Monday, January 1, 2007

The Speculative Dinosaur Project

Dear Constant Readers,

Out of everything written about what would have happened had Dinosaurs not gone extinct, it is interesting to note that the best work on the subject is available for free on the Internet. Spec World is created by people who actually have paleontological training...and a nerdy sense of humor. From what I've heard (from its creators) there has been an utterly tremendous amount of thought and consideration that went into this, and it is readily apparent from reading it. Other projects tend to either have animals survive through intact or warp them to be unrecognizable (normally resembling a modern niche, hmm). Spec World tries to find a happy medium of what the plausible evolution will be. The inspiration I've gotten from this project is the amount of effort they put in, I'm far lower on the academic food chain than these fellows, but this project wanted me to set high standards for myself. Of course I don't agree completely with every speculation, but that's just my (very) humble opinion.

The website doesn't seem to be working quite right, so I'll have to have yet another hyperlink choked post. Even though it is arranged geographically, I think I'll try and shoot for a phylogenetic approach. The section of dinosaur evolution is very very extensive and somewhat irrelevant to me (except for the evolutionary concepts) so I'll breeze through that. This is vast project compared to The World of Kong, but I'll try to keep things reasonable. Put on your pith helmets and let's go spexploring!

The first inspiration worth noting is that one the main page (now not working) it was mentioned that Choristoderes were still clinging on to life. I had never heard of this group before, but I guess it is worth noting that a two headed specimen recently became news-worthy. They generally looked like small gharials or lizards, although others looked curiously plesiosaur-like. They are noteworthy for having the spottiest fossil records of any group I've ever heard about. Their history possibly begins in the Upper Triassic, starts for sure in the Mid-Jurassic, and pops up again in the Late Cretaceous and Eocene. It is also worth pointing out that they go unrecognized as another major group of reptiles (other than lizards/snakes, tuataras, turtles, and crocodilians) that survived the dinosaur-killing KT extinction. Millions of years after the last Eocene Choristoderan another specimen names Lazarussuchus from the Oligocene popped up. It is extremely problematic since it seems much more primitive from the Cretaceous-Eocene Choristoderans and even the Mid-Jurassic ones. At the very least is is a "ghost lineage" in the tens of millions of years, possibly well over 100 million years. Last I heard they have been found even more recently from the Miocene. So kudos to Spec World for pointing out these nearly-unkillable animals to me. I don't know what they'll be like in Spec World, but I do know that they will play a minor role in the fauna of my island along with other oddballs out of time. This goes to show just how well researched and thought provoking this material can be.

[Edit: Fourth of July, 2007. Choristoderes (not -derans) finally get their own post]

On to the dinosaurs! Therizinosaurs have been among my favorites since I first heard about them, which was surprisingly recently. They were related to the carnivorous Theropods (yadda yadda yadda "raptors" from Jurassic Park), but became large, very strange and herbivorous. Strangeness is obviously very appealing to me, so a "sumo-dinosaur" that resembled a cross between a goose and a giant ground sloth will obviously catch my attention. Spec World continues their evolutionary history, documenting their early diversification, split into two major branches, adaptation to cold climate, and their "current" decline. Competition has made them mostly shaggy arctic browsers above the 55th parallel, although small mountain dwelling forms also exist. There is apparently a story of human exploration of this alternate universe (it is spread out and vague) and whoever these explorers were, they were apparently all nerds because Spec World is filled with all sorts of geeky references. The Therizinosaur to the left is called a "Shantak", named after, of course, a monstrous bird-like creature from H. P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I love it when worlds collide like that. See the Therizinosaur page for several other species and the full history. The rest of the work done on the theropods is astoundingly well done and complete and just as worth checking out.

Due to extinctions on our own planet birds are a highly distinct group, with Crocodilians as their closest living relatives. On Spec World, however, things have gotten very complicated. Not only is the line between Maniraptorian Dinosaurs and "birds" quite blurry, if it even exists, there are many more basic groups of birds. Our Neornithes are but one radiation, in Spec toothed seabirds (see here too) still exist as well as primitive flying creatures (see here too) more closely related to predatory dinosaurs. A great deal of the small bird (i.e. modern day songbird) diversity is now taken over by the "opposite birds". Enantiornithids are quite interesting concept-wise, they look like modern birds but have weird palates, slow growth and metabolism, and are poisonous. The picture gets pretty complicated (I'm not going to pretend like I understand enough about it to blog on it) so I won't even attempt to explain it all here. I'm thinking a few odd survivors might make it through to my island, but I'll mostly be Neornithes that will populate it. I think all of this information on the primitive birds and the bird/dinosaur relationship is going to get me to read up a lot more on this subject in the future.

