Switzerland – Researchers discovered an ancient reptile with a neck three times longer than its body and sharp teeth that helped ambush prey.
Revitalizing Tanystropheus. Photo: CNN.
The fossil Tanystropheus was first described in 1852 and has been puzzling scientists since then. At one point, paleontologists thought it was a pterodactyl-like winged lizard, and its long hollow bones were the tips of the wing tips. Then they realized that it was essentially the elongated neck bone. The Tanystropheus is a 6-meter long reptile with a neck 3 m long, three times its body.
Previously, researchers still did not know whether the animal lived on land or water, and they did not know if the smaller specimen was immature Tanystropheus or belonged to a completely different species. Through tomography of crushed and reassembled fossil skulls on digital graphics, the team found evidence of Tanystropheus living underwater. When they examined the bone growth rings, they determined that the large and small specimens were of two separate species that lived close together but did not compete for food because they hunt for different prey. The results of the study were published in details by Olivier Rieppel, a paleontologist at the Field Museum, Chicago, and colleagues in the journal Current Biology on August 6.
Tanystropheus lived 242 million years ago, in the middle of the Tam Diep period. According to Rieppel, Tanystropheus looks like a dwarf crocodile with a super long neck. The larger specimen is 6 m long with a 3 m neck, however, the animal has only 13 cervical vertebrae. Its neck is not too flexible, supported by bones called ribs. In Switzerland, where many large Tanystropheus fossils were unearthed, researchers also found similar-shaped animal fossils only about a meter long. They are not sure whether Tanystropheus lives on land or in the sea and whether the small specimen is immature or of another species.
To explain the two mysteries, the team used new technology to examine bone fossils in detail. The skull of the Tanystropheus fossil was broken, but Stephan Spiekman, scientist at the University of Zurich and lead researcher, was able to scan the fossils and create 3D images of the bones inside. “The power of tomography allows us to look at unobservable detail in fossils,” says Spiekman. “From a shattered skull, we were able to reconstruct an almost intact 3D skull, revealing important morphological details.”
The fossil skull has many important features, including the crocodile-like nostrils at the top of the snout, suggesting Tanystropheus lives underwater. It can lie down for an ambush, wait for the fish and squid to pass by, then grab them with its long, pointed teeth. This animal can crawl to shore to lay eggs but live mainly in the sea.
To find out whether the small specimen was an immature or individual species, the team examined bone growth and age markers. They found that the smaller fossil belonged to an adult, revealing two species of Tanystropheus. They named the larger species Tanystropheus hydroides after the long-necked monster in Greek mythology. The smaller species is called Tanystropheus longobardicus.
The difference in tooth size and shape between the two Tanystropheus species indicates that they may not compete for prey. According to Spiekman, two closely related species have evolved to use different food sources in the same habitat. Small species are more likely to eat shellfish like shrimp.
(According to Phys.org)