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Day 2 of marine paleo-animals: Mosasaurs

Continuing our celebration of marine animals of the Cretaceous found in Arkansas, here is a picture of a mosasaur. It is from the Dallas (Perot) Museum of Nature and Science. They have a great display of several different mosasaurs. You can also see one on display at the natural history museum located at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

Heath mosasaur, Dallas Museum of Nature and Science

Heath mosasaur, Dallas Museum of Nature and Science

Mosasaurs were the apex predators of their time, which was in the Late Cretaceous. Tyrannosaurs may have ruled the land, but mosasaurs ruled the seas. The first mosasaurs appeared in the early Cretaceous, but by the end, they dominated the oceans. Unfortunately for them, they only had a 20 million year or so run at the top before the mass extinction at the end of the Mesozoic Era wiped them out along with the dinosaurs.

Mosasaur in UT-Austin museum

Mosasaur in UT-Austin museum

Mosasaurs were not related to dinosaurs, other than also being reptiles. They were most closely related to the group of lizards that include the monitor lizards, such as the Nile monitor and Komodo Dragon. They were fast predators with a powerful tail to move them through the water. Mosasaurs were so adapted to the water that they bore live young and were not able to walk on land, although they did still have to surface for air like every other reptile. Recent research has found they were endothermic (warm-blooded), unlike their competitors, giving them an edge by allowing them to sustain higher activity levels. It also meant they had to eat more often, making it necessary for them to be effective hunters. Research has also indicated they were countershaded, with a lighter belly than the back, much like many sharks of today. They had a varied diet, with some species specializing in different prey, so over the whole group, they pretty much ate everything in the ocean.

Mosasaur bones have been found in many places throughout southwest Arkansas, which was covered by the Western Interior Sea during the Cretaceous. Two species have thus far been recognized. Platecarpus was fairly small, only 4-5 meters (13-16 feet), but were noted for some exceptionally preserved fossils that retained the impressions of a tail fluke, allowing paleontologists for the first time to see what their tails looked like. The other species is Mosasaurus itself, a huge predator that reached lengths of 15-18 meters (50-60 feet).

mosasaurus-size

 

Questions from Students

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Dodd Elementary in Little Rock. After I left, the students wanted more information and sent me several questions. I thought, rather than respond to them individually, I would post the answers here.

Did saber-toothed tigers live at the same time as mammoths in the Ice Age? How old are mammoths?

Yes, they did! They even lived together in Arkansas during the Ice Ages, along with the more commonly found mastodons (which were like the mammoths, but a bit smaller (about the size of modern elephants) and were more adapted for forests than the grassy plains preferred by the mammoths.

What most people refer to as the Ice Age was in fact a series of almost a dozen times in which the glaciers expanded to cover much more land than they do now. This period lasted from about a million years ago to 11-12,000 years ago during what is called the Pleistocene Epoch.

There were actually many different species of saber-toothed cats. The most commonly known is one called Smilodon, which lived between 2,500.000  years ago to about 10-12,000 years ago.

The first mammoths appeared around 6,000,000 years ago, but the Woolly mammoths and the Columbian mammoths (the type that lived in Arkansas), first appeared about 400,000 years ago. They came south from Canada into the United States about 100,000 years ago. While they died out in North America almost 12,000 years ago, there were a few that lived on Wrangel Island near Russia until less than 5,000 years ago.

I wanted to know if cavemen were alive because didn’t the dinosaurs eat them?

All the dinosaurs (except birds) died out over 65,000,000 years ago, but the first humans only appeared around 200,000 years ago. So humans and dinosaurs were separated by an enormous amount of time and never lived together. Humans did live alongside the mammoths and saber-toothed cats during the Ice Ages, though. Humans killed and ate mammoths and humans and saber-toothed cats killed each other (we don’t know if humans ate the saber-toothed cats, but we’re pretty sure they ate us).

How old is coral?

