In yet another plot twist on ancient predators that once terrorized the seas, researchers have identified a new mosasaur species, this one with long, skinny, crocodile-like jaws.
Gavialimimus almaghribensis roamed the seas that used to cover what is today Morocco between 72 million and 66 million years ago. The new discovery shows that mosasaur species each found a niche based on what they ate, or their hunting style, researcher and masters student Catie Strong of the University of Alberta, Canada, said in a statement.
Gavialimimum evolved to catch rapidly moving prey, said Strong, whose research was guided by vertebrate paleontologist Michael Caldwell, professor in the Faculty of Science, plus collaborators from the University of Cincinnati and Flinders University.
Each mosasaur species shows adaptations for different prey items or styles of predation, Strong explained. Gavialimimum’s long, narrow snout and interlocking teeth hold similarities to the gharial, a modern-day relative of crocodiles and alligators.
This differentiates it from Prognathodon stadtmani, the recently renamed species of mosasaur nicknamed Jaws of Death for its formidable bite.
Prognathodon stadtmani would most likely not have come into contact with its Moroccan cousin. It lived between 92 million and 66 million years ago and ruled an ocean that covered what is today known as North America.
The Gavialimimum almaghribensis fossilized remains included a meter-long skull, or just over 3 feet, and a smattering of bones, the researchers said. The remains, discovered in a Moroccan phosphate mine filled with fossils, gave no indication of how the animal died.
The giant marine lizards known as mosasaurs were a product of the Late Cretaceous period and basically ruled the seas as the era of the dinosaurs wound down. They could grow to the length of a bus, were “top predators of the world’s oceans, and would eat anything they could catch,” as the National Park Service describes the ravenous reptiles.
With so many massive animals of prey competing for food, Strong said, the discovery of Gavialimimum fills in a piece of the mega-predator puzzle.
“Its long snout reflects that this mosasaur was likely adapted to a specific form of predation, or niche partitioning, within this larger ecosystem,” Strong said, noting that each species had some sort of physical adaptation, be it obvious or more subtle.
“Not all of the adaptations in these dozen or so species are this dramatic, and in some cases there may have been some overlap in prey items, but overall there is evidence that there’s been diversification of these species into different niches,” Strong said. “This does help give another dimension to that diversity and shows how all of these animals living at the same time in the same place were able to branch off and take their own paths through evolution to be able to coexist like that.”
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