One of the Largest animals ever uncovered in the Alps

With the thickest tooth and largest trunk vertebra


Rebuilding of marine ecosystems after the devastation at the end of the Permian invited multiple lineages of reptiles to the marine habitat, leading to the well-known explosive radiation of marine reptiles in the Early Triassic and early Middle Triassic.

Two major lineages of marine reptiles, the ichthyosaurs, and the sauropterygians, were part of this explosive radiation.

As reported in a new paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, paleontologists have discovered sets of fossils representing three new ichthyosaurs that may have been among the largest animals to have ever lived.

Unearthed in the Swiss Alps between 1976 and 1990, the discovery includes the largest ichthyosaur tooth ever found. The width of the tooth root is twice as large as any aquatic reptile known, the previous largest belonging to a 15-meter-long ichthyosaur.

Other incomplete skeletal remains include the largest trunk vertebra in Europe, which demonstrates another ichthyosaur rivaling the largest marine reptile fossil known today, the 21-meter-long Shastasaurus sikkanniensis from British Columbia, Canada.

Dr. Heinz Furrer, who is a co-author of this study, was among a team who recovered the fossils during geological mapping in the Kössen Formation of the Alps. The rock layers covered the seafloor more than 200 million years before. However, with the folding of the Alps, they had ended up at an altitude of 2,800 meters!

Now a retired curator at the University of Zurich‘s Paleontological Institute and Museum, Dr. Furrer said he was delighted to have uncovered “the world’s longest ichthyosaur; with the thickest tooth found to date and the largest trunk vertebra in Europe!”

Lead author P. Martin Sandler of the University of Bonn hopes “maybe there are more remains of the giant sea creatures hidden beneath the glaciers.”

“Bigger is always better,” he says. “There are distinct selective advantages to large body size. Life will go there if it can. There were only three animal groups that had masses greater than 10–20 metric tonnes: long-necked dinosaurs (sauropods); whales; and the giant ichthyosaurs of the Triassic.”

Ichthyosaurs colonized the open ocean early, explaining their occurrence throughout the northern hemisphere. Ichthyosaurs also increased in body size amazingly fast, having evolved giant forms with a skull length of 2 m within 5 Ma after their first appearance in the early Middle Triassic. Throughout the Triassic, ichthyosaurs appear to dominate the World’s ocean, showing high diversity and disparity.

These monstrous, 80-ton reptiles patrolled Panthalassa, the World’s ocean surrounding the supercontinent Pangea during the Late Triassic, about 205 million years ago. They also made forays into the shallow seas of the Tethys on the eastern side of Pangea, as shown by the new finds.

Ichthyosaurs first emerged in the wake of the Permian extinction some 250 million years ago, when some 95 percent of marine species died out. The group reached its greatest diversity in the Middle Triassic, and a few species persisted into the Cretaceous. Most were much smaller than S. sikanniensis and the similarly-sized species described in the paper.

Roughly the shape of contemporary whales, ichthyosaurs had elongated bodies and erect tail fins. Fossils are concentrated in North America and Europe, but ichthyosaurs have also been found in South America, Asia, and Australia. Giant species have mostly been unearthed in North America, with scanty finds from the Himalayas and New Caledonia, so the discovery of further behemoths in Switzerland represents an expansion of their known range.

However, so little is known about these giants that there are mere ghosts. Tantalizing evidence from the UK, consisting of an enormous toothless jaw bone, and from New Zealand suggest that some of them were the size of blue whales. An 1878 paper credibly describes ichthyosaur vertebrae 45 cm in diameter from there, but the fossil never made it to London and may have been lost at sea. Sander notes that “it amounts to a major embarrassment for paleontology that we know so little about these giant ichthyosaurs despite the extraordinary size of their fossils. We hope to rise to this challenge and find new and better fossils soon.”

These new specimens probably represent the last of the leviathans. “In Nevada, we see the beginnings of true giants, and in the Alps, the end,” says Sander, who also co-authored a paper last year about an early giant ichthyosaur from Nevada’s Fossil Hill. “Only the medium–to–large-sized dolphin – and orca-like forms survived into the Jurassic.”

Giant Tooth Fragment

“Many of the giant Late Triassic ichthyosaurs appear to lack teeth. The only certain exception is Himalayasaurus (Motani et al., 1999) and the tooth PIMUZ A/III 670 described in this study.” Study mentions.

