Chile’s ancient ‘fish lizards’ revealed by retreating glacier

Archaeologists unearth brilliantly preserved remains of prehistoric marine creatures during expedition in world famous national park.

An archaeologist lies next to ‘ichthyosaur’ remains in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Photo by @TomJohnsonJr / Twitter.
An archaeologist lies next to ‘ichthyosaur’ remains in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Photo by @TomJohnsonJr / Twitter.

The glaciers that blanket Chile’s south in age-old ice conceal any number of mysteries, notably intriguing prehistoric remains. Sheets of ice sprawl across 12,545 square miles of the country’s land — both the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields are a sight to behold and comprise some of Chile’s most awe-inspiring landscapes.

Now this impressive landscape has been found to be home to a number of almost complete, prehistoric marine reptile skeletons, creatures thought to have lived between 245 and 90 million years ago.

A total of 46 specimens originating from four different species of extinct Ophthalmosauridae — meaning fish lizards — were uncovered by scientists embarking on a third expedition to the Torres del Paine National Park, led by palaeontologist Wolfgang Stinnesbeck of Germany’s University of Heidelberg.

The team came across the remains of the Early Cretaceous near the huge Tyndall Glacier, which has melted in recent years exposing fossils and previously unseen land. Scientists believe the abundance of the ‘ichthyosaur’ skeletons in one location suggests they fell victim to a series of fatal landslides caused by thick sediment, flowing rapidly downhill through a submarine canyon.

Ichthyosaur were large marine reptiles that lived during much of the Mesozoic era according to information based on fossil evidence. It is thought during the early Triassic Period these sea creatures evolved from a group of unknown reptiles that returned to the sea.

“They look a lot like dolphins today,” Stinnesbeck told Live Science.

Archaeologists are lauding the find not only because so many well preserved and almost completely articulated fossilized skeletons have been uncovered, but because very few ichthyosaurs have been found in South America aside from some rib cage remains and shards of vertebrae. Ammonites, oyster-like inoceramid bivalves, extinct cephalopods called belemnites, and a number of curious plant samples were also unearthed alongside the fish lizards.

The largest ichthyosaur skeleton measured over 16 feet (5 meters) in length and scientists were amazed to discover samples of soft tissue, further outlining just how well preserved the remains have been. Examples of fossil embryos within a female specimen added more significance to the findings. Stinnesbeck also explained that the primitive marine creatures may have become disorientated following a landslide, eventually getting sucked into the deep sea and drowning before being entombed in the soft silt.

Chile is well known for prehistoric remains and in 2012 a team of multidisciplinary scientists from the Universidad de Chile and the Museum of Natural History in Santiago discovered important fossils of marine reptiles in Antarctica from the age of the dinosaurs: the plesiosaurus and the mosasaurus. The plesiosaurus discovery marked the first time scientists discovered remains of the Elasmosauride family, marine reptiles that could reach up to 50 feet (15 meters) in length.

The project was part of the 48th Scientific Expedition to Antarctica organized by the Chilean Antarctic Institute(Inach), which financed the initiative together with the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (Conicyt).