Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

A new view of the "eye lizard"

I am forever astonished at the level of detail we can infer from fossils that are hundreds of millions of years old.

The most recent example of this came from analysis of a fossil of Stenopterygius, an ichthyosaur that lived during the Jurassic Period (this particular fossil has been dated to about 180 million years ago).  We usually think of fossils as preserving bones and teeth, and occasionally impressions of scales or skin or feathers -- but this one was so finely preserved that researchers have been able to make some shrewd inferences about color, metabolism, and the structure of soft tissues.

Artist's conception of Stenopterygius [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nobu Tamura (, Stenopterygius BW, CC BY-SA 3.0]

We've known for a long time that ichthyosaurs are bizarre animals. They were streamlined predators that look remarkably like dolphins, although they are only distantly related (making the two groups a great example of convergent evolution).  A number of them had an even stranger feature, which is the largest eye-diameter-to-body-size ratio of any animal known -- the well-named Ophthalmosaurus (Greek for "eye lizard") was six meters long and had eyes the size of basketballs.

Stenopterygius was a bit smaller, with an average adult size of four meters.  But up until recently, all we've been able to do is speculate on what it might have looked like, and how it behaved.  A discovery in Germany, described in a paper in Nature called "Soft-Tissue Evidence for Homeothermy and Crypsis in a Jurassic Ichthyosaur" and authored by no fewer than 23 scientists, has given us incredibly detailed information on these oddball dinosaurs.

The authors write:
Ichthyosaurs are extinct marine reptiles that display a notable external similarity to modern toothed whales.  Here we show that this resemblance is more than skin deep.  We apply a multidisciplinary experimental approach to characterize the cellular and molecular composition of integumental tissues in an exceptionally preserved specimen of the Early Jurassic ichthyosaur Stenopterygius.  Our analyses recovered still-flexible remnants of the original scaleless skin, which comprises morphologically distinct epidermal and dermal layers.  These are underlain by insulating blubber that would have augmented streamlining, buoyancy and homeothermy.  Additionally, we identify endogenous proteinaceous and lipid constituents, together with keratinocytes and branched melanophores that contain eumelanin pigment.  Distributional variation of melanophores across the body suggests countershading, possibly enhanced by physiological adjustments of colour to enable photoprotection, concealment and/or thermoregulation.  Convergence of ichthyosaurs with extant marine amniotes thus extends to the ultrastructural and molecular levels, reflecting the omnipresent constraints of their shared adaptation to pelagic life.
So from a 180-million-year-old fossil, we now know that Stenopterygius (1) was a homeotherm (colloquially called "warm-blooded"), (2) had a blubber layer much like modern dolphins and whales, and (3) were countershaded -- dark on top and light underneath, to aid camouflage -- similar to dozens of species of modern fish.

This level of preservation is extremely unusual.  "Both the contour of the body and the remains of internal organs are clearly visible," said paleontologist Johan Lindgren of the University of Lund, who co-authored the paper.  "Surprisingly, the fossil is so well preserved that it is possible to observe individual cell layers inside the skin."

"This is the first direct chemical evidence of warm blood in an ichthyosaur, because a subcutaneous fat layer is a characteristic of warm-blooded animals," said Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University, also a co-author.  "Ichthyosaurs are interesting because they have many features in common with dolphins, but they are not related at all to these mammals that inhabit the sea.  But the enigma does not stop there...  They have many characteristics in common with living marine reptiles, such as sea turtles; but we know from the fossil record that they gave live birth to their young...  This study reveals some of those biological mysteries."

Which is pretty astonishing.  I've always had a fascination for the prehistoric world, and have spent more time than I like to admit wondering what it might have been like to live in the Jurassic world. This research gives us one more piece of information -- about a fierce prehistoric predator that shared some amazing similarities to creatures that still swim in our oceans.


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