Scientists in Chile have uncovered the remains of one of the largest, most fearsome marine predators of the Jurassic period in the middle of the world's driest desert in Chile.
Chile's vast Atacama desert, now a moonscape of sand and stone, was once largely submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean. The fossils discovered by scientists there hail from two pliosaur specimens, ancient ocean reptiles with a more powerful bite than a Tyrannosaurus Rex, according to the University of Chile researchers that unearthed them.
The beasts inhabited the area about 160 million years ago, and represent the second oldest record of this species in the Southern Hemisphere, according to their findings.
Scientists said they found jaw, tooth and limb fragments at two sites in the Loa river basin near the mining city of Calama. Their study was published in the Journal of South American Earth Sciences in early September.
Rodrigo Otero, a University of Chile palaeontologist who led the research, said the find helps scientists fill gaps in time and evolution between this species and those that came before and after.
"The pliosaur was ecologically similar to the current killer whales," said Otero. He describes the pliosaurs as having large skulls with elongated faces, menacing teeth and limbs like fins.
Otero said the coronavirus pandemic, combined with harsh conditions in the desert, hampered their investigation, adding that there are still fossil bones in the ground waiting to be unearthed.
The complete fossil, which has been excavated since 2017, is likely to measure between six to seven meters. The skull is around a meter long, with teeth that are around eight to 10 centimetres long apiece, the researcher said.