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A tentative reconstruction of Makhaira, with known bones in yellow. From Fischer et al., 2015.

Paleo Profile: Russia’s Curved Blade

It’s difficult to resist calling pliosaurs sea monsters. Their long, toothy jaws and strange, streamlined shapes make them dead ringers for what we fear waiting for us in the deep and, for my own part, I’m a little less hesitant to plunge into the ocean knowing that the last of them went extinct over 66 million years ago.

Many pliosaurs are cast in the same role – as big apex predators capable of munching on prey as large, if not larger than, themselves. But not all pliosaurs accomplished these gustatory feats in the same fashion. A new fossil pliosaur described by paleontologist Valentin Fischer and colleagues late last year hints that one carnivore, at least, was accomplishing the same task in a slightly different way.

There was only just enough of the animal, named Makhaira, for Fischer and coauthors to identify it as something new. The reptile’s preservation in 130 million-year-old limestone nodules was not kind to its bones. But the teeth and jaws from the tip of the predator’s snout make it stand out from its relatives. Each tooth of Makhaira had three serrated cutting edges, and the teeth were not as closely-spaced as those of other big-game-hunting pliosaurs. The overall picture is that Makhaira slammed this distinctive dental armory into big prey even though it wasn’t as massive as some of its larger relatives, indicating that pliosaurs were still capable of big bites even at smaller size.

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The jaw and teeth of Makhaira. From Fischer et al., 2015.

Fossil Facts

Name: Makhaira rossica

Meaning: Makhaira is a Latinized version of the Greek word for “curved blade” and rossica denotes the animal’s discovery in Russia.

Age: Around 130 million years ago.

Where in the world?: Slantsevy Rudnik, western Russia.

What sort of critter?: A marine reptile known as a pliosaur.

Size: Estimated around 15 feet long.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: A fragmentary skeleton including parts of the jaws, teeth, several vertebrae, and pieces of the hips.

Reference:

Fischer, V., Arkhangelsky, M., Stenshin, I., Uspensky, G., Zverkov, N., Benson, R. 2015. Peculiar macrophagous adaptations in a new Cretaceous pliosaurid. Royal Society Open Science. doi: 10.1098/rsos.150552

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