Long neck helped reptile hunt underwater

August 06, 2020

Its neck was three times as long as its torso, but had only 13 extremely elongated vertebrae: Tanystropheus, a bizarre giraffe-necked reptile which lived 242 million years ago, is a paleontological absurdity. A new study led by the University of Zurich has now shown that the creature lived in water and was surprisingly adaptable.

For over 150 years, paleontologists have puzzled over Tanystropheus, its strangely long neck and whether it lived mostly underwater or on land. An international team led by the University of Zurich has now reconstructed its skull in unprecedented detail using synchrotron radiation micro-computed tomography (SRμCT), an extremely powerful form of CT scanning. In addition to revealing crucial aspects of its lifestyle, this also shows that Tanystropheus had evolved into two different species.

Underwater ambush predator

The researchers were able to reconstruct an almost complete 3D skull from a severely crushed fossil. The reconstruction reveals that the skull of Tanystropheus has several very clear adaptations for life in water. The nostrils are located on the top of the snout, much like in modern crocodilians, and the teeth are long and curved, perfectly adapted for catching slippery prey like fish and squid. However, the lack of visible adaptations for swimming in the limbs and tail also means that Tanystropheus was not a particularly efficient swimmer. "It likely hunted by stealthily approaching its prey in murky water using its small head and very long neck to remain hidden," says lead author and UZH paleontologist Stephan Spiekman.

Two species living together

Tanystropheus remains have mainly been found at Monte San Giorgio on the border between Switzerland and Italy, a place so unique for its Triassic fossils that it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Two types of Tanystropheus fossils are known from this location, one small and one large. Until now, these were believed to be the juveniles and adults of the same species.

However, the current study disproves this assumption. The reconstructed skull, belonging to a large specimen, is very different from the already known smaller skulls, particularly when it comes to its dentition. In order to see whether the small fossils actually belonged to young animals, the researchers looked at cross sections of limb bones from the smaller type of Tanystropheus. They found many growth rings which form when bone growth is drastically slowed down. "The number and distribution of the growth rings tells us that these smaller types were not young animals, as previously considered, but mature ones," says last author Torsten Scheyer. "This means that the small fossils belonged to a separate, smaller species of Tanystropheus."

Specialists in different food sources

According to Spiekman, these two closely related species had evolved to use different food sources in the same environment: "The small species likely fed on small shelled animals, like shrimp, in contrast to the large species which ate fish and squid." For the researchers, this is a really remarkable finding: "We expected the bizarre neck of Tanystropheus to be specialized for a single task, like the neck of a giraffe. But actually, it allowed for several lifestyles."

University of Zurich

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.