Gone, Wild! 7 Extinct Wonders of the Animal Kingdom
It’s estimated that 99.9 percent of all the species that ever lived, have gone extinct – all part of the gradual trial & error process that characterizes the great circle of life. Most of the dearly departed creatures who have shuffled off this mortal coil were unremarkable but a rare few were more wondrously bizarre than anything humanly imaginable. Here are 7 of the strangest.
Opabinia: Hey Five Eyes!
If Fifties crooner Sheb Wooley thought a “one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater” was weird, he would’ve flipped his Brylcreemed lid over Opabinia, which was a five-eyed one-trunked swimming worm-bug hybrid thingy. It also had a backwards-facing mouth and a fan-shaped tail. Opabinia may seem exceptionally odd to us now but back in the Middle Cambrian era 510 million years ago, it was just another new squid on the block. Er, it also makes for an exceptionally odd tattoo.
(image via: WCU)
Just a few million years after the Cambrian Explosion (of life) began, creatures like Opabinia – and unlike anything alive today – lived their dog-eat-dog lives in warm shallow seas. An undersea landslide occurring in what is now British Columbia buried many of Mother Nature’s early wild experiments with body plans beneath fine-grained silt that solidified to form the Burgess Shale.
Giant Sea Scorpion: Big Bad Bug
400 million years ago, the ancestors of today’s scorpions and spiders were the undisputed kings of their watery environment. Growing up to 8 feet (2.5 meters) long, the Eurypterids were mean, mad and VERY hungry – and they packed a pair of viciously serrated claws to back it up. We may have to extend our thanks to the Eurypterids… our very distant amphibian forbears may have finally made the leap to living on land partly in response to predation by these relentless killing machines.
(image via: About.com)
What if the Eurypterids had survived to the modern day? The above photoshopped image by Takeshi Yamada purports to display just such a creature – at just 15-inches long it STILL looks exceptionally freaky.
Ammonites: A Face Only Lovecraft Could Love
Cross a squid, a snail, Futurama’s Dr. Zoidberg and Great Cthulhu for good measure and you get something approximately like an Ammonite – and one heck of a mess to clean up. These extremely successful relatives of octopi, squids and the chambered nautilus had an exceptionally long tenure as lifeforms go, first appearing about 440 million years ago and vanishing along with the dinosaurs 370 million years later.
Active carnivores and a major food source for ocean-dwelling Mosasaurs and Icthyosaurs, Ammonites are quite numerous as fossils and some of their shells are surprisingly large. Sometimes the mother-of-pearl lining of Ammonite shells fossilizes into “ammolite”, which is used to make distinctly colored jewelry.
Dimetrodon: Sail On Sailor
Not only is there a sale at Penney’s, there’s a sail on Dimetrodon – get ‘em while they’re hot! Unfortunately Dimetrodon hasn’t been remotely warm for at least 275 million years, give or take a few million. So tell me, is Dimetrodon the weirdest dinosaur, yes or no? The answer is… there IS no answer. It’s a trick question – Dimetrodon isn’t a dinosaur. Living in the Permian period 50-odd million years before the Mesozoic Era even began, Dimetrodon was a synapsid, or mammal-like reptile. He and his kin were the world’s best and brightest until a massive extinction event known colloquially as The Great Dying wiped out 70 percent of the planet’s land-based vertebrate species.
(image via: Lost World Studios)
Oh, that sail? Dimetrodon employed it as an early and somewhat ungainly method of regulating its body temperature. Other mammal-like reptiles and even a few later dinosaurs used the sail method but Dimetrodon remains its fiercest proponent. Literally.
Raptorex: Prehistoric Pitbull
Say you’re the prehistoric version of an urban gangsta and you want an intimidating pet to put the fear of Thog into the ‘hood: you need a Raptorex kriegsteini, in other words, a mini T. Rex. Raptorex roamed what is now northern China 125 million years ago, and you can bet there weren’t any leash laws to hold it back.
(image via: Chicago Tribune)
Nine feet long from tooth to tail, this Mini Me of Master T weighed about 150 lbs (70 kg) but a lightweight it wasn’t – according to discoverer Paul Sereno (above), “What we’re looking at is a blueprint for a fast-running set of jaws.” Nice doggie, good boy.
Terror Bird: The Ostrich From Hell
Anyone who thought the asteroid that ended the Age of Dinosaurs ushered in a lasting era of peace and quiet didn’t figure on the Terror Birds. Aptly named and fiendishly beaked, the members of the Phorusrhacid family resembled their dinosaur predecessors in body plan, feeding habits and bad attitude. The last Terror Birds died out a mere 2 million years ago, just before modern humans stepped onto the stage – an excellent bit of good timing if there ever was!
They say everything’s bigger in Texas… that goes for prehistoric meat-eating birds like 7-foot tall Titanis Walleri (skull shown above), who made life miserable for smaller creatures from Texas through Florida roughly 5 million years ago. “Polly want a cracker” indeed.
So hungry you could eat a horse? Here’s a short video of a Terror Bird running down a filly, sans steak & cheese:
Megalodon: The Greatest White Shark
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”… like, maybe an aircraft carrier, if you’ve got Megalodon in your sights. This 60-foot (18 meter) long extinct shark makes today’s Great White look rather piddling. Megalodon cruised the oceans from 18 million to 1.5 million years ago. What did such a monstrous shark eat? Anything it wanted!
(image via: Gen Con LLC)
Being the largest carnivorous fish ever to swim the seas, Megalodon economized by selecting very large prey, like whales. This begs the question: whales never died out, so why did Megalodon? It may be that warm-blooded whales avoided Megalodon predation by frequenting cold polar waters that were inhospitable to a shark’s cold-blooded metabolism. Better to be chilly than chili, I always say.
History’s freak show has played out for the better part of a billion years and we can be sure Mother Nature still has a few tricks up her sleeve. Even so, we can all be thankful some of the most bizarre and frightening creatures to have evolved on Earth survive only as bits of fossilized bone. Whew!