Scientists solve mystery of how an ancient reptile moved around with a neck three times longer than its body
Paleontologists have been puzzled ever since fossils of the creature, which is part of the Tanystropheus genus, were first discovered in 1852, as they were unable to work out how the animal could have supported the weight of its neck.
The creature’s “bizarre body didn’t make things clear one way or the other”, researchers said, and its giraffe-like neck left scientists unsure over whether it lived on land or in the sea.
The puzzle was solved when a new study by the University of Zurich reconstructed the reptile’s skull, revealing “several very clear adaptations for life in water”.
Olivier Rieppel, a paleontologist at the Field Museum in Chicago and one of the authors on the study, said: “That neck doesn’t make sense in a terrestrial environment. It’s just an awkward structure to carry around.”
Mr Rieppel described the creature as “a stubby crocodile with a very, very long neck”.
The scan showed that the 20-foot reptile had nostrils on the top of its snout and curved, interlocked teeth – both indications of an animal that would have hunted in the water.
Stephan Spiekman, a paleontologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and lead author on the study, said: “It likely hunted by stealthily approaching its prey in murky water using its small head and very long neck to remain hidden.”
Tanystropheus fossils were discovered in on the border between Switzerland and Italy.
Nearby, scientists found fossils of a creature that looked similar, but was only 4-feet long, leading them to wonder if they were juveniles or a different species. Analysis revealed they were fully grown, and therefore a separate species.
Nick Fraser, keeper of natural sciences at National Museums Scotland and a co-author on the paper, said: “It is hugely significant to discover that there were two quite separate species of this bizarrely long-necked reptile who swam and lived alongside each other in the coastal waters of the great sea of Tethys approximately 240 million years ago.”
Mr Spiekman added: “These two closely related species had evolved to use different food sources in the same environment.
He explained the small species probably ate small shelled creatures such as shrimp, while the large species will have fed on fish and squid.
“This is really remarkable, because we expected the bizarre neck of Tanystropheus to be specialised for a single task, like the neck of a giraffe.
“But actually, it allowed for several lifestyles. This completely changes the way we look at this animal.”