Jurassic-era Reptile Fossil Still Has Blubber And Skin

Posted: Dec 7 2018, 2:01pm CST | by , in Latest Science News

 

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Jurassic-era Reptile Fossil Still has Blubber and Skin
Credit: Johan Lindgren

Researchers have found that 180-million-year-old ichthyosaur and modern dolphins are more closely related than previously thought.

When organisms die and become fossilized, soft tissues generally do not preserve. However, a 180-million-year-old fossil, found in Germany, is so well preserved that researchers are able to extract skin from its bones. The ancient fossil belongs to Stenopterygius ichthyosaur and displays distinct similarities to modern-day dolphins. Its analysis reveals that the dolphin-like marine reptile from the Jurassic period was most likely warm-blooded, had insulating blubber and used camouflage to protect itself from predators.

“Ichthyosaurs are interesting because they have many traits in common with dolphins, but are not at all closely related to those sea-dwelling mammals," said research co-author Mary Schweitzer, a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University. “They have many features in common with living marine reptiles like sea turtles, but we know from the fossil record that they gave live birth, which is associated with warm-bloodedness. This study reveals some of those biological mysteries."

Researchers identified cell-like microstructures within the fossil's skin, as well as traces of an internal organ thought to be the liver. Another part is chemically consistent with blubber, a thick layer of fat found under the skin of modern marine mammals. Blubber helps marine mammals maintain body temperatures. Finding it in a reptile is very rare indeed.

“This is the first direct, chemical evidence for warm-bloodedness in an ichthyosaur, because blubber is a feature of warm-blooded animals," said Schweitzer.

“Both morphologically and chemically, we found that although Stenopterygius would be loosely considered 'reptiles,' they lost the scaly skin associated with these animals—just as the modern leatherback sea turtle has. Losing the scales reduces drag and increases maneuverability underwater.”

The fossil record is mostly based on harder parts of organisms, such as bones. Soft parts such as internal organs usually decay soon after an animal dies. Fossils that preserve both hard and soft body parts are critical to our understanding of biology and evolution of long-extinct animals.

Schweitzer says. “This specimen has given us more evidence that these tissues and molecules can preserve for extremely long periods, and that soft tissue analysis can shed light on evolutionary patterns, relationships, and how ancient animals functioned in their environment.”

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.

 

 

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