Coral is very, very, old. The first corals appeared over 500,000,000 years ago. However, none of these early types of coral still exist. They all went extinct (died out) and were replaced by types of coral that evolved (descended) from them. The modern corals that you can see today first appeared in the Triassic Period roughly 200,000,000 years ago (the first dinosaurs appeared about 240,000,000 years ago).

How big is a T. rex egg?

No one knows! No T. rex eggs have ever been found. We can guess they were up to a foot long and up to five inches wide, but that is just a guess based on what we know of eggs that have been found from its distant relatives. What we do know is that T. rex babies were a lot smaller than the adults would have been no bigger than a small turkey.

How long is a sea spider?

fossil_focus_pycno_4Sea spiders, or pycnogonids (pic-no-go-nids), can grow up to 25 cm (10″). They can be found in the southern oceans today. Fossils of sea spiders are rare, but have been found as far back as the Cambrian Period almost 500,000,000 years ago. Even though they look something like spiders, while they are arthropods like spiders, they are not really spiders and occupy their own group within the arthropods. They are very strange animals, with most of their organs in their legs.

Eurypterus-remipes-LI think you may have been referring to a different animal though, the sea scorpions, which was part of the fossil collection we saw in class. Even though they are called scorpions, they are not true scorpions, although they are related to them. These animals, called eurypterids (your-ip-tur-ids), were mostly no more than 30 cm (12″), but could get almost 2.5 meters (8′), making them the biggest arthropods ever known. The earliest fossils we have found were dated at 467,000,000 years, but they may have first appeared over 500,000,000 years ago. They died out at the end of the Permian Period just over 250,000,000 years ago, along with most of the life on the planet at the time.

What is the shortest sea dinosaur?

While there were sea-going reptiles, there were no sea-going dinosaurs that we know of. The closest that we know of right now were the spinosaurs, which spent much of its time wading in relatively shallow water. These dinosaurs were huge, some of them approaching 15 m (50′) or more, with the smallest ones only a modest 8 m (26′).

Of the sea-going reptiles, the most common ones were the dolphin-shaped ichthyosaurs (ick-the-o-sores), the lizards called mosasaurs (literally lizard, they evolved from monitor lizards like the Komodo dragon),  the generally short-necked and big-headed pliosaurs (ply-o-sores), and the long-necked plesiosaurs (please-e-o-sores, for the purists, plesiosaur can also refer to both pliosaurs and the more traditional plesiosaurs because the larger group containing pliosaurs and plesiosaurs is named after the plesiosaurs. yes, it is a bit confusing). And of course we can’t forget the sea-going crocodiles called metriorhynchids (met-re-o-rine-kids).

The smallest ichthyosaur, or “fish-lizard” named Cartorhynchus (cart-0-rine-cuss) was less than 0.5 m (15″) long. it was also the oldest known one at almost 250,000,000 years old. You may notice that the picture below says the smallest was 70 cm, but an even smaller one was found.

Palaeontology_Ichthysaur

Dallasaurus (“Dallas lizard”), the earliest known mosasaur, was also the smallest mosasaur at no more than 1 m (3′).

The smallest plesiosaur was just over 1 m (3′).

Thalassiodracon, or “sea dragon”,  probably the smallest known and most primitive pliosaur, was 1.5-2 m (5-6.5′), so slightly bigger than its relatives, the plesiosaurs. All of the marine (sea-going) crocodilians were more than 2 m (6 ‘) and would have eaten the others, so we can rule them out for shortest marine reptile from the Mesozoic Era during the age of dinosaurs.

There is another group of marine reptiles that was also common during the Mesozoic, although they are not so widely known. The thallatosaurs, which literally means “ocean lizard” were as small as 1 m (3′). Finally, there was a sea turtle-like group called placodonts, of which the smallest were just under 1 m (3′).

Notice that most of them all start off at roughly 1 m, except for the ichthyosaurs, which started off at less than half of that, so the winner for shortest sea reptile of the dinosaur age is the ichthyosaur named Cartorhynchus.

What is the longest sea dinosaur?

