Science

Ichthyosaur: Monster munch: Ancient marine reptile died after dining on fellow titan

Ichthyosaur: Monster munch: Ancient marine reptile died after dining on fellow titan”

Dr Ryosuke Motani, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Davis, in the USA, and one of the authors on the paper, said: "We always guessed from tooth shape and jaw design that these predators must have fed on large prey but now we have direct evidence that they did".

"But after spending several years visiting the dig site and looking at the same specimens, we finally were able to "swallow" what we were seeing". "We generally guessed from tooth condition and jaw layout that these predators should have fed on massive prey, but now we have immediate evidence that they did".

The ichthyosaur's stomach contents didn't show signs of advanced digestion by acid, so it likely perished itself soon after its final meal.

In a warm shallow sea about 240 million years ago in what is now southwestern China, a large dolphin-like marine reptile attacked and swallowed an nearly equally big lizard-like marine reptile in a savage encounter that left both beasts dead.

The fossil, discovered in 2010 in southwestern China, is described in a paper published August 20 in the journal iScience.

Given the size of the prey, it's possible the ichthyosaur could be reclassified as an "apex predator", putting it at the top of the food chain during the early part of the Mesozoic Era.

Ichthyosaurs, which are also reptiles, are dolphin-like creatures which dominated the seas around 250 to 90 million years ago.

However, the discovery of the giant thalattosaur in the stomach of the ichthyosaur found by Motani, Da-Yong Jiang, a paleontologist at Peking University in China, and their team suggests that this was not the case.

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"Now, we can seriously consider that (Ichthyosaurs) were eating big animals, even when they had grasping teeth", added Motani.

Carnivores that consume large animals are often assumed to have huge teeth adapted for slicing them up.

This image shows the ichthyosaur's teeth, with the broken white line indicating the approximate gum line of the upper jaw.

It's still unclear which group of modern-day vertebrates are the closest relative to ichthyosaurs, but researchers have suggested they may have been an offshoot of diapsids, which includes dinosaurs, birds and pterosaurs.

"Now, we can say for positive that [ichthyosaurs] did take in massive animals", claimed Motani. The fossils of a 180-million-yr-old ichthyosaur, which also contained evidence of blubber and skin, were found in December 2018.

The researchers believe that predation is the more likely cause for the ancient maiming rather than decay, as elements of the thalattosaur's limbs that would ordinarily have been among the first to decay and break away from the body were instead found inside the belly of the larger reptile. "We now have a really solid articulated fossil in the stomach of a marine reptile for the first time", Motani says. "That is why we thought they were squid eaters". "It seems that megapredation was more common than previously thought".

Given that the team is still excavating the site of the fossil, which has been moved about a mile from the quarry to the Geopark Museum, the researchers are still uncovering new things. "At this point, it's beyond our initial expectations, and we'll just have to see what we'll discover next".

This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.



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