New species of “fish lizard”, reptile dating back to dinosaurs, discovered by McGill student


A McGill University doctoral student and a professor at the National Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany have identified a new species of Ichthyosaure – an extinct reptile which swam in the oceans at the time when the dinosaurs still roamed the planet.Dirley Cortés, doctoral student in paleontology, has had an affinity for fossils for as long as she can remember. Born in Colombia, Cortés lived near several archaeological digs growing up and devoted himself to collecting fossils for school projects.

While doing research in Germany in 2017, Cortés began to study ichtyosaures with Erin Maxwell, curator at the Stuttgart museum.

Ichthyosaures, which translates to fishing lizards, was a group of tuna-shaped reptiles that existed around 200 million years ago. They were first discovered and studied by scientists in the early 1800s, and several species have since been discovered, ranging from two meters long to 10 meters.

“They started around the rise of the dinosaurs,” explained Professor Hans Larsson, director of the Redpath Museum and advisor to Dirley.

“He had body sizes that ranged from the size of a humpback whale to a size smaller than dolphins and they were quite diverse and successful. “

Intriguing skull

Cortés and Maxwell’s study focused on species related to the Hauffiopteryx symbol, a small 2-meter-long ichthyosaur that was known to inhabit parts of what is now Europe.

The fossils were found in the Posidonia shales, an ancient Jurassic geological formation located at the axis of Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

“We started by studying some skulls in Germany and there was a specific skull that had a particular morphology,” Cortés said.

McGill doctoral candidate Dirley Cortès grew up near archaeological digs in her native Colombia, which prompted her to become a paleontologist. (Biodiversity, ecosystem services and sustainability / McGill)

The formation of this skull did not appear to resemble any of the other specimens they were looking at.

After years of further research, Cortés and Maxwell have now co-authored a study that identifies the fossil as a new species called Hauffiopteryx altera – a word which translates as “different from”, to indicate that this type of Hauffiopteryx was unlike anything they had ever seen before.

With nearly 90 years since the most recent discovery of a Ichthyosaure species, both were shocked at their discovery.

“It was a pretty exciting time,” Cortés said. “I mean, we never thought that a new species could be discovered. ”

” It’s super cool. ”

Cortés and Maxwell estimate that this new species would have been particularly small and not much longer than the average human today.

“We were surprised to discover that this small specimen the size of a dolphin, collected decades ago, is a new species,” Maxwell said in a statement Thursday.

“There is still a lot of diversity to discover in our vast museum collections”.

the Hauffiopteryx altera the fossils will always be part of the paleontological collections of the University of Tübingen, in Germany.


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