10 Strange Fossils Discovered in Recent Years

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Researchers announced this month they’d found fossilized remains of a very strange creature in China. The 240-million-year-old fossils filled in gaps in the knowledge about Atopodentatus, a hammer-headed aquatic reptile that ate plants. One researcher likened the creature’s appearance to a Dr. Seuss creation. As the fossil record continues to grow, scientists are discovering many such odd specimens. From a giant turtle that ate crocodiles to a dinosaur likened to Star Wars character Jar Jar Binks, here are some strange creatures that have caused a stir in the scientific community.

 

10. ‘Hellboy’: Triceratops’ Strange Cousin

An artist’s concept of the horned dinosaur nicknamed "Hellboy." Credit: Julius T. Csotonyi/Royal Tyrrell Museum

An artist’s concept of the horned dinosaur nicknamed “Hellboy.” Credit: Julius T. Csotonyi/Royal Tyrrell Museum

This creature’s official name, Regaliceratops peterhewsil, pays tribute to discoverer Peter Hews and its regal-appearing crown. But those two small horns over its eyes earned it the nickname “Hellboy,” after the fictional superhero. The 70-million-year-old remains were uncovered in Alberta, Canada. Scientists who announced the find in 2015 noted that the unusual array of horns continues to strengthen the theory that this dino — as well as its cousin, Triceratops — used the horns more as a display of sexual prowess rather than for self defense.

 

9. Giant Turtle Snacked on Crocodiles

The giant turtle Carbonemys cofrinii was the size of a small car. Credit: Wikipedia

The giant turtle Carbonemys cofrinii was the size of a small car. Credit: Wikipedia

Imagine a 6-foot-long turtle that could eat crocodiles. Carbonemys cofrinii was just such a creature, roaming in what is now Colombia some 60 million years ago. Living just after the age of the dinosaurs ended, the turtles were able to grow so large because of a lack of predators. With a hard shell and powerful jaws, it would have been a tough match for even much larger crocodiles.

 

8. Hallucigenia: Scientists Couldn’t Tell Head From the Butt

Artist Joshua Evans offers this concept of what the tiny Hallucigenia sparsa looked like. © Joshua Evans

Artist Joshua Evans offers this concept of what the tiny Hallucigenia sparsa looked like. © Joshua Evans

Not all fossils, of course, belonged to large dinosaurs. Meet Hallucigenia sparsa, a 2-centimeter-long sea creature thinner than a human hair. It lived 500 million years ago during the Cambrian Period. The first specimen found almost a century ago lacked one key detail — a head. So scientists literally had no idea which end was which, with some guessing a blob found on one end was the head. Turned out that was the creature’s guts that had been squeezed out by pressure during fossilization. Last year, scientists finally announced they’d found a specimen with a head. And like the strange spikes all over Hallucigenia’s body, its head is odd too, featuring teeth all the way down into its throat.

 

7. Giant Hedgehog Flourishes in Absence of Predators

One big hedgehog: With no predators around, Deinogalerix koenigswaldi could grow … and grow. © Roman Yevseyev/Other-worlds.ucoz.ru.

One big hedgehog: With no predators around, Deinogalerix koenigswaldi could grow … and grow. © Roman Yevseyev/Other-worlds.ucoz.ru.

“Giant” here is a relative term, but a 2-foot long hedgehog is definitely on the big side. Deinogalerix masinii lived some 7 million to 10 million years ago in what is now Italy’s Gargano peninsula; the relative isolation and lack of predators there allowed it to reach roughly twice the size of other hedgehogs.

 

6. Cronopio: Like the Saber-Toothed Squirrel From Ice Age

Cronopio has been compared to the saber-toothed squirrel in the Ice Age film series. © Guillermo Rougier

Cronopio has been compared to the saber-toothed squirrel in the Ice Age film series. © Guillermo Rougier

Its name is Cronopio dentiacutus, but this creature’s discoverers compared it to Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel from the Ice Age movies. Unlike Scrat, who was crazy for nuts, Cronopio probably ate insects. Less than 6 inches long, Cronopio quietly filled a niche alongside much-larger dinosaurs about 100 million years ago. The discovery in Argentina helped scientists fill in a huge gap in the mammalian fossil record in South America. Researcher Guillermo Rougier told the Christian Science Monitor it’s interesting that the Ice Age producers imagined such a creature before its discovery. “The comparison with Scrat is superficial, but it just goes to show how diverse ancient mammals are, that we can just imagine some bizarre critter and later find something just like it.”

