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.
This species was originally named back in 2015, but at the time the only known specimens were missing their heads. It was assumed that its skull would have looked similar to those of other hupehsuchians… but now new fossils have been found, and it seems to have actually been much much weirder!
Eretmorhipis’ head was surprisingly tiny in proportion to its body – sort of like a marine version of Cotylorhynchus – and its shape convergently resembled the modern platypus, with a wide “duck bill” and very small eyes. It may have hunted for food along the seafloor in a similar manner to the platypus, using either a highly sensitive sense of touch or possibly even electroreception to locate small invertebrates like worms and shrimp.
It also had much larger bony osteoderms than its other known hupehsuchian relatives, forming a distinctive protruding spiky ridge down its back. At about 85cm in length (2′9″) it was one of the largest marine animals around at the time, so this structure probably wasn’t needed for defense – but as with other hupehsuchians its actual function is still unknown.
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.)