Retro vs Modern #06: Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus

Plesiosaurs were first recognized as a distinct group of fossil animals in the early 1820s, only a few years after ichthyosaurs. Initially they were perceived as being closer in form to reptiles in the “chain of being” than the more fish-like ichthyosaurs were, and so the group’s scientific name ended up reflecting that early interpretation – “plesiosaur” roughly translates to “near to reptiles”.

The first named species of plesiosaur was Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, based on a near-complete skeleton discovered by Mary Anning that revealed the strange long-necked proportions of these animals for the first time.


1830s-1850s

Early reconstructions of plesiosaurs in the 1830s compared them to “a snake threaded through a turtle”, giving them highly sinuous necks and a turtle-like body. Much like ichthyosaurs they were assumed to be amphibious, using their flippers to crawl up onto the shore like a sea turtle.

The 1850s Crystal Palace plesiosaur statues show a variant of this design with smooth skin textures and fairly flexible reptilian bodies, with powerful shoulders and flipper postures that give them an overall almost seal-like appearance.


1860s-1990s

From the 1860s onwards a more upright S-shaped neck pose became the most common depiction of plesiosaurs. The writhing snake-like necks persisted in some reconstructions of the extremely long-necked elasmosaurids, but the overall design for these animals that caught hold for the next century was an egg-shaped body with oar-like flippers and a swan-like neck – a body plan that would end up so influential in pop culture that it was incorporated into modern lake monster folklore, with the Loch Ness Monster being the most famous example.

During this period plesiosaurs were often portrayed as floating or swimming at the water’s surface, rowing along with their flippers and using their long necks to snatch up prey. They were generally assumed to still haul out turtle-style to lay their eggs on the shore, although it wasn’t clear how the very largest species would have been able to support their own weight.


2020s

Since the 1990s a boom of new plesiosaur species and biomechanical studies have brought a lot of changes to our understanding of these marine reptiles.

Their necks are now considered to have been less flexible, capable only of more gentle curving, and were probably much thicker and more streamlined with the body than previously depicted. Rather than oar-like rowing all four of their flippers were probably used in more of an “underwater flying” vertical motion similar to modern sea turtles – which is pretty fitting, considering that their closest living relatives are now thought to actually be turtles.

They gave live birth and were probably warm-blooded, with a thick layer of insulating blubbery fat and a teardrop-shaped body outline. Their skin texture was smooth, but one exceptionally well-preserved specimen shows a covering of tiny thin millimeter-sized scales that wouldn’t have been visible in life except in extreme closeup.

We now know Plesiosaurus itself was a fairly small species, around 3.5m long (~11’6″), with a broad body and a short thick tail that probably had a rudder-like fin – usually assumed to be vertically-oriented, but possibly horizontal instead. It lived during the Early Jurassic, about 201-183 million years ago, in the shallow tropical sea that covered what is now southern England, and had a rather small head compared to other plesiosaurs, with its eyes facing upwards and to the sides.

It had sharp needle-like teeth that would have been used to catch soft-bodied aquatic prey like fish and cephalopods. It’s not known whether it had extensive fleshy lips, croc-like snaggletoothed jaws, or something in-between, so the facial soft tissue on this particular reconstruction is rather speculative.

Spinosuchus

Allokotosaurs were a group of mostly-herbivorous archosauromorph reptiles, distantly related to the ancestors of crocodiles, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs. They lived across Eurasia, Africa, and North America during the mid-to-late Triassic period, and their lineage included some weird and diverse forms – such as the bull-horned Shringasaurus, the long-beaked Teraterpeton, and possibly also the gliding kuehneosaurids.

Spinosuchus caseanus here was yet another one of these Triassic allokotosaurian weirdos, part of the trilophosaurid family and closely related to Trilophosaurus and Teraterpeton.

Living about 221-212 million years ago in what is now northwest Texas, USA, Spinosuchus was around 2.2m long (~7’2″) and had distinctive elongated neural spines along the vertebrae of its back and the base of its tail, forming a “high back” or short “sail”. Since it’s only known from a partial spinal column the rest of its anatomy isn’t known for certain, but it probably had body proportions similar to its close relative Trilophosaurus, with sprawling limbs and a short-snouted beaked head adapted for herbivory.

Like many other fossil “sailbacked” animals the exact function of Spinosuchus’ elongated vertebrae is unclear, but the structure may have been used for visual display. I’ve depicted it here with a speculative frill of colorful elongated scales, along with a flashy dewlap.

Styxosaurus

Styxosaurus snowii here was one of the largest known elasmosaurids, named after the mythological river separating the worlds of the living and the dead.

