6 Bonkers Early Versions Of Modern Creatures
Mother Nature works along a spectrum, like a grand artist who—wait, scratch that, I’ve already used the Mother Nature is like a grand artist simile in at least one other article intro. Okay, hmmm… Mother Nature is a mad cordwainer and cobbler, working along the universal spectrum that comprises all existence and ranges from Professional to Party. Whole-cut leather Oxfords? Professional. Open-toed street skimmers with fur? Par-tay!
And so it goes in the annals of the animal kingdom, where species beyond our wildest fancies have plyed the avenues and cul-de-sacs of time and death. But for the vagaries of Evolution, these might have been your beloved pet or something you shout at, “Hey! Get out of my trash bin; I’ve not finished eating that yet!”
As cocktail cucumbers are to the traditional variety, the following bygone animals are firmly entrenched on the party side of the spectrum ...
A Headbutting Hilarity, The Ancient Giraffe
Mother Nature, Mama Evolution, the Cosmic Progenitrix, or whatever you want to call Her mirrors the meme of a kid pointing a toy gun at himself. First, nature places Her tastiest leaves high in trees, away from inquisitive ungulates and the immigrant leaf-jobbers stealing our prized anthocyanins. Then, She creates the giraffe. But the ancient giraffoid of 17 million years ago was a short-necked, bony skulled parody that headbutted its rivals into brain-damaged oblivion, a la the hosts of Morning Daily News Round-Up shows. (Caffeine has a short half-life; brain damage keeps you going strong into the PM.)
Their bony plates resemble the pub hats donned by British gentlemen, in which they protected their sandwiches while in the mines. So it’s fitting they settled their disagreements through cranial trauma when competing over mates or whose soccer team is owned by the most corrupt hereditary Oil-Lord.
The ancient giraffe relative was found by paleontologist and museum curator Jin Meng in 1996 in China’s Junggar Basin desert. Until earlier this year, Meng Et al. called it guài shòu, or “strange beast”—because “what are we, some kind of learned group of paleontologists, natural history doctorate-holders, and museum curators?” It’s now named in a slightly less esoteric manner after a mythical unicorn: Discokeryx xiezhi. Personally, I would have called it a “reticulated pummelhead.”
Nearly 17 million years ago, the reticulated pummelhead lived in grasslands where its heavy-duty vertebrae withstood punishings as it out-rammed its rivals to become the top dog of the cat’s cradle of the giraffe kingdom. Modern giraffes employ a similar martial art, called necking:
“Hit me wit dat neck” means very different things to giraffes and rappers. It may also put a fresh spin on the origin of the giraffes’ long necks, which were first explained through “God was bored one day after running out of leper powder to sprinkle on the poor.” And then later, by Darwin and Lamarck as “to reach the extra-tasty leaves in trees.” The answer, as always in natural selection, is a mix of bloody hooliganism and giraffe boners.
The Wildly Stupidly Shaped Shells Of Ammonites
Analogous to defective Hatchimals today, the ammonites “were once the most abundant animals of the ancient seas,” with more than 10,000 species known in every part of the world that was once below water. Though our climate is planning major updates to that list. And, similar to clandestine military Hatchimals devouring crash-landed Soviet cosmonauts, ammonites were shelled carnivores who used their squidly tentacles to ensnare prey.
Their shells provided buoyancy and so much variety that scientists use them as “index fossils” to date other dead things near them. Over millions of years, the shells of “heteromorph ammonites” became insane:
These impressively un-hydrodynamic shapes resemble instruments more than animals. No one knows whether instruments of music, sex, or extracting IED deactivation codes from a misidentified interrogation subject who sells rose-water sherbet back home.
Ammonites arose nearly 420 years ago during the Devonian, or, technically, the ammonoids did. Ammonites arrived 200 million years later in the Jurassic. But for 100% of non-scholastic purposes, including digital comedy that penetrates the blood-brain barrier like an Al-Hussein missile, the terms are interchangeable with each other.
Ammo-whatevers were hardy, surviving three mass extinctions, including the worst-ever, 252-million-year-ago Great Dying which wiped the seas of 96% of their diversity. The survivors had room to bloom, as per the survivors of the tainted spray cheese pandemics that occasionally kill off percentages of Dollar General customers, opening niches for the resistant and intrepid.
