Dirley Cortés, a doctoral student at the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal, re-analyzed the fossil and discovered that it had been misclassified. The meter-long skull dates back 130 to 115 million years in the Cretaceous, according to Cortés. This period comes after the event of global extinction at the end of the Jurassic Period, she said.
Colombia was an “ancient biodiversity hotspot,” Cortés said, so fossils like this newly identified marine reptile act as puzzle pieces to understand the evolution of marine ecosystems.
Other ichthyosaurs have small, even-sized teeth that are perfect for eating small prey, Cortés said. In contrast, the teeth of the skull specimen “altered the size and spacing of the teeth to provide an arsenal of teeth” for catching larger prey, she said.
The teeth would make it easier for the size predator to capture, pierce, saw and crush large prey, she explained. Some of his meals could have included other marine reptiles and large fish, Cortés added.
The carnivorous creature had an elongated snout and was said to be around 4 to 5 meters long (13.1 to 16.4 feet), she said. The animal could open its jaw by about 70 to 75 degrees, Cortés said, making it easier to eat larger animals.
The species has been labeled Kyhytysuka sachicarum, which means “the one who cuts with something sharp from Sáchica” in the ancient language of the indigenous Muisca people of Colombia. Sáchica is a town near Villa de Leyva, where the partial skull was found.
Understanding marine ecosystems in transition
Research holds a special place in Cortés’ heart because the specimen was found where she grew up, she said.
“My doctoral research has direct implications for paleontological development in Colombia and in the Neotropic regions, an area that is still emerging compared to the history of developed countries, so it is very gratifying to be able to do research here too,” said Cortés declared by e-mail.
After this discovery, Cortés said she was turning to analyze fossils at the Centro de Investigaciones Paleontológicas in Villa de Leyva, Colombia.
“We are discovering many new species there that are helping us understand the evolution of marine ecosystems during a period of transition,” said Cortés.
After global extinction, Earth was going through a cold period with sea level rise, she said. The Pangea supercontinent was also separating into northern and southern landmasses, she added.