When paleontologists in India unearthed a prehistoric fossil in the country’s Gujarat province, they expected that like most other vertebrate fossils in this region: It would exist only in fragments. Instead, as Michael Greshko reports for National Geographic, the team unearthed the nearly complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur—a large marine reptile that glided through the seas while dinosaurs roamed the earth.
The fossil was discovered last year, embedded in hard sedimentary rock in the Kachchh region of Gujarat. When paleontologists finally managed to free the skeleton (it took 1,500 person-hours), they found that it was largely intact, with only parts of the skull and a number of tail bones missing, according to the BBC.
Describing their discovery in the journal PLOS One, researchers estimate that the ichthyosaurs lived between 152 and 157 million years ago, a time when the Gujarat area of India was covered by tropical waters. The skeleton belongs to the Ophthalmosaurus family of ichthyosaurs—huge-eyed creatures with long, thin mandibles that helped them catch fish and squid. The fossil’s teeth offer further insights into the ichthyosaurs’ diet.
“We could infer from wear patterns on its teeth that this ichthyosaur was a top-tier predator that fed on hard and abrasive food material, including marine molluscs (ammonoids and belemnites), fish and possibly other marine reptiles,” Guntupalli Prasad, a paleontologist at the University of Delhi who worked on the excavation, told Beth Baker of PLOS Research News
The discovery of the Indian ichthyosaur is spectacular for a number of reasons. For one, the fossil represents the first Jurassic-era ichthyosaur ever found India. It is also the most complete fossil of the creature discovered in the country. In general, ichthyosaur fossils are rare so far south; to date, most remains have been found in Europe and North America.
The Indian ichthyosaur was closely related to more northerly specimens, suggesting that the creatures were traveling far and wide at a time when the ancient continent Pangaea was slowly breaking up into smaller landmasses. Prasad tells PLOS Research News that the ichthyosaur appears to have traversed modern-day Europe, Madagascar, South America and Europe.
Prasad adds that he hopes to continue searching for more ichthyosaur fossils and other marine reptiles, which could shed further light on a formative period in Earth’s history.