The remains of a huge sea creature with enormous teeth that could help it capture giant squid have been found in the Swiss Alps.
Ichthyosaurs were large marine reptiles with an elongated snake shape. They first appeared after the end of the Permian extinction, an event also known as the “Great Death”, which occurred about 250 million years ago and which wiped out more than two-thirds of species on Earth and 96% of marine species.
The toothed beast is one of three giant ichthyosaurs discovered in the Swiss Alps and is believed to have lived during the late Triassic period, about 205 million years ago – making them among the last of these giants.
The team said the findings helped solve the conundrum of whether giant ichthyosaurs, like some smaller species of creatures, had teeth.
Professor Martin Sander, of the University of Bonn, and one of the study’s authors said: “All the evidence is very scanty. We have these ghosts swimming in the late Triassic oceans for tens of millions of years, and we don’t know what they looked like. It’s an embarrassment to paleontology.”
“We thought for a while that they had teeth. Then we thought, OK, we never found any. Now we have a giant tooth and a giant tooth. So some of them have teeth.”
The team wrote in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology how they discovered fossils of three giant ichthyosaurs at different locations in the Kosen Formation between 1976 and 1990.
A fossil from one of the monsters was an incomplete tooth that was 10 centimeters long. The team found a massive vertebra and rib fragments attached to another. The third fossils included seven large vertebrae. None of the remains appeared to be known species of ichthyosaur, Sander said.
The team says the tooth, which lacks most of its crown, is only second to a giant ichthyosaur and is the largest ever for such a creature, surpassing those in the species known as Himalayanwhich was discovered in China and is believed to have a body length of about 15 meters.
“Ichthyosaurs have a very distinct tooth structure that can be seen in the root and also in the crown,” Sander said, adding that the giant toothed alpine discovered might have eaten smaller ichthyosaurs and giant squid.
Sander said that one of the creatures seemed to be the same size Himalayanwhile the other two, including the toothed beast, were probably similar in size to the giant ichthyosaur. chastasaurus, a creature previously found in British Columbia that was about 21 meters long – about two bus lengths. “This skeleton had vertebrae the same diameter as those in the Alps,” Sander said.
But it is not the largest ichthyosaur known to have lived. Among other discoveries, a toothless jawbone discovered in the Bristol Canal is believed to belong to an ichthyosaur about 26 meters long.
While ichthyosaurs roamed the oceans, the newly reported remains were deposited in what was once a lake, suggesting that the monsters went into shallow waters. “It’s kind of the same problem when you get a sperm whale in the North Sea,” Sander said.
Dr Ben Moon, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol who was not involved in the work, said it was likely the creatures had entered shallow waters to mate or give birth. He said the new report was exciting as there were few fossils of giant ichthyosaurs.
Dr Nick Fraser, a paleontologist at the National Museums of Scotland, said it has been difficult to determine the size of the giant ichthyosaur based on age alone, but the discoveries are shedding new light on the reptiles.
“Until now we suspected that most of the largest ichthyosaurs were toothless and were suction feeders,” he said, adding that the recently reported tooth size was staggering.
“It couldn’t have been messed about with that tooth,” Fraser said. “Besides the remains of vertebrae and ribs, here’s really tangible evidence that, in the past, Triassic waters harbored some huge ocean-going reptiles, perhaps the size of a living blue whale, and some likely had huge jaws armed with powerful teeth.”