Author Archives: Halichoeres

Prehistoric Marine Tube (CollectA)

CollectA has emerged as one of the most prolific producers of dinosaur figures, with a few other Mesozoic reptiles and some mammals here and there for variety. They’ve developed a reputation for giving some obscure species the plastic treatment, but in general those species been relatively close relatives of the old standards. The prehistoric marine tube, released in the summer of 2017, is a welcome break from that pattern. It consists of twelve different animals from across the Phanerozoic, and from across the animal tree of life.

CollectA Prehistoric Marine Tube

The new CollectA figures are mostly around the same size as the ones from the sadly discontinued Safari Ltd prehistoric sea life Toob from a few years back. The two together give you a nice mix of animals, with no genera repeated. Let’s go through the CollectA figures one by one:

From the Cambrian period comes Olenoides, a common trilobite in the Burgess Shale. This figure is about 4 cm long, not counting appendages, making it around half life size. It resembles Olenoides in having cerci (the appendages at the tail end), but the sculpturing of the cephalon (head) is pretty far off the mark. Still, for CollectA’s first ever arthropod figure, it’s not too bad. Certainly much better than their first dinosaurs.

CollectA mini Olenoides

From the Ordovician period (and persisting into the Silurian), is the gigantic cephalopod Cameroceras, which is more closely related to the modern nautilus than either is to the ammonites in this set. This version is about 7 cm long, or around 1:85 scale. There’s precious little available for Ordovician toys, even though it’s when stereotypically Paleozoic marine faunas were really established. So this is a welcome addition in my book.

CollectA mini Cameroceras

Moving on to the Devonian, we come to everybody’s favorite giant armored fish, Dunkleosteus. This one is 7 cm long, or about 1:100 scale. It’s CollectA’s very first arthrodire, and their very first Devonian animal (are you starting to pick up on a theme?). They did a pretty good job, avoiding the common pitfall of making the sclerotic rings (internal eyeball bones) visible externally. The tail isn’t how I would reconstruct it, but reasonable people can disagree about how something the size of Dunkleosteus swam. The plates are about the right shape, and they look like they have some actual skin on them, which is a welcome change from some very zombie-esque reconstructions.

CollectA mini Dunkleosteus

From the earliest Jurassic, the large ichthyosaur Temnodontosaurus. This figure is about 8 cm long, or roughly 1:110 scale. It’s similar to the standard size version except that it isn’t giving birth. If it didn’t have adult proportions, it could almost stand in as the standard version’s pup. It has the unfortunate ridge of scales around the eyes, although at this small scale it doesn’t look as egregious.

CollectA mini Temnodontosaurus

Pliosaurus is the real giant of the set, at 11 cm long (about 1:110 scale). It differs from its deluxe counterpart in that it lacks the little lampreys hitching a ride on its back. Like the Temnodontosaurus, it doesn’t correct the problems with the larger figure’s head, namely, the odd ridge over the eye and the too-prominent fenestrae.

CollectA mini Pliosaurus

Now Leedsichthys, a gigantic, plankton-eating contemporary of Pliosaurus. Conveniently, they also scale well together: at 9 cm long, this is roughly 1:120 scale, though since it’s mostly known from pieces of the head, length estimates are uncertain. Not only is this CollectA’s first actinopterygian fish (well, this and the Xiphactinus), it’s one of very, very few prehistoric actinopterygian toys ever made. There have probably been fewer than 10, which is pretty bad for a group that has a 400 million year history and includes 95 out of every 100 animals you would think of as a fish. This is a really nice rendition, though necessarily speculative, since much of the skeleton of Leedsichthys was cartilaginous rather than bony and thus fossilized poorly. The one likely flaw I can spot is that it has two pelvic fins and no anal fin. Members of the family it belonged to generally had greatly reduced pelvic fins, and there is no evidence that Leedsichthys had them at all, but it probably did have an anal fin.

CollectA mini Leedsichthys

The Lower Cretaceous saw the rise of the heteromorph ammonites, the ones that evolved un-coiled shell shapes. Hard to know how they swam around looking like this. Australiceras was one of the more conservative of these, and on the smaller side. This little figure is about 1:5. It has 8 arms, though it should probably have 10 (more on that later).

CollectA mini Australiceras

One of the largest ammonites of all time, Parapuzosia is the only “standard” (non-heteromorph) ammonite in the set. A little over 3.5 cm across its longest axis, this figure is about 1:40-1:60 (specimens varied in size). Like the other ammonites in the set, it shows the aptychus (the roughly triangular mineralized structure usually found separated from the shell) as occluding the shell opening, in the manner of a nautilus hood. That arrangement is thought to be incorrect, but it is by far the most common way that aptychi are reconstructed.

CollectA mini Parapuzosia

The huge marine turtle Archelon, known from the Cretaceous Seaway that once covered North America’s central plains, is a nice addition to this set. This figure fairly captures the broad dimensions of the shell, although it might be just a shade too flattened. It’s around 4.5 cm long, making it 1:85 scale. Very cute, and the first turtle from CollectA!

CollectA mini Archelon

At the same time Archelon was swimming around the Cretaceous Seaway, so was the huge ichthyodectid Xiphactinus. At around 7 cm long, it’s roughly 1:85 scale. Xiphactinus is known from plenty of good skeletal material, so it was easier to get right: it has all the right fins in all the right places. The detail on the facial dermal bones and the teeth are pretty decent for a toy this small. One of the gems of the set.

CollectA mini Xiphactinus

Baculites was a heteromorph ammonite from the latest Cretaceous. Its shell was so thoroughly uncoiled that it looked like a straight-shelled cephalopod like the orthocerids of 100 million years earlier. At just over 5 cm long, this is roughly 1:40 scale, so it fits in great alongside some of your big marine reptiles.

CollectA mini Baculites

Another late Cretaceous ammonite, Diplomoceras is commonly compared to a paper clip. The plastic of this toy is flexible enough that you could use it that way! Its shell is just shy of 6 cm measured in a straight line from end to end, so it’s about 1:35-1:40 scale, working well with the Baculites in dioramas. This figure has 10 arms, but some of the other ammonites in this set have 8. No published fossils show the actual anatomy of the soft parts of ammonites, unfortunately, although fossilized traces in mud suggest that they had few arms, like squid, rather than many tentacles, like nautilus. Available evidence suggests that 10 is a likelier number, but it’s peculiar in any event that CollectA made some with 8 and some with 10.

CollectA mini Diplomoceras

Despite minor accuracy issues with some of the figures, this is a fantastic set. Unlike the dinosaur mini tubes that CollectA has released, which have been comprised almost entirely of miniature versions of standard-sized figures, this tube is mostly brand new animals–only the Temnodontosaurus and Pliosaurus are remakes of previous releases. It contains lots of firsts for CollectA: first protostomes (in fact, first invertebrates), first actinopterygians, first turtle, first Paleozoic animals of any description. I would love to see a few of these as large figures, especially Leedsichthys and Xiphactinus (but I have a soft spot for fishes). More importantly, I’d love to see additional tubes like this, full of smaller animals that work well in dioramas with larger figures, or animals that might be hard to market as stand-alone toys. Keep ’em coming, CollectA! For now, you can find these at a variety of online retailers, and outside of North America you might even be able to find them in brick-and-mortar stores.

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.