Interestingly, even with a far greater diversity of birds (not necessarily species-wise though) on Spec, some modern day groups are still present. Ducks have their origins in the Cretaceous, so they occupy some niches in New Zealand. A particularly species called the "Disco Duck" engages in silly walks and of course has the name Ludicrus cleesei. Even though crows are not present on Spec, nearcrows are in an interesting occurrence of parallel evolution. Convergent and parallel evolution (convergent involves unrelated groups, parallel involves related ones) is a fascinating concept, the placental and marsupial "wolves" come to mind immediately. I can't help but wonder if the environment makes the evolution of some niches more probable, if not nearly unavoidable. Not that evolution has any direction. The show is stolen by the penguins present on Spec, monstrous creations of Brian Choo. Penguins apparently came from the Late Cretaceous on small islands near New Zealand, so with or without an extinction event, they are still likely to have evolved. They still retain the tube-nostrils of their ancestors, but have basically the same layout. One Spec, however, they occupy brackish and even freshwater environments, and are more diverse. Penguins of death are large predators unlike anything birds have occupied on our world. Due to their size (over 15 feet long) they have evolved a marsupial-like pouch to incubate their eggs. The best part are just the names, the Leering Baby-eating Penguin of DEATH!!!, the Screaming Ninja Penguin of DEATH!!!, and of course the Giant Psycho-Killer Penguin of Death. I wish our penguins were better named...

Most people are unaware that crocodiles used to occupy a wide variety of niches. The creators of Spec World did not forget, of course. Although there are still Eusuchians occupying the "traditional" semi-aquatic ambush predator niche, they are far more varied. Long limbed terrestrial carnivorous crocodiles evolved in the late Cretaceous apparently even with dinosaur competition, but on Spec the non-traditional niches occur on that other strange island, Madagascar. On Madagascar they begin to resemble the Archosaurs before the dinosaur radiation, with some resembling herbivorous Aetosaurs (and Ankylosaurs), and others somewhat resembling Rauisuchians. Others, however occupy almost feline-like niches, and are in fact called Felisuchians. They have erect postures, saber teeth (occasionally), and talon-like claws. Others even climb trees to hunt lemurs. This may sound very improbable compared with the modern conception of sessile crocodiles, but those interestingly came from much more active ancestors. And yes, herbivorous crocodiles are known too. This is creating a debate about my island whether or not I should have crocodiles "echo" their ancient ancestors, or if I actually should have their (evolved) ancestors present. Or heck, I might as well do both. I wish that more work on crocodiles was done, but this project appears to be a work in progress, so there is likely more to come.

The diversity of the Mosasaurs, those horrendously overgrown aquatic monitors, is interesting enough (to me) to warrant mention. Most lizards were pretty small in the dinosaur-infested Mesozoic, but it is odd to think that at the end of the period the oceans were ruled by giant lizards of comparable ferocity to the largest predatory dinosaurs. Their reign was awfully short, but on Spec World they have continued to evolve. It's interesting that as aquatic reptiles evolve, they tend to have an elongated form at first, and then eventually get more compressed and fish-like, best exemplified by the icthyosaurs. Even though I probably won't have (many?) aquatic reptiles on my island, I'll still probably document their fascinating conquests soon. Spec World speculates what would happen to Mosasaurs if their reign was not cut so short. Two parallel branches of them evolved into eel-like river dwelling forms, a reference to the separate evolutions of river dwelling dolphins. Others have taken a more icthyosaur-like (but not exactly) route and have become fish or shark-like top-predators. The largest specimen is the 60 ton Nodens, named after a Lovecraft deity from Dream-Quest as well. They are covered in scars from a Spec cryptid (?!) called the great ktulu (Cthulhu!!) in an absolutely bizarre convergence of three separate interests of mine. My favorite Mosasaur is the absolutely bizarre Hobb's leviathan, which needs a picture since it can't really be compared to anything. Actually the basic body plan looks exactly like the Piranhadon from The World of Kong, which I wish I had a picture of. You'll have to take my word for it.

