Scientists have described a 246 million-year-old extinct marine reptile that died with its unborn offspring as a new species.
Fossilised remains of the pregnant ichthyosaur, christened ‘Martina’ by the scientists, was found in a small mountain range in Nevada.
The beast had a skull so big researchers needed to had to borrow a beer truck from a local brewery to haul it away.
Its teeth, each about an inch in length, would have helped her tear up prey such as squid or fish that were in the sea that covered what is now the western US state.
The 12-foot-long Martina is also a species of ichthyosaur, Cymbospondylus duelferi, that hasn’t been found anywhere else, according to the researchers.
Skull of the new Cymbospondylus (A and B) and its teeth (G). The preserved right half of the skull is still articulated with the right lower jaw. The left side of the skull and left lower jaw are not preserved. The tip of the long and narrow snout was lost to weathering
Sander found the remains of Martina at an excavation site in the Augusta Mountains, 150 miles (241 kilometers) east of Reno
‘It is the first big thing that lived on this earth,’ said Professor Martin Sander, a paleontologist at the University of Bonn, Germany. ‘She was a pretty fierce lady.
‘In Nevada you see this incredible explosion of ichthyosaurs.
‘It is an incredible place and there is new stuff coming out all the time – everything we touch, new stuff is coming out of it.’
At about 12 feet (3.6 meters) long she was smaller than other ichthyosaurs, some of which are as large as 60 feet (18 meters).
Despite her smaller body, Martina’s teeth were larger than expected for an ichthyosaur of similar size.
Sander found the remains of Martina at an excavation site in the Augusta Mountains, 150 miles (241 kilometers) east of Reno back in October 2011.
The German palaeontologist had been working summers in Nevada for 20 years by that point and him and his team were nearing the end of a two-week expedition in an ichthyosaur hotspot.
Cymbospondylus has been interpreted as a pregnant female with a minimum number of three fetuses preserved
Generally when an excavation team packs up and leaves for the season they know it might be months, or even years, before they return.
So Sander made the decision to take another last-minute trip around the site before they packed up and left, which proved fateful.
‘The trick is you have to know what you are looking for,’ said Sander, who described that final stroll as ‘wandering around in the field’.
At an outcropping around 6,000 feet (1,828 meters) in elevation he spotted what appeared to be fossilised remains of an ichthyosaur spine.
Further, there was evidence the large, prehistoric, swimming reptile had been pregnant when it died, likely with three offspring.
‘I found it and realised pretty quickly what I was looking at,’ Sander said.
The next day, with cold and snow closing in, the team packed up the exposed fossils for further research.
They returned in 2014 and excavated the rest of the area and only now, six years later, have they published their findings in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.
The fetuses are, on average 68 per cent smaller than the vertebrae of the medium-sized mother, the team estimate.
Cymbospondylus duelferi, from the early Triassic period, shows how quickly life evolved following the Permian-Triassic extinction event 252 million years ago, which is thought to have wiped out as many as 96 per cent of the world’s species.
An artist’s impression of a ichthyosaur reptile as it existed during the Jurassic period, 251 million to 145.5 million years ago
That ichthyosaurs of immense size and diversity are found dating back to a few million years later suggests the animals evolved relatively quickly.
‘The cool thing about it is they just diversified crazily fast,’ Sander said.
One of the reptiles’ adaptations, as Martina demonstrates, is laying eggs to giving live birth, which would have been an advantage in their move to the sea.
It’s much like the advantage a whale or dolphin has over a sea turtle – while the former give a live birth, the sea turtle is exposed, along with offspring, to danger by having to leave the water to lay eggs on shore.
‘Most of the reptiles that returned to the sea, they all evolved this ability from egg laying to giving birth to live young,’ Sander said.
Martina is the second-oldest specimen of a pregnant ichthyosaur, following a 249-million-year-old specimen from China.
She’s also one of two major ichthyosaur findings at the location in the Augusta Mountains.
The other finding hasn’t yet been published in an academic journal, but it involves an ichthyosaur fossil Sander refers to as ‘the giant skull’, which may even prove the more significant of the two discoveries.
While both Martina and the giant skull are exciting to researchers like Sander, they’ve also captured the imagination of people like craft brewer Tom Young, a former geologist, is the founder of Great Basin Brewing in Reno.
It was his beer truck that researchers used to haul the giant skull from the Augusta Mountains to the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.
Great Basin Brewing brews the Ichthyosaur, or ‘Icky’, IPA, described as a highly-evolved brew’.
Young said the company’s mission is to popularise paleontology in Nevada with help from beer.
‘It is so important we preserve this and study these things to show where we are today and how we got here,’ he said.
‘You marvel as a human and realise the importance of our being here now, but at the same time you are looking at us as part of this much larger, huge universe.’
Young has contributed thousands of dollars, and plenty of beer, to the research efforts and has hosted brewery fundraisers for members of the public who want to hear from the scientists.
The team said they’d like to see the state develop a repository for keeping ichthyosaur fossils recovered from public land.
Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park retains fossils that are on display as they were found.
But many significant finds are trucked to Berkeley or Los Angeles where there are repositories that meet federal standards.
‘It should give Nevada some great pride we have some the coolest and biggest and meanest things to evolve on Earth here in our backyard,’ Young said.
What we know about ichthyosaurs – the marine predators that ruled the waters in the era of the dinosaurs
Ichthyosaurs were a highly successful group of sea-going reptiles that became extinct around 90 million years ago.
They appeared during the Triassic, reached their peak during the Jurassic, and disappeared during the Cretaceous period.
Often misidentified as swimming dinosaurs, these reptiles appeared before the first dinosaurs had emerged.
They evolved from an as-yet unidentified land reptile that moved back into the water.
The huge animals, which remained at the top of the food chain for millions of years, developed a streamlined, fish-like form built for speed.
Scientists calculate that one species had a cruising speed of 22 mph (36 kmh).
The largest species of ichthyosaur is thought to have grown to over 20 metres (65 ft) in length.
The largest complete ichthyosaurus fossil ever discovered, at 3.5 metres (11ft), was found to have a foetus still inside its womb.
Scientists said in August 2017 that the incomplete embryo was less than seven centimetres (2.7 inches) long and consisted of preserved vertebrae, a forefin, ribs and a few other bones.
There was evidence the foetus was still developing in the womb when it died.
The find added to evidence that ichthyosaurs gave birth to live young, unlike egg-laying dinosaurs.