New Species of Ancient Sea Creature Discovered -- Under Ping-Pong Table

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
September 29, 2006
Canadian researchers have found a new species of ichthyosaur—big- eyed, fishlike reptiles that lived between 250 and 90 million years ago—and they found it under a Ping-Pong table.

Researchers at Edmonton's University of Alberta made the discovery when they came across a long-forgotten box of fossils in an undergraduate science lab.

The 100-million-year-old fossils had originally been discovered in 1971 in Canada's Northwest Territories, but the bones lay untouched and unexamined for 25 years (see Canada map).

"I did my undergraduate work here [at Alberta]," said Michael Caldwell, the co-author of the new find, "and I was studying specimens right on top of this table [as an undergrad]."

Caldwell graduated in 1986 and came back to the university as an assistant professor in 2000. Shortly after his arrival, he got some money to renovate the lab.

"We decided it was time for the Ping-Pong table to go," he said. "We lifted it up, and found all this marine reptile material underneath. We knew the boxes were there, but we didn't know what was in them."

The bones belong to two juvenile ichthyosaurs, one slightly larger than the other, and two adults, one of which has two embryos preserved near its vertebrae.

"It's important stuff," Caldwell said. "This is right at the end of the evolutionary history of the ichthyosaurs. They go extinct right after this."

Caldwell's team published their findings in the September issue of the journal Palaeontology.

Newest Known Embryos

The embryos found with the specimens are by far the newest known—80 million years more recent than the oldest previously known ichthyosaur embryos.

Unlike dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs gave birth to live young.

"Now we have the evidence from … Cretaceous times [144 million to 66.4 million years ago] of live birth in ichthyosaurs," said Achim Reisdorf, a paleontologist at Switzerland's University of Basel who was not involved in the find.

(See an interactive feature on sea monsters of the Cretaceous.)

All the bones belong to members of the same species, according to the scientists, and the specimens are so unique that they also constitute their own genus of ichthyosaur.

Ichthyosaurs were streamlined aquatic reptiles that breathed air and are believed to have subsisted mainly on squid.

One of their most prominent characteristics is their enormous eyes, the largest eyes ever found on any animal.

One specimen in Caldwell's study included the remnants of an eye, a notable find.

"The orbits [eye sockets] include space for pieces of bone that fit behind the eyeball and keep it from collapsing from the pressures of deep diving," Caldwell said.

"You need a huge eyeball to accumulate and concentrate the minimal light at 200, 300, 400 feet [60 to 120 meters] of depth."

The largest of the specimens is about 5 or 6 meters (16 to 20 feet) long, according to Caldwell, who notes that none of the specimens were fully grown adults. Ichthyosaurs ranged in size from 3 feet (about 1 meter) to more than 60 feet (18 meters).

In addition to the embryos and eye, the fossil find includes portions of a snout plus jawbones, skull bones, cheekbones, and teeth.

Maxwell and Caldwell named the new animals Maiaspondylus lindoei—"maia" meaning "good mother" because the fossil was found along with embryos, and "spondylus" meaning "vertebra" because the embryos were found near the spinal column.

The species name, lindoei, is derived from the name of the man who first collected the specimens in 1971, Allan Lindoe.

Editor's Note: Michael Caldwell has received funding for research from the National Geographic Society.

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