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.

Friday, April 19, 2024

The titan

One thing science teaches us is that just about everything is interesting if you look at it carefully enough.  Still, there's an ingrained human tendency to be overawed by superlatives -- the biggest, the heaviest, the brightest, the strongest, the most powerful.

It's why a recent fossil discovery from Somerset, England has made the headlines.  The rocks in Somerset, in the southwest of England, are mostly of Triassic age; it's not far from the famous "Jurassic Coast," which begins around Exmouth with Triassic sedimentary rocks that gradually become younger as you head west.  It's the site that the brilliant nineteenth century paleontologist Mary Anning studied -- becoming one of a very long list of talented women scientists who struggled for recognition by their male peers with tragically little success.

Somerset, which is a bit north from there, is also a great site for Mesozoic fossils, and some amateur fossil hunters recently found a doozy.  Father-and-daughter team Justin and Ruby Reynolds were searching along the north Somerset coast and saw what turned out to be a fossilized jawbone...

... of a creature which is estimated to have been twenty-five meters long.  (For my fellow Americans, twenty-five meters is about 130 bananas long.)

The animal was a type of ichthyosaur, a group that reached their height of diversity in the late Triassic Period.  We've known for a long time that ichthyosaurs were 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.

But this new species could have eaten an Ophthalmosaurus as an appetizer and still had plenty of room for the entrĂ©e.  It's been dubbed Ichthyotitan severnensis -- more or less, "gigantic fish-thing from the Severn."  The fossil dates to about 202 million years ago.

[Image credit: artist Sergey Krasovskiy]

"I was highly impressed that Ruby and Justin correctly identified the discovery as another enormous jawbone from an ichthyosaur," said Dean Lomax, paleontologist at the University of Manchester, who verified the find and helped to classify it, in an interview with Science Daily.  "They recognized that it matched the one we described in 2018. I asked them whether they would like to join my team to study and describe this fossil, including naming it.  They jumped at the chance.  For Ruby, especially, she is now a published scientist who not only found but also helped to name a type of gigantic prehistoric reptile.  There are probably not many fifteen-year-olds who can say that!  A Mary Anning in the making, perhaps."

The Ichthyotitan, though, was one of the last of its kind; it, and a great many other species, were victims of the Late Triassic Mass Extinction, a poorly-understood extinction event that occurred around 201 million years ago and was only slightly smaller than the much better-known Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction that would happen 135 million years later.  The most likely explanation of the Late Triassic event is volcanism and outgassing from the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province, the mantle upwelling from which would ultimately split up Pangaea and open the Atlantic Ocean, but that point is still being argued over by geologists and paleontologists.

Whether this particular Ichthyotitan was killed during the extinction event itself is, of course, impossible to tell, but the fossil dates to almost exactly the right time.  Its discovery also ramps up the search for more fossils along the north Somerset coast.  "It is quite remarkable to think that gigantic, blue whale-sized ichthyosaurs were swimming in the oceans around what was the UK during the Triassic Period," Lomax said.  "These jawbones provide tantalizing evidence that perhaps one day a complete skull or skeleton of one of these giants might be found.  You never know."

It's a hell of a find -- a bone from a creature in contention for the largest animal known.  I don't know about you, but it's hard even to imagine a predator that big.  The late Triassic must have been an impressive-looking place...

... observed, of course, from a safe distance.


1 comment:

  1. Truly an amazing find, and life changing for a young girl.