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The fossils of three ichthyosaurs – giant marine reptiles that patrolled primordial oceans – have been discovered high up in the Swiss Alps. They include the largest tooth found for the species.
With elongated bodies and small heads, the prehistoric leviathans weighed up to 80 metric tons and grew to 20 metres, making them among the largest animals to have lived.
They first appeared 250 million years ago in the early Triassic, and a smaller, dolphin-like subtype survived until 90 million years ago.
But the gigantic ichthyosaurs, which accounted for most of the species, died out 200 million years ago.
Unlike dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs have left few fossil remains. "Why that is remains a great mystery to this day," said Martin Sander of the University of Bonn, lead author of the paper on the latest discovery in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The specimens in question, dated to 205 million years ago in the study, were unearthed between 1976 and 1990 during geological surveys, but were only recently analysed in detail.
Found at altitude
Despite being the remains of sea-dwelling creatures, the fossils were discovered at an altitude of 2,800 metres.
During their lifetimes the three swam in waters around the supercontinent Pangea – but due to plate tectonics and the folding of the Alps, the fossils kept rising.
Ichthyosaurs were thought to have inhabited only the deep ocean. But the rocks from which the new fossils derive are believed to have been at the bottom of a shallow coastal area. It could be that some of the giants followed schools of fish there.
There are two sets of skeletal remains. One consists of 10 rib fragments and a vertebra, suggesting an animal some 20 metres long, which is more or less equivalent to the largest ichthyosaur to have been found, in Canada.
The second animal measured 15 metres, according to an estimate from the seven vertebrae found.
"From our point of view, however, the tooth is particularly exciting," explained Sander.
"Because this is huge by ichthyosaur standards: Its root was 60 millimetres in diameter - the largest specimen still in a complete skull to date was 20 millimetres and came from an ichthyosaur that was nearly 18 metres long."
While this could indicate a beast of epic proportions, it is more likely to have come from an ichthyosaur with particularly gigantic teeth, rather than a particularly gigantic ichthyosaur.
Current research holds that extreme gigantism is incompatible with a predatory lifestyle requiring teeth.
The largest known animal to have lived – the blue whale at 30 metres long and 150 tons – lacks teeth.
Blue whales are filter feeders, while the much smaller sperm whales, at 20 metres long and 50 tons, are hunters, and use more of their energy to fuel their muscles.
"Marine predators therefore probably can't get much bigger than a sperm whale," Sander said, though more fossils would need to be found to know for certain.
"Maybe there are more remains of the giant sea creatures hidden beneath the glaciers," he said.