Ancient marine predator sheds light on ecosystems

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A representation of the predator on the Field Museum website.

Bonn - Research into the life of a prehistoric marine predator that thrived in ancient seas has shown that the planet's ecosystems right now work much as they did hundreds of millions of years ago.

Scientists at Germany's Bonn University say the 8.6-metre-long Ichthyosauria Thalattoarchon saurophagis - the “lizard-eating ruler of the seas” - is one of the first marine macropredators capable of eating prey that was similar in size to itself.

“The apex predator shows that ecosystems functioned pretty much the same way 244 million years ago as they do today,” explained Martin Sander, professor of palaeontology at the university.

The creatures appeared just 8 million years after much of the earth's terrestrial and marine life had been wiped out following some kind of global calamity.

“It is surprising how quickly life recovered from the global catastrophe,” said Sander, whose research was published in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The scientists were in charge of the analysis of a fossil of the animal found in the US state of Nevada's Augusta Mountains in 1997.

The specimen was finally removed in 2008 with the help of a helicopter and an articulated truck.

According to Sander, the fossil, which comprised the back of the skull, much of the vertebral column, parts of the hips, and elements of the rear fins from a single creature, is housed in the Field Museum in Chicago.

The oldest marine predator lived before dinosaurs and 40 million years earlier than was previously thought. What scientists found particularly noteworthy were the creature's razor-sharp teeth, which it used to tear up its prey.

“Large predators are always an indicator as to how an ecosystem functions,” explained Sander.

Experts believe, for example, that if wolves and bears become extinct then the forest ecosystems are out of balance. The ecological role of the Thalattoarchon can be compared to that of modern orcas.

The apex predators are the key to an ecosystem because they control everything below them.

“If we see that an apex predator existed, then we know that the entire subordinate structure was also present,” said Sander. - Sapa-dpa


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