 

5. Chilesaurus: T-Rex’s Vegetarian Cousin

Meet Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, T-Rex's plant-eating cousin. © Grabriel Lio

Meet Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, T-Rex’s plant-eating cousin. © Grabriel Lio

It’s a scene played out at Thanksgiving tables all over America. Everyone loads up their plate with turkey, ham and sides. Then Cousin Ron sits down with a plate full of tofu and veggies, chiding everyone about the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. Chilesaurus diegosuarezi was that member of the Tyrannosaurus rex family. Classified as a therapod, the same group that includes T-Rex and Velociraptors, Chilesaurus was not only herbivorous, but had traits of three different dinosaur groups. As researcher Fernando Novas told Nature, “That dinosaur is spectacular and bizarre because it combines different features belonging to these three main groups of dinosaurs.” Chilesaurus lived around 145 million years ago during the late Jurassic. Oh, underlining the trend of amateurs making many key fossil discoveries in recent years, a 7-year-old boy, Diego Suarez, discovered these remains in Chile in 2010.

 

4. Hammerhead Creature Compared to Dr. Seuss Creation

A reconstructionn of Atopodentatus based on its fossil. © Nick Fraser/National Museums Scotland

A reconstructionn of Atopodentatus based on its fossil. © Nick Fraser/National Museums Scotland

As noted in the intro, Atopodentatus was a hammerhead herbivore. It used its chisel-like teeth to scrape algae off hard surfaces and filter it out of the water — hardly the diet you’d expect out of this strange, crocodilian-sized creature. “On a scale of weirdness, I think this is up there with the best. It kind of reminds me of some of the Dr. Seuss creations,” paleontologist Nicholas Fraser told Reuters.

 

3. Mysterious New Human Species Found in Africa

These Homo naledi remains discovered in South Africa feature a mixture of traits from both Homo sapiens and its evolutionary cousin, Australopithecus. Credit: elifesciences.org

These Homo naledi remains discovered in South Africa feature a mixture of traits from both Homo sapiens and its evolutionary cousin, Australopithecus. Credit: elifesciences.org

Anthropologists have come to expect amazing fossil discoveries in the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site near Johannesburg, South Africa. Through the years, scientists have found a large quantity of early hominids, including some of the oldest human remains ever discovered. But scientists are still trying to make sense of what they found when they uncovered more than 1,500 fossils in a cave there in 2013. Named Homo naledi, the new species features an odd mix of traits common to both Homo sapiens and its evolutionary relative Australopithecus. Adding to the mystery, efforts to date the remains have been unsuccessful. The consensus is they’re a couple of million years old, but they could date back only tens of thousands of years. Whatever the age, the remains could help further knowledge about the evolution of early man.

 

2. Awkward Dinosaur Compared to Jar Jar Binks And Barney

Once thought to be a fearsome predator, the dinosaur now compared to Jar Jar Binks was actually an awkward-looking creature with no teeth. © Michael Skrepnick

Once thought to be a fearsome predator, the dinosaur now compared to Jar Jar Binks was actually an awkward-looking creature with no teeth. © Michael Skrepnick

This dinosaur struck awe in paleontologists when they found the first bones around 50 years ago. All they had to go on were a couple of 8-foot-long forearms ending in claws, so scientists assumed they’d found a fearsome predator. So they gave it an appropriately scary name: Deinocheirus mirificus, Greek for “Horrible Hand” or “Terrible Hand.” But when researchers found a couple of complete specimens in Mongolia a few years ago, the dinosaur became the butt of jokes in the paleontology world. Turns out Deinocheirus was a big, lumbering, ostrich-like dinosaur that actually had no teeth; those claws were for digging up food. Someone compared it to a cross between the bizarre Star Wars character Jar Jar Binks and Barney the dinosaur. The lesson: Don’t jump to conclusions about a dinosaur based on the discovery of just a few bones.

 

1. Spinosaurus: The Biggest Predator Ever Could Also Swim

A Spinosaurus model is used in a photo shoot for the October 2014 issue of National Geographic. News that Spinosaurus spent much of its time in the water created a buzz in the science world. © Mike Hettwer/National Geographic

A Spinosaurus model is used in a photo shoot for the October 2014 issue of National Geographic. News that Spinosaurus spent much of its time in the water created a buzz in the science world. © Mike Hettwer/National Geographic

Although the first Spinosaurus remains were found a century ago, many people learned about the Spinosaurus for the first time watching it easily kill a T-Rex in Jurassic Park 3. Turns out that this 50-foot-long creature was not only bigger and badder than T-Rex — it could swim, too. Scientists had long suspected this deadly predator spent much of its time in the water, and their hunch was confirmed by the discovery of 95-million-year-old remains in Morocco a few years ago. It’s regarded as the first true semiaquatic dinosaur. As researcher NIzar Ibrahim told the BBC, “It is a really bizarre dinosaur — there’s no real blueprint for it.”

 

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock ‘n’ roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He’s traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.