Tag Archives: Cretaceous

Fossil tells a new tail

Mosasaurs lived in the world’s oceans during the Late Cretaceous, the last Period from the Age of Dinosaurs (see the geologic time scale). They are close relatives of modern snakes and lizards, and during the Cretaceous they become fully aquatic sea monsters, growing to tremendous sizes, and were the top predators of their environments.

Their fossil remains occur in great numbers in the marine chalk deposits of the Central Plains, and numerous specimens have been preserved in museums all over the world (see posts on the chalk formation and on rock formations in general). Yet despite the great numbers of specimens collected, we still have much to learn about these great beasts.

For example, examination of their bones shows that they are elongate animals, with enlarged tails for propelling their bodies through the water. Their limbs are modified into flippers, useful in controlling the direction and orientation of their bodies in the fluid medium. So, it is clear that they are primarily tail-swimmers.

Early restorations based upon this evidence imagined a tail sort of like a modern crocodile, a thick tail that was slightly compressed laterally, making it taller than thick, but remaining relatively snake-like. Early restorations of the skeleton articulated the tail as a long chain of vertebrate, continuous from base to tip without any remarkable difference along the way.

Here is an illustration of the skeleton of the mosasaur Platecarpus from a classic work on mosasaurs (Williston 1898). Note the rod-like straightness of the back.

Mosasaur Platecarpus from Williston

Mosasaur Platecarpus from Williston

And here is an artist’s illustration of Tylosaurus, the largest of the mosasaurs, from Mike Everhart’s Book, Oceans of Kansas, showing the tail with a slight thickening near the end, but mostly being straight (Everhart 2005, recommended in the Boneblogger store).

Mosasaur Tylosaurus

Mosasaur Tylosaurus from Oceans in Kansas by Mike Everhart

However, frequently the skeletons of mosasaurs were found preserved in the rock with the last third of the tail bent downward, away from the main axis of the base of the tail. And this was not just found in a few skeletons, but it was found frequently enough that scientists speculated, at least in conversations with each other, that perhaps the down turned tip was not an artifact of preservation, but maybe meant something.

Well, a newly described mosasaurs fossil, which has exceptional preservation, provides the answer. This specimen collected in Kansas and now at the L.A. County Museum, preserves not only the bones, but also impressions of skin, impressions of internal organs, and even some of the body outline. The bones of the tail are clearly down-turned, giving the authors of this new study enough confidence to state what has been quietly talked about before—mosasaurs had a bi-lobed tail fluke (Lindgren et al. 2010).

Mosasaur Platecarpus

Mosasaur Platecarpus showing revised body outline

It only takes a single fossil to help overturn past notions about prehistoric life. The next big discoveries are out there, in the rocks and sitting in the museum drawers, waiting to be examined in detail. What will we find next?

Everhart, M. J. 2005. Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Lindgren, J., M. W. Caldwell, T. Konishi, and L. M. Chiappe. 2010. Convergent evolution in aquatic tetrapods: insights from an exceptional fossil mosasaur. PLoS ONE 5(8):e11998.

Williston, S. W. 1898. Mosasaurs. University of Kansas Geological Survey 4(1):81-347.

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Shark bites in the Cretaceous Sea

One of the most exciting things in paleontology is being able to definitively establish the interaction of two species from the fossil record. It is thrilling to picture a moment in time, millions of years ago, when two animals were at the same place, at the same time, and be able from fossil evidence to glean something about their interaction and behavior.

One dramatic example of this is finding a fossil with clear evidence that it was bitten by a shark. During the Late Cretaceous, North America was cut in half by an interior sea that extended the Gulf of Mexico across the mid-continent to connect with the Arctic Ocean in the north, effectively creating two land masses where today there is one.

In this last period from the Age of Dinosaurs, fantastic and strange creatures swam the seas. Today, the sediments from that ocean are exposed in badlands across much of western Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. These geologic formations, like the Niobrara Formation, preserve a rich record of the ocean life, and clearly show what a scary ocean it was.

Tylosaurus model from the Carnegie Collection

Tylosaurus model from the Carnegie Collection

Giant marine lizards thrived in the sea. These beasts, close relatives of modern snakes and lizards, were called mosasaurs. There were several kinds that likely had different modes of life, some making use of resources close to the surface, and other species specializing in deep-water feeding, with the largest of them reaching 50 feet in length. They were joined by another group of marine reptiles called plesiosaurs. Plesiosaurs occur in two basic body plans, with the unimaginative names of long-necked and short-necked for obvious reasons.

