natural history museum

TANYSTROPHEUS

Tanystropheus, infamous in the fossil record as a sea dweller that almost defied the laws of physics and biology. 


With a neck up 3 metres long, (that’s twice the size of an average man) containing only 10 highly elongated vertebrae, Tanystropheus remains one of the most bizarre animals to inhabit the Earth. This neck was also longer than Tanystropheus’ body and tail combined. To put it into perspective, the neck took up almost 75% of the whole body length.


To hold a neck so large off of the ground would have put huge strain on the shoulders and back, for this reason Tanystropheus is believed to have spent most of its time in the water. However the position of the legs and hips suggests that the animal could support itself on land, leading to many palaeontologists suggesting Tanystropheus was adapted to ambush hunting with its body on land and its head submerged in the water. Recent research of fossilised impressions Tanystropheus indicate the rear of the animal had greatly developed muscles shifting its centre of weight further from its neck, improving the balance of a somewhat clumsy looking animal.


Despite spending most of its time in the water, Tanystropheus wasn’t a strong swimmer, its feet were not webbed, and the neck was surprisingly stiff, as it consisted of only around 10 cervical vertebrae, movement was restricted to side to side motion.
Tanystropheus made a name for itself when it was discovered in the mid 1800’s, engineers estimated that this strange animal had the longest neck physically possible of on organism with relation to its body size. Oddly enough, Tanystropheus is a distant triassic relative to pterosaurs, dinosaurs and the modern crocodiles, yet they themselves went extinct around 205 million years ago.

QUETZALCOATLUS


Quetzalcoatlus goes down in history as the largest flying organism of all time, with a wingspan of 12 metres, which is larger than some planes. Quetzalcoatlus was the undisputed king of the Late cretaceous skies, so it seems fitting that its name is derived from an Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl. Although its wingspan is impressive, Quetzalcoatlus also had a huge 2.5 metre long skull, that is the average height of an Asian elephant!
To get such a huge animal in the air, a complex system of air sacs was needed inside the bones, this meant that Quetzalcoatlus probably weighed no more than 250kg. Quetzalcoatlus, along with many pterosaurs, was originally thought to spend most of its time gliding over the oceans, skimming fish out from the surface of the water with their elongated beaks. However, due to the skull and beak morphology and the presence of fossils far inland it has become more widely accepted that Quetzalcoatlus stalked prey far below on the land. The fore and hind limb morphology of Quetzalcoatlus also suggests that they were competent walkers on the land, they would have stood up to 3 metres tall. 


The feeding habits of Quetzalcoatlus still remain something of a mystery. It was originally thought to be more of a scavenger, but the blunt beak was unsuited to stripping and picking flesh of a bony creature. It is more likely that Quetzalcoatlus hunted like modern-day storks, stalking the land from the skies above for smaller animals and then swooping down to eat them whole.

TOP 10 PREHISTORIC OCEAN PREDATORS

10. ANOMALOCARIS (~ 525 Ma)
This one metre long invertebrate surely deserves to be included on the list, being one of the first complex oceanic predators to ever have existed. Anomalocaris stalked the Cambrian oceans, viewing the world with a deadly new evolutionary innovation - eyes. Complex eyes allowed this creature to storm its way to the top of the food chain, and with powerful appendages covered in spines it had no trouble devouring prey with tough carapaces. Whilst Anomalocaris is dwarfed by the other contenders on this list, it was still over 10 times larger than any other animal of its time.

9. KRONOSAURUS (125-99 Ma)
Kronosaurus, a Cretaceous mosasaur, is named after the Greek titan, Cronus. Its name is well deserved as this ancient beast was a remarkably powerful being. Kronosaurus could reach up to 10 metres long and had a mouth full of sharp, conical teeth. Unlike most other mosasaurs its tail was relatively short, however, evidence shows that Kronosaurus has immensely powerful fins and a pectoral girdle making it an impressive swimmer and hunter.

8. HELICOPRION (290-250 Ma)
Helicoprion has astounded scientists since its discovery over 100 years ago. It is iconic for its bizarre spiral of teeth, there are still debates on where exactly these teeth where on the shark with proposals stating they were inside the mouth, on the tip of the tail, the dorsal fin or hanging under the jaw. The most commonly accepted location of the teeth is inside the lower jaw enabling Helicoprion to cleanly slice its prey into pieces.

