Author Archives: Halichoeres

Livyatan (Mega Abissi by Diramix)

If you’ve ever wanted to build a diorama with your megalodon toys, you’ve probably noticed that there aren’t many other Miocene sea monster toys to pair them up with, although luckily plenty of the fish, turtles, and invertebrates alive then were very similar to modern ones. Today’s review concerns a contemporary of the famous shark, but it’s a rendition that’s unlikely to do much to enhance your diorama. Get a load of this rubbery little sea monster, from an Italian company called Diramix.

Livyatan was a toothed whale (odontocete) closely related to the modern sperm whales. It was originally named after Leviathan, the sea monster mentioned repeatedly in the Hebrew Tanakh, but the name had been used previously for a mastodon. All to the good, though, as the describers renamed the whale Livyatan, which is closer to the original Hebrew in any event. The full scientific name is Livyatan melvillei, in honor of Moby Dick author Herman Melville. Livyatan was a large predatory whale, but how large is uncertain, as the only remains so far discovered are of the skull, which was about a meter long. Extrapolating based on other whales, it could have been anywhere from 13 to 18 meters in length, similar in size to the modern sperm whale. It differs from sperm whales in having formidable teeth in both jaws instead of just the lower jaw. The fearsome teeth, up to 35 cm in length, leave little doubt that it was an apex predator.

Diramix markets stretchy, rubbery animal toys in blind bags. Most of their figures don’t bear any marking except to indicate that they’re made in China. Their larger figures (like this one) are also stamped “THE EPIC ANIMALS,” which is the name of their main line of animal figures, consisting of several short-lived series. The Livyatan belongs to a series called “Mega Abissi,” mostly consisting of larger counterparts to the smaller figures in the earlier “Antichi Abissi” series. Livyatan, however, is unique to the larger set.

This Livyatan is typical of Diramix offerings in appearance, although it is larger than most of their toys, about 19 cm long. It does a reasonable job of giving the overall impression of a sperm whale, even including the lengthwise wrinkles in the skin of the torso and tail. The only feature that could really distinguish Livyatan from an ordinary sperm whale at this level of detail is the upper teeth, and they’re included, although substantially blunted. The body–along with several of the teeth–is bright blue instead of dark gray like a sperm whale. The paint work is sloppy, and the surface of the toy is slightly tacky, so dust and everything else adhere to it. The flexible rubber shell is filled with beads, and I expect that a little rough treatment by a kid could easily rupture it, although the packaging is at pains to assure us that both the shell and filling are non-toxic. The flexible material makes it easy to have your Livyatan munch on whatever prey you want to feed it.

Wait, I thought life without the Leviathan was supposed to be nasty, brutish, and short.

Perhaps someday a toy company will make a nice realistic Livyatan toy, but this sure isn’t it. If you must have one, you can occasionally find it offered by Italian sellers on eBay. As far as I know, that’s the only country where it’s being sold. I got mine thanks to the kind assistance of an Italian member of the Dinosaur Toy Forum, but either way you’re probably going to pay more for shipping than for the figure itself, worth keeping in mind if you’re trying to decide whether to hunt one down.

Primeval Predators kit (Royal Ontario Museum)

Like many readers of this blog, one of my favorite things to do when visiting a new city is to check out the local natural history or science museum. For getting a sense of the scale and proportions of ancient life, nothing beats seeing specimens, or even reproductions of specimens, up close and personal. And what better souvenir can you ask for than figurines representing some of the animals you saw during your visit?

Sadly, I’ve never been to Toronto, but I was able to bring a little bit of its Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to me via the “Primeval Predators” kit, a set of five brightly colored toys representing animals from Canada’s famous Burgess Shale. The Burgess Shale is one of the most famous fossil localities in the world, giving an unparalleled glimpse into Cambrian ecosystems, even preserving creatures with no mineralized tissue that would have decayed too rapidly to fossilize anywhere else. This kind of exceptional environment is called a lagerstätte (pronounced “law-guh[r]-shtay-tuh,” pl. lagerstätten), and the Burgess Shale is the quintessential example. Let’s take a look at these five denizens of Cambrian Canada:

First up is Olenoides serratus, a common trilobite known from over 200 specimens. This figure is about 8.5 cm long, making it approximately life size. It correctly shows the sharp, pointy edges that give it its specific name, as well as the long, thin antennae. The antennae have too few segments, but some simplification for a toy strikes me as acceptable. There are, correctly, seven jointed thoracic segments, as well as several fused segments (collectively, called a “pygidium” or “little rump”). Two threadlike appendages called cerci (sing. “cercus”) emanate from the posterior end of the figure, a feature that distinguishes Olenoides from other trilobites. Some living arthropods also have cerci, which may have sensory or mating functions, but their function in Olenoides is not known. Considering how often trilobite toys are just generically called “trilobite,” ROM deserves praise for making a toy that is a faithful, if stylized, rendition of an identifiable trilobite species.

The big gun in the set is this “Laggania.” The name “Laggania” is no longer in use, having been assigned to a detached circular mouthpart. At first, the disc-like structure was proposed as a possible jellyfish, but it later became clear that it belonged to another animal named in the same exact scientific article: Peytoia. Peytoia is a relative of the ubiquitous Anomalocaris, although it is thought to have been a filter feeder rather than an active predator like its larger relative. Anomalocaris is sort of the Tyrannosaurus of the Cambrian: almost every company that bothers to make Cambrian creatures starts with it. For that reason, it’s refreshing that this set includes a generally ignored relative. This toy shows the “arms” under the head, bearing filaments that would have helped it filter particles of organic matter out of the water. The circular mouth (the “Laggania” part) is just barely visible in this photo. At about 13.5 cm long, this is about 3/4 life size.