The absolutely most bizarre creations of Spec world are the Baleen-squids which roam the oceans with the neo-Mosasaurs. The numerous similar arms of cephalopods could theoretically be prone to specialization, but in the real world only sperm transferring arms, long grasping tentacles, and some large photophores have evolved. We ourselves come from animals with long redundant body segments, but ours have regionalized and specialized and folded into our unique body plan. Even given our remarkable transformation from our ancestors, the Baleen-squids are pretty extreme. More primitive baleen-squid are known, such as the Ktulu, which have tentacles that have split into "fingers" on the end. I don't know why real life cephalopods never did this, the closest they have come are the tactile cirri of cirrate octopodes and "vampire squid". Of course, the Great Ktulu also gets a mention...unavoidable with anybody who is a fan of cephs. Then things got very weird with more derived species. Two arms have evolved into "gnathobranchiums", not actually functional jaws but arms designed to act as jaw-shaped protectors of interior tentacles. Two "digitibranchiums" have evolved into a baleen-like structure designed to filter prey. The remaining tentacles remain behind to manipulate food. Simply put, these are enormous squid that have evolved as a bizarre homologue to baleen whales and manta rays. This is easily the most far-fetched thing on Spec, and I'm still uncertain what to make of them exactly. The extreme similarity to known species of whales is going too far in my opinion though. It still is an interesting concept though, and my island could use a few animals created on a whim. Because even though sometimes evolution can be predictable to some degree, very strange things have been known to happen.

Now here is a statement which will frighten some people...the main source of my inspiration from Spec World revolves around the work they did with mammal evolution. Should I have said that before? Early mammal and Mammaliaform diversity is still somewhat confusing but fascinating for me. I'm still not sure if Mammaliaformes should be called "mammal-like reptiles" or not, phylogenetic placement for some of these specimens just seems to float around like iceberg, constantly shifting and changing position. I wish they got the same attention that Dinosaurs get. Early mammals are very poorly represented in the modern world, with only a few species of monotremes. Apparently a mouse-like creature from New Zealand that lived a few million years go was somewhere in between monotremes and modern therians. If it is in fact a Multituberculate as I suspect (nothing I read has mentioned assignments), then that clade will also be an nearly unkillable ghost lineage prone one, though not to the same degree as Choristoderans.

The first group covered are the Docodonta Mammaliaformes, obscure Mesozoic rodent-like critters known mainly from teeth. In fact, most small primitive mammals (or Mammaliaformes) do seem to resemble rodents and the various groups' unique dentitions are the best way to differentiate them, hence all the "toothy" names. This group was actually in the news recently, with the discovery of a "large" (2 pounds, 17 inches) swimming possible piscivore. This is pretty remarkable given that most other mammals and Mammaliaformes at the time seemed to be occupying rather marginalized niches. The Spec World Docodonta species isn't related to the various known parallel developments of moles, but re-develops it in South America. It has the same strange spurs as Monotremes, is that a plesiomorphy for mammals then? Very curiously, the Spec website also mentions that their "molarity" can swim in rivers, prophetic of the news story to come years later. I don't understand why, but burrowing animals always have an extremely easy time adapting to or even just going into water. Caecilians, for instance, are bizarre amphibians which occupy only burrowing or aquatic (fully aquatic at that) niches. I'll probably have closely related burrower/aquatic species of some sort on my island. Since Connor's island tends to avoid the Mesozoic, where these creatures are exclusively from apparently, they don't have good odds of showing up. But hey, it's a big island.

Breaking the rule of naming schemes are the fully fleged Mammals Gondwanatheres, named for the continent where they inhabit. They actually survived the KT extinction living on Seymour island of Antarctica...along with sloths, possums, penguins, and ratites. I recall from the book Evolution by Stephen Baxter that he had Dinosaurs and other surivors (marine amphibians again?!?!) hanging out on an Antarctic island until waaaay into the Miocene. There's no proof for that of course, but it is an interesting idea since they inhabited an area where all fossil proof of them would have been destroyed theoretically. Hopefully my island will capture a similar weirdness to that of the anachronistic hemisphere, as well as the strange mixtures resulting from continental connections. Alright, back to Gondwanatheres. Their phylogenetic placement is floating around right now (as they seem to be, much to my confusion), but Spec places them around Monotremes, which sounds reasonable. Their unique dentition involves high crowned hysphodont (i.e. horse-style) teeth, and they seemed to occupy a burrowing or semi-aquatic niche. On Spec they generally occupy the same niche, but spread out from the Southern Hemisphere. Interestingly, Spec has one species present on New Zealand, so maybe my Multituberculate prediction for the discovery is wrong, we'll see. They have colonized that other perpetually weird island, Madagascar, and occupy the niches not occupied by other rodent-like creatures. Gondwanatheres may make it onto my island as well, possibly occupying their favorite niche or a more derived one thanks to other rodent-like creatures and actual rodents.

