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Fossil Friday, Going Swimmingly
No one guessed what the fossil for this week was. Take a look at the image below and see if you can figure out who this vertebra belongs to before continuing on after the image. As you may have deduced from the title of the post, it is an aquatic animal.
This fossil is a really nice dorsal vertebra of a giant marine reptile. Most of the ones usually found in Arkansas are mosasaurs, but this one is different. It lived at the same time as the mosasaurs, placing it in the Late Cretaceous Period. As with all other Late Cretaceous fossils in Arkansas, it was found in the southwest corner. Specifically, it was found near Saratoga, Arkansas in Howard County by local resident Matt Smith. Interestingly, the very same spot has also turned up several nice mosasaur fossils, so it was a popular place in the Cretaceous seas. It shouldn’t be too surprising though, as it was a nearshore environment in a tropical climate much like the Bahamas today, so there would have been lots of good eating for hungry marine predators.
Ok, enough of the teasing. The vertebra we have here is that of a plesiosaur known as Elasmosaurus. These are classic marine reptiles that most people are familiar with to some degree. They have sometimes been described as looking like a snake that swallowed a sea turtle because of the relatively wide bodies with oar-like flippers and a very long neck. They are thought to have spent much of their time slowly cruising the seaways, using their long necks to catch fish unawares. some people have even suggestd that they floated at the surface of the water with their head out of the water, so that fish could not see it, allowing them to plunge their head down into the water and catch fish from above. That is pure speculation though. Right now there is no way to really test such hypotheses, so feeding methods remain in the realm of speculation until such time as someone figures out a way to test it adequately. At the moment, biomechanical tests indicate that either method would have been possible.
So if you find a vertebra like this, how do you tell whether it is a mosasaur or plesiosaur vertebra? They can both be large, although the one pictured here is the largest one I have ever seen found in Arkansas. The best way to tell is to look at the ends of the centrum, otherwise known as the body of the vertebra. Most of the time, that is all that is preserved, as all the processes that stick out have been broken off, like we see in this one. Plesiosaur vertebra have flat, possibly even slightly concave, or indented ends. Mosasaurs, on the other hand, have what is known as procoelous vertebrae, which have one end convex, a bit more rounded off. These differences make mosasaur vertebrae look more like over-sized lizard or croc vertebrae, whereas plesiosaur vertebebrae look more like the disc-like vertebrae seen in fish. This may mean that plesiosaurs were more adapted for aquatic life than mosasaurs. Both were clearly fully aquatic, what with neithr one of them having legs of any sort, but plesiosaurs appear to have been aquatic for longer, giving their spine to more fully adapt.
Indeed, when we look at the age of the rocks their fossils have been found, mosasaurs are restricted to the late Cretaceous, whereas the plesiosaurs first appeared all the way back in the Triassic (another successful prediction based on evolutionary theory). This means plesiosaurs had well over 100 million years advance on the mosasaurs. It didn’t really help them in the end though. About the time mosasaurs appeared, plesiosaurs were declining. Mosasaurs evolved and spread quickly, becoming the dominant marine predator of the Latest Cretaceous. Does this mean that mosasaurs outcompeted the plesiosaurs? Not necessarily. It has not yet been sufficiently determined whether or not mosasaurs simply filled a niche left open by the plesiosaur decline or competitively excluded them. there is also the argument to be made that they would not have competed at all. The body shapes of mosasaurs and plesiosaurs are quite different, indicating they filled different niches in the marine realm, so they weren’t going after the same food sources. Therefore, there is no particular reason we know of that they could not have existed alongside each other without adversely affecting each other.
Most people are familiar with them due to the much discussed “Loch Ness Monster”, which has often been said to be a supposed plesiosaur that has somehow survived for 70 million years. Of course, that idea doesn’t make a lot of sense for several reasons. It is highly unlikely that plesiosaurs could have lived for so long without leaving any trace of a fossil record. It does happen occasionally though. The coelacanth is a famous example of that, for a long time having a good 65 million year gap in their fossil record. They were thought to have gone extinct along with the dinosaurs until living specimens were caught. We know more about them now and their fossil record is no longer quite as limited as it once was, but it still has wide gaps in the fossil record. But more serious problems for Nessie arise from the fact that plesiosaurs were large, air-breathing marine reptiles. Coelacanths went unnoticed because they moved to the bottom of the sea, an option not available to plesiosaurs, which were limited to surface waters, and relatively shallow waters at that. That means they lived in exactly the sort of marine environments most visited by humans. That makes it hard for them to hide from people today and puts their bones in prime spots in the past to fossilize. Then of course, there is the problem that Loch Ness is a freshwater lake and plesiosaurs were adapted for saltwater. Not to say a species couldn’t have adapted for freshwater, but it does make it less likely. Finally, there would have to be enough plesiosaurs big enough to support a breeding population and there is simply no way they could all hide within the confines of a lake, especially since they have to live at the surface much of the time.
But what about the supposed bodies that have been found of plesiosaurs? They have all been identified as decomposing backing sharks. Basking sharks are one of the largest sharks known today. they are pretty harmless though, as they are filter feeders, much like the whale shark. When their bodies decompose, the jaws typically fall off pretty quickly. So what has been identified as the head of a “plesiosaur” was actually just the remaining portions of the cartilaginous skull without the large jaws. If you look at the picture of the asking shark here, there isn’t much left after you remove the jaws.
Next week is Labor Day on Monday, so I will likely not post a new fossil next week. I will post something next week, just not a mystery fossil. But there will definitely be one the following week, so please come back to see the next fossil and see if you can guess what it is before Friday. In the meantime, enjoy your vacation.