The undisputed king of the marine reptiles was the ichthyosaur named Shonosaurus, also known as Shastasaurus, which reached 23 meters (75 feet).

shastasaurus-size

Still not the largest known individual of the species.

jurassicworld mosasaur

Jurassic World mosasaur, still not as big as Shonisasaurus

The longest mosasaur is, coincidentally, Mosasaurus itself, potentially reaching lengths of 18 meters (59 feet), so not as big as Shonosaurus. This animal used to live in Arkansas. According to the most official statements, the mosasaur in Jurassic World was 22 meters (72 feet), so bigger than the real ones, but not by a terribly large degree, and still smaller than Shonisaurus.

The longest pliosaur was no more than 18 meters (59 feet), while the longest plesiosaur was no more than 15 meters (49 feet), so none of them come close.

 

How did they breathe underwater?

It does seem like animals who live in the sea should be able to breathe underwater, doesn’t it? But the aquatic (a fancy word for living in the water) reptiles didn’t. Like all reptiles, they had to come up to the surface to breathe. This is true for any reptile that swims in the ocean, including sea turtles and marine iguanas. The same is true for their distant relatives, the birds. Penguins have to breathe air, even though they can dive deep. It is also true for all mammals, such as whales and dolphins. So how do they dive underwater and stay underwater for so long? They hold their breath, just like we do when we swim. Only they are much better at it than we are and can hold their breathe for a long time.

What is the longest land dinosaur?

That is an excellent question. The problem is that we have no fully complete skeletons of the largest dinosaurs, so we have to estimate their sizes from the bones we have.

Longest_dinosaurs_Scott_Hartman_Ken_Carpenter_Steveoc_86_Dinoguy2_700

As you can see on the chart above, there are several dinosaurs that are similar sized. Diplodocus and Supersaurus got up to 33.5 meters (110 feet). Argentinosaurus got upwards of 35 meters (115 feet) or more. Bruhathkayosaurus (Bru-hath-kay-o-sore-us) was possibly around this size as well, but the fossil material is too little to get a good estimate and what we had has disappeared. However, the American Museum of Natural History in New York has recently put on display the largest dinosaur ever displayed and possibly the largest dinosaur ever known at over 37 meters (122 feet).It doesn’t even have a name yet and is just called the AMNH titanosaur. Of course, the biggest dinosaur ever found is so little known that it has become almost mythical. Amphicoelias has been estimated to have been  as long as 58 meters (190 feet). Unfortunately, all that was found of this animal was a few bones, including a vertebra that stood 2.7 meters (8.9 feet) tall. The bones were very fragile, in very poor condition, and were preserved in mudstone, which crumbled easily. All of the fossils vanished (possibly crumbled away and swept out), so all we have left is a few drawings and measurements of the bones.

How big was Apatosaurus?

According to the fossils we have, Apatosaurus typically got around 22 meters (72 feet), but could have gotten as long as 27.5 meters (90 feet). Weight is a very difficult thing to estimate for many reasons, but most estimates place an adult Apatosaurus somewhere between 20-40 tons (40,000-80,000 pounds, 18000-36000 kg), or about the weight of 4-8 adult elephants.

apatosaurus-size

Illustratration by Darren Pepper, http://www.Prehistoric-Wildlife.com

What is the shortest land dinosaur? What is the smallest dinosaur?

Size_comparison_of_scansoriopterygid_dinosaurs

Illustration by Matthew Martyniuk. 1.8 m human, Yi qi (green), Epidexteryx hui (orange), Scansoriopteryx heilmanni (red)

That depends on what you consider a dinosaur. Anchiornis was estimated to be 34 cm (13″) long, but was a young adult, so probably got at least 38 cm (15″). But some consider Anchiornis to be an avialan, the earliest group of birds. Parvicursor is the smallest known adult dinosaur that is definitely not a bird according to some people, at 39 cm. Epidextipteryx was only 44 cm (17″) if you include the tail feathers, but only 25 cm(10″) if you don’t include them. However, Scansoriopteryx, also known as Epidendrosaurus, was only about 16 cm (6″), but we only have young ones that would have grown larger, but we don’t know how much larger. Epidextipteryx and Scansoriopteryx may look like birds, but were actually in a different group of dinosaurs. If you consider modern birds, the bee hummingbird takes the prize as the smallest known dinosaur at less than 6 cm (2.5″) and weighing less than 2 grams, just over the weight of a single penny.

