Paleontologists have confirmed the existence of a new species of ichthyosaur, a group of marine reptiles that terrorized the world's oceans during the dinosaur era — and this one was an absolute monster. Called Thalattoarchon saurophagis — meaning "lizard-eating sovereign of the sea" — it measured 28 feet (8.6 meters) in length and featured an enormous skull adorned with razor sharp teeth. And because the bus-sized beast lived over 244 million years ago during the Triassic era, it was likely the first marine predator to prey on other animals its own size.
Thalattoarchon's fossilized remains were partially uncovered in 1998 when paleontologists dug up well-preserved sections of its skull, fins, and entire vertebral column. The original team, which included study co-author Nadia Fröbisch of Berlin's Museum of Natural History, returned in 2010 to dig up the rest of the fossil, including the remaining parts of its skull and jaws.
Analysis of the remains showed that Thalattoarchon was indeed a top-tier predator from the Middle Triassic period; its teeth — which were incisor-like and featured two cutting edges — indicated a macropredatory feeding style.
And fascinatingly, the discovery of the extinct ichthyosaur shows how ecosystems can quickly bounce back from even the most extreme events, including mass extinctions. Writing in National Geographic News, Brian Handwerk explains:
"This animal occurs only eight million years after the biggest mass extinction event in Earth's history, the Permian extinction, which literally wiped out up to 95 percent of all the species in the ocean," Fröbisch explained. "The ocean was a pretty empty place afterward."
But not for long-the fossil record shows that species returned quickly. The presence of a top predator like Thalattoarchon during that time period shows that the system was intact within a relatively short time, since marine ecosystems build from the bottom of the food chain up. In other words, the monster had tons of food to eat.
"So with the appearance of Thalattoarchon we know it was complete and that it had the same structure as modern ecosystems, the same structure we've seen in place, with different players, ever since."
Despite thriving some 160 million years, Thalattoarchon and fellow ichthyosaurs went extinct for unknown reasons-leaving no living relatives.
The entire study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Illustration by Raul Martin, National Geographic.Photo By Jörg Fröbisch, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Germany.