In the mid-Triassic seas, covering what will one day be part of southwestern China, an ichthyosaur flails at the surface desperately trying to deal with an ambitiously large meal.
240 million years later human paleontologists will name their kind Guizhouichthyosaurus tangae, and initially assume that their narrow snout and small peg-like teeth are suited only for a diet of small soft-bodied fish and cephalopods.
But for a 5m long (16’5″) Guizhouichthyosaurus, perhaps this particular catch is a little too much. The unlucky thalattosaur was a rather large example of a Xinpusaurus xingyiensis – nearly matching the ichthyosaur in length at around 4m long (13’2″), although much less bulky – and after biting off the head and tail the predator is still struggling to actually eat the sizeable carcass.
Even with a gravity assist from holding their prize vertically up above the water, swallowing is proving difficult and the Guizhouichthyosaurus can’t breathe around it.
They’re slowly suffocating.
They’ll eventually get it down their gullet, but by then it’ll be too late. Weak and dizzy from asphyxiation, they’ll soon sink to the sea floor and never resurface, their body settling not very far from where their prey’s severed tail fell.
It was previously thought to be a slow swimmer with a low and poorly-developed tail fin, and whether it even had a dorsal fin or not was unclear. But now new specimens with soft tissue impressions have given us a big surprise.
Not only did it actually have a fairly well-developed semilunate tail fin, but it also had a dorsal fin positioned much further forward on its body than expected, giving it a shape similar to some small sharks and representing the current earliest known dorsal fin of any amniote.
Bundles of stiffening collagen fibers inside its fins were very similar to those known from later Jurassic ichthyosaur species, indicating that this adaptation evolved much earlier in the lineage than previously thought. Along with stomach contents showing it mainly ate both cephalopods and small fish – fairly fast-moving prey – this suggests it was a capable open-water swimmer. It wouldn’t have been quite as speedy as its much more specialized Jurassic relatives, but it may have still been about as efficient as the small modern sharks it resembled.
Shonisaurus popularis lived about 222-212 million years ago, in Nevada, USA — a region that’s currently made up of dry deserts, but which was submerged under a tropical inland sea at the time.
At around 15m long (49′) it was roughly the same size as a modern humpback whale, with a long narrow snout, a fairly deep fusiform body, and four equally-sized flippers. Unlike many other ichthyosaurs it doesn’t seem to have had a dorsal fin, and its tail fluke shape was rather “primitive” indicating it was probably a slow cruising swimmer.
Juveniles had a few small teeth at the tips of their jaws, but larger adults were entirely toothless, suggesting that they may have specialized in different ecological niches at different stages of their lives. Fully-grown Shonisaurus probably mostly fed on prey such as soft-bodied cephalopods and small fish, which must have been incredibly abundant in the ancient Nevadan sea to support a population of such huge marine reptiles.
But Shonisaurus popularis wasn’t even the biggest of the Late Triassic giant ichthyosaurs. Further north in British Columbia, the closely related species Shonisaurus sikanniensis reached lengths of up to 21m (69′), and fragmentary remains from England hint at something even larger still, estimated at around 25m (82′) – close in size to the modern blue whale, and potentially being the largest non-dinosaurian reptile to ever live.
Living during the Early Jurassic (~183-179 mya) in the shallow seas that covered most of Europe at the time, Stenopterygius was an average-sized ichthyosaur growing up to about 4m in length (13′). A fossil found in Germany has some incredibly good soft-tissue preservation, showing smooth flexible scaleless skin, a layer of insulating blubber very convergently similar to that found in cetaceans, and even evidence of countershaded coloration.
While the confirmation of blubber is amazing, and gives further evidence that ichthyosaurs were warm-blooded, the color preservation might actually be even more interesting. The skin pigmentation is preserved in enough fine detail for branched melanophores to be visible under a microscope – a type of cell associated with the ability to change color. So there’s a possibility that ichthyosaurs could actively darken or lighten their color patterns, for purposes such as better camouflage, UV protection, or temperature regulation.
Named after the monster Grendel from the epic poem Beowulf, this 4m long (~13′) marine reptile had a big robust skull with large teeth, proportionally short flippers, and smaller eyes than some of its other relatives. It also had an unusual bony “hump” on its snout above its nostrils.
(About 20 years ago Grendelius was reassigned into Brachypterygius on the basis of the two not being distinct enough from each other to justify having separate genus names – but a more recent study suggests that that they actually were different after all, and the name may be valid again.)