But if you are talking about shortest, meaning how tall they stood, that is harder to work out because it would depend on how they stood, but none of these animals would have stood taller than 20cm (8″) at most.

For comparison, these dinosaurs were about the size of a common crow or perhaps even smaller.

Can an 8 feet tall person be as tall as a dinosaur?

A person standing 8 feet tall would be taller than a lot of dinosaurs. A baby just learning to walk would be bigger than some dinosaurs. If we include modern birds, which are also dinosaurs, there are some dinosaurs that a new born baby could hold in their hands (the bee hummingbird is less than 2.5″ long and more than an inch of that is taken up by the beak and tail feathers).

When did the dinosaurs live? When were they born?

nyasaurusmarkwitton

Nyasaurus, illustration by Mark Witton

The earliest known dinosaur is Nyasaurus, which was found in rocks thought to be 243,000,000 million years old during the Triassic Period, the first part of the Mesozoic Era. There is some uncertainty if this was an actual dinosaur, so if it wasn’t, that would make dinosaurs like Herrerosaurus and Eorapter (both of which looked similar to Nyasaurus) the oldest dinosaurs at about 230,000,000 years old.

When did the dinosaurs die?

Everything that most people call dinosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous Period, the third part of the Mesozoic Era, about 65,500,000 years ago. However, they didn’t all die out. One small group of dinosaurs survived, which are the birds. Today, birds are the most diverse group of terrestrial vertebrates (animals with a backbone living on land), so dinosaurs are alive and thriving.

How long did the dinosaurs live?

Dinosaurs were on earth for a very long time. From their beginnings over 240 million years ago to the end of the Cretaceous Period, they lived for around 175,000,000 years. If you include the birds, they have lived for over 240,000,000 years and are still going strong.

If you are talking about individual dinosaurs, they have varied lifespans. Just as you can find mammals that live no more than a year or so to mammals like us that can live over a hundred years old (the oldest known person lived to 122), you can find dinosaurs that lived like that. Some species of hummingbirds only live a few years, so we can expect that some other dinosaurs may have only lived a few years as well. The giant, long-necked sauropods were adults by their teens and may have lived as long or longer than we do. We reall

How old are T. rexes?

If you mean how long ago did they live, Tyrannosaurus rex lived at the very end of the Cretaceous Period, the last period of the Mesozoic Era, 68,000,000-65,500,000 years ago. If you wanted to know how old an individual T. rex could get, They did most of their growing when they were between 14-18 years old, reaching maturity between 16-18 years old. But they didn’t live long after that. All of them that we know of died before they were 30. Of course, whether or not they could have lived longer than that, we don’t know, but that is the ages of the fossils that we have.

How did the dinosaurs die?

Most of the dinosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous Period about 65,500,000 years ago when two major events happened. The first was eruption of one of the largest volcanic events in the history of the Earth. The volcanoes that formed the Deccan Traps in India were so massive, the rocks from the lava put out by these volcanoes are over 6000 feet deep. These eruptions happened over tens of thousands of years, maybe even millions of years.

But that wasn’t the worst thing. An asteroid hit in Mexico at the same time as the volcanic eruptions were taking place. It was estimated to be about 10 kilometers (6 miles) across and left a crater more than 100 miles across. Remnants of the crater can still be seen in Chicxulub, Mexico. If all the nuclear bombs in the world were exploded at the same time, it would not be as powerful as the impact of that asteroid.

Did some animals live after the volcano and meteor?