7. XIPHACTINUS (~110-70 Ma)
Xiphactinus was an extraordinary fish that lived during the Cretaceous. It was an esteemed predator that could reach an incredible 6 metres in length and specimens are renowned for their stunning preservation. One such example was 4 metres long and found with another exceptionally well preserved fish just short of 2 metres inside it implying that this particular Xiphactinus individual died shortly after its last feast. Xiphactinus had immensely sharp, slim teeth and an unmistakable underbite which was a possible aid when snaring creatures from below.

6. TYLOSAURUS (86-75 Ma)
Tylosaurus is considered a mosasaur and was a vivacious predator all be it smaller than its relative Mosasaurus. Tylosaurus could reach up to 15 metres in length and was one of the apex predators of its day. Fossilised stomach contents of Tylosaurus contain fish, sharks, turtles and other marine reptiles. Despite having an impressive set of teeth, the frontal areas of the jaws exhibit a large reduction in tooth size as well as a more heavily reinforced snout in comparison to other mosasaurs suggesting that Tylosaurus may have rammed into victims with immense force damaging prey internally.

5. MOSASAURUS (70-66 Ma)
The mosasaurs ruled the Cretaceous oceans and Mosasaurus was no exception. It could reach up to 17 metres long, longer than most other mosasaurs. Mosasaurus had a strong jaw packed with numerous conical teeth, bite marks of which have been found in huge prehistoric turtles and ammonites suggesting that Mosasaurus was a formidable hunter capable of catching large prey. Mosasaurus was a profound swimmer with strong paddle-like limbs and a huge tail capable of rapidly accelerating the animal when required.

4. DUNKLEOSTEUS (382-358 Ma)
Dunkleosteus terrorised the oceans around 370 million years ago and was part of a dynasty known as the placoderm fish (meaning armoured). Dunkleosteus could reach a whopping 6-10 metres in length and probably weighed over a ton. The skull was made up of huge, solid bony plates giving unrivalled protection allowing them to dominate the oceans. Placoderm fish were some of the first organisms to have a mobile jaw, as can be seen in Dunkleosteus’ impressive shearing plates which were used to slice cleanly through prey. Despite an revolutionary jaw, Dunkleosteus could not chew and several fossilised regurgitated remains of its meals have been found that the giant fish simply could not stomach.  

3. DAKOSAURUS (157-137 Ma)
Dakosaurus was the largest of a group of marine reptiles that were distant relatives of crocodiles. Dakosaurus could reach up to 5 metres long and had a streamlined body with large paddle-like fins and a long muscular tail implying that is was a very efficient swimmer. The diet of Dakosaurus consisted mostly of fish. The teeth of Dakosaurus are lateromedially compressed and serrated which is a similar morphology to modern killer whales indicating that Dakosaurus was an apex predator of the Jurassic oceans. Skull fenestrae provides evidence that Dakosaurus had very large adductor muscles (which are responsible for the jaw closing) and so it was certainly capable of a forceful bite.

2. LIOPLEURODON (160-155 Ma)
Liopleurodon stormed the Jurassic oceans, its huge 7 metre long frame effortlessly cruised through the water. The skull itself could reach a massive 1.5 metres long with a jaw that was packed with teeth up to 10cm long and was capable of an immense bone-crushing force. Liopleurodon was a remarkable hunter with the ability to swim with its nostrils open and so could use its powerful sense of smell to track prey from afar, much like sharks do. Liopleurodon most likely had good camouflage such as a lighter underside and a darker topside so it would blend in with the water to prey above and below.  

1. MEGALODON (~16-2.6 Ma)
Megalodon rightfully deserves the top position of the greatest prehistoric ocean predators, ruling the seas for an incredible 14 million years. Megalodon has been estimated to reach up to 18 metres in length and weighing over 40 tonnes. Megalodon is known for its huge 6 inch teeth which were serrated on both sides for an efficient slicing action. Fossils of Megalodon’s prey have also been found, the shark appeared to have adapted its hunting tactics for different sized prey; for smaller prey they would just use their bone crushing bite to pulverise internal organs, but for larger prey they would bite or rip flippers off of creatures to immobilise them and then go in for the kill.
The exact bite force of Megalodon has been estimated at around 110,000 N which was more than enough to shatter even the most robust bones. The hunting methods of Megalodon will unfortunately remain a mystery but it was been hypothesised that they swam at great depths and used short bursts of speed to swim up and tear into their preys vulnerable underbelly.
Sharks have existed for over 420 million years and still continue to be some of the most successful predators alive, Megalodon is a perfect example of how deadly they can be.