The mososaurs out-competed this large shark for food and drove it into extinction.
The smaller Crow Shark appears to have been much more versatile. It evolved into several different species, some measuring six feet long, while others reached as high as sixteen feet in length.
One of the things that you’ll immediately notice about this drawing is that it’s in color. I very rarely make color drawings – I usually just stick to grayscale. The reason why is because I haven’t really gotten the knack for making illustrations in color yet. I’ve been working in black-and-white for a long time, and I dare say (at the risk of tooting my own horn) that I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I don’t like using color because it washes out all of the texture and detail. Well, it’s a learning process. I’m sure that I’ll get the hang of it sooner or later.
Keep your pencils sharp.