Paleontologists unearth bizarre 'fish lizard,' the oldest of its kind

Scientists in China have discovered a remarkably well-preserved fossil of a primitive ichthyosaur, a marine reptile that first appeared some 250 million years ago.

Mr. Stefano Broccoli (Milano) created this image.
The reconstruction of the oldest basal ichthyosauriform, Cartorhynchus lenticarpus, living in 248 million years ago with possible amphibious habits, found from the Lower Triassic at Chaohu, Anhui Province, China.

A 248-million-year-old fossil of an ancient reptile found in China is the oldest known member of a well-known group of marine reptiles, and may have lived both on land and in the sea.

The specimen is a primitive type of ichthyopterygian, a group related to ichthyosaurs, which are large marine reptiles that dominated the world's oceans after the Permian-Triassic extinction. In that event, which occurred 252 million years ago, up to 96 percent of marine animals and 70 percent of land animals went extinct. The recently discovered fossil provides new evidence that ichthyosaurs evolved from creatures that lived on land, researchers say.

"This new animal is a link between the terrestrial ancestor and the ichthyosaurs fully adapted to a life in the sea," said Da-yong Jiang, a geologist at Peking University in China and leader of the study published today (Nov. 5) in the journal Nature. [Image Gallery: Photos Reveal Prehistoric Sea Monster]

Ichthyosaurs, whose name is Greek for "fish lizard," lived from about 248 million to 95 million years ago. The group was extremely diverse, with body lengths ranging from less than 3.3 feet (1 meter) to more than 66 feet (20 m).

Until now, all known ichthyosaur fossils came from animals that lived exclusively in the ocean, and there was a huge gap in the fossil record between them and their ancestors, Jiang told Live Science in an email. Scientists didn't know whether their ancestors were reptiles or amphibians, and if they lived on land or not.

The new species found by Jiang and his team, which they named "Cartorhynchus lenticarpus," is the smallest known ichthyosaur-type creature — only about 1.3 feet (0.4 m) long. The researchers said they suspect the animal is fully grown, but cannot rule out the possibility that the fossil is the remains of an immature form of a larger creature.

Unlike other ichthyosaurs, the new specimen has unusually large flippers that probably limited its ability to get around on land, making it resemble a modern seal. It also has a short snout and body trunk, like other land reptiles, the researchers said.

The animal was probably a suction feeder on the seafloor, and may have eaten worms or eel-like creatures called conodonts, Jiang said.

"The fossil is quite complete and well-preserved," Jiang said. In fact, only part of the animal's tail is missing.

The researchers found the fossil during an excavation at Chaohu, in South China, in 2011. During the dig, they found several skeletons of primitive ichthyosaurs and extinct aquatic reptiles called sauropterygians, as well as fishes and other creatures.

Jiang and his colleagues have been doing excavations in South China since 2002, looking for the first ichthyosaur that "jumped into the sea," he said, so the new find "is a milestone after our hard work for more than 10 years."

Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescienceFacebook Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.