📸 An artist's rendering of a Plesiosaur, showcasing its conical teeth and four paddles.
Featuring a long, snake-like neck and a stout body equipped with slender paddles, Plesiosaurs are one of the most readily identifiable of all ancient marine reptiles. Biomechanical reconstructions suggest that Plesiosaurs moved through the water in the same way that turtles or penguins do, more like flying than swimming. Scientists have also discovered that Plesiosaurs used their unique bodies to hunt for bottom-dwelling crustaceans.
With nearly 140 million years in the fossil record, Plesiosaurs were incredibly successful creatures. As air-breathing reptiles, they lived near the surface in the open seas, and were able to spread around the world. Fossilized skeletons of Plesiosaurs have been found in Europe, North America, and Australia. New paleontological evidence suggests that Plesiosaurs may have given birth to live young instead of laying eggs, adding an interesting twist to a very unique family of reptiles.
📸 A posthumous painting of Anning with her trusty dog Tray.
The story of marine reptiles such as the Plesiosaur, not to mention our modern understanding of species extinction, would be incomplete without discussing the contribution of Mary Anning (1799-1847). Anning was born to a working-class family in Lyme Regis, a small town on the Dorset coast of southern England. Like many in the area, Anning's family sold fossils recovered from the cliffs, but for Mary, it would become a primary source of revenue, and later a connection to the much wider world of science.
Her most notable finds include the first complete Ichthyosaurus and the first two complete Plesiosaurs (the first of which is also attributed to her brother Joseph). She is also credited with being the first to recognize the importance of coprolites and had extensive knowledge of ammonites. During her digs, Anning was aided by her dog Tray. Tray was trained to sit next to interesting finds while Anning retrieved her equipment from other locations. He perished under a sudden cliff-face collapse in 1833 which nearly took Anning's life as well.
📸 A plesiosaur tooth suspended in a rock matrix.
Despite her firsthand experience and deep knowledge of these subjects, Anning was unable to take part officially in the scientific societies of the day which were only open to men. Her discoveries and observations were instead shared through others, with the one notable exception being her drawing of a complete Plesiosaur. In this instance, the noted French anatomist Georges Cuvier proclaimed the animal a hoax. It would take numerous examinations and debate before Cuvier would reverse his position and admit he'd rushed to judgment.
Anning died in 1847 of breast cancer. It would take another 163 years for the Royal Society to recognize her influence in the advancement of science. Today we know the Plesiosaur is no hoax but a fearsome predator of the seas that traveled through the oceans to take up residence across the world.
Plesiosaurus teeth are often discovered embedded in a matrix of sediment, much like how Anning would have found them. Head over to the shop to learn more about Plesiosaur and snag a tooth for yourself.
Emling, Shelley. The fossil hunter: dinosaurs, evolution, and the woman whose discoveries changed the world. St. Martin's Press, 2009.
Briggs, Helen. "The story of 'Eve' the Jurassic sea monster." BBC News. British Broadcasting News, 29 May 2016. Web. 7 March 2018.
Liu, Shiqiu; Adam S. Smith, Yuting Gu, Jie Tan, C. Karen Liu, and Greg Turk. "Computer Simulations Imply Forelimb-Dominated Underwater Flight in Plesiosaurs." PLoS Computational Biology 11.12 (2015):1-18. EBSCOhost. Web. 7 March 2018.
Nicholls, Elizabeth L., and Jack M. Callaway. Ancient Marine Reptiles. San Diego: Academic Press. 1997. EBSCOhost. Web. 7 March 2018.
Knutsen, E.M., P.S. Druckenmiller, and J.H. Hurum. "Two new species of long-necked plesiosaurians (Reptilia: Sauropterygia) from the Upper Jurassic (Middle Volgian) Agardhfjellet Formation of central Spitsbergen." Norwegian Journal of Geology, Vol 92, pp. 187-212. Trondheim 2012, ISSN 029- 196X