Giant fossil predator provides insights into the rise of modern marine ecosystem structures

Jan 07, 2013

An international team of scientists has described a fossil marine predator measuring 8.6 meters in length (about 28 feet) recovered from the Nevada desert in 2010 as representing the first top predator in marine food chains feeding on prey similar to its own size. A paper with their description will appear the week of January 7, 2013 in the early electronic issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists who studied the fossil include lead author Dr. Nadia Fröbisch and Prof. Jörg Fröbisch (both at Museum für Naturkunde Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung), Prof. P. Martin Sander (Steinmann Institute of Geology, Mineralogy, and Paleontology, Division of Paleontology, University of Bonn), Prof. Lars Schmitz (W. M. Keck Science Department, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges, Claremont, California) and Dr. Olivier Rieppel (The Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois).

The 244-million-year-old fossil, named Thalattoarchon saurophagis (lizard-eating sovereign of the sea) is an early representative of the ichthyosaurs, a group of marine reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs and roamed the oceans for 160 million years. It had a massive skull and jaws armed with large teeth with cutting edges used to seize and slice through other in the Triassic seas. Because it was a meta-predator, capable of feeding on animals with bodies similar in size to its own, Thalattoarchon was comparable to modern orca whales.

Remarkably, only eight million years prior to the appearance of Thalattoarchon, a severe extinction at the end of the killed as many as 80 to 96 percent of species in the Earth's oceans. The rise of a predator such as Thalattoarchon documents the fast recovery and evolution of a modern ecosystem structure after the extinction.

"Everyday we learn more about the biodiversity of our planet including living and and their ecosystems" Dr. Fröbisch said. "The new find characterizes the establishment of a new and more advanced level of ecosystem structure. Findings like Thalattoarchon help us to understand the dynamics of our evolving planet and ultimately the impact humans have on today's environment."

"This discovery is a good example of how we study the past in order to illuminate the future," said Dr. Rieppel of The Field Museum.

The ichthyosaur was recovered from what is today a remote mountain range in central Nevada. Most of the animal was preserved, including the skull (except the front of the snout), parts of the fins, and the complete vertebral column up to the tip of the tail. Supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, the team of paleontologists took three weeks to unearth the ichthyosaur and prepare it for its transport by helicopter and truck out of the field.

Explore further: Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Related Stories

Ancient crocodiles ate like killer whales

Sep 19, 2012

(Phys.org)—Crocodiles are often thought of as living fossils, remaining unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. But scientists have shown this is not always the case and that 150 million years ago, their ...

Recommended for you

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Apr 19, 2014

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

Apr 17, 2014

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

Apr 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rockwolf1000
2 / 5 (1) Jan 08, 2013
What? No pictures?

More news stories

Clippers and coiners in 16th-century England

In 2017 a new £1 coin will appear in our pockets with a design extremely difficult to forge. In the mid-16th century, Elizabeth I's government came up with a series of measures to deter "divers evil persons" ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.