10 Real-Life Chimeras from the Annals of Paleontology

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Bear Dogs, Fish Lizards and Duck Crocs

In mythology, a chimera is a creature made up from the parts of different animals: famous examples include the Griffin (half eagle, half lion) and the Minotaur (half bull, half man). No less than historians and archaeologists, paleontologists are partial (if you'll excuse the pun) to chimeras, and especially eager to publicize their discoveries by giving them outlandish chimera-style names. On the following pages are 10 real-life chimeras that will make you wonder, "what in the world is the difference between a Fish Lizard and a Lizard Fish?"

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The Bear Dog

Amphicyon, the Bear Dog (Sergio Perez).

Meat-eating mammals have a tangled taxonomic history: tens of millions of years ago, it would have been impossible to discern which species were fated to evolve into dogs, big cats, or even bears and weasels. Amphicyon, the Bear Dog, did in fact look like a smallish bear with the head of a dog, but it was technically a creodont, a family of carnivores only distantly related to modern canines and ursines. True to its name, the Bear Dog ate pretty much anything it could get its paws on, and this 200-pound beast may have been capable of swatting prey senseless with a single swipe of its well-muscled forearms.

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The Horse Dragon

The Horse Dragon, Hippodraco (Lukas Panzarin).

It sounds like something you'd see on Game of Thrones, but Hippodraco, the Horse Dragon, didn't look much like a dragon, and it certainly didn't look anything like a horse. Ostensibly, this newly discovered dinosaur received its name because it was much smaller than others of its breed, "only" about the size of a small equine (compared to two or three tons for heftier ornithopods like Iguanodon, which Hippodraco vaguely resembled). The trouble is, its "type fossil" may be a juvenile, in which case Hippodraco might well have achieved Iguanodon-like sizes.

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The Man Bird

The Man Bird, Anthropornis (Wikimedia Commons).

Fittingly enough for a real-life chimera, Anthropornis, the Man Bird, was indirectly referenced by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft in one of his novels--though it's hard to imagine this cuddly-looking prehistoric penguin having an evil disposition. About six feet tall and 200 pounds, Anthropornis was roughly the size of a college football player, and (oddly enough) was bigger on average than the putative Giant Penguin, Icadyptes. As imposing as it was, the Man Bird was far from the biggest avian "chimera"--witness the 900 pound Elephant Bird of Pleistocene Madagascar!

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The Rat Croc

Araripesuchus, the RatCroc.

If you want to be a chimera, it pays to be a croc. Not only do we have Araripesuchus, the Rat Croc (so named because this prehistoric crocodile "only" weighed about 200 pounds and had a rat-like head), but there's also Kaprosuchus, the Boar Croc (oversized tusks in its upper and lower jaws) and Anatosuchus, the Duck Croc (a flat, vaguely ducklike snout used to sift through the underbrush for food). If you find these names a bit precious, you can blame paleontologist Paul Sereno, who knows how to generate headlines with his slightly off-kilter nomenclature.

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The Fish Lizard

The Fish Lizard, Ichthyosaurus (Nobu Tamura).

There's a great line from a Simpsons episode in which Lisa attends a medieval fair: "Behold the Esquilax! A horse with the head of a rabbit...and the body of a rabbit!" That pretty much sums up Ichthyosaurus, the Fish Lizard, which looked exactly like a giant bluefin tuna, with the exception that it was actually a marine reptile of the early Jurassic period. In fact, Ichthyosaurus was just one of a wide variety of "fish lizards" bearing less chimeric names like Cymbospondylus ("boat-shaped vertebrae") and Temnodontosaurus ("cutting-toothed lizard").

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The Lizard Fish

The Lizard Fish, Saurichthys (Wikimedia Commons).

Paleontologists are a wry bunch, aren't they? Ichthyosaurus, the Fish Lizard, had been in the reference books for decades when a mischievous scientist bestowed the name Saurichthys (Lizard Fish) on a newly discovered species of actinopterygian (ray-finned fish). The trouble is, it's not entirely clear what the "lizard" part of this fish's name was intended to reference, since Saurichthys looked like a modern sturgeon or barracuda. The name may, just possibly, refer to this fish's diet, which may have included contemporary sea-skimming pterosaurs like Preondactylus.

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The Frogamander

The Frogamander, Gerobatrachus.
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The Marsupial Lion

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo.

Given its name, you might expect Thylacoleo, the Marsupial Lion, to look like a tiger with the head of a kangaroo, or a giant wombat with the head of a jaguar. Unfortunately, that's not how nature works; the process of convergent evolution ensures that animals inhabiting similar ecosystems develop similar body plans, with the result that Thylacoleo was an Australian marsupial that was virtually indistinguishable from a big cat. (Another example was the even bigger Thylacosmilus of South Africa, which looked like a Saber-Toothed Tiger!)

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The Ostrich Lizard

The Ostrich Lizard, Struthiosaurus.

The annals of paleontology are littered with fossils that were "diagnosed" as belonging to one type of animal and were later recognized as belonging to quite another. Struthiosaurus, the Ostrich Lizard, was initially deemed to be a bird-like dinosaur (by a 19th-century Austrian scientist named, fittingly enough, Eduard Suess). What Dr. Suess didn't know was that he had discovered an extremely petite ankylosaur, which had about as much in common with modern ostriches as orangutans do with goldfish.

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The Fish Bird

Ichthyornis (Wikimedia Commons).

A chimera in name only, Ichthyornis, the Fish Bird, was named partly in reference to its vaguely fish-like vertebrae, and partly in reference to its piscivorous diet (this late Cretaceous bird looked very much like a seagull, and probably flocked along the shores of the Western Interior Sea). More importantly from a historical perspective, Icthyornis was the first prehistoric bird known to have sported teeth, and must have been a startling sight to the professor who unearthed its "type fossil" in Kansas back in 1870.