Umoonasaurus

Umoonasaurus demoscyllus was a small short-necked plesiosaur, about 2m long (6’6″), that lived in the polar shallow seas covering much of what is now Australia 115 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous.

Its known fossil remains include a specimen nicknamed “Eric”, one of the most complete opalized vertebrate skeletons ever found.

While most of its body was fairly generalized for a plesiosaur, its skull was unusually ornamented. A raised ridge along the middle of its snout shows evidence of supporting a larger keratinous crest, and smaller ridges over each of its eyes may have also had similar structures. These crests were fairly delicate so were probably mainly used for visual display, and might have been brightly colored.

Retro vs Modern #07: Mosasaurus hoffmannii

The first scientifically documented mosasaur fossils were skulls discovered in the Netherlands during the 1760s and 1770s, but these remains were initially interpreted as belonging to a fish, crocodile, or whale. In the late 1790s their resemblance to monitor lizards was noted, and the fossils were soon recognized as belonging to giant marine reptiles unlike any known living species – a revolutionary concept at the time, and influential in the early development of ideas about extinction.

In the 1820s Mosasaurus hoffmannii was the first species officially described. For several decades it was thought to be a giant amphibious lizard with either webbed feet or flipper-like legs, with one of the earliest popular reconstructions being the 1850s Crystal Palace statue.

By the 1870s more complete fossil discoveries in North America had revealed the paddle-like flippers and fully aquatic nature of mosasaurs. Skin impressions showed overlapping keeled diamond-shaped scales resembling those of rattlesnakes, but proportionally much smaller compared to their body size.


1890s

Then, in the late 1890s, one mosasaur specimen was interpreted as having a mane-like “fringe” of soft tissue along its back.

Only a few years later this was realized to be a mistake, actually being preserved tracheal cartilage, but it was too late. The idea had already caught on in artistic depictions and quickly became a paleoart meme, with mosasaurs frequently portrayed with elaborate frills for the majority of the next century.


2020s

Early arguments about whether mosasaurs’ closest relatives were monitor lizards or snakes had settled down by the 1920s, with the consensus at the time being monitor lizards, and the first half of the 20th century saw little mosasaur research beyond the naming of a few new species. Much like the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs it was only really in the wake of the Dinosaur Renaissance that interest in these marine reptiles and their paleobiology really began to pick up again.

Rather than sea-serpent-like creatures we now recognize that mosasaurs actually looked more like lizards converging on whales or ichthyosaurs, with smooth streamlined bodies and vertical tail flukes. The size and shape of their scales varied across different parts of their bodies, parts of their bodies had dark coloration (likely with a countershaded pattern), and they probably had forked tongues.

They had a higher metabolic rate than most modern lizards, and may even have been warm-blooded. They probably also gave birth to live young, although a recently-discovered fossil soft-shelled egg found in Antarctica has been suggested to have come from a large mosasaur.

The debate about their evolutionary relationships has been reignited, too, with some recent studies once again supporting a very close relationship to snakes – although there’s currently no clear consensus.

Our modern view of Mosasaurus hoffmannii is a large chunky mosasaur that grew to at least 11m long (~36′). It lived during the end of the Cretaceous period, about 70-66 million years ago, and inhabited a wide range of climates across much of the ancient Atlantic Ocean and various connected shallow seaways, with fossils known from Europe, Africa, and North and South America.

Its long jaws had a powerful bite force and it seems to have been a more visual hunter than some other mosasaurs, with relatively large eyes and a less well-developed sense of smell. It was one of the largest marine animals of its time and was probably a generalist apex predator, feeding on a wide variety of prey such as fish, ammonites, and other marine reptiles.

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.

Retro vs Modern #05: Ichthyosaurus communis

Fossilized ichthyosaur bones have been found for centuries, but were initially misidentified as being the remains of fish, dolphins, and crocodiles. More complete skeletons began to be discovered in the early 19th century – particularly by pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning – and Ichthyosaurus communis was one of the first species of these ancient “fish lizards” to be scientifically recognized.


