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Giant sea monster believed to be largest animal to ever live unearthed in the Alps

The 205 million-year-old ichthyosaur was larger than a blue whale, scientists say.

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The habitat and animals that were found together with the giant ichthyosaurs. (Heinz Furrer / SWNS)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

A giant marine monster, possibly the largest animal that ever lived, has been unearthed - high up in the Alps.

The 205 million-year-old ichthyosaur was larger than a blue whale, scientists say.

The creature was identified from fossils representing three individuals - including massive teeth and vertebrae.

They were dug out of rocks at an altitude of more than 9,000 feet in Switzerland. Europe's high peaks formed when tectonic plates collided - pushing up the seabed.

Team member Dr. Heinz Furrer, a retired curator at the University of Zurich's Palaeontological Institute and Museum, said he was thrilled.

He said: "It's the world's longest ichthyosaur; with the thickest tooth found to date and the largest trunk vertebra in Europe."

The huge reptiles patrolled Panthalassa, an ocean that surrounded the supercontinent Pangea during the Late Triassic.

They also made forays into the shallow seas of the Tethys on the eastern side - as shown by the sensational finds.

Lead author Dr Martin Sandler, of the University of Bonn, said: "Maybe there are more remains of the giant sea creatures hidden beneath the glaciers.”

The tooth root is twice as wide as the previous record - which belonged to an ichthyosaur that was 50 feet from nose to tail.

Other incomplete skeletal remains such as the vertebra show it dwarfed an ichthyosaur from Canada named Shonisaurus sikanniensis - which was 69ft (21m) long.

It also outgrew an 85-ft Jurassic 'sea dragon' that roamed the British coastline around the same time.

Dr. Sandler said: "Bigger is always better. There are distinct selective advantages to large body size. Life will go there if it can.

(Qualiesin via Wikimedia Commons)

"There were only three animal groups that had masses greater than 10–20 metric tonnes: long-necked dinosaurs; whales; and the giant ichthyosaurs of the Triassic.”

Ichthyosaurs first emerged in the wake of the Permian extinction some 250 million years ago, when some 95 percent of marine species died out.

The group reached its greatest diversity in the Middle Triassic - and a few species persisted into the Cretaceous.

Most were much smaller than S. sikanniensis and the latest species described in the
Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Roughly the shape of contemporary whales, ichthyosaurs had elongated bodies and erect tail fins.

Fossils are concentrated in North America and Europe, but ichthyosaurs have also been found in South America, Asia, and Australia.

Giant species have mostly been unearthed in North America, with scant finds from the Himalaya and New Caledonia.

The discovery of further behemoths in Switzerland represents an expansion of their known range.

An enormous toothless jaw bone from Somerset suggests they reached the size of blue whales.

Dr. Sander said: "It amounts to a major embarrassment for paleontology that we know so little about these giant ichthyosaurs despite the extraordinary size of their fossils.

"We hope to rise to this challenge and find new and better fossils soon."

The new specimens, collected between 1976 and 1990, have only recently been scanned. They probably represent the last of the leviathans.

Dr. Sander said: "In Nevada, we see the beginnings of true giants, and in the Alps the end. Only the medium-to-large-sized dolphin and orca-like forms survived into the Jurassic."

It's only the second instance of a giant ichthyosaur with teeth - the other being the 50-foot-long Himalayasaurus.

They likely occupied similar ecological roles to modern sperm whales and killer whales. Indeed, the teeth are curved inwards like those of their mammalian successors,.

It indicates a grasping mode of feeding conducive to capturing prey such as giant squid.

Dr. Sander said: "It is hard to say if the tooth is from a large ichthyosaur with giant teeth or from a giant ichthyosaur with average-sized teeth."

The tooth was broken off at the crown. It could not confidently be assigned to a particular taxon.

Still, a peculiarity of dental anatomy allowed the researchers to identify it as belonging to an ichthyosaur.

Dr. Sander said: "Ichthyosaurs have a feature in their teeth that is nearly unique among reptiles: the infolding of the dentin in the roots of their teeth. The only other group to show this are monitor lizards."

The skeletal remains consist of eight vertebrae and ten rib fragments. They belong to the family Shastasauridae, which contains the giants Shastasaurus, Shonisaurus and Himalayasaurus.

Known as the Kössen Formation, the rocks from which these fossils derive were once at the bottom of a shallow coastal area - a very wide lagoon or shallow basin.

This adds to the uncertainty surrounding the habits of these animals, whose size indicates their suitability to deeper reaches of the ocean.

Dr Furrer said: "We think that the big ichthyosaurs followed schools of fish into the lagoon. The fossils may also derive from strays that died there.

"You have to be kind of a mountain goat to access the relevant beds. They have the vexing property of not occurring below about 8,000 feet, way above the treeline.

"At 95 million years ago, the northeastern part of Gondwana, the African plate which the Kossen Formation was part of, started to push against the European plate, ending with the formation of the very complex piles of different rock units called 'nappes' in the Alpine orogeny at about 30-40 million years ago."

So it is the intrepid researchers found themselves picking through the frozen rocks of the Alps and hauling pieces of ancient marine monsters nearly down to sea level once again for entry into the scientific record.

Ichtyosaurs went extinct 90 million years ago - long before the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Like mammals, they gave birth to live young. This represented a momentous evolutionary leap for these sea creatures - liberating them from having to lay eggs.

Their streamlined, fish-like form meant they could reach speeds of up to 22mph.

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