Jaw fossil from English beach belongs to monstrous marine reptile


WASHINGTON, April 9 (Reuters) – A jawbone fossil found on a rocky English beach belongs to one of the biggest marine animals on record, a type of seagoing reptile called an ichthyosaur that scientists estimated at up to 85 feet long – approaching the size of a blue whale.

Scientists said on Monday this ichthyosaur, which appears to be the largest marine reptile ever discovered, lived 205 million years ago at the end of the Triassic Period, dominating the oceans just as dinosaurs were becoming the undisputed masters on land. The bone, called a surangular, was part of its lower jaw.

The researchers estimated the animal’s length by comparing this surangular to the same bone in the largest ichthyosaur skeleton ever found, a species called Shonisaurus sikanniensis from British Columbia that was 69 feet long. The newly discovered bone was 25 percent larger.

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Ichthyosaur — a real sea monster

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An artist’s impression of a “Monster” fish-like reptile (bottom ), whose fossil was found on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, off Norway, catching a smaller plesiosaur, in this undated handout photo from the Natural History Museum, University of Oslo. The Norwegian researchers discovered remains of a total of 28 plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs — top marine predators when dinosaurs dominated on land — at a site on the island of Spitsbergen, about 1,300 km (800 miles) from the North Pole. EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT REUTERS/Natural History Museum, University of Oslo/Handout (NORWAY)

UNITED KINGDOM – SEPTEMBER 09: Ichthyosaurus (from Greek ichthys ‘fish’ and sauros ‘lizard’) is an extinct genus of ichthyosaur from the Early Jurassic period. Colour printed illustration by Heinrich Harder from Tiere der Urwelt Animals of the Prehistoric World, 1916 Hamburg. Heinrich Harder (1858-1935) was a German landscape artist and book illustrator. These images come from a series of prehistoric creature cards published by the Reichardt Cocoa company in 1908. Natural historian Wilhelm Bolsche wrote the descriptive text. (Photo by Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images)

Fossil ichthyosaur with circular ammonite fossils in stone matrix, Stenopterygius species, Ammonites: Dactylioceras species, Lower Jurassic period, Mesozoic era, Holzmaden, Germany, Photographed under controlled conditions (Specimen courtesy of Raimund Albersdoerfer, Germany), (Photo by Wild Horizons/UIG via Getty Images)

People walk inside the MUJA (Jurassic Museum of Asturias) in Colunga, northern Spain, November 6, 2015. The scientific team of the Jurassic Museum of Asturias (MUJA) presents their latest studies on the fossil of a Ichthyosaur, which acccording to them is the most complete found in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the few in the world. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso

Fossil ichthyosaur with circular ammonite fossils in stone matrix, Stenopterygius species, Ammonites: Dactylioceras species, Lower Jurassic period, Mesozoic era, Holzmaden, Germany, Photographed under controlled conditions (Specimen courtesy of Raimund Albersdoerfer, Germany), (Photo by Wild Horizons/UIG via Getty Images)

Eurhinosauraus Ichthyosaur dinosaur from Germany Jurassic Period at ROM Toronto. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

Argentine Paleontologist Marta Fernandez presents the fossil of a Ichthyosaur, which acccording to the Jurassic Museum of Asturias, is the most complete found in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the few in the world, at the headquarters of the museum in Colunga, northern Spain, November 6, 2015. In the picture paleontologist Marta Fernandez shows a reproduction of a specimen of an Ichthyosaur found in Germany. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso

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“This bone belonged to a giant,” said University of Manchester paleontologist Dean Lomax.

“The entire carcass was probably very similar to a whale fall in which a dead whale drops to the bottom of the sea floor, where an entire ecosystem of animals feeds on the carcass for a very long time. After that, bones become separated, and we suspect that’s what happened to our isolated bone.”

Fossil collector Paul de la Salle, affiliated with the Etches Collection in Dorset, England, found the bone in 2016 at Lilstock on England’s Somerset coast along the Bristol Channel.

(The jaw bone of a giant ichthyosaur found on an English beach. Photo: The University of Manchester via Reuters)

“The structure was in the form of growth rings, like that of a tree, and I’d seen something similar before in the jaws of late Jurassic ichthyosaurs,” he said.

Ichthyosaurs swam the world’s oceans from 250 million years ago to 90 million years ago, preying on squid and fish. The biggest were larger than other huge marine reptiles of the dinosaur age like pliosaurs and mosasaurs. Only today’s filter-feeding baleen whales are larger. The blue whale, up to about 98 feet long, is the biggest animal alive today and the biggest marine animal ever.

The researchers estimated the new ichthyosaur at 66 to 85 feet long.

It appears to have belonged to an ichthyosaur group called shastasaurids. Because the remains are so incomplete, it is unclear whether it represents a new ichthyosaur genus or is a member of a previously identified genus, said paleontologist Judy Massare of the State University of New York College at Brockport.

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The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

(Shonisaurus, a giant ichthyosaur is pictured in this handout reconstruction image. Photo: Nobumichi Tamura via Reuters)

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)



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