Known as thalattosaurus, the ancient sea reptile had an "extremely pointed snout" and grew to nearly 16 feet in length. They existed on the planet during the late Triassic period, roaming the seas for approximately 40 million years before they became extinct, according to researchers.
“Thalattosaurs were among the first groups of land-dwelling reptiles to readapt to life in the ocean,” the study's co-author, Neil Kelley, said in a statement. “They thrived for tens of millions of years, but their fossils are relatively rare so this new specimen helps fill an important gap in the story of their evolution and eventual extinction.”
Artist’s depiction of Gunakadeit joseeae. (Credit: Ray Troll ©2020)
The study's lead author, Patrick Druckenmiller, said the newfound thalattosaurus species, Gunakadeit joseeae, is the most complete ever found in North America and provides new insights about the reptile's family tree. “When you find a new species, one of the things you want to do is tell people where you think it fits in the family tree,” Druckenmiller said. “We decided to start from scratch on the family tree.”
In an interview with Live Science, Druckenmiller added the completeness of the skeleton makes him believe it's "one of the last kind of thalattosaurs alive before they went extinct."
The fossil was discovered in May 2011 by Jim Baichtal, a geologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, and his colleague, Gene Primaky.
This fossil of Gunakadeit joseeae was found in Southeast Alaska. About two-thirds of the tail had already eroded away when the fossil was discovered. (Credit: University of Alaska Museum of the North)
After excavating the skeleton, the researchers were able to tell almost instantly that this was a new species, because of the oddly shaped snout, which it may have used to hunt. “It was probably poking its pointy schnoz into cracks and crevices in coral reefs and feeding on soft-bodied critters,” Druckenmiller added, noting the specialization could have also led to its extinction.
“We think these animals were highly specialized to feed in the shallow water environments, but when the sea levels dropped and food sources changed, they had nowhere to go,” Druckenmiller said.
The study has been published in Scientific Reports.