Remarkably preserved fossil sea reptile reveals skin that is still soft
The ichthyosaur lived in what is today southern Germany during the Jurassic Period some 180 million years ago. At that time, the approximately two-metre long reptile swam in a vast ocean that was then covering large parts of present-day Europe.
Johan Lindgren of Lund University, Sweden, led the international collaboration that resulted in the most comprehensive and in-depth examination of a soft-tissue fossil ever undertaken. Among other things, the study reveals that the soft parts have fossilised so quickly that both the original cells and their internal contents are preserved.
“You can clearly see both the body outline and remains of internal organs. We can even distinguish the different cellular layers within the skin”, explains Johan Lindgren.
The researchers identified blubber underneath the skin. To date, such specialized fat-laden tissue has only been found in modern marine mammals and adult individuals of the leatherback sea turtle. The presence of blubber indicates that ichthyosaurs had metabolic rates that were higher than are those of typical reptiles living today. These data could help explain why ichthyosaurs had an almost global distribution, even in cold waters, and how they could dive to considerable depths, as well as grow as fast as they did.
“It’s truly remarkable that the biomolecules we discovered so closely match the tissues that we could identify”, says Johan Lindgren.
In the study, the researchers also succeeded in showing that the fossil contains tissues that still retain some of their original pliability, even though 180 million years have passed since the material was fresh. The team used chemicals to remove the mineral phase of the specimen, i.e. the inorganics that once turned the animal carcass into a petrified fossil.
“We then discovered that the soft parts retain a certain degree of elasticity”, says Johan Lindgren.
Not only do the results provide insights into the biology, physiology and ecology of derived ichthyosaurs, they also show how little we know about the fossilisation process and what can actually be preserved in the fossil record. Moreover, they could add to our knowledge on convergent evolution, as ichthyosaurs display an interesting mix of characteristics otherwise found in toothed whales (such as dolphins and porpoises) and the leatherback sea turtle.
Lena Björk Blixt