Science & Technology

These Prehistoric Versions of Modern Animals Look Like They Belong in a Dr. Seuss Book

When you think about prehistoric animals (and we think about prehistoric animals a lot here at Curiosity), you tend to think of enormous monsters. Even leaving out the dinosaurs, the ancient past is full of jumbo versions of modern creatures like sloths, armadillos, rhinoceroses, and other absolute units. But there's a lot more to the prehistoric ancestors of modern creatures than their tendency to grow to giant proportions. Many of them also just look a little ... off. Here are seven of our favorites.

Related: Was This Creature the Inspiration for the Unicorn?

7. Four-Winged Bird

You might wonder if Microraptor was technically a bird or technically a dinosaur, but if you ask us, that's missing the point. The point is that this prehistoric feathered creature is incredibly well preserved — so well, in fact, that we know it had black, iridescent plumage. It also had four wings: or more accurately, feathers for flight growing from its forearms and legs. That didn't make it a better flyer, necessarily. In fact, scientists think it's more likely that Microraptor was an adept glider but not so good at gaining altitude.

6. Three-Horned Antelope

Synthetoceras looks a lot like modern antelopes, but with a slightly stockier body, a slightly longer face, and, oh yeah — a bizarre, two-pronged horn jutting out from the end of its nose. It really looks like the kind of creature an especially lazy production designer might toss in the background of an episode of Star Trek: the same thing as we have on Earth, but with an extra horn or two. It was real, though, and once roamed across North America, fleeing from enormous predatory dogs and (probably) butting heads with others of its same species.

5. Saber-Toothed Hippo

Picture yourself 40 million years ago, on an Earth untouched by human civilization. Ahh ... it's sort of relaxing. Except for that giant pig-creature almost 5 feet (1.5 meters) at the shoulder barrelling down on you with sharp, gnashing teeth. Archaeotherium wasn't a pig, though; it was more closely related to a hippopotamus than any other living creature. But while modern hippos are a serious danger in the water, this critter would have been out actively hunting for prey on dry land.

4. Vegetarian Crocodiles

During the late Triassic, at the very beginning of the age of dinosaurs, a strange creature trundled across the plains alongside those first terrible lizards. Its body was low to the ground, but with heavy armor covering its back and large, scythe-like spikes jutting from its shoulder blades. Despite its fearsome appearance, Desmatosuchus set itself apart from its closest living relative, the crocodile, with its plant-loving diet.

3. Whale With Tusks

This is a combo that's so natural, it's hard to believe that we never thought of it before. Picture a whale about 7 feet (2.1 meters) long, with a gentle face and a pair of short, rear-facing tusks — kind of like an entirely aquatic walrus. It starts to get weird when you learn that some of these whales had one tusk much longer than the other. Scientists suspect that Odobenocetops used its long tusk to dig up mollusks from the seabed floor, and they know for a fact that they looked delightfully goofy while doing so.

2. Shovel-Mouthed Elephant

If you ever need a laugh, search for images of prehistoric elephants — they get a lot weirder than mammoths and mastodons. Some had short, downward-facing tusks that looked like vampire teeth, others boasted a full set of four tusks, top and bottom. But for our money, the weirdest of all of them was Platybelodon, who had an underbite so severe it could use its teeth as a giant shovel.

1. Brush-Headed Shark

Like elephants, there is no shortage of absurd ancient sharks (we already told you about the one with a buzzsaw in its mouth). But Stethacanthus takes the cake. Instead of a blade-shaped dorsal fin designed to cut through the water toward its prey, this 6.5-foot (2-meter) predator's upper fin was flat on top and roughly textured, almost like a toothbrush. Bizarre, sure, but we'd certainly prefer it to a Great White encounter.

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There are more incredible ancient creatures than you could ever imagine. In Dougal Dixon's "The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures," you or your kids can discover how they would have lived and looked with all the flesh on their bones. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 28, 2018

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