Berlin: A 28-foot reptile species is the first top marine predator that fed on similar-sized prey more than 244 million years ago, say findings based on a fossil recovered from the Nevada desert in the United States in 2010.
The ancient fossil, named Thalattoarchon saurophagis (lizard-eating sovereign of the sea), is an early representative of ichthyosaurs, a group of marine reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs and roamed the oceans for 160 million years.
It had a massive skull and jaws armed with large teeth with cutting edges that used to seize and slice through other marine reptiles in the Triassic seas.
Because it was a meta-predator, capable of feeding on animals with bodies similar in size to its own, Thalattoarchon was comparable to modern orca whales, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.
Remarkably, only eight million years prior to the appearance of Thalattoarchon, a severe extinction at the end of the Permian period killed as many as 80 to 96 percent of species in the earth's oceans.
The rise of a predator such as Thalattoarchon documents the fast recovery and evolution of a modern ecosystem structure after the extinction.
"Everyday, we learn more about the biodiversity of our planet including living and fossil species and their ecosystems," said Nadia Frobisch from Museum fur Naturkunde Leibniz-Institut fur Evolutions-und Biodiversitatsforschung.
"The new find characterises 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 today's environment," said Frobisch, according to a statement of Museum fur Naturkunde Leibniz-Institut fur Evolutions.
"This discovery is a good example of how we study the past in order to illuminate the future," said Olivier Rieppel from The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.
The ichthyosaur was recovered from what is today a remote mountain range in central Nevada.
Most of the animal was preserved, including the skull (except the front of the snout), parts of the fins, and the complete vertebral column up to the tip of the tail.
Supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, the team of paleontologists took three weeks to unearth the ichthyosaur and prepare it for its transport by helicopter and truck out of the field.
First Published: Tuesday, January 08, 2013, 16:28