The root of the tooth - found has a diameter of 60 Millimeters. This makes it the thickest ichthyosaur tooth found so far.
The root of the tooth – found has a diameter of 60 Millimeters. This makes it the thickest ichthyosaur tooth found so far. Credit: © Rosi Roth/University of Zurich

While the smaller ichthyosaurs typically had teeth, most of the known gigantic species appear to have been toothless. One hypothesis suggests that they are fed by suction rather than grasping their prey. “The bulk feeders among the giants must have fed on cephalopods. The ones with teeth likely feed on smaller ichthyosaurs and large fish,” Sander suggests.

The tooth described by the paper is only the second instance of a giant ichthyosaur with teeth—the other being the 15-meter-long Himalayasaurus. These species likely occupied similar ecological roles to modern sperm whales and killer whales. Indeed, the teeth are curved inwards like those of their mammalian successors, indicating a grasping mode of feeding conducive to capturing prey such as giant squid.

“It is hard to say if the tooth is from a large ichthyosaur with giant teeth or from a giant ichthyosaur with average-sized teeth,” Sander wryly acknowledges. Because the tooth described in the paper was broken off at the crown, the authors could not confidently assign it to a particular taxon. Still, a peculiarity of dental anatomy allowed the researchers to identify it as belonging to an ichthyosaur.

“Ichthyosaurs have a feature in their teeth that is nearly unique among reptiles: the infolding of the dentin in the roots of their teeth,” explains Sander. “The only other group to show this are monitor lizards.”

Largest vertebra 

The two sets of skeletal remains, consisting of vertebrae, ten rib fragments, and seven associated vertebrae, have been assigned to the family Shastasauridae, which contains the giants Shastasaurus, Shonisaurus, and Himalayasaurus. Comparing the vertebrae from one set suggests that they may have been the same size or slightly smaller than those of S. sikkanniensis. These measurements are slightly skewed by the fact that the fossils have been tectonically deformed—that is, they have literally been squashed by the movements of the tectonic plates whose collision led to their movement from a former sea floor to the top of a mountain.

Heinz Furrer - with the largest ichthyosaur vertebrae.
Heinz Furrer – with the largest ichthyosaur vertebrae. Credit: © Rosi Roth/University of Zurich

The rocks from which these fossils derive, known as the Kössen Formation, were once at the bottom of a shallow coastal area—a very wide lagoon or shallow basin.

This adds to the uncertainty surrounding the habits of these animals, whose size indicates their suitability for deeper reaches of the ocean. “We think that the big ichthyosaurs followed schools of fish into the lagoon. The fossils may also derive from strays that died there,” suggests Furrer.

“You have to be kind of a mountain goat to access the relevant beds,” Sander laughs. “They have the vexing property of not occurring below about 8,000 feet, way above the treeline.”

“At 95 million years ago, the northeastern part of Gondwana, the African plate (which the Kössen Formation was part of), started to push against the European plate, ending with the formation of the very complex piles of different rock units (called “nappes”) in the Alpine orogeny at about 30–40 million years ago,” relates Furrer. So it is that these intrepid researchers found themselves picking through the frozen rocks of the Alps and hauling pieces of ancient marine monsters nearly down to sea level once again for entry into the scientific record.

Implications of specimen PIMUZ A/III 670:

  1. Many of the giant Late Triassic ichthyosaurs appear to lack teeth. The only certain exception is Himalayasaurus (Motani et al., 1999) and the tooth PIMUZ A/III 670 described in this study.
  2. Together with the scanty but morphologically different dental material of Himalayasaurus, the tooth suggests the existence of a diversity of giant tooth-bearing ichthyosaurs in the Late Triassic.
  3. The find underscores the notion that the Late Triassic ichthyosaurs were distinctly larger than the more familiar Jurassic forms.

“The fossils described in this paper underscore the global distribution and ecological diversity of giant Norian and Rhaetian ichthyosaurs and the profound faunal turnover among ichthyosaurs at the end of the Triassic.” Study concludes.

Journal Reference

  1. P. Martin Sander, Pablo Romero Pérez de Villar, Heinz Furrer & Tanja Wintrich. Giant Late Triassic ichthyosaurs from the Kössen Formation of the Swiss Alps and their paleobiological implications. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2021.2046017
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