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Why Ancient Marine Reptiles Were Like Modern Whales

A remarkable new fossil, discovered in China, allows scientists to explore the long-extinct reptiles that once roamed our oceans 

Ancient marine reptiles were filter-feeding like modern whales 250 million years ago, a new study reveals.

A collaborative research project between universities in the UK and China discovered the Hupehsuchian, a group of reptiles, could expand their throats and filter food like modern-day whales.

The team also found the ancient animals’ skulls had similar features to those of baleen whales – a group of ‘whalebone Wales’ that sieve plankton from the water, including blue and humpback whales.

Scientists have hailed the new discovery as providing insights into how creatures repopulated the planet following the largest known extinction event which had wiped out most lifeforms on Earth.

Hupehsuchus is an order of reptiles closely related to the ichthyosaurs – another large extinct marine mammal – which lived in the Early Triassic era.

Skulls of Hupehsuchus (left and center) and the minke whale (right) showing similar long snout with narrow, loose bones, indicating attachment of an expandable throat pouch. ZI-CHEN FANG ET AL. VIA SWNS.

A remarkable new fossil, discovered in China, has allowed scientists to explore the long-extinct reptiles that once roamed our planet’s oceans.

Researchers in China and the UK found similarities in the skull of a Hupehsuchus reptile and those of modern whales.

Hupehsuchus – which had long tails and large, paddle-like limbs – were short-lived and only lasted a few million years in China during the late Olenekian age, which occurred between 251.2 and 247.2 million years ago.

The researchers found details of the skull in the newly found fossils which indicate it had soft structures, such as an expanding throat region that allowed them to engulf great masses of water containing shrimp-like prey, and whale-like structures which allowed them to filter food as they swam.

The team also found Hupehsuchus skulls to show the same grooves and notches along the edges of its jaws similar to baleen whales, which have keratin strips instead of teeth.

“The new discoveries were extremely exciting,” said Zichen Fang, from the Wuhan Center of China Geological Survey, who led the new research. 

“We were amazed to discover these adaptations in such an early marine reptile,” said Fang.

“The Hupehsuchians were a unique group in China, close relatives of the ichthyosaurs, and known for 50 years – but their mode of life was not fully understood.”

Professor and author Michael Benton, a collaborator at the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, said the discovery, reported in the journal Ecology and Evolution, also shed light on how the Earth repopulated after the end-Permian mass extinction event.

The event, which occurred around 251.9 million years ago, is known as the Great Dying and was Earth’s most severe known extinction event.

“The Hupehsuchians lived in the Early Triassic, about 248 million years ago, in China and they were part of a huge and rapid re-population of the oceans,” said Prof Benton.

“This was a time of turmoil, only three million years after the huge end-Permian mass extinction which had wiped out most life.

“It’s been amazing to discover how fast these large marine reptiles came on the scene and entirely changed marine ecosystems of the time.”

Ancient marine reptiles were filter-feeding like modern-day whales. SHUNYISHU/LONGCHENG/WCCGS VIA SWNS.

On the newly discovered fossils, Professor Long Cheng, of the Wuhan Center of China Geological Survey, said: “We discovered two new hupehsuchian skulls.

“These were more complete than earlier finds and showed that the long snout was composed of unfused, straplike bones, with a long space between them running the length of the snout.

“This construction is only seen otherwise in modern baleen whales where the loose structure of the snout and lower jaws allows them to support a huge throat region that balloons out enormously as they swim forward, engulfing small prey.”

Li Tian, another collaborator from the University of Geosciences Wuhan, added: “The other clue came in the teeth – or the absence of teeth.

“Modern baleen whales have no teeth, unlike toothed whales such as dolphins and orcas.

“Baleen whales have grooves along the jaws to support curtains of baleen, long thin strips of keratin, the protein that makes hair, feathers and fingernails.

“Hupehsuchus had just the same grooves and notches along the edges of its jaws, and we suggest it had independently evolved into some form of baleen.”

Produced in association with SWNS Talker

Edited by Judy J. Rotich and Newsdesk Manager

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