– We wouldn’t have found this if it weren’t for covid, says Benjamin Kear, researcher in palaeontology at the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University.
252 million years ago, one of the largest mass extinctions in history occurred. The temperature rose rapidly, probably after a series of volcanic eruptions in Siberia, and 90 percent of all species became extinct.
The event is said to be the birth of the modern world. About 40 million years later, dinosaurs took over the world.
Previously, it was thought that even ichthyosaurs – fish lizards known as the “dinosaurs of the sea” – came into being after this reset.
But not anymore.
Found in museum storage
Because in October 2021, Benjamin Kear traveled to Oslo on his first work trip since the outbreak of the corona pandemic a year and a half earlier.
During the pandemic, he and his colleagues were prevented from doing their usual excavations, which would prove to lead to the most important discovery of his life so far.
– We decided to go through what we have already collected. It is common for paleontologists to collect lots of material and ship it home, then get distracted and do something new, he says.
At the same time that Benjamin Kear was digging in the Swedish museum stores, his colleagues in Oslo, with whom he has a close collaboration, were looking through theirs.
250 million years old
There they found a fish lizard that was excavated on Svalbard in 2013 in a different type of rock than it is usually found in. In October 2021, Kear and the Norwegian paleontologists reviewed what they had found.
– We all said that this cannot be true. It is several million years older than it should be.
It turned out that the animal was 250 million years old, just two million years younger than the mass extinction. It was also two meters longer than finds from around the same time, and fully adapted to living in the sea.
The discovery pushes back the emergence of sea monsters by several million years and shows that they must have gone to sea long before the mass extinction.
A life in the sea
Fish lizards were among the first terrestrial animals to adapt to a life in the sea.
The lizard-like animals got better and better at swimming, later modifying their legs into fins and developing a fish-like shape, much like today’s whales. When they later began to give birth to live young, the bands were cut completely to land.
Previously, it was believed that this happened after the mass extinction, and that the move to sea was even a direct result of it. But it seems that the animals already lived in the oceans and were just unusually good at adapting.
Just a matter of time
– Now it is important to find specimens of ichthyosaurs that still have the bones. If we find the ancestors of the ichthyosaurs, we can see how this first change from land to sea reptiles took place.
Even such a discovery can be made in a museum, says Benjamin Kear.
– In the past, paleontologists might have found fossils from the Permian period and said “this can’t be an ichthyosaur, it’s from the wrong time”, and ignored them. But our find shows that they lived during the Permian period. It is only a matter of time before we find them, says Benjamin Kear.
Ichthyosaurs, fish lizards, were at the top of the ocean food chain for 160 million years.
They were previously thought to have adapted to a life in the sea about 250 million years ago, which is disproved by the new find.
The animals resembled dolphins, with a long, pointed snout and a long row of short teeth. The fish lizards were, however, considerably larger, at most up to ten meters long.
They became extinct 95 million years ago.
Vertebrate paleontology is a subfield of paleontology that studies fossilized vertebrates and attempts to link extinct animals and their modern relatives.
Sources: National Encyclopedia, Uppsala University