Scientists solve mystery of how an ancient reptile moved around with a neck three times longer than its body

A reconstruction of the creature's skull revealed clear signs it lived in the sea

Clea Skopeliti
Saturday 08 August 2020 21:14
Comments
The creature was described as 'a stubby crocodile with a very, very long neck'
The creature was described as 'a stubby crocodile with a very, very long neck'

Scientists have solved the mystery of how a 242-million-year-old reptile with a neck three times the length of its torso moved around, discovering that it lived in the ocean.

Paleontologists have been puzzled ever since fossils of the creature, which is part of the Tanystropheus genus, were first discovered in 1852, as they were unable to work out how the animal could have supported the weight of its neck.

The creature's "bizarre body didn't make things clear one way or the other", researchers said, and its giraffe-like neck left scientists unsure over whether it lived on land or in the sea.

The puzzle was solved when a new study by the University of Zurich reconstructed the reptile's skull, revealing "several very clear adaptations for life in water".

Olivier Rieppel, a paleontologist at the Field Museum in Chicago and one of the authors on the study, said: "That neck doesn't make sense in a terrestrial environment. It's just an awkward structure to carry around.”

Mr Rieppel described the creature as “a stubby crocodile with a very, very long neck”.

The scan showed that the 20-foot reptile had nostrils on the top of its snout and curved, interlocked teeth – both indications of an animal that would have hunted in the water.

Stephan Spiekman, a paleontologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and lead author on the study, said: “It likely hunted by stealthily approaching its prey in murky water using its small head and very long neck to remain hidden.”

(PA

Tanystropheus fossils were discovered in on the border between Switzerland and Italy.

Nearby, scientists found fossils of a creature that looked similar, but was only 4-feet long, leading them to wonder if they were juveniles or a different species. Analysis revealed they were fully grown, and therefore a separate species.

Nick Fraser, keeper of natural sciences at National Museums Scotland and a co-author on the paper, said: "It is hugely significant to discover that there were two quite separate species of this bizarrely long-necked reptile who swam and lived alongside each other in the coastal waters of the great sea of Tethys approximately 240 million years ago."

Mr Spiekman added: "These two closely related species had evolved to use different food sources in the same environment.

He explained the small species probably ate small shelled creatures such as shrimp, while the large species will have fed on fish and squid.

"This is really remarkable, because we expected the bizarre neck of Tanystropheus to be specialised for a single task, like the neck of a giraffe.

"But actually, it allowed for several lifestyles. This completely changes the way we look at this animal."

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in