Unlike in our real world, Monotremes are quite impressive in Spec. The fossil record of Monotremes is apparently rather on the poor side, and I can't recall reading about fossils of anything but platypi and echidnas, or vague teeth that may have belonged to semi-aquatic creatures. Is this all the Monotremes ever did, diversify to two odd niches? Were other bizarre creatures around that never fossilized? Spec doesn't try to speculate on them, if they ever existed, but instead continues the platypus line which apparently took quite a pounding on our planet's KT extinction. Who knows where the echidnas went. Instead of continuing the same body plans through the Cenozoic, the Monotremes on Spec are some of the most specialized mammals, with some even having evolved live birth. Reptiles and fish evolved live birth separately lots of times, so this isn't improbable at all. Even though modern looking platypi have evolved (with a much larger range), for the most part they are larger or at least more predatory than they are on our planet. This, however, is only the start of their diversity as the Platypus line has given rise to the Specsclusive Cancridontians. These are marine mammals and the largest mammals of any sort on Spec. They still retain the electrosensitive beak and venemous spurs for fighting, but occupy very different bodies. The 30 different species show different levels of adaptation to the water with some called "creakers" that are still seal-like to the "smooches" and "walducks" which are quite whale-like. The largest mammal on Spec is the 8 tonne "Moby Duck", which looks identical to beaked whales in our own time, down to the tusks and coloration. I would suggest that they would have kept their venemous spurs for fighting as a homologue to the tusks of beaked whales, but oh well. This is one of the few times I feel Spec is just too dang similar to our own real world. Then of course there is the bizarre "winghead" that makes up for it by looking like no other animal I've seen before, in the true spirit of Monotreme weirdness. (Post script: Darren Naish pointed out to me that it is based off of a Sperm whale with the head of a tapejarid pterosaur). Very oddly, some early swimming Cancridontians have actually taken to burrowing (as usual) on...New Zealand of all places. I think if Monotremes are present on my island, they'll probabably either be or have been in some marginalized aquatic niche, possibly marine.

Another group of "toothy" mammals are the Eutriconodonta, predatory mammals rare in the Mesozoic that continued to pull through to the modern Spec. They are famous for being able to take on small dinosaurs, and were probably the first carnivorous mammals. On Spec they are still quite primitive, they lay eggs and have the same venemous spurs. They seem to be mustelid-style carnivores and continue on their "tradition" of being large for mammals, reaching 2.5 meters in the "otter trike". Curiously, it retains a reptilian style of locomotion and undulates laterally in the water. There are also rumors of one on Madagascar, of course. Not much is known about them, there doesn't seem to be too much to know though. They probably will make it onto my island, but only in a very small role.

Multituberculates are among some of the most successful mammals, having made it across the KT barrier, so it is no suprise that they made it into Spec. They are called the "rodents of the Mesozoic" and occupied the small scurrying niches, using bizarre shearing teeth as homologues to the dentition of true rodents. Eventually of course, they were out-competed...unless they made it until recently on New Zealand. Fortunately for Multituberculates and other rodent-y animals on Spec, true rodents never evolved. However, they still went through a Cenozoic decline with only three groups left. One of them is squirrel-like, and the others are burrowers. They reach huge sizes by terrestrial mammal standards, with the "Digga-dumdums" reaching a meter and a half in length. The diversity of such relatively conventional looking mammals isn't too interesting, but just the idea of a relict "alternate rodent" is. They'll be on my island for sure, and probably in a specialized niche due to rodent, gondwanathere, and competition from who knows what else.

The public generally doesn't know that Marsupials are far from a bunch of Australian weirdos. The group may have actually evolved on North America, and at least 60 species (latest I heard was 90...from Wikipedia) of opossum dwell in South America in addition to two odd little relict orders. The "Monit del Monte" is noteworthy for being classified as an Australian marsupial despite living in the Andes Mountains. On Spec the condition seems similar to what the marsupials are currently like in the Americas, a bunch of scurrying critters easy to overlook ableit with a worldwide distribution. Yes, marsupials lived worldwide at one point of time on our own planet too. However, with the cooling of the planet in an ice age, the Dinosaurs/Birds faltered and marsupials took the opporitunity to fill niches. In the Arctic they have taken to occupying the niche of being large aquatic predators, looking all for the world like crazy killer otters. Killer otters have always been a favorite of mind, and I can all buy guarantee their presence (probably placental though) on my island. The aquatic marsupials are apparently quite succesfull reaching 500kg and 6 meters, and outcompeting the resident predatory birds. The "selkie" is my favorite, looking like a strange cross between a marsupial otter an a leopard seal, a niche curiously left unoccupied in our world. It is also worth noting that because of their pouches, marsupials struggle to occupy aquatic niches, with only one semi-aquatic opossum (the Yapok) living in South America. Perhaps like the Monotremes they evolved a more precocial birthing process. The Artic is also haunted by relatives of the aquatic predators, the badger sized (and badger-like) "baskervilles". They are quite noteworthy for having symbiotic bioluminescent fungi, allowed to grow by the males for breeding season and used to communicate. It's weird, but actually fairly concievable. That perpetually bizarre Madagascar is also home to another region of marsupial diversification where they have taken to fossa and civet-like niches. Marsupials on my island will probably occupy niches similar to the opossums of the real world, although possibly continuing the trend towards becoming primate-like similar to the Caluromyid Opossums.