Long-necked plesiosaur Styxosaurus

Long-necked plesiosaur Styxosaurus

The long-necked plesiosaurs have been described as looking like a turtle with a snake threaded through its shell. They had a stocky, turtle-like body, enormously long necks capped by a remarkably small head, and stumpy tails. They had four large flippers that helped to propel them through the water as well.

Short-necked plesiosaurs had large heads attached to short, thick necks. The long-necked forms most likely specialized in eating smaller fish with their small heads, maybe using their long necks to “snake” their way amongst their prey before being noticed. The short-necked forms obviously ate large prey, as evidenced by their massive heads and powerful jaws. (You can find models of both long and short-necked forms, as well as mosasaurs as part of the collection of dinosaur toys).

Living alongside these giants of the sea were animals that we would easily recognize, at least for their general body plan—these were the sharks. There was a significant amount of shark diversity in the Interior Sea as well, from relatively small forms that likely ate near the sea floor, to mid-sized forms that ate smaller fish and scavenged on dead carcasses, to several very large species that rivaled the modern great white shark in size and ferocity.

On occasion, when finding remains of fish or the marine reptiles, we find evidence of those remains having been bitten by sharks. The most compelling evidence is when teeth are found embedded in the fossil remains, but also punctures and tooth scratches can be a telltale sign.

Several plesiosaurs have been found as partial skeletons, with bites in several areas of their body, suggesting that after they died and settled to the ocean floor their carcass was scavenged by mid-sized sharks.

Cretoxyrhina bites the back of a mosasaur in the Late Cretaceous

Cretoxyrhina bites the back of a mosasaur in the Late Cretaceous. Painting by Dan Varner.

And in one dramatic example, the great white of the Kansas seas bite the back of a mosasaurs, cutting a section of vertebrae completely out of the giant lizard. The section of back, with its included vertebrae, was later spit out by the shark after having been mostly digested. The gristly remains settled to the ocean floor to lie there for millions of years before being found and placed in a museum.

Today we are fascinated by tales of shark attack, with the movie Jaws being a prime example. You can learn about these dangerous animals in another post, but perhaps it gives you some comfort to know that the denizens of the ancient seas also were subject to shark bites!

Additional information about this specimen can be found at Oceans of Kansas.

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SuperCroc at Sternberg

The Sternberg Natural History Museum at Fort Hays State University is featuring a new exhibit, The Science of SuperCroc from now until August 5.

The star of the show is the African crocodilian species Sarcosuchus whose remains have been found in the modern Sahara, in the Elrhaz Formation. This Early Cretaceous (~112 million years ago) crocodile had a long, slender snout with a prominent down-turn or hook at the tip. When fully mature it is estimated to have been between 37-40 feet in length, and weighed as much as 17,000 pounds.

The largest living crocodile is the saltwater croc, and the largest confirmed individual was just over 20 feet in length and weighed a mere 2,600 pounds.

Restoration of Sarcosuchus, the SuperCroc

Restoration of Sarcosuchus, the SuperCroc

Sarcosuchus had its eyes placed high upon its skull suggesting that it spent most of its time submerged in the water. Like so many other things in paleontology, the question of what Sarcosuchus may have eaten is not agreed upon by researchers. Some suggested that the size of Sarcosuchus and its overhanging upper jaw made it able to wrestle large prey items, even massive long-necked sauropod dinosaurs. Others point to the slenderness of the muzzle and it not looking stout enough to withstand the forces that would be required to bring down large prey. There were plenty of lobe-finned fish in Sarcosuchus’s environment. I see a fish-eater in this skull myself.

Also on display with the large croc is Suchomimus, a theropod dinosaur whose remains have been found in the same geological formation as Sarcosuchus. Suchomimus, whose name means crocodile mimic, was a forty-foot long beast which also had a long slender muzzle. Its forelimbs were armed with very long sickle-curved claws. This animal is thought to have eaten fish and probably other sorts of meat, but its skull also does not appear equipped for biting and holding very large struggling prey.

Super Croc Sarcosuchus skeleton at Sternberg Museum

SuperCroc Sarcosuchus skeleton at Sternberg Museum

The presence of both of these animals, and many others found with them, show that the Sahara area of today was a lush, swampy habitat in the Early Cretaceous. The effect of climate change and plate movements over millions of years can turn a wet verdant habitat into a harsh, dry desert. My how times change.

Go see SuperCroc at the Sternberg Museum if you have a chance.

