Strange Triassic Reptile Found In China Looks Like A Duck-Billed Platypus


Complete fossil of Eretmorhipis carrolldongi. Gianluca Danini

It seems we are finding fossils left and right these days, some with spaceship-like teeth and others, as in this case, with odd-looking snouts. A marine reptile from the lower Triassic found in Hubei, China, is described as having an uncanny similarity to a duck-billed platypus. The creature also adds evidence to an emerging idea on the speed of recolonization of Earth's surface after the mass extinction at the end of the Permian era.

"This is a very strange animal," said Professor Ryosuke Motani, a paleontologist at the University of California, Davis. "When I started thinking about the biology I was really puzzled."


It has a "rather small head combined with large forelimb (flipper), unusually 'bony' and heavy-looking body trunk, triangular bony blades sticking out of its back, and the duck-billed snout," Motani told IFLScience.

The creature, called Eretmorhipis carrolldongi, evolved after a world ravaged by mass extinction. Until now, only headless specimens of the species had been found. 

The two new skulls suggest the head would have supported a bill of cartilage similar to that of a platypus. In the middle of the bill, there is a large hole. Although the team can’t pin down for certain what its function was, they can make an educated guess based on a similar hole in the platypus. In these modern creatures, the bill holds receptors that help it navigate and detect prey.

"The platypus lineage has been the only one known to have the duck-billed snout to forage in water," said Motani. "We found that there was another lineage, of marine reptiles, that had similar adaptation about 247 million years ago."

Artist's impression of Eretmorhipis carrolldongi.  Gianluca Danini

The marine reptile, described in the journal Scientific Reports, was about 70 centimeters (2.3 feet) in length with a long body, small head, and piddling eyes. It's considered to be related to the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs.

"There are some four-legged vertebrate animals today with unusually small eyes, relying on another sense to forage in the dusk or darkness (including the duck-billed platypus)," said Motani. "We now have the oldest record of such small eyes in Eretmorphipis."

One of the fossils is nearly complete with just parts of its limbs missing, while only the front half of the other specimen was uncovered. They were found in a region that was likely covered by a shallow sea at the time. However, the reptile's dimensions and bony body suggests it wasn't an adept swimmer and likely wouldn't survive in the modern world.

"The animal looks like a slow-moving animal that could not bend the body too much because bones would prevent it," said Motani to IFLScience. "It likely relied on the flippers to move its body. That design gives high maneuverability but for the sake of average swimming speed."


"Such a lifestyle would require an environment that is kind to the animal – limited competition, limited predator, and abundant food. Such an environment existed at the time in that particular space – it lived in a largely isolated lagoon with a small number of predators and enough food. It would not survive in a typical coastal sea today."

Last but certainly not least, Motani explained "the new fossil adds to the emerging idea on the speed of biotic re-colonization of Earth's surface after the end-Permian mass extinction. It appears that there was the first wave of quick diversification of marine predators in the Early Triassic."

Complete fossil and line drawing of Eretmorhipis carrolldongi. L. Cheng et al, Scientific Reports, Creative Commons 4.0
Comparison of the skulls of the duckbilled platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), left, and Eretmorhipis carrolldongi on the right. Blue shading indicates cartilage. L. Cheng et al, Scientific Reports, Creative Commons 4.0