Serpentisuchops pfisterae

((Credits: iScience (2022)))

If you’re on an expedition to find some bizarre creatures on Earth, whether extant or extinct, the ocean would hands down be the best place to look. Every now and then, scientists either bump into living bizarre sea creatures like sea pigs and ghost sharks or discover prehistoric devils that were once part of the deep sea.

In 1995, on a hunt for some similar ancient treasures, a team of palaeontologists journeyed to the uppermost portion of Pierre Shale — a geological formation dating to the Upper Cretaceous period (approximately 101 million to 66 million years ago). There they stumbled upon a plesiosaur fossil — marine reptiles that co-existed with dinosaurs — encrusted in the rock, but to their dismay, the reptile was already supposedly widely studied.

After lying in the Glenrock Paleontological Museum for at least 25 years, researchers finally reconstructed the specimen bone by bone, presuming that it would either possess a long neck with a small head or a short neck with a wide jaw — characteristics typical to the two types of known plesiosaurs.

But shockingly, the fossil was found to be quite peculiar; it had combined characteristics of both the presumed plesiosaur varieties: a snake-like long neck and crocodile-like wide jaw.

What’s more interesting is that 35% of the body — including its lower jaw, a sizable amount of its skull, its complete neck and vertebrae, and the majority of its tail and some ribs — was beautifully preserved.

“The only pieces that we’re missing are elements of its limbs or paddles, which it used for swimming,” revealed Walter Scott Persons IV, a palaeontologist from the College of Charleston in South Carolina and the study’s lead author.

They named the reptile Serpentisuchops pfisterae, which loosely translates to “snaky crocodile-face”. On further analysis of the 23-foot-long creature, the researchers realised it had wide cervical neural spines and large epaxial muscles to move its neck back and forth as it swayed through the water.

Apart from the skeleton, they also found its set of 19 teeth; one tooth remained hanging in the specimen’s jaw, while the rest were scattered among the remains. The smooth conical teeth indicated that the beast snapped its jaws to grab and swallow fish or other small sea creatures, but could definitely not bite into the thick bones of larger animals.

According to Persons, this discovery “reveals a whole new ecotype, an animal that is specialised in a way that’s different from all the other plesiosaurs that were around at the same time”. This very fact makes it a prime example of adaptive radiation — a process in which organisms diversify from an ancestral species to avoid competition, particularly when a change in the environment makes new resources available.

The study has been published in the journal iScience and can be accessed here.

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