Amazingly enough, yes. If they had not, we would not be here. Every form of animal suffered heavy losses, but most did not die out completely. One small group of dinosaurs survived, which became the birds. A lot of mammals died out, but a lot also survived. Amphibians and crocodilians did reasonably well. Anything small, able to take shelter, and lie dormant (like squirrels hibernating in the winter) to conserve their energy and ride out the tough times did ok. In the oceans, anything large, needing a lot of food, or having shells had a hard time.All the large sea-going reptiles died out. Virtually all the shelled cephalopods (squid relatives) went extinct, but their unshelled relatives survived. Tiny organisms called plankton that lived in the ocean and made their shells out of calcium carbonate died out and were replaced by types that used silicon for shells. During the Cretaceous, the ones with carbonate shells were so common, when they died, their shells piled up and became huge layers of chalk, forming what became the famous White Cliffs of Dover in England and the chalk beds in southwestern Arkansas, among other places. But they almost all died out during the volcano and meteor impact and never became nearly as abundant ever again. The reason for this is because the asteroid and volcanoes released so much carbon dioxide and sulfur into the air that was soaked up by the oceans that the oceans became very acidic and lost a lot of oxygen. So anim

Of course, insects of all sorts survived, as did a variety of invertebrate animals like snails, clams, starfish and the like. But all of them took severe losses, especially those that were specialized to eat only certain plants or animals. One that had a more varied diet managed to survive.

How was it there? Was it dusty or cold there?

During the Mesozoic Era, the time of the dinosaurs, it was, in general, warmer than it is now and the temperature differences between seasons were not as extreme as today. The north and south poles were not permanently frozen over during this time like they are now. But much like today, there were all types of weather and environments. It was hot and dry in some places, it snowed in other places. There were swamps and prairies, forests, deserts, almost any environment you can think of existed then. The only environment you might not find would be glaciers, but you could probably even find them near the tops of mountains at times. Of course, they didn’t exist in the same place on earth and there were different dinosaurs that lived in different areas.

Also remember that the Mesozoic covered an immense span of time, so the earth changed during this time.

Why didn’t the dinosaurs need to fly?

Some dinosaurs did fly, but most didn’t. Most animals today don’t fly either. I expect most animals would if they could, but it takes a lot of changes to evolve the ability to fly. As animals evolve, they can’t decide they are going to develop flight. Small changes will appear in individuals from time to time and if those changes are helpful (or at least not harmful), then they get passed on and can spread through the population. To develop flight, a large number of changes have to happen, so only a few types of animals have evolved in the right way to develop flight. Once they did though, it was very effective, which we can tell by looking at the large number of birds and insects and even bats that can fly.

Is it true that fish had sting rays?

Southern-stingray-dorsal-viewThere are some fish called stingrays and they do indeed have venomous spines on the tail, which can be painful and occasionally deadly if they sting someone. They only use them in self defense though, so they won’t hurt anyone unless they feel threatened.

Stingrays are common today and can be seen in many aquariums. But they are also found as fossils and have been around for millions of years. We have even found fossils of stingrays in Arkansas. They do not have bones like we do, but we do find lots of their teeth, which look like flat rectangles. They use these flat teeth for crushing shells of clams and other animals.

What was the tiny thing at the bottom of the smart board?

I’m sorry, I don’t know what you are referring to. Was it on the timeline? Please let me know and we can figure it out.

How many bones have you found?

I have found lots of shells and crinoids. I have found a handful of shark teeth. But I haven’t found too many bones. When I was on a dig in Argentina, I did find a pelvis (hip bones) of a sauropod (the giant, long-necked dinosaurs). I also found part of a skeleton of an archosauromorph (the ancestors of crocodiles and dinosaurs). When I worked in Wyoming and Colorado, I found several fossil turtle shells and part of the horn of what may have been a uintathere or some similar animal (rhino-like mammals with knobby horns and bumps on their heads). I also found several tiny bones of rat-sized mammals. I don’t know what they were, but I remember one place where the bones looked like turquoise (a greenish-blue gemstone).

