The C. youngorum was about 60 feet, or 17 metres, from nose to tail and weighed more than 40 tons – rivalling today’s biggest whales
Remains of one of the ocean’s oldest giants have been uncovered in one of the driest places on Earth – where it lived 244 million years ago when the area was covered by an ocean.
The Cymbospondylus youngorum measured 60 feet, or 17 metres, from nose to tail and weighed more than 40 tons – rivalling today’s biggest whales.
It was found in the US state of Nevada – now one of the driest places on the planet.
Scientist Lars Schmitz, from the WM Keck Science Department in California, a member of the team that analysed the 2-metre-long skill, called it a “jaw-dropping” find.
Ichthyosaurs were a variety of marine reptiles that had a body shape reminiscent of modern whales and dolphins.
Some ichthyosaurs, which lived between around 249 million and 90 million years ago, were large, and the C youngorum was comparable in size to a modern sperm whale.
The creature’s skull was discovered in rocks dating back about 246 million years, which would make it only about 3 million years younger than the first ichthyosaurs – which evolved from land-based scientists.
According to New Scientist reports , this indicates that ichthyosaurs ballooned in size astonishingly quickly once they took to the seas.
Although some whale species are giant in size in today’s seas, their evolutionary route to get there was lengthy.
The earliest whales are believed to have evolved around 56 million years ago. It took another 50 million years to grow to the size some species are today.
C. youngorum shows that ichthyosaurs did the same in a fraction of the time, which shows the dramatically different evolutionary pathways for these superficially similar animals.
Neil Kelley at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who wasn’t involved in the study, says that while fragments of such early giants have been found before, it was “very exciting” to finally see more complete remains.
“By considering completely extinct animals like ichthyosaurs, we can develop a much richer picture of complexity and commonalities across the history of life,” says Kelley.
Schmitz said the ecosystem in which C. youngorum lived, wasn’t like the seas today.
“The food chains were shorter,” he said. A proliferation of creatures, including ancient squid relatives called ammonoids, that would have provided ample sustenance for marine reptiles.
The abundance of seafood enabled large ichthyosaurs to evolve and sustain themselves. Schmitz notes that another giant-size ichthyosaur species could have survived in the same environment, based on models of energy flow through the ancient food web.