By Joshua Manning • 01 May 2022 • 13:24
Giant marine dinosaur fossils discovered in the Swiss Alps
In an announcement published by the University of Bonn, Germany, it was revealed that fossil finds at an altitude of 2,800 metres in the Swiss Alps, belong to ancient giant marine dinosaurs.
According to the statement, more than 30 years ago, researchers from the University of Zurich discovered vertebrae, ribs and a tooth in the high Alps of eastern Switzerland. Due to their typical shape, they must have come from large fish dinosaurs, but there was no corresponding comparative material. A new study led by the University of Bonn has now allowed a more precise classification. According to the study, they belong to three different fish dinosaurs, probably ranging from 15 to 20 metres in length. The tooth is particularly unusual: with a root diameter of six centimetres, it is twice as large as the largest fish dinosaur tooth found so far. The results have now been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The first fish dinosaurs (technically known as ichthyosaurs) swam through the primordial oceans in the early Triassic period about 250 million years ago. They had elongated bodies and relatively small heads. However, shortly before most of them died out a good 200 million years ago (only the known dolphin-like species survived until 90 million years ago), they developed gigantic shapes. With an estimated weight of 80 tonnes and a length of more than 20 metres, these prehistoric giants would have rivalled a sperm whale. However, they left hardly any fossil remains – “why is still a great mystery today”, emphasises Prof. Dr. Martin Sander from the Department of Palaeontology at the Institute of Geosciences at the University of Bonn.
The finds that have now been examined come from the canton of Graubünden. Sander’s colleague Dr. Heinz Furrer from the University of Zurich had recovered them together with students between 1976 and 1990 during geological mapping in the Kössen Formation. More than 200 million years earlier, the rock layers with the fossils had still covered the sea floor. With the unfolding of the Alps, however, they had reached an altitude of 2,800 metres. “Perhaps there are still more remains of the giant sea dwellers slumbering under the glaciers,” hopes Sander.
According to the study, the fossils come from three different animals that lived about 205 million years ago. From one of the ichthyosaurs, a vertebra has been preserved together with ten rib fragments. Their sizes suggest that the reptile probably had a length of 20 metres. In contrast, only one set of vertebrae was excavated from a second fish dinosaur. Comparison with better-preserved skeletal finds suggests a length of about 15 metres.
“From our point of view, however, the tooth is particularly exciting,” explains Sander. “Because it is huge by fish dinosaur standards: its root had a diameter of 60 millimetres – the largest specimen still stuck in a complete skull so far was 20 millimetres and came from an ichthyosaur that was almost 18 metres long.” His colleague Heinz Furrer is pleased about the late appreciation of the spectacular remains from the Swiss Alps: “With the publication, it has been confirmed that our finds from that time belong to the world’s longest fish dinosaurs, with the thickest tooth found so far and the largest dorsal vertebra in Europe!”
However, it is unlikely that far longer animals than previously thought populated the primordial oceans 205 million years ago. “The tooth diameter cannot be used to directly infer the length of its owner,” emphasises Bonn palaeontologist Martin Sander. “Nevertheless, the find naturally raises questions.”
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Originally from the UK, Joshua is based on the Costa Blanca and is a web reporter for the Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news. Got a news story you want to share? Then get in touch at [email protected]
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