Thalassodraco etchesi Illustration
Science & Technology

Mysterious Prehistoric “Sea Dragon” Discovered on English Channel Coast Is Identified As New Species

Illustration of Thalassodraco etchesi. Credit score: Megan Jacobs

“This animal was clearly doing one thing completely different,” Baylor College paleontologist says.

A mysterious small marine reptile relationship from 150 million years in the past has been recognized as a brand new species which will have been able to diving very deeply. The well-preserved specimen was present in a Late Jurassic deep marine deposit alongside the English Channel shoreline in Dorset, England.

The aquatic reptile has been decided to be a part of the group referred to as ichthyosaurs, which have been streamlined marine predators from the Late Jurassic interval, based on paleontologist Megan L. Jacobs, a Baylor College doctoral candidate in geosciences and co-author of a examine revealed within the journal PLOS ONE.

“This ichthyosaur has a number of variations that makes it distinctive sufficient to be its personal genus and species,” Jacobs mentioned. “New Late Jurassic ichthyosaurs in the UK are extraordinarily uncommon, as these creatures have been studied for 200 years. We knew it was new nearly immediately, but it surely took a couple of 12 months to make thorough comparisons with all different Late Jurassic ichthyosaurs to make sure our instincts have been right. It was very thrilling to not be capable of discover a match.”

The specimen, estimated to have been about 6 ft lengthy, was found in 2009 by fossil collector Steve Etches MBE after a cliff crumbled alongside the seaside. He discovered it encased in a slab that may initially have been buried 300 ft deep in a limestone seafloor layer. The specimen since has been housed in The Etches Assortment Museum of Jurassic Marine Life in Kimmeridge, Dorset. Jacobs named it Thalassodraco etchesi, that means “Etches sea dragon” after Etches.

“Now that the brand new sea dragon has been formally named, it’s time to research its biology,” mentioned examine co-author David Martill, Ph.D., professor of paleontology on the College of Portsmouth in Portsmouth, United Kingdom. “There are a selection of issues that make this animal particular.”

“This animal was clearly doing one thing completely different in comparison with different ichthyosaurs. One thought is that it could possibly be a deep diving species, like sperm whales,” Jacobs mentioned. “The extraordinarily deep rib cage could have allowed for bigger lungs for holding their breath for prolonged intervals, or it could imply that the inner organs weren’t crushed underneath the strain. It additionally has extremely massive eyes, which suggests it may see nicely in low gentle. That would imply it was diving deep down, the place there was no gentle, or it could have been nocturnal.”

Photograph of the ocean dragon (Thalassodraco etches) fossil (MJML K1885). Credit score: The Etches Assortment, Dorset, UK

With the deep rib cage, the creature would have seemed very barrel-like, she mentioned. Given its comparatively small flippers, it could have swum with a particular model from different ichthyosaurs.

The specimen’s tons of of tiny tooth would have been suited to a weight-reduction plan of squid and small fish, and “the tooth are distinctive by being utterly easy,” Jacobs mentioned. “All different ichthyosaurs have bigger tooth with outstanding striated ridges on them, so we knew just about right away this animal was completely different.”

Ichthyosaurs originated as lizard-like creatures dwelling on land and slowly advanced into the dolphin/shark-like creature discovered as fossils. Their limbs advanced into flippers, most of them very lengthy or vast.

“They nonetheless needed to breathe air on the floor and didn’t have scales,” Jacobs mentioned. “There’s hardly something really recognized concerning the biology of those animals. We are able to solely make assumptions from the fossils we’ve got, however there’s nothing prefer it round at the moment. Finally, to adapt to being totally aquatic, they not may go up onto land to put eggs, in order that they advanced into bearing dwell younger, tail first. There have been skeletons discovered with infants inside the mom and in addition ones that have been really being born.”

Thalassodraco etchesi is carefully associated to Nannopterygius, a widespread genus of ichthyosaurs which inhabited Late Jurassic seas throughout Europe, Russia and the Arctic round 248 million years in the past earlier than turning into extinct round 90 million years in the past. The biggest ichthyosaurs, present in North America, had skulls almost 16 ft lengthy.

Jacobs mentioned that the brand new specimen probably died from outdated age or assault by predators, then sank to the seafloor.

“The seafloor on the time would have been extremely delicate, even soupy, which allowed it to nose-dive into the mud and be half buried,” she mentioned. “The again finish didn’t sink into the mud, so it was left uncovered to decay and scavengers, which got here alongside and ate the tail finish. Being encased in that limestone layer allowed for distinctive preservation, together with some preserved inner organs and ossified ligaments of the vertebral column.”

“It’s glorious that new species of ichthyosaurs are nonetheless being found, which reveals simply how numerous these unimaginable animals have been,” Martill mentioned.

Reference: “A brand new ophthalmosaurid ichthyosaur from the Higher Jurassic (Early Tithonian) Kimmeridge Clay of Dorset, UK, with implications for Late Jurassic ichthyosaur variety” by Megan L. Jacobs and David M. Martill, 9 December 2020, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0241700

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