What I would really like to find would be a dinosaur in southwestern Arkansas, although the skull of a mosasaur or elasmosaurus would be a close second. There are opportunities for finding fossils in most of the state, so keep looking and let me know if you find something!

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.

Picture1

This is not the lizard you're looking for. Platecarpus. Wikimedia.

This is not the lizard you’re looking for.Platecarpus. Wikimedia.

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.

Elasmosaurus

Elasmosaurus

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.

Mosasaur vertebrae. Note the rounded left end.

Mosasaur vertebrae. Note the rounded left end.

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.

cope-70

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.

 

elasmosaursize

Nessie-montage-Tetrapod-Zoology-600-px-tiny-July-2013

Nessie picture collection by Darren Naish, Tetrapod Zoology, July, 2013.

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.

baskingsharkdecompBut 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.

baskingsharkCetorhinus_maximus_by_greg_skomal

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.




Taphonomy Tuesday

Slide1Taphonomy Tuesday? What the heck is taphonomy, you ask? Taphonomy is the study of burial processes and all the changes that take place betwixt death and being collected as a fossil. One might also include the effect of sexiness in what fossils get studied and forgotten about, way more people are interested in tyrannosaurs than fossil mosquitos, for instance. Change comes to all things and paleoaerie is no exception. You may have noticed that the answer to Monday’s mystery fossil did not get posted on the blog last week, although it was posted on the Facebook page. That will be rectified today. But first, a couple of pieces of news.

Mystery Monday and Fossil Friday will be suspended for the summer so I can work on other aspects of the website. I would like to make some different posts and add more to the site. however, for those of you who are primarily interested in the fossils, they will return along with school, teachers, and homework, although hopefully a bit more fun than either doing or, even worse, grading homework (trust me, having been both a student and teacher, grading is almost always more painful than doing the assignments). In the meantime, you can look forward to more varied posts, the addition of a couple of things, such as a techno page for recommended apps and multimedia and an Amazon store in which you can peruse recommended items (and in a small way support the work of paleoaerie, which while free to you, is not to me). So I hope you will stick with me through these Darwinian changes and avoid the pitchforks and torches (ed. note: in keeping with the medieval theme of the picture, I thought about saying burning faggots, but so few people these days know that in olden times, faggot simply meant a bundle of sticks, language too evolves).

modlogoThe other big news is that I have started a collaboration with the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock to host a celebration of National Fossil Day in October. I am really looking forward to it and, between me and the museum educators at the MoD, we have a lot of ideas for things to do. I hope everyone can come out and enjoy the festivities and learn about fossils in Arkansas and beyond firsthand.

Platecarpus_skull

Platecarpus skull fossil at Plano West Senior High Photo Credit:Wesley Kirpach. Wikimedia Commons.

Now, for that fossil…Did any of you recognize this as the skull of a mosaaur, specifically that of Platecarpus? To picture a mosasaur, imagine a komodo dragon, replace the feet with flippers, and compress the tail so it is taller than it is wide (aka laterally compressed) so it looks more fish-like than lizard-like, and you have a pretty good view of a mosasaur. There is a reason for that. Komodo dragons are part of a group of lizard called monitor lizards, which are thought to be close relatives of mosasaurs and so are likely an excellent model for what the ancestral animal of mosasaurs looked like before they became aquatic.

Platecarpus. Wikimedia.

Platecarpus. Wikimedia.

