An English paleontologist named Henry De la Beche painted “Duria Antiquior,” which depicts the oceans of the Mesozoic, in 1830. He depicted a marine reptile with a long neck as having its throat clamped between the jaws of a monstrous Ichthyosaurus.
There hasn’t been any tangible evidence of the neck-biting De la Beche imagined for nearly two centuries. However, gory and extremely unusual evidence has been provided by research that was published on Monday in the journal Current Biology. It shows that predators saw the long, outstretched necks of reptiles swimming around prehistoric seas as an irresistible target.
According to Stephan Spiekman, a paleontologist at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany, and one of the authors of the study, the victim was Tanystropheus. According to Spiekman, the neck of the victim is “completely unique” in the fossil record. The structure, which comprised half of the animal’s body, was made up of 13 strangely elongated and interlocking vertebrae, resulting in a neck as rigid as a fishing rod.
Dr. Spiekman stated, “It is very important to get any insight into how these extreme structures functioned with potential weaknesses and strengths.”
According to Dr. Spiekman’s doctoral research, there were two distinct species of Tanystropheus that lived in the shallow lagoons of the Triassic Alps. One was small, and the other was almost 20 feet long. They probably caught fish from perches on the seafloor. Dr. Spiekman investigated a pair of specimens from both species, each consisting solely of a head and neck.
According to Dr. Spiekman, “the neck is broken in the back half” in both animals. It is similar to breaking a broomstick.
Dr. Spiekman imparted the examples to his office mate, Eudald Mujal, a scientist who works in examining hunter prey communications in fossils, especially indentations on bones. After an evening with the fossils at their resting place in Zurich, they presumed that the necks had been chomped separated.
Dr. Mujal stated, “The broken portion of the bones look like you would break a chicken bone.” The animal was probably alive when the bone was broken while it was still fresh.
The researchers measured the distance between the larger Tanystropheus’s bite marks and compared them to the jaws of other nearby predators. According to Dr. Mujal, the likely culprit was either a large nothosaur, which are the seal-like plesiosaur ancestors, or one of two large, predatory ichthyosaurs. The team came to the conclusion that either the larger Tanystropheus or the smaller Tanystropheus had been struck from above, possibly by a predator interested in their meaty bodies rather than their spindly necks or small heads. “Far enough away from the head to make it difficult for the animal to defend itself,” Dr. Mujal stated, “they may be preferentially targeting the same region of the neck.”
Tanystropheus is the only marine reptile known to have been brutally cut in half. Dr. Mujal said that plesiosaurs, reptiles that emerged after Tanystropheus died out and lived until the end of the Mesozoic period, have long necks that are made up of many bulky vertebrae that are all covered in muscle and fat. “A very thick layer of flesh and skin around the neck means that predators may not have left any marks on the vertebrae,” despite the possibility that they also got it in the neck.
However, the researchers point out that even if the long neck was a weak spot for predators, it was clearly a remarkably successful evolutionary strategy. Over the course of 175 million years, numerous distinct groups of marine reptiles that eat fish independently developed elongated necks. Even Tanystropheus’s family was a success story because they spread from the Triassic to modern Europe and China for 10 million years.
Dr. Spiekman said, “Evolution is a game of trade-offs.” For this animal, having a long neck was worth the risk in the long run.
To put it another way, even if you get bit yourself, sticking your neck out can be good for the species.
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