Some, both ammonites and Dollar Generaleers, evolved into spectacular shapes that Chthullhu would be proud to call a horror-penis as he performs demonic dick acts. And, well, maybe these armies of ammonites were plotting just such a Chthullian takeover before a fortuitous asteroid killed them, along with the non-avian dinosaurs, 66 million years ago. The smallest were only an inch, sure, but the largest reached well over 10 feet in diameter, so that asteroid arrived just in time:
After three glasses of amontillado: “Now, now, my dear wife Constance Subservia, you’ve furnished me many treasured years of faithful obeyance—
House-staff: “I beg your magnanimity, liege, you are addressing what is rather a sizable ammonoid reliquiae.”
The First Horses Were Comically Tiny
Among the oldest known horses is the wee Hyracotherium, the “hyrax-like beast” that looked closer to hyrax than horse. Or maybe a monkey. To old-timey paleontologists whose most distinguished marks were a wife-mistreating Master’s, everything looks like a monkey on a good opium day.
Generally known as eohippus or the Dawn Horse, this dog-sized animal in no way indicated its equine descendants, other than some similarities in its molars. It also proves that a 55-million-year-old horse fossil has better dental coverage than most Americans. The Dawn Horse dawned around 55 million years ago and is one of the first evolutionary entrants of the Equidae horse family.
Dawn horse lived in Europe and North America when these environs were boggy, dank, and steamy. It munched on leaves and toed Dagobah-like lands of hot, swampy jungles populated by gigantic mammoth trees and towering cypresses.
Its epoch, the Eocene of 56-to-33.9 million years ago, also hosted the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum,” which will, given the undoubted sweeping popularity of this prehistoric comedy article, swiftly be adopted as a band name. The type of band that spends more time on cool-sounding titles than lyrics or music.
Fan: “Oh wow, cool, you guys are named after prehistory.”
Band: Doing whippets with the air hose at a Texaco “Pre-whoosa-what??”
During this period, global average temperatures rose by 10 degrees Fahrenheit due to massive carbon output. And approximately one-third of mammal species shrunk by as much as 50%. This included Sifrhippus sandrae, also billed as the first horse thingy and also originating 55-56-ish million years ago (as with the ammonite distinction… comedy article). It was the size of a cat (but not a chonker), weighing 12 pounds. It then shrunk to about 8 pounds during the first 130,000 years of global warming before ballooning up to 15, for a 25% overall increase (i.e., you after a decent month of Keto).
Horses remained small for tens of millions of years, then grew big to eat grass as North American woodlands gave way to grassy plains. The modern horse, which breaks its back to transport tourists at Bonanza ranches and rugged, staunchly homophobic cowboys to their secret same-sex rendezvous, occurred about 4 million years ago.
Related: Who Was the First Stand-Up Comic?
Humanity’s Oldest Ancestor Is An Ass-Mouthed Sand Grain
If you’ve ever hated seeing your reflection in the morning, forenoon, noon, afternoon, evening, night, or early morning, and let’s be honest we all have, some people every day, take solace. Here’s what our most distant relative saw reflected against it as it dragged its listless, slumping frame to the bathroom every morn:
That’s Saccorhytus coronarius, or “wrinkly bag with a crown.” It’s possibly the most primitive example of a thing called a deuterostome, which translates to “second mouth.” Because deuterostomes are, as best described by Wikipedia, “animals typically characterized by their anus forming before their mouth.” This is perennial, and half a billion years onward, many of our own species adhere to the “anus before mouth” ethos physically, mentally, and spiritually.
This ass-first lineage gave birth to fish and then more recently to us, and then eventually, who knows, maybe some kind of telekinetic super-apes. That it looks like it’s eternally screaming is a foretelling of the human psyche that would follow nearly 550 million years thereafter.
Sacco-screw-this-that’s-not-my-ancestor had flexible skin and teeny muscles which allowed it to wriggle between sand grains. Scientists couldn’t find its anus, sadly, suggesting it ate and pooped through that one hole. Again, not dissimilar to people. The knobs around its head are openings that may have been the precursor to gills, removing water the creature swallowed while engulfing foodstuffs through its nightmare ass-mouth.
