Finned Monster Bit Heads Off Ancient Amphibians
Ouch! A fossilized boomerang-head suffered a life-ending bite to the nose by a finbacked Dimedtrodon.
Aug. 30, 2011 --
Evolution and natural selection have played a role in the ever-changing landscape of plants, animals, bacteria and fungi. Although species evolve as they find their niche and adapt to new opportunities, some animals have remained relatively unchanged over the course of history. These animals are known as living fossils. Compared to the animals on this list, humans are relative newcomers to this planet. Homo sapiens emerged out of Africa a mere 200,000 years ago. Many living fossils are considerably older than humans and other mammals; some have even outlasted the dinosaurs. In this slideshow, take an up-close look at animals that have persevered virtually unchanged through the ages and continue to thrive today. We begin with the platypus, an unusual egg-laying animal with fur, a bill and a venomous bite. Charles Darwin himself coined the term "living fossil" while observing the platypus. Native to eastern Australia, the animal is the only surviving example of its family, Ornithorhynchidae. This group of animals is believed to have split from mammals some 166 million years ago.
The horseshoe crab could hold the distinction of being the oldest animal species still in existence. Dating back to the Paleozoic era, the horseshoe crab existed on Earth before the dinosaurs and soldiered on through several mass extinction events. In 2008, a horseshoe crab fossil, the oldest in existence found so far, dated back to around 445 million years ago, according to a report by LiveScience.
The tadpole shrimp, Triops cancriformis, is another contender for the title of oldest living animal species. This shrimp is related to the horseshoe crab so its longevity should come as no surprise. According to a report by The Telegraph, the tadpole shrimp as it appears today is virtually identical to a fossil of a specimen that lived some 200 million years ago just as dinosaurs rose to prominence. Despite the animal's remarkable endurance, the tadpole shrimp is currently listed as an endangered species.
Once thought to be extinct in the same event that killed off the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, the coelacanth is a lobe-finned fish that sparked a debate over whether this species represented a missing link between aquatic animals and four-legged terrestrial creatures, according to National Geographic. The animal was rediscovered in 1938 and only two species of coelacanth still exist today. In 2007, a fossilized coelacanth fin was found dating back roughly 400 million years.
Snapping turtles as we know them first walked the earth some 40 million years ago, but they have been virtually unchanged over the past 215 million years of their evolution, according to Tortoise Trust. Although not among the most endangered tortoises and turtles according to the Turtle Conservation Coalition, the snapping turtle is listed as threatened.
The more than 20 species of alligators and crocodiles living today have evolved beyond their more primitive ancestors. But the basic physical design of these reptiles has remained essentially the same for the past 320 million years or so. Alligators and crocodiles share a common ancestry, though the two groups separated from each other some 60 million years ago.
The nautilus is the most primitive cephalopod in existence, a group that includes the most complex squid and octopus. Dating back to more than half a billion years ago, the nautilus reached the high point in its evolution during the Paleozoic era about 505 million to 408 million years ago. Several species of nautilus still survive today -- relatively unchanged from their ancestral counterparts.
Goblin sharks are rare, deep-sea dwellers with a unique elongated nose that distinguishes them from other sharks. They're also ancient, and are between 112 million to 124 million years old as a species. Around 2,000 different species of fossil sharks have been discovered, according to the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research. The earliest sharks predate the dinosaurs by more than 200 million years.
The cockroach is famous for being a survivor. These insects can survive for weeks without their heads and even withstand the fallout following a nuclear blast. Cockroaches are also an especially long-surviving animal. Roaches have thrived on Earth for some 320 million years, with an estimated 5 million to 10 million individual species ranging in shape, size and habitat. This photo shows Blaberus giganteus, one of the largest species of cockroach on Earth.
Hagfish may have had to endure a less-than-flattering name since scientists first described them in the 18th century. However, these famously ugly marine animals have existed for about half a billion years. The hagfish also represents an important evolutionary step in the development of vision. These ancient fish may have been among the earliest animals to evolve more complex, camera-like eyes as opposed to the strictly photosensitive vision possessed by more primitive species. As such, the hagfish represents a kind of missing link in the evolution of the eye.
DENVER — Talk about a creature feature: A bizarre boomerang-headed amphibian that burrowed in a seasonal pond in what is now Texas often met its doom in the jaws of a reptilian fin-backed mammalian ancestor, new fossils reveal.
These two weird critters were residents of the Permian period 298 million to 250 million years ago, before dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Dimetrodon, the jaguar-size finback, looked like a lizard but was actually more closely related to modern mammals. Diplocaulus, the boomerang-head, was a truly strange amphibian with an impractically wide, bony skull.
"It's just so weird," said study researcher Robert Bakker, the curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. "This is an example of unintelligent design." [Images of the Bizarre Boomerang-Head & Finned Monster]
Unintelligent though a broad head may have been for a burrowing creature, the boomerang-head managed to survive for 45 million years during the Permian, a period known for its extinctions, Bakker told LiveScience.
Bakker and his colleagues discovered the Dimetrodonand Diplocaulus interaction in the Craddock bone bed in Baylor County, Texas. The bone bed is scattered with the bodies of boomerang-heads, curled in what were once burrows. The amphibians seem to have burrowed into the mud to survive the dry season, the researchers reported here Monday (Oct. 28) at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.
"The bed had a reputation of just being a stewpot with everything mixed together," Bakker said. "That's totally wrong. It's beautifully layered."
The excavations revealed that boomerang-heads were common in the pond — and that something was snacking on them.
"We have hundreds of these, mostly chewed, and even the guys in burrows got attacked," Bakker said.
The shed teeth, "like bullets in a crime scene," revealed the attacker to be Dimetrodon, he said. The finback's sharp fangs and long snout would have enabled it to bite boomerang-heads hiding in burrows, perhaps after partially excavating them with its sharp, digging claws.
One cluster of eight juvenile boomerang-heads was found stacked together, suggesting they all occupied the same burrow. Dimetrodon likely killed the top three, including one whose nose was bitten clean off (taking part of the brain with it). The other five boomerang-heads survived the Dimetrodon, only to perish during the next dry season, Bakker said.
The find corroborates a theory first posited by famed paleontologist E. C. Olson, who argued that Dimetrodon must have eaten the boomerang-headed amphibians.
"[Dimetrodons are] the equivalent of Velociraptor and T. rex, you'd think they'd be eating big plant-eaters," Bakker said. But there weren't many big plant-eaters in the Permian era, so Dimetrodon ate smaller amphibians instead. (The largest Diplocaulus skull ever found measured about 17 inches (43 centimeters) across, Bakker said.)
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Wipe Out: History's Most Mysterious Extinctions
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