Predators Decapitated 240-million-year-old Long-necked Reptiles

Researchers studying the fossilized remains of two Triassic species of Tanystropheus have uncovered gruesome evidence of predator-prey interactions dating back over 240 million years.

Tanystropheus was a marine reptile distantly related to crocodiles, birds, and dinosaurs, and its distinguishing feature was an extremely elongated neck consisting of 13 vertebrae and strut-like ribs.

This unique neck structure likely provided stiffness, allowing the reptiles to lie in wait and ambush their prey. However, recent findings reveal that their long necks also made them vulnerable to predators.

Examination of the fossilized bones of two specimens revealed clear bite marks on their severed necks, with one specimen showing bite marks at the exact location of the break.

This discovery provides rare and graphic evidence of predator-prey interactions in the fossil record, supporting long-standing speculations about the vulnerability of marine reptiles with elongated necks. Previously depicted in a famous 1830 painting by Henry de la Beche, this study marks the first direct evidence of attacks targeting the necks of these reptiles.

Stephan Spiekman from the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart, Germany, who conducted the study as part of his doctoral work at the Paleontological Museum of the University of Zurich, recognized that two species of Tanystropheus coexisted in the same environment.

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The smaller species, around 1.5 meters in length, likely fed on soft-shelled animals such as shrimp, while the larger species, reaching up to six meters, preyed on fish and squid. The shape of the skull suggested that Tanystropheus spent most of its time in the water.

Previous specimens of Tanystropheus had well-preserved heads and necks that ended abruptly, leading to speculation about whether their necks had been bitten off.

Spiekman collaborated with Eudald Mujal, an expert on fossil preservation and predatory interactions, to thoroughly examine the two specimens. They concluded that the necks had indeed been severed by another animal, as tooth traces were present.

Interestingly, the intact condition of the skulls and necks suggests that when the reptiles were buried, the bones were still covered by soft tissues such as muscle and skin. This implies that the predators may have been less interested in the skinny necks and small heads, focusing instead on the more substantial parts of the body.

The study proposes that both individuals were decapitated during the hunt rather than scavenged, although the possibility of scavenging cannot be fully ruled out in fossils of this age.

The findings confirm that the unique neck structure of Tanystropheus was narrower and stiffer than that of long-necked plesiosaurs, supporting previous interpretations.

Despite the vulnerability associated with long necks, they were a highly successful evolutionary strategy observed in various marine reptiles over a span of 175 million years.

Tanystropheus itself thrived for at least 10 million years and was present in regions that now correspond to Europe, the Middle East, China, North America, and potentially South America.

This research highlights the trade-offs inherent in evolution, with the advantage of a long neck outweighing the risk of predation for an extended period.

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The study sheds new light on the fascinating world of ancient marine reptiles, providing tangible evidence of their predator-prey relationships and enhancing our understanding of their unique anatomical adaptations.

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