If Anomalocaris is the Tyrannosaurus of the Cambrian, Opabinia regalis is the Triceratops. Lots of Opabinia figures exist, although this one may well have been the first, as the information cards that come with these figures all say “© 2000,” which would mean they came out a year earlier than Kaiyodo’s Opabinia. For being over 15 years old, this figure holds up quite well, which is a testament to both the good quality of the toy and the exceptionally good information preserved in the fossils. It has the correct number of segments and a plausibly shaped and oriented anterior appendage. At about 10 cm long, this is about 1.5× life size.

Tiny, wormlike Pikaia gracilens is often of particular interest to people, because it may be a close relative of our direct ancestors. Pikaia has what appears to be a notochord, which humans have as early embryos, later being segmented to become the disks between our vertebrae. It also has pigment spots that were initially interpreted as eyes (the bright red spots on the underside of the figure’s head). These spots have since been reinterpreted, and most paleontologists no longer consider it to have eyes, but this figure was produced before that reinterpretation. The toy also shows the row of tentacles, the one anatomical feature that Pikaia has that is unknown in true vertebrates, and perhaps represents evidence that it was an dead-end offshoot of our early family tree, rather than our direct ancestor. At about 7.5 cm, this toy is about 2× life size.

Finally, we come to Wiwaxia corrugatus, a strange bottom-dwelling animal with scaly armor and spines. The armor was not mineralized, but made out of a hard carbon polymer (hey, the toy is also made of a hard carbon polymer!). It was probably a stem-group mollusc, meaning that all living molluscs are more closely related to one another than to Wiwaxia. The underside had a slug-like foot, with which it crawled along probably eating things out of the mud. This version is about 7.5 cm long, or roughly 2.5× life size.

This set is a really nice cross-section of the diversity present in the Burgess Shale. If the accompanying information cards are correct that these were produced in 2000, then all or most of these are the first figures of their species. However, it also means it’s probably too much to hope that the ROM will make additional sets from other Canadian fossil deposits (such as the phenomenal Ordovician sites in Manitoba). If they were going to make more toys like this, I think they would have done so by now, but as far as I’m concerned, an expansion of the “Primeval Predators” concept would be quite welcome. These toys are stylized, but not quite cartoonish, and brightly colored to the point of being psychedelic–but the Burgess Shale might well have looked pretty psychedelic in life. I’d recommend this set to anyone who likes invertebrates, Paleozoic animals generally, or the very strange. You can still get it directly from the Royal Ontario Museum web site, and presumably in the museum’s gift shop as well.

Remigolepis (Paleozoo)

At first glance, the Late Devonian Gogo Reef might have looked roughly similar to a modern reef: colorful, lively, with piles of calcified stationary organisms hosting all sorts of swimming and crawling creatures. But look a little closer, and the reef isn’t made of scleractinian corals, but instead composed mostly of sponges, mats of algae, and rugose and tabulate corals. There are sharks, but they’re relatively small and slow-moving. There are crustaceans, but no proper crabs or lobsters. Instead, there are sea scorpions (more closely related to spiders than crustaceans). There are no triggerfishes, angelfishes, or parrotfishes. Instead there are lungfishes, coelacanths, and lots of boxy fishes with armor on the front halves of their bodies.

Today’s review concerns a model of one armored fish you might see on a Devonian reef, Remigolepis, a member of a group of primitive jawed fishes called antiarchs. These were mostly small fishes, with extensive head and thorax armor, as well as armored pectoral fins. Probably the most famous member of the group is Bothriolepis. Remigolepis differs from Bothriolepis and other antiarchs in several respects, but the most immediately obvious is the fact that the pectoral fin is short and does not contain a mobile joint. The short, solid fin inspired its name, which means “oar-scale.”

This model, from Australian designer Bruce Currie’s Paleozoo line, is 3D printed in a material called “sandstone,” which is actually gypsum powder treated with a binding agent. This material permits printing in full color, and the Paleozoo line takes full advantage of that feature. The figure is hollow, saving on material and shipping costs. The interior is a glossy black. This is a finely wrought display piece for adult collectors, and not an appropriate item for young children.

This is a nice rendition of Remigolepis, accurately depicting the vaulted box that may have resisted crushing in the jaws of large rhizodonts and arthrodires like Eastmanosteus. The topology of the plates is well-represented here. I might have placed some of the sutures slightly differently, but I think the arrangement here is well within the range of reasonable interpretation of the often somewhat crushed fossils.

The eyes are in a little window up at the front. The small mouth is directed forward and downward (“subterminal” in ichthyology parlance), and the distinctive submarginal plates are picked out in a rosy color, perhaps suggesting a display role.

The overall color scheme is attractive, sort of a pearly lavender color, a bit darker at the plate margins, and livid highlights near the eyes, mouth, and on the leading edge of the pectoral fins. Unlike Bothriolepis, which was mostly naked behind the armor plates, this model features small scales on its tail. It also correctly lacks pelvic fins, a feature which arguably originated in another placoderm lineage. The tail tapers to a feckless point–these were probably not strong swimmers. Their anatomy is instead consistent with a bottom dweller, perhaps relying on retiring habits and its substantial armor for protection from predators.

This model is about 16 cm long, or about 1/2 life size. It likely works well alongside the Bothriolepis from Paleozoo, though I don’t own that particular piece just yet. Scale-wise, it also works well with the much less realistic Yowie Rolfosteus. If I had one wish from the Paleozoo line, it would be for smaller, more affordable versions of some of these species. They are not exorbitant for what they are, especially considering that they come fully colored, but at a lower price point a person could build a great Gogo reef diorama in no time. That doesn’t stop me from wholeheartedly recommending this and other Paleozoo models, which you can buy either direct from Mr. Currie or from Shapeways (though I suspect that if you buy direct, a larger cut goes to the artist).