Reaching around 11m long (36′), with half of that being entirely neck, it lived during the late Cretaceous period about 83-80 million years ago in what is now the American Midwest – a region that at the time was submerged under a large inland sea.

With pointy interlocking teeth in its proportionally tiny head, Styxosaurus would have fed on slippery aquatic animals like fish and cephalopods, possibly using its long neck to get up close to its targets while the bulk of its body remained out of sight in dark murky waters. Large numbers of gastroliths found in the stomach regions of some specimens would have been used to grind up the hard parts of prey items after they were swallowed whole.

Seeleyosaurus

Seeleyosaurus guilelmiimperatoris here was a smallish plesiosaur (about 3.5m long / 11’6″) found in Germany during the early Jurassic, about 182 million years ago.

And back in the 1890s, a specimen of this species was discovered with soft tissue impressions showing a diamond-shaped tail fin.

But despite us knowing about plesiosaur tail flukes for such a long time, they’re surprisingly under-represented in reconstructions, never seeming to have become associated with the popular image of these animals in the same way that early pterosaur’s tail vanes did. It doesn’t help that no other direct impressions of plesiosaur tail fins have ever been found, or that the Seeleyosaurus specimen’s soft tissue got painted over at some point in the mid-1900s, making it incredibly difficult to study without causing further damage. 

(Perhaps modern non-invasive scanning techniques could be able to see under the paintjob, but as far as I’m aware nobody’s tried that yet.)

These tail fins are usually assumed to have been vertically oriented like those of other aquatic reptiles, moving side-to-side and acting like a rudder. However, there’s also a hypothesis that their fins might have actually been horizontal more like those of modern cetaceans and sirenians, based on several anatomical quirks – such as their tail regions being very wide and flat at the base, and the vertebrae at the tip being unusually pygostyle-like, very different from the way the tail bones of vertically-finned reptiles look.

Silesaurus

Silesaurus opolensis here was a type of dinosauriform – a reptile very closely related to the ancestors of true dinosaurs, but not quite actually a dinosaur itself.

Living in Poland during the Late Triassic (~230 million years ago), it was a quadrupedal animal roughly the size of a large modern dog, about 50cm tall at the shoulder (1’8″) and 2m long (6’6″). The front of its lower jaw was toothless and covered with a keratinous beak, and there may have been a corresponding much smaller beak at the very tip of its upper jaw, too.

It was originally thought to be a herbivore, but coprolites full of insect remains suggest it was probably more of an omnivore, possibly foraging by pecking in a convergently similar manner to its distant bird cousins.

In fact, one of those pieces of Silesaurus poop was recently found to preserve a new species of tiny beetle in incredible detail.

Eons Roundup 11

It’s time for another batch of PBS Eons commission work!

The marine reptiles Atopodentatus and Henodus, from “The Triassic Reptile With ‘Two Faces'”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8W26SiCylI


The marine turtles Archelon and Euclastes, from “The Return of Giant Skin-Shell Sea Turtles”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tmb8XCwb3FI

Stenaulorhynchus

Taking place during the 50-million year span between two huge mass extinctions, the Triassic was a very weird time. At the start of the period there was world domination by the synapsid Lystrosaurus, then after a few million years of recovery time came an evolutionary “explosion” from the rest of the survivors – filling new roles in their ecosystems and producing a brief but bizarre menagerie of unique species.

And one of the groups that rose to prominence during this time were the rhynchosaurs. Part of the archosauromorph branch of reptiles, they were closely related to the ancestors of crocodilians, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs, and evolved from small superficially lizard-like forms living in southern Africa during the very start of the Triassic, around 250 million years ago. But within just a few million years they became larger and bulkier, specialized for herbivory and scratch digging, and they soon spread all over Pangaea and became incredibly abundant in some fossil deposits.

Stenaulorhynchus stockleyi was one of larger member of this lineage, around 1.2m long (4’), known from Tanzania about 247-242 million years ago. It had a typical triangular rhynchosaurian skull, with wide deep cheeks supporting powerful jaw muscles and multiple rows of grinding teeth, along with a narrow hooked “beak” formed from the premaxillary bones of its snout.

Its unclear what the actual life appearance of the rhynchosaur “beak” was, with some reconstructions having a shrinkwrapped “alien mole-rat” look, others giving them keratinous parrot-like actual beaks, and still others going with fleshy tuatara-like lizard lips. In the past I’ve leaned somewhat towards the latter, but since one fossil does actually show some evidence for a keratinous covering I’ve gone for an extensive full beak this time around.

Tanystropheus hydroides

Tanystropheus is one of the classic Triassic weirdos, a bizarre archosauromorph easily recognizable with its ridiculously long neck.

