Fossil discovery in Chile reveals new species of giant ancient reptile

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Published On : Mon, Feb 10th, 2014

Scientists say double find confirms the existence of a 30 foot-long marine animal — extinct for more than 60 million years — solving long standing mystery.

Rodrigo Otero (right) and Sergio Soto Acuña study the fossils of a new type of plesiosaur, found in Chile’s Bío Bío Region. Photo via Sergio Soto / MNHN

Rodrigo Otero (right) and Sergio Soto Acuña study the fossils of a new type of plesiosaur, found in Chile’s Bío Bío Region. Photo via Sergio Soto / MNHN

Paleontologists have determined that fossils discovered in Bío Bío Region belong to a previously unidentified type of plesiosaur — or giant marine reptile — that went extinct over 60 million years ago, ending a hunt for answers sparked by fossil fragments in the 19th century.

The findings, published in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, mention two skeletons: one discovered near the coastal town of Cocholgüe, and the other on Quiriquina Island, located at the entrance to the bay of Concepción, around 300 miles south of Santiago.

Finding, excavating and studying the Cocholgüe skeleton — which measures almost 30 feet in length — was no easy task. It took an international team that included scientists from Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (MNHN), Universidad de Chile, Universidad de Concepción, Universidad de La Plata in Argentina, the University of Heidelberg (Germany) and Marshall University (United States).

Image via Sergio Soto / MNHN

Image via Sergio Soto / MNHN

Frank Robin O’Keefe, an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Marshall University, joined the paleontological team in 2011 to help interpret and publish the findings. The scientist told The Santiago Times that this new set of discoveries advances our understanding of what came before us.

“This discovery is very exciting because it is the first largely complete skeleton of an aristonectine plesiosaur,” O’Keefe said. “These animals had a very strange mixture of characteristics, looking in some ways like a long-necked plesiosaur, but having very large and bizarrely shaped heads, as well as enormous flippers. This skeleton is our first big step in attempting to unravel the morphology and ecology of these unique animals.”

David Rubilar Rogers, MNHN Chief Curator of Paleontology and vertebrate paleontologist, has researched the fossils since 2008. He co-authored the findings and explained why it took time to piece everything together in an Efe Futuro article published Friday.

“The first [fossil] that appeared was the skull without the body [in 2001], but a curious phenomenon in the tide caused different parts of the animal’s neck to surface in 2009,” Rogers said.

Rodrigo Otero, a paleontologist from the Universidad de Chile and principal author of the published findings, told The Santiago Times that clues of this creature’s existence were first found more than 150 years ago. In 1848, the first director of the MNHN, Claudio Gay, described fossils similar to those at Cocholgüe, but did not have enough evidence to draw any definitive conclusions.

An artist's impression of the creature. Image via Sergio Soto / MNHN

An artist’s impression of the creature. Image via Sergio Soto / MNHN

“We are clearing up a mystery that is over 160 years old,” Otero said.

But their work is not done. Otero added that he and his colleagues suspect there is more to be found at the excavation site.

O’Keefe also expressed his excitement at the prospect of future discoveries and commended the team’s effectiveness.

“It was easy to work with this group of professionals, and we have an active and productive collaboration that is very exciting scientifically,” O’Keefe said. “We have more papers in review and more in the works, so hopefully this is the first of many discoveries.”

This is not the first time important paleontological finds have been made in Chile. In February 2013, researchers made the largest dinosaur fossil discovery in the country’s history, proving a land bridge that connected South America and Antarctica lasted 20 million years longer than previously thought.

By Ivan Vargas (ivan@santiagotimes.cl)
Copyright 2014 – The Santiago Times

About the Author

Ivan Vargas
Ivan Vargas
Ivan has a degree in Journalism and Ethnomusicology from The University of Florida. He enjoys writing about environmental and human rights issues, as well as food and economics. His work has been published in The Independent Florida Alligator and the annual literary magazine, Miambiance. He was born and raised in Miami, Florida. Contact him at ivan@santiagotimes.cl.