Scientists have demystified the fossils of a strange water creature with a very long neck that lived 242 million years ago. The remains of the creature that was first unearthed in 1852 in Switzerland’s Monte San Giorgio basis during the Middle Triassic period were able to be reconstructed in 1973. Yet scientists had never fully understood the bizarre-looking animal until recently.
Paleontologists found that the creature looked like a prehistoric crocodile but with the neck of a giraffe. It measured above 20 feet in length with its neck measuring 10 feet long and taking up half its body. Name Tanystropheus, scientists were first unsure if the creature lived on land or in water, and if another similar fossil found was that of a juvenile or another similar species.
However, scientists were able to reconstruct the crushed skulls of the animals with CT scans and they found the animals actually lived in water, and the two fossils found were those of similar species and not the juvenile of another kind.
Published in the journal Current Biology, one of the researchers said Triassic reptiles have iconic fossils that are interesting to study but can often be a source of controversy. A paleontologist at the Field Museum in Chicago and one of the study authors, Olivier Rieppel, said he has been intrigued with the remains of Tanystropheus for over 30 years and is happy to see the fossils demystified.
The scientists were able to conclude that the mysterious creature lived in water because of the placement of its nostrils at its snout and another anatomy common with aquatic animals. They think the animal is an ambush predator that used its very long neck to hunt underwater animals as well as to break the surface of the water for air.
“That long neck wasn’t very flexible, it only had 13 vertebrae and it had ribs in it that further constrained mobility,” Rieppel clarified. “But our study shows that this strange anatomy was much more adaptive and versatile than we had thought before.”
The bigger creature was called Tanystropheus hydroids and the smaller one was called Tanystropheus longobardicus. Since the internal rings of a tree can be used to tell its actual age, scientists used the same model to reconstruct the anatomy of the two creatures and tell their ages apart. They were similar animals that lived in the same habitat and thrived on the same food resources without getting into each other’s way.
“Tanystropheus is an iconic fossil and has always been,” Rieppel said. “To clarify its taxonomy is an important first step to understanding that group and its evolution.”