Mainly known from mid-Triassic deposits on the Swiss-Italian border, dating around 247–235 million years ago, fossils of the species Tanystropheus longobardicus have been found in two different “morphs” – small forms less than 2m long (6’6″), and larger ones up to 6m long (19’8″).

For a long time the smaller fossils were thought to be juveniles, but while they certainly had juvenile-looking facial proportions they also had very different teeth compared to the larger forms. They had pointed teeth at the front of their mouths and multi-cusped cheek teeth further back, and the “adults” had jaws containing only the pointed teeth, suggesting very different diets and lifestyles between the two size classes.

Extreme changes in dentition and diet during maturation aren’t unheard of in fossil species, but something particularly odd was going on here. Larger forms over 2m long always had just the pointed teeth, and there were no signs of intermediate tooth arrangements at all.

And a new study using x-ray microtomography has given an answer: they weren’t actually the same species!

Turns out the smaller Tanystropheus longobardicus were all skeletally mature adults, already fully grown at that size. The larger ones were a completely separate species occupying a different ecological niche to their smaller relatives, and have been named Tanystropheus hydroides in reference to the mythical hydra.

Comparison of the skulls of T. hydroides and T. longobardicus

[ From fig 3 in Spiekman, S. N. et al (2020). Aquatic Habits and Niche Partitioning in the Extraordinarily Long-Necked Triassic Reptile Tanystropheus. Current Biology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.07.025 ]

While the exact lifestyle of Tanystropheus is an ongoing paleontological argument, Tanystropheus hydroides at least appears to have been much more on the aquatic side of things, with nostrils positioned on the top of its snout and its pointed teeth forming a “fish trap” in its jaws.

Stomach contents suggest it mainly ate fast-moving aquatic prey like fish and cephalopods, but its body wasn’t really adapted for strong swimming and so it couldn’t have been catching them via active pursuit. Instead it was probably an ambush predator hunting in a similar manner to some plesiosaurs, using its incredibly long neck and relatively small head to carefully approach prey species without the rest of its body startling them, and then catching them with fast snapping sideways lunges.

Ophthalmothule

The cryptoclidids were fairly standard-looking plesiosaurs, with long necks and small heads – but those tiny skull bones were also rather fragile and so there’s very little good fossil material of their heads, making it difficult to figure out both their feeding ecology and their exact evolutionary relationships.

But a recently-discovered specimen from the Svalbard archipelago actually preserved a mostly-complete skeleton, including an unusually intact skull.

Given the name Ophthalmothule cryostea (meaning “frozen bones of the Northern eye”), this cryptoclidid lived about 145 million years ago, right at the boundary between the Jurassic and the Cretaceous.

It measured around 5m long (16’5″) and had proportionally huge eyes that faced upwards on its head – an adaptation for seeing in low-light underwater conditions, maximizing the amount of light reaching it from above.

Those big dark-adapted eyes suggest it may have been nocturnal, or spent a lot of time diving into very deep waters in search of food. Its skull had weak jaw muscles and delicate teeth, and its gut region contained a lot of fine gravelly sediment, so it probably mainly grubbed around for small soft-bodied prey on the sea floor.

At that point in time Svalbard would have been a little further south than it is today, at a subarctic latitude, but the area would have still experienced particularly long nights during the winter. So it’s possible Ophthalmothule also developed such big sensitive eyes to help it survive through those darker seasons.

Weird Heads Month #15: Hammerhead Reptiles

Atopodentatus unicus lived in Southwest China during the early-to-mid Triassic, around 247-240 million years ago. About 3m long (9’10”), it was a marine reptile – probably part of an early branch of the sauropterygians – with an elongated streamlined body and paddle-like limbs.

When it was originally described in 2014 it seemed to have a head unlike anything seen before. The skull of the only known fossil specimen was incomplete and badly crushed, but it was reconstructed as having a downward-hooking upper jaw with a vertical split in the middle forming a zipper-like row of teeth.

An illustration of the old interpretation of Atopodentatus. It has a bizarre vertical split in the front of its snout full of needle-like teeth resembling a zipper.
The original version of Atopodentatus

But then just two years later some more complete skulls were discovered and revealed something completely different: the projections on Atopodentatus‘ snout actually stuck out to each side in a wide flat “hammerhead” shape on both its upper and lower jaws.

Not quite as bizarre as before, but still a Triassic weirdo!

It also seems to have been a rare example of a herbivorous Mesozoic marine reptile, probably rooting around on the seafloor with its shovel-like mouth, using its chisel-shaped front teeth to scoop up mouthfuls of algae and other marine plants and then straining out the water through its closely spaced needle-like back teeth.