A’snaky croc-face’ sea monster has been discovered in Wyoming.
Millions of years ago, an enormous, long-necked marine reptile undulated through the waters of an ancient seaway in what is now Wyoming, whipping its snaky neck back and forth and snapping up fish and other small sea creatures with its crocodilelike jaws.
Paleontologists discovered fossils of this sinuous sea monster in 1995 during a dig in the uppermost portion of the Pierre Shale, a geological formation from the Upper Cretaceous period (approximately 101 million to 66 million years ago). This animal, unlike other plesiosaurs, had physical characteristics that distinguished it from other members of this extinct clade of marine reptiles.
“Plesiosaurs typically come in two distinct flavors or morphological types and have either a long, snakelike neck with a small head, or a short neck and a long crocodilelike jaw,” said Walter Scott Persons IV, the study’s lead author and a paleontologist at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. “In this case, this strange, one-of-a-kind beast is a cross between the two.”
The animal was named Serpentisuchops pfisterae by paleontologists, which translates to “snaky crocface.” Since the fossils were discovered more than 25 years ago, the remains of this 23-foot-long (7-meter) creature have been on display at the Glenrock Paleontological Museum near Casper, Wyoming.
Paleontologists have studied the animal’s remains in detail over the decades, which include its “beautifully preserved lower jaw, sizable amount of its skull, its complete neck, vertebrae, the majority of its tail, and some ribs, Persons said.”
“The only missing pieces are elements of its limbs or paddles,” which it used to swim, he added.
19 teeth were also discovered at the shale-rich site, which Persons described as resembling “the surface of the moon” or “a trip to Mordor.” Only one was still in place in the specimen’s jaw, while the rest were scattered among the remains.
However, the presence of roots in the jaw confirmed that the teeth were from this specific specimen and not another plesiosaur, according to the study.
“Because the tall, conical teeth are smooth and lack a serrated cutting edge, this animal would not have been able to bite through thick bones,” he explained. “The teeth served a single purpose: they were excellent at stabbing and skewering prey. It most likely went after slippery prey that wouldn’t fight back, such as small fish or abundant cephalopods.”
This new discovery “reveals a whole new ecotype, an animal that is specialized in a way that is different from all the other plesiosaurs that were around at the same time,” he said, with adaptations “to do something different and become good at making a living amongst the other animals that shared its environment.”
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