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Giant fossil predator provides insights into the rise of modern marine ecosystem structures

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Giant fossil predator provides insights into the rise of modern marine ecosystem structures

An 8.6 meter long fossil marine predator was recovered from the Nevada desert in an excavation by an international team of researchers led by Dr. Nadia Fröbisch, a paleontologist at the Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity in Berlin. The 244 Million year old fossil represents the first top predator in marine food chains, feeding on prey of similar size to its own, comparable to modern day orca whales. Its appearance in the fossil record only 8 Million years after Earth’s most severe extinction event at the end of the Permian period documents the fast recovery and evolution of a modern ecosystem structure after 80-96% of species in the oceans were extinguished.

The fossil was originally discovered in 1997 during a field campaign led by Prof. Martin Sander (University of Bonn) and Dr. Olivier Rieppel (Field Museum, Chicago). After its recovery in the summer 2008 it has now been described in the journal PNAS and named Thalattoarchon saurophagis - the lizard-eating sovereign of the sea. Thalattoarchon is an early representative of the ichthyosaurs, a group of marine reptiles that lived contemporaneously with the dinosaurs and roamed the oceans for 160 Million years. It had a massive skull and jaws armed with large teeth bearing cutting edges that it used to seize and cut other marine reptiles in the Triassic seas.

The ichthyosaur was recovered from what is today a very remote mountain range in central Nevada, USA. Most of the animal was preserved, including the skull (save the front of the snout), parts of the fins, and the complete vertebral column up to the tip of the tail. Supported by a Discovery Grant from the National Geographic Society, it took the team of paleontologists three full weeks to unearth the ichthyosaur and prepare it for its transport by helicopter and truck out of the field.

“Everyday we learn more about the biodiversity of our planet including living and fossil species and their ecosystems” Dr. Fröbisch said. “The new find characterizes the establishment of a new and more advanced level of ecosystem structure. Findings like Thalattoarchon help us to understand the dynamics of our evolving planet and ultimately the impact humans have on todays environment.”

This research is part of a collaborative study of the first author Dr. Nadia Fröbisch and Prof. Jörg Fröbisch (both at Museum für Naturkunde Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung), Prof. P. Martin Sander (Steinmann Institute of Geology, Mineralogy, and Paleontology, Division of Paleontology, University of Bonn), Prof. Lars Schmitz (W. M. Keck Science Department, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges, Claremont, USA) and Dr. Olivier Rieppel (The Field Museum, Chicago, USA).

The article will be published in the week of January 7, 2013 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).