As convenient as it is for idea-barren horror writers (aka all of them in the 21st century), these are not gigantic creatures floating throughout the ocean. They existed around 540 million years ago. They’re also tiny, a fraction of an inch in size. To the naked eye, they’d resemble a black grain. Even more impressive that nature imbued them with so much microscopic detail and the ability to inspire dread across Eons.
Stylophorans, An 150-Year-Old Mystery Revealed
More than 150 years ago, the day’s finest natural history gentlemen locked themselves in a room with some curious fossils, sacks of pipe tobacco, and a small cylinder greased with China wood oil. “No one’s leaving until we identify these … things,” asseverated their leader, chosen as such for having had cudgeled the most cats in the Lord’s name, “… seriously come on guys, WTF is this?”
They spent the entire time comparing their wives’ improprieties, apparently, because the mystery endured. Or at least that’s how I picture it. Lamentably, their old-timey compatriots never got to enjoy the devilish absurdity of stylophoran silliness:
That’s a recently (circa 2019) described stylophoran of the genus Thoralicystis, a mix of vacuum cleaner parts put together by the robots that disassemble used RealDolls. It’s suddenly clear why scientists needed more than 150 years to jigsaw it into a coherent creature, coherent being relative.
These several-inch-long armored organisms are echinoderms, spiny-skinned animals that lived from 510 to 310 million years ago. They’re far-off members of the starfish gang, closely related to invertebrate acorn worms and also the (unofficially) vertebrate acorn worms, aka us, human beings:
Modern echinoderms like starfish, sea urchins, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, and sea lilies are wet-market favorites in places where enigmatic diseases originate. Unfortunately, it’s uncertain that consuming them will improve your astrological affinity or even give you powers for making “very long time love.”
Scientists solved the mystery in the southern Moroccan Sahara Desert, where they unearthed hundreds of stylophora from 478 million years ago, trapped in the Fezouata Formation, a Super Smash stage from an F-Zero game. These aged biological remnants somehow, luckily, had preserved soft tissues.
That’s as amazing as finding a preserved jerky under the couch when you’re packing up the house after misjudging the future of alternative electro-meme coins. The dangly appendage, thought to be a stem, is a “water vascular system.” It swishes water through itself and picks out the good bits. It’s how starfish move, breathe, eat, and poo through a unified appendage. And we consider ourselves advanced?
The First Whale Was A Scraggly Dog-ish Creature
Some day more than 400 million years ago a primordial aqua-monster undipped its toes from the mother waters of the sea and staggered onto land in an act echoed throughout time forever—remember bypassing the “no entry” sign at the back of the mid-town ethnic eatery and stumbling into a family’s sitting room as they played a mysterious game with dice, cards, and small glasses of viper’s blood? Same thing.
That land-stumbling creature inherited a pristine world. And it is the reason we struggle with debt, crushing existential malaise, and prickliness that isn’t ameliorated by Gold Bond. Every single day until we die a lonely pauper’s death. If we’re lucky. Some don’t have it that good. Understandably, about 50 million years prior, at least one landed creature decided to crawl back into the oceanic womb.
Welcome to Pakicetus World, a luxury resort and genetic resurrection facility where you and your most vulnerable loved ones can see and feed kibble to the world’s first whale, Pakicetus, and absolutely no other animal. It’s all Pakicetus all the time, baby!
The dog-dimensioned terrestrial Pakicetus and its “missing link” herbivore predecessor Indohyus began sampling the waters in different ways. Meat-loving Pakicetus started eating seafood, setting off evolutionary Dominos of ever-fishier mammals that progressively lost their terrestrial features to become the lovable things that supply Inuits with lamp oil and gut-string mandolins.
Even those who see past Big Creationism’s mendacity (it’s a lucrative business; stereoscopes of Jesus dispelling the Utahraptors from Temple Mount pull big money) might find this hard to stomach. How could scientists link whales with this ratty thing that reminds you of high school you? The answer is ear bones, the configuration of which resembles that of whales and no other mammals.
After Pakicetus, we have the 10-foot-long “walking whale” Ambulocetus. It was probably awkward on land and more graceful, otter-like even, in water:
And from there, a cascade of adaptations made each successive creature more whale-like. The walking limbs grew ever-smaller, the nostrils moved up the snout to become blowholes, and the Tinder-equivalent inquests of “what’s your ass preference: dry, raspberry jam, or cowboy-style???” became communicated entirely in infrasound.