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Ancient terrors: Six MORE awful and thankfully long-extinct creatures


By Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter
@DFLCMartins
Sunday, June 29, 2014, 9:39

The natural world is full of beautiful creatures, enriching our planet as they walk the Earth, swim the seas or fill the skies.

But among those wonders are the occasional terror. Fortunately for us, the most horrifying of those are largely extinct, to the great relief of anyone who ever becomes aware they ever existed.

We've talked before about five terrifying ancient creatures that now exist only in the fossil record. Here are six more.

Helicoprion had a buzzsaw in its mouth

So imagine you’re a paleontologist, hunkered down on some dig site, possibly humming a tune as you absentmindedly brush away at the dirt of ages, when this emerges beneath your brush:

Image: thesupermat / Wikimedia Commons

Image: thesupermat / Wikimedia Commons

[IMAGE LICENSE]

This is one of those terrifying outliers that Evolution likes to cough up every once inawhile. It’s what’s known as the “tooth whorl” of Helicoprion, a shark-like creature (actually more like today’s ratfish) that lurked in the deeps 270 million years ago.

Yes, tooth whorl. Those are teeth. The creature itself is believed to have grown no more than 6 m, and usually 3-4 m, which, while horrible, isn’t too far beyond the pale, but the addition of that nightmarish buzzsaw in its chompers instantly rockets it into the realm of nightmare fuel.

Trouble is, the fossil record is so paltry, we didn’t actually know HOW something like this could possibly fit in something’s face. Scientists and artists came up with all kinds of crazy illustrations, like the one below, which puts it sort of jutting out.

Image: Dmitry Bogdanov / Wikimedia Commons

Image: Dmitry Bogdanov / Wikimedia Commons

[IMAGE LICENSE]

Others actually imagined it looking like a serrated elephant’s trunk, or a toothy proboscis from some kind of hell-moth.

It wasn’t until quite recently that scientists at Idaho State University gave it a CT scan, and determined the actual set up would have been closer to this:

Image: Stanton F. Fink

Image: Stanton F. Fink

[IMAGE LICENSE]

It seems out of that terrifying whorl, only around a dozen of the teeth would have actually been protruding during a shark’s lifetime. The rest, perhaps as many as 150, would be below the gumline, emerging slowly.

It also wouldn’t actually function like a buzzsaw, although the jaw’s movement would have created a saw-like motion to tear through Helicoprion’s prey, which is believed to have been softer fare like squid.

Still. Glad it’s extinct.

Jaekelopterus was underwater nightmare fuel

Like you needed another reason to never go anywhere near prehistoric oceans, here’s Jaekelopterus:

Image: GhedoGhedo / Wikimedia Commons

Image: GhedoGhedo / Wikimedia Commons

[IMAGE LICENSE]

It’s a euryptid, which was a series of prehistoric, and hideously huge sea scorpions that used to prowl the shallows.

How huge? Well, scientists already knew they were pretty big, but the crusty beasts really upped their game when scientists discovered a 46-cm claw in Germany in 2007.

Without the full specimen on hand, they had a look at the claw, measured it against other claws and other individuals in the fossil record, then made a few calculations … and it turns out that claw likely belonged to a sea scorpion around 2.5 m long.

That’s larger than a human being. Heck, that’s about the size of a crocodile. In fact, that’s as large, if not larger, than most prime land predators on Earth today.

And back in the day (the claw is estimated to be 390 million years old), these sea scorpions would have ruled beneath the sea, having few real predators other than nautiloids, primitive cephalopods:

It would have used those claws to ambush prey, though fortunately it was much too large to crawl up on land. And anyways, its number came up when jawed fish began to develop, and thrive.

A 2.5 m long giant sea scorpion is hard to miss, so nature began selecting for smaller sizes … easier to hide that way.

There are no living sea scorpion species left. Nothing like a few hundred millennia to take the bite out of prehistoric terrors.

Meganeura was a bug the size of a hawk

So, that sea scorpion was pretty enormous, but have no fear! Taking to the skies at the end of the Carboniferous period, around 300 million years ago, you’d have found no bugs remotely that big.

No. The worst you’d have run into is Meganeura, a giant dragonfly with a 70 cm wingspan.

Image: GermanOle / Wikimedia Commons

Image: GermanOle / Wikimedia Commons

Honestly, that’s like not even three quarters of a metre! Surely we can live with that.

Meganeura would have pretty much dominated the insect food chain. Like other giant bugs we’ve written about here, it reached its ridiculous size due to higher oxygen levels in the atmosphere, around 35 per cent of the total rather than today’s 21 per cent.

They’re more correctly called “griffinflies” rather than dragonflies, but this source says they likely would have hunted about the same way as the latter, feeding on smaller insects. In fact, it may even have hunted small amphibians, which were emerging at the time.

We don’t like to think of any kind of insect large enough to feed on anything that’s not another insect, to be honest.

These days, actual dragonflies are more likely to be a meal for amphibians, rather than the other way around. We wonder if, every time a frog snags one of these with its tongue, it realizes it's fulfilling a revenge millions of years in the making.

NEXT: From horribly huge bugs to abominably big birds

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