New species of ancient giant reptile discovered in Chile

The existence of a previously unknown giant marine reptile extinct for millions of years has been confirmed by recent fossil discoveries.

Fossils recovered in Chile’s Bío Bío region have confirmed the existence of a plesiosaur, a giant marine reptile, putting an end to a 150 year-old mystery.

The two skeletons of this massive species are more than 60 million years old and were found on Quiriquina Island and near Cocholgüe. The second is an astounding 30 feet in length.

Paleontologists and researchers from Chile’s Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (MNHN), Universidad de Chile, Universidad de Concepción, Universidad de La Plata in Argentina, the University of Heidelberg (Germany) and Marshall University (United States) all teamed up for this groundbreaking paleontology project.

“This discovery is very exciting because it is the first largely complete skeleton of an aristonectine plesiosaur,” Frank Robin O’Keefe, an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Marshall University who worked with the international team, told The Santiago Times. “These animals had a very strange mixture of characteristics, looking in some ways like a long-necked plesiosaur, but having very large and bizarrely shaped heads, as well as enormous flippers. This skeleton is our first big step in attempting to unravel the morphology and ecology of these unique animals.”

The results of this dedicated team’s hard work were published in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. However, the mystery of this giant reptile dates back more than 150 years.

In 1848, Claudio Gay, the first director of Chile’s MNHN, reported finding fossils similar to those recovered from Cocholgüe but at the time he did not have the resources or technology to excavate them. In 2001 one of the skulls was recovered but tidal movement in the area meant finding and compiling the rest of the skelton took much longer.

Chile has been making headlines this past year for archaeological and paleontological discoveries. Last year a major fossil discovery in Southern Chile rewrote the history of the Antarctic land bridge. Just before that workers constructing a new line for the Santiago Metro system stumbled upon an important pre-Columbian archaeological site giving new insight into the lives of the region’s native inhabitants before the arrival of Spanish colonial rule in the area.