On the remote Norwegian island of Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole, an exceptional fossil deposit created millions of years ago has yielded one of the largest marine reptiles ever identified; a new, gigantic species of pliosaur, a predator at the top of the food chain in ancient times.
Two different skeletons of the massive reptile, now officially named Pliosaurus funkei, were excavated from the site in 2006. Originally given the sinister moniker, "Predator X," the "biggest, scariest" marine reptile discovered at the site is one of 6 new species that have been unearthed there so far, according to Pat Druckenmiller, earth science curator at the University of Alaska's Museum of the North in Fairbanks and co-author on the study, published Oct. 12 in the Norwegian Journal of Geology.
Excavated in 2007 and 2008, it took the researchers years to clean and examine the skeletons, and they have now confirmed that they are indeed from a new, monstrous species of pliosaur.
Pliosaurs were meat-eating, air-breathing marine reptiles with tear-shaped bodies. They are thought to have mainly preyed on long-necked plesiosaurs, related marine reptiles with similar features, Druckenmiller says.
The newly identified pliosaurs, P. funkei, were gigantic sea predators around 40 feet long, with two pairs of paddle-like limbs that allowed them to speed through the water, and a 6-1/2-foot long skull. P. funkei were the "top predators" of the oceans, Druckenmiller told LiveScience, and had "teeth that would have made a T. rex whimper," with a bite estimated four times as strong as the king of the dinosaurs. The specimens they found date back to 140 million years ago.
While they lived in the same eras, marine reptiles are not dinosaurs, explains Druckenmiller. Marine reptiles, such as plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs, share common ancestors unrelated to the common ancestor of dinosaurs. All dinosaurs lived on land, but the sea was the terrain of marine reptiles.
And the site at Svalbard seems home to many of these sea-dwelling creatures. Found through a combination of "dumb luck" and fortuitous geography, the site is "exceptional," Druckenmiller says. Since it features no vegetation, the rocks in which the fossils are preserved are generally well-exposed.
The site was initially discovered by a group of students in 2001 who suspected they had found a dinosaur bone sticking out of the hillside. In 2004, a crew came to investigate the site; what the students had found was a paleontological hot spot, a plethora of fossils at a site that has already yielded 38 excavated skeletons, with around 30 more skeletons spotted and awaiting excavation.
Druckenmiller is certain that the site will result in even more discoveries. "I can tell you right now, there will be new things in the future," he says.
But they've already many new discoveries. "We have now described 6 new types of marine reptiles," Druckenmiller says. P. funkei, the most recent, is the largest, but they also discovered 3 other types of long-necked plesiosaur, and 2 types of ichthyosaurs.
The findings were published Oct. 12 in the Norwegian Journal of Geology, which Druckenmiller emphasizes is an open-source journal that can be accessed online without a subscription. All of the specimens are housed in Oslo, where the arduous task of cleaning the specimens takes place.
After seven years of field work, Druckenmiller says the team is taking a break from the site to work on the skeletons they've already excavated, a "delicate" process that can take years. But, he said, the site is so rich "we could probably work there the rest of our lives."
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