Platecarpus was a carnivorous marine reptile that swam in the Cretaceous seas. While dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops roamed the land, Platecarpus and its relatives patrolled the oceans. This is one of the most common mosasaurs, so much of what we know about them comes from fossil of this genus. It was smaller than many of the other mosasaurs. Some, like Kronosaurus, could reach up to 17 meters, but Platecarpus only averaged around 4-7 meters. Its name means “flat wrist,” alluding to the flippers, although it hardly distinguishes them from other mosasaurs in this regard. What did make them stand out from the other mosasaurs was a relatively shorter snout with eyes that faced more forward, so it probably had better stereoscopic vision, that is, it had better depth perception than most others of its kind. This may be why it had a shorter snout, to prevent the snout from blocking its field of view. Like other mosasaurs, Platecarpus had two rows of teeth on its palatine bones, forming the roof of its mouth. This arrangement actually isn’t all that unusual in lizards and snakes, it is really common in fish. The teeth (all of them, not just the palatal teeth) were pointed and conical, although not as sharp as some of its kin, indicating it went after small, soft prey, like small fish and soft invertebrates like squid or perhaps even jellyfish. They could have gone after larger prey like crocodilians do, but unlike crocodilians which have a strong skull capable of withstanding the forces of ripping a prey item apart, Platecarpus had a much weaker skull which would likely not have stood up to the stresses of the crocodilian death roll (this is when they grab a limb and spin until the limb is ripped off, the moral of the story is of course, never dance with a gator). The overall shape of Platecarpus is stockier than most mosasaurs. This would have had the effect of decreasing surface area relative to body weight, which could have increased its metabolism by holding in heat better.

KUVP1001. Mike Everhart. www.oceansofkansas.com

KUVP1001. Mike Everhart. http://www.oceansofkansas.com

One of the things that makes Platecarpus as a genus so interesting is the fossils that have been found with soft tissue preservation. In one, along with parts of the skin, parts of the trachea (windpipe) were preserved. Originally, they were interpreted as part of a dorsal fin, thus all the early pictures of mosasaurs with fins along their backs. However, it was quickly discovered what the traces really were. To his credit, Williston, the scientist who had reported in 1899 the traces as a dorsal fins was the one who published another short paper three years later saying he had made a mistake and the fossil really showed the cartilaginous rings found in trachea. The tracheal rings have also been interpreted as showing the branching point between the two lungs, which is important because it answered a question about their origins. Every researcher agrees that mosasaurs are lepidosaurs, the group including lizards and snakes, but what wasn’t known was whether or not mosasaurs were derived from aquatic lizards or from snakes. The discovery of a trachea showing two lungs confirms the origin within lizards (snakes only have one lung). It may still be that snakes evolved from mosasaurs, but that is not very likely.

The other piece of soft tissue that has been found is the outline of the tail showing a lobe on the tail forming a very shark-like tail. Until this time, many people had thought the mosasaur swam with an eel-like motion, but the tail and the deep caudal fins indicate a much faster shark-like swimming motion. This in turn has caused people to reevaluate the view they were slow ambush predators, supporting a more active predatory forager. Whether or not other mosasaurs had this fin is currently unclear, so there may have been specializations within this group not seen in the larger mosasaur family. Another such example is the discovery of what has been interpreted as thicker eardrums, which may have allowed them to dive to deeper depths.

Tail fluke preserved around skeleton. Credit: (top) Photograph (by Johan Lindgren), (centre) sketch indicating the bones and skin structures preserved (by Johan Lindgren), and (bottom) life reconstruction (by Stefan Sølberg) of Prognathodon sp.

Tail fluke preserved around skeleton. Credit: (top) Photograph (by Johan Lindgren), (centre) sketch indicating the bones and skin structures preserved (by Johan Lindgren), and (bottom) life reconstruction (by Stefan Sølberg) of Prognathodon sp.

The southwestern corner of Arkansas was at the edge of the Late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway, so we have several fossils of them in places like Clark, Hempstead and Howard counties, although you can find them all over the world in the right type of rocks. You can find them in the Brownstone and Marlbrook Marl Formations. These formations are indicative of warm, shallow seas, much like the Bahamas today, which considering the locations, shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to people. If you were taking a nice vacation on the warm Cretaceous beaches 80-85 million years ago, you might have tried fleeing into the water to avoid the dinosaurs on the beach, but you would have been no safer in the water.

I would like to thank Rachel Moore, who supplied a lot of the research involved in putting this post together.