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Niobrara Chalk

One of the most famous formations is the Niobrara Chalk. This formation is exposed in northwest Kansas and southern Nebraska. Formations are sometimes divided into members, subsections of the formation based upon its rock type. The Niobrara Chalk has two members: the lower Fort Hays Limestone and the upper Smoky Hill Chalk. It is the Smoky Hill Chalk which is best known for its fossils.

The sediments that comprise the Niobrara Chalk were deposited in the Western Interior basin during the Late Cretaceous. At that time sea levels rose and the interior of North America was inundated by a shallow sea, the Western Interior Sea. The sea cut North America in half by spreading from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Arctic. Volcanoes to the west, in what is now Utah and Nevada, spewed ash into the sea and sediments eroded from mountains along the western coast were washed into the sea by rivers. What is today Kansas was much closer to the eastern shore of the sea, a low alluvial plain, also gently washing sediment into the sea basin.

Block diagram of the Western Interior Sea

Image from Hattin, 1982.

The upper member, the Smoky Hill, was deposited from 87 to 82 million years ago, so it preserves a five million year window into the past. Elsewhere we discussed that the Cretaceous sea had a wealth of planktonic organisms. Many of those organisms had calcium carbonate-based shells and body parts, which furnished a steady supply of material to sink to the sea floor. The consistent supply of sediment, both from land and sea, and conditions at the sea floor allowed for the excellent preservation of animals. Those that died and sank to the bottom were rapidly covered by the rain of sediment and entombed until today.

And the diversity of organisms preserved is amazing. In almost every museum with fossils that I have been in, I recognize fossils from Kansas. Giant marine reptiles (mosasaurs and plesiosaurs), flying reptiles (pterosaurs), great toothy fishes, large turtles, and toothed diving birds have all been found. Each of these groups has a very interesting story to share, and we will explore many of them here. An extensive website on fossils from the Niobrara Chalk can be found at OceansofKansas.com.

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The large consume the small

It is an interesting paradox of the natural world that some of the largest species alive survive by eating some of the smallest species.

Consider the largest animal ever known to have existed. No, it is not a dinosaur, but an animal alive today, the blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus. This behemoth can grow to over 100 feet long and weigh 380,000 pounds. And yet, this animal does not eat large fish, but tiny planktonic animals, those that float in the water.

The blue whale belongs to the suborder of baleen whales, or mysticets, that all make their living by filter feeding plankton—sucking water into their mouths and trapping the small, floating plankton to swallow. The toothed whales, or odontocets, do eat larger prey.

There are several other large vertebrate groups that also specialize in eating the very small, and they too grow to very large proportions. For example, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the largest living fish at about 40 feet long and weighing in at 47,000 pounds. And then there is the second largest fish, the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), also a filter feeder. Giant rays also feed this way.

Whale shark, the world's largest living fish

Whale shark, the world's largest living fish

So clearly, you can get very big eating small things. However, there has been a bit of a mystery in the fossil record. There has been a general lack of known filter feeding animals from the fossil record during the Mesozoic, the time of dinosaurs; clearly, that was a period in Earth’s history when things could get very large. So, where were the filter feeders?

An important piece of this puzzle has just fallen into place. Just published in Science is a paper outlining new discoveries of filter feeding fishes from the Mesozoic, and it turns out that they too were large (Friedman et al., 2010).

The fossils were mostly already in the collections of museums, having been collected in both Europe and North America. However, they were not well understood until this team began to look at them in more detail, and recognized their filter feeding adaptations. The fossils reported belong to the extinct pachycormid family, and include the new genus Bonnerichthys, named for the Bonner family of Kansas.

And in keeping with a theme, the pachycormid family of fish included the largest bony fish known, Leedsichthys, reaching over 30 feet in length in the Jurassic of Europe.

Leedsichthys, the largest spcies of fossil fish

Leedsichthys, the largest spcies of fossil fish

This latest work shows that in fact there were a number of filter feeding fish through about the last 100 million years of the Mesozoic, filling this lucrative niche held in modern times by rays, sharks, and whales. Another mystery from the past is closer to being solved.

FRIEDMAN, M., K. SHIMADA, L. MARTIN, M. J. EVERHART, J. LISTON, A. MALTESE, AND M. TRIEBOLD. 2010. 100-million-year dynasty of giant planktivorous bony fishes in the Mesozoic seas. Science, 327:990-993.

Many other interesting facts can be found here at Boneblogger. Look around and enjoy.

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