“Paleontology is about imagining your daydreams and refining your imagination,” says Scott Persons, professor of geology at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. Persons’ imaginations fell into the scientific record yesterday when he announced a new species of plesiosaur, named Serpentisuchops, which literally translates to a snake crocodile face.
Plesiosaurs were large, dinosaur-riding marine reptiles — in fact, they were actual sea monsters — and what we know about them depends on what we’re lucky enough to dig up. In the Badlands of Wyoming in 1995, researchers unearthed what was once a twenty-three foot plesiosaur, embedded in rock. The landowner donated the specimen to the state’s Glenrock Paleon Museum, a partner of the College of Charleston and the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History. There, the plesiosaur spent quality cleaning time with the fantastically named Glenrock Bone Biddies, a group of elderly women who, instead of a sewing circle, formed a fossil-gathering circle.
As they removed the calcite crystals from the specimen, it became increasingly clear that there was something funny about this plesiosaur. “We used to think that plesiosaurs came in two flavors,” says Persons. The first type, and the best known, had a small head and a long neck. The second type had a short neck and very long crocodile-like jaws. “And then,” says Persons, “there’s our plesiosaur.
People worked bone by bone to reconstruct what the animal might have looked like. “Imagine a scaly body,” he says. “Large, very powerful front flippers, larger than what you see on a sea turtle. A long snake-like neck, again with thirty-two vertebrae, then narrow, elongated jaws, like a lean standard crocodile In these jaws there are large conical and pointed teeth, which fit together very tightly as if you were spreading the fingers of your hands to clasp your hands.
The strange creature lived seventy million years ago, in the shallow inland sea that covered much of the interior of the continental United States, and swam using “underwater flight” – some something more like a penguin’s caress. Its existence is evidence of a phenomenon known as niche partitioning; the vast inland sea was not lacking in marine reptiles, and Serpentisuchops had to find its own role in the ecosystem. People believe it specialized in hunting smaller prey like squid and octopus, and swung its neck and snapped its jaws quickly while doing so.
The discovery represents one more piece of the mostly unsolved puzzle of the prehistoric world; scientists estimate that we know less than 1% of dinosaurs, and the same is likely true for plesiosaurs. Currently, Persons is studying several other fossils in the Wyoming Badlands, including a Triceratops. “A lot of times a really cool paleontological discovery like this plesiosaur is a slow burn,” he says. “You want to find some, and then, if you’re lucky, there are more and more of them buried under the ground, and the excitement only builds.”