'Monster' fossil found in Jurassic graveyard

From: http://edition.cnn.com/2006/TECH/science/10/05/monster.fossil.reut/index.html

POSTED: 1841 GMT (0241 HKT), October 5, 2006

OSLO, Norway (Reuters) -- Scientists have found a fossil of a "Monster" fish-like reptile in a 150 million-year-old Jurassic graveyard on an Arctic island off Norway.

The Norwegian researchers discovered remains of a total of 28 plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs -- top marine predators when dinosaurs dominated on land -- at a site on the island of Spitsbergen, about 800 miles from the North Pole.

"One of them was this gigantic monster, with vertebrae the size of dinner plates and teeth the size of cucumbers," Joern Hurum, an assistant professor at the University of Oslo, told Reuters on Thursday.

"We believe the skeleton is intact and that it's about 33 feet long," he told Reuters of the pliosaur, a type of plesiosaur with a short neck and massive skull. The team dubbed the specimen "The Monster".

Such pliosaurs are known from remains in countries including Britain and Argentina but no complete skeleton has been found, he said. The skull of the pliosaur -- perhaps a distant relative to Scotland's mythical Loch Ness monster -- was among the biggest on record.

Scientists would return next year to try to excavate the entire fossil, buried on a hillside.

Plesiosaurs, which swam with two sets of flippers, often preyed on smaller dolphin-like ichthyosaurs. All went extinct when the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago.

The scientists rated the fossil graveyard "one of the most important new sites for marine reptiles to have been discovered in the last several decades".

"It is rare to find so many fossils in the same place -- carcasses are food for other animals and usually get torn apart," Hurum said.

Hurum reckoned the reptiles had not all died at the same time in some Jurassic-era cataclysm but had died over thousands of years in the same area, then become preserved in what was apparently a deep layer of black mud on the seabed.

At that time, the area of Spitsbergen under water several hundred km (miles) further south, around the latitude of Anchorage or Oslo.

Hurum said the presence of fossils was also an interesting pointer for geologists hunting for oil and gas deposits in the Barents Sea to the east. "A skull we found even smells of petrol," he said.