And finally, we have the familiar live, precocial birthing Eutherians, making up the majority of mammalian diversity in both our world and Spec world. Given the length of this blog already, I can't give a complete overview. Very curiously, fairly modern looking groups such as the Xenarthrans, Tenrecs, Bats, and even Primates. True rodents are not present, the related Xenotheridians are, and are nearly as succesfull...though not good enough to totally drive out the numerous archaic rodent-y niches. Curiously, their closest relatived are Paraselenodontians, mammals convergently evolving into ungulate niches, but in the Arctic of course. For terrestrial mammals they are gargantuan, reaching up to 300 kg. These different strange groups also give the same impression of floating around phylogenetically with only a few sparce fossils. Knowing that these animals had their basis before the dinosaurs went extinct shows that they were already much more differenciated than what would be expected. However, since I'll be working around the Mesozoic, I'll probably have to deal with later animals rather than these weirdo survivors.

Wow, this blog has gotten absurdly long. And yet, I really only did scratch the surface of the information, it really is quite remarkable. This stuff can get pretty dense at times, but that only makes me want to go out and try and get a fuller understanding. However, I realize the more I know, the more confusing this all gets. Phylogeny always looks simple in books, but in reality there are always weirdos popping up in the middle, or unexpected relationships and other things to turn a pattern into chaos. Despite this, the level of work put into this had inspired me to continue to deal with the increasingly complex nature of fictional evolution, not to mention all of the fascinating ideas presented.

So kudos to you free information! This will probably be among my last "inspiration" blogs, it is time to start working on my own world.



Anonymous said...

They call them the diamond dogs.

My, you do take pride in your ability to write a lot. I shall attempt to read nearly all of it now.

First of all, the people who run spec world might have more knowledge than you, but you have created some bizarre monsters that could only have come from your mind. There better be a whole host of new creatures running around on connor's island.

The island aught to be composed of a bunch of oddballs, pudgy or otherwise, that for some reason all end up on the same island. I must say that I like the goose/giant ground sloth dinosaur, it looks delicious but pointy. If there's a cold mountainous region on the island, be sure to have some furry birds, perhaps to serve as transport? Oh, these are the things named after Shantaks. Mr. Lovecraft was also apt at creating creatures, however physically impossible.

That's true, if dinosaurs didn't become extinct, would things like birds still exist? But of course I would willingly trade a robin for a screaming ninja penguin of death, and I wouldn't have a second thought trading in a sparrow for a disco duck. Lovecraft had some giant penguins in Mountains of Madness, perhaps they were giant psycho-killer penguins of death, taking a break from all that killing and joining with the fog to save people.

I'm not going to pretend I can understand the next few paragraphs. However, I do have a question, are animals on your island going to be gigantic, or minature in size?


No, you have redunant body segments. You aught to take the time to make an interesting octopus or squid. Something tentically.

Wait a moment, if mammal evolution is what interest you the most, then why don't you do more with mammal evolution? I mean, I know that you know a lot about dinosaurs and others of cold blooded nature, I never knew that you like mammals too!

That crazy yellow 'thing' is actually pretty adorable, like a sloth crossed with a banana crossed with a squashed frog. Now it's slightly less cute.

Seeing as how there is no way for me to finish this right now let me end by saying: After writing all of these ridiculously long blogs, you better have the best island, ever.

Darren Naish said...

Could comment on lots of things here, but briefly... the Pacific winghead is a sperm whale Physeter decked out with the head of a tapejarid pterosaur.

As you've noted, many of the animals of spec-world are in some way inspired by, or some sort of reference to, real animals of past and present (including cryptids: witness spec's waitoreke).

Anonymous said...

If I was you, I wouldn't rely very much on Spec for inspiration, because I found a lot of paleontological and biological faults in this project. Anyway, if you contacted with the makers of The Speculative dinosaur Project, please show me their e-mail adress, so I can show them their faults, and they may correct them. My e-mail adress is