1830s-1870s

Early reconstructions of ichthyosaurs in the 1830s depicted flippered crocodile-like animals with long straight eel-like tails and strangely shrinkwrapped features, showing the sclerotic rings of their eyes and the internal bones of their flippers as highly visible externally. They were also frequently portrayed as being amphibious, hauling themselves out of the water to bask.

By the late 1830s impressions of smooth scaleless skin had been found, and specimens with tail-tips that were always “broken” in the exact same place were interpreted as evidence of the presence of some sort of paddle-like tail fin. The 1850s Crystal Palace Ichthyosaurus statues show this slightly updated version, along with a low dorsal ridge on their backs reminiscent of a beluga whale.


2020s

From the 1880s onwards the discovery of exceptional ichthyosaur specimens preserving whole body outlines revealed a fully aquatic streamlined shape, a triangular dorsal fin, and a crescent-shaped vertical tail fluke. Numerous examples of fossilized pregnant females also showed that ichthyosaurs gave live birth rather than laying eggs.

This highly dolphin-like version of ichthyosaurs quickly caught on and became the standard depiction into the early 20th century, frequently showing them as highly active animals – swimming in groups, chasing fish and ammonites, and leaping dramatically out of the water like their modern cetacean counterparts. While we don’t actually know if they were social or acrobatic like dolphins, it was still a surprising and refreshing contrast to the increasingly lumpy and sluggish depictions of non-avian dinosaurs that were happening around the same time.

Actual further paleontological study on ichthyosaurs was scarce for decades, however, with a general attitude that the group was already scientifically “complete” and there wasn’t much new or interesting left to learn about them anymore. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that they began to have their own “ichthyosaur renaissance” alongside the dinosaurs, with a sharp rise in research in the last few decades bringing us a lot of new information about their diversity and biology.

Ichthyosaurus communis was just one of several species in the Ichthyosaurus genus, living during the Early Jurassic, about 196-183 million years ago, in the shallow tropical seas of what is now Europe. About 3.3m long (~11′), it was adapted for high-speed long-distance swimming like a modern tuna, and it probably had a large keeled peduncle on the sides of its tail.

Bone structure and isotope analysis show that ichthyosaurs were all warm-blooded. One exceptional specimen also preserves an insulating layer of cetacean-like blubber, along with some evidence of its coloration: overall darker on the top and lighter on the underside in a countershaded pattern.

(I’ve given this reconstruction some speculative disruptive camouflage, too.)

Some of the preserved pigmentation has enough microscopic detail to show what appear to be branched melanophore cells associated with the ability to change color – suggesting that ichthyosaurs may have been able to actively darken and lighten their coloration like some modern lizards.

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.

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

Gavialimimus

During the late Cretaceous period, about 72-66 million years ago, the Oulad Abdoun Basin region of Morocco was submerged under the Atlantic ocean – and the water above it was absolutely teeming with mosasaurs.

Fossils of at least a dozen different species of these predatory marine reptiles have been found in the area, and they seem to have all been occupying different ecological roles to avoid being in direct competition with each other. Many had conical piercing teeth adapted for gripping onto slippery soft-bodied prey, but others had rounded blunt teeth for crushing hard shells, and some even had sharp shark-like teeth for tearing flesh.

And one of the most surprising recent discoveries from this diverse ecosystem was Gavialimimus almaghribensis.

This 7m long (23′) mosasaur was part of the plioplatecarpine lineage, but it had uniquely long and narrow jaws with pointy interlocking teeth and highly retracted nostrils. Its snout shape resembled that of a crocodilians like modern gharials more than any of its short-skulled close relatives, and it was probably specialized for a similar diet of small fast-moving fish.

Guizhouichthyosaurus

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.

In reality they eat a much wider range of prey – including other marine reptiles.

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.

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.