Back in 2009 we told you about Predator X, a gigantic pliosaur whose fossilized remains were found in the Arctic. Now, after years of research, paleontologists have officially inducted the Jurassic-era aquatic beast into the science books. Its name is Pliosaurus funkei, a four-paddled apex predator that terrorized the seas over 147 million years ago. But as the researchers' investigation has revealed, the reptile was not as monstrous as initially reported. That said, it was still one of the most terrifying animals to ever appear on Earth.
The species is known from a partial skull, a complete flipper, and some assorted remains (including a section of vertebra) of two individuals that were excavated in 2008 in Svalbard by a Norwegian team led by Jørn Hurum. Pliosaurus funkei is only the fourth pliosaur species ever discovered.
Initial speculation hinted at a creature that defied imagination. It was thought that the animal had a head twice the size of a Tyrannosaur Rex, and four times its bite force (about 16 tonnes, or 35,000 lbs). Preliminary estimates put the size of the marine predator at 45 tonnes and 50 feet long, with each of its teeth measuring a foot in length.
All these initial measurements, however, were completely speculative and unsubstantiated.
But now, a subsequent investigation by paleontologists Espen Knutsen, Patrick Druckenmiller, and Jørn Hurum has revealed a marine reptile with more modest features — a bodily composition that more closely resembled those of other pliosaurs.
Here's what Pliosaurus funkei really looked like:
It featured a skull that was about 2.0 to 2.5 meters (6 to 8 feet) in length — not quite twice the size of a T Rex's skull (1.8 to 2.4 meters, or about 7 feet). It had more teeth than other Pliosaurs.
Best estimates of its body length place it anywhere from 10 to 13 meters (33 to 42 feet) long. The wide estimate is on account of incomplete fossil information (they just have a few piece of vertebrae); consequently, the paleontologists had to rely on figures derived from the remains of other pliosaurs.
In terms of its physical movements, analysis of bones from the four flippers indicate a marine reptile that cruised using just two fore-flippers, using the back pair for extra speed when pursuing and capturing prey. Interestingly, its limb proportions were quite different compared to other pliosaurs.
All this said, Pliosaurus funkei is still one of the largest pliosaurs ever discovered. But as Brian Switek of Wired has noted, the whole incident is a good example of how the media and some scientists are quick to get ahead of themselves before the required scientific due diligence has been completed:
Our view of Pliosaurus funkei is grossly incomplete. This oceanic hunter was big and terrifying, that's beyond question, but the pliosaur fossils are not quite so big or spectacular as the media feeding frenzy suggested. And despite early claims that Predator X had a bite force of over 15 tonnes per square inch, such figures are suspect when we don't even know what the pliosaur's complete skull looked like. No bite force analysis was included in the description. Furthermore, Knutsen and collaborators "urge caution in drawing far-reaching conclusions of pliosaur ecology and behaviour" based upon their study. Pliosaurus funkei must have been an apex predator with a devastating bite, but there's apparently little more than can be said with confidence. So much for "the most fearsome animal ever to swim in the oceans."
You can read the entire study at the Norwegian Journal of Geology.