Dixonian future animals of Brussels

I've just spent a few days at the Institut royal des Sciences naturelles de Belgique in Brussels, for theropod-related reasons. A great museum, with tons of excellent material on display. I just want to briefly report one interesting discovery here: I was surprised and delighted to find that the recently opened Gallery of Evolution includes a small selection of hypothetical future animals, apparently the inhabitants of the Dixonian epoch. Here's my favourite beast...


It's the giant penguin Neopygoscelis dentatus, though I didn't know this when I was looking at it: I wondered whether it might be a pelagic crocodilian or something. The museum's site does allude (by way of a single photo of the giant rodent Corticochaeris and arboreal marsupial Trychopterus) to the Dixonian animals, but doesn't include further information. Sigmund wrote about them at Furahan Biology back in February 2009.


Images online show that N. dentatus (which is huge: about 4 m long) was originally imagined with a more penguinesque, black and white colour scheme; not sure why they settled on dull grey, but it's ok with me. The crenulations on the jaws could quite conceivably evolve from rhamphotheca.


The animal is posed pursuing a group of cuttlefish-like cephalopods, and there's another flightless seabird - the foot-propelled Propellonectes (possibly a procellariiform) - in the exhibit too. Here it is...



This is, of course, far from the first time that penguins have appeared in projects on speculative zoology. Dougal Dixon started things with his rorqual-like pelagic Vortex Balenornis vivipera and Porpin Stenavis piscivora [both shown here], and the oceans of Spec are populated by a diversity of other-world penguins.

On the subject of speculative zoology, those who liked my Science of Godzilla stuff might be interested to know that a radio discussion on the same topic (I was a guest on Skeptically Speaking) can be heard here. It's actually a Brian Switek-themed episode.

For other Tet Zoo articles on speculative zoology, see...

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After Man, I had no problems with. 50 million years is a long period to allow for change. But damnit, I went all Red Lantern upon seeing Dixonian gannetwhales in "The Future Is Wild". I mean, surely some other semiaquatic mammal (or even aquatic mammal!) would sooner move into that niche than a gannet* in five million years... let alone how annoying the idea is of an event that wipes out every single cetacean in such a short period (short of us killing them all)..

* they wet their nest!

By Marcus Good (not verified) on 15 Dec 2010 #permalink

[from Darren: sorry, delayed by spam filter]

But we may suppose another way of appearing of gannetwhales. They may appear first in residual ecosystems poor in specific variety. Then they turn to a more considerable part of fauna of aquatic tetrapods. And then they dominate in niche of seals. As for niche of whales... Maybe, large fishes may occupy this place.
Dixon's idea of viviparous whale-like birds looks very unrealistic. Once I had seen the article where it was explained why birds and some other groups can not be viviparous. The reason is the location of source of calcium for skeleton forming. In squamates (snakes and lizards) the stock of calcium is stored in yolk. And in birds, crocs and turtles the embryo takes calcium for skeleton from egg shell. Because of it the reducing of egg shell at the development of vivipary is neutral for squamates, but lethal for birds, crocodiles and turtles. And we see a lot of viviparous snakes and lizards in the world, but absolutely no viviparous birds or turtles.
And egg is a kind of limit for bird size, because birds must hatch eggs and their chicks must grow fast in first years of life.
BTW, not all future seas are full of penguins... In Neocene there is only one relic penguin in freshwater reservoirs of New Zealand, but a lot of gannetwhales and some flightless loons in Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic.

I would pass it as another moderately crappy whale model aimed to dumb down museum for schoolchildren...

I came up with a future penguin idea. I watched videos of penguins online and noticed that they don't really use their feet to swim, so my penguin became kind of manta-ray looking. I also wondered about the problem of live birth, no bird is viviparous but since my future penguin was entirely aquatic, they would have to try to work out a way to retain their offspring in a kind of womb until they're developed enough to fend for themselves. So I came up with the idea of a male womb. The female deposits the egg into the male's womb-pouch (Kind of like a very advanced version of the pouch male emperor penguin retains his egg in) The hard shell of the egg softens and blood vessels form around the shell to carry nutrients and oxygen to the offspring. The baby penguin goes through it's development stage (Downy feathers, shed, adult feathers grown) and is born a year later a smaller version of its parents.

By Susan Ferguson (not verified) on 15 Dec 2010 #permalink

Isn't the problem with fully pelagic penguins the fact that there are no viviparous birds (and probably dinosaurs in general)?

Then again, it looks like this creature Neopygoscelis could haul itself ashore to nest.

Maybe future whale-penguin can incubate its egg in a pouch, developed from emperor penguin flap of loose skin?

Another interesting thing is why few birds move or carry eggs or chicks.

I always worried about that model, in that it seems to have lost it's beak, is this theoretically possible?

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 15 Dec 2010 #permalink

This model tries too hard to imitate a pliosaur. I don't see a reason why the legs would turn into another pair of flippers, and the lack of a distinct beak is bizarre -- if the pseudo-teeth aren't lined with keratin, what's their point?

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 15 Dec 2010 #permalink

@David M., check out the link to the Furahan Biology article: they have a picture of the book's original design, and it looks like the beak is still quite present. It's just poorly isolated in the model, and due to poor molding they may have decided not to paint it separately as planned.

That also gave me a pause, looked quite odd not having the beak, but with a near-beak shape anyway.

Another problem with these penguin whales (as shown here) is that they need to have dorso-ventral flexion in their vertebral columns, which would be difficult to do with the synsacrum and fused up pelvis.

An egg in a pouch wouldn't work -- the young would drown (which is probably why there are no really aquatic marsupials)

By Christine Janis (not verified) on 07 Feb 2011 #permalink