Field of Science

Macropredatory ichthyosaur, Thalattoarchon saurophagis, from the Middle Triassic of Nevada

New in PNAS. I assume by terrestrial apex predators in the Carnian they are thinking about phytosaurs and/or large rauisuchids as they (p. 3) state that "Although large predators such as the rauisuchians Erythrosuchus and Ticinosuchus appear in the terrestrial rock record in the Anisian (Nesbitt, 2011), it has been suggested that full recovery on land was not reached until the Late Triassic, 30 My after the P/T extinction (Sahney & Benton, 2008)" [full references and edit added]. Unfortunately this ignores a good bit of new evidence published since 2008 that has changed our understanding of the timing of recovery on land (Xilousuchus, Nyassasaurus). However, I still think the existance of giant (almost 9 meter long) ichthyosaurs is incredible. More than a decade ago I got to see the 21 meter long holotype specimen of Shastasaurus sikanniensis (Late Triassic, British Columbia) when it was being prepared at the Royal Tyrell Museum. To get a photograph of just the rear portion of the skull I had to stand at the top of a fully extended ladder. I used a meter stick for the scale bar! This new specimen is not quite 9 meters in length, but is still huge as the average is 2-4 meters, and it has 12 cm long teeth.

Fröbisch, N. B., Fröbisch, J., Sander, P. M., Schmitz, L., and O. Rieppel. 2013. Macropredatory ichthyosaur from the Middle Triassic and the origin of modern trophic networks. PNAS Early Edition, January 7, 2013. doi:10.1073/pnas.1216750110

 Abstract -
The biotic recovery from Earth’s most severe extinction event at the Permian-Triassic boundary largely reestablished the preextinction structure of marine trophic networks, with marine reptiles assuming the predator roles. However, the highest trophic level of today's marine ecosystems, i.e., macropredatory tetrapods that forage on prey of similar size to their own, was thus far lacking in the Paleozoic and early Mesozoic. Here we report a top-tier tetrapod predator, a very large (>8.6 m) ichthyosaur from the early Middle Triassic (244 Ma), of Nevada. This ichthyosaur had a massive skull and large labiolingually flattened teeth with two cutting edges indicative of a macropredatory feeding style. Its presence documents the rapid evolution of modern marine ecosystems in the Triassic where the same level of complexity as observed in today’s marine ecosystems is reached within 8 My after the Permian-Triassic mass extinction and within 4 My of the time reptiles first invaded the sea. This find also indicates that the biotic recovery in the marine realm may have occurred faster compared with terrestrial ecosystems, where the first apex predators may not have evolved before the Carnian.

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