A fossil of a prehistoric marine reptile with its last meal still in its stomach was discovered. Fossil hunters excavated the remains of the giant animal. It is a significant discovery because the reptile had a huge prey—which it ate before it died—in its fossilized stomach.

The fossil was found in 2010 in the southwest region of China. It is believed to have roamed the area during the middle of the Triassic Period.

Fossil of Marine Prehistoric Reptile with Last Meal in its Stomach Discovered
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Ichthyosaur fossil at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. A fossil of a marine prehistoric reptile with its last meal still in its stomach was discovered. Fossil hunters excavated the remains of the giant animal, and it is a significant discovery because the fossil had a huge prey – which it ate before it died – in its fossilized stomach.

A Significant Find

There were two fossils discovered, and the smaller one was inside the other. The more massive predator fossil measured a length of five meters. It has been identified as an ichthyosaurus. Ichthyosaurs were prehistoric marine reptiles characterized by an unusually long snout, which is similar to dolphins in appearance.

The smaller prey fossil served as food for the more massive ichthyosaur and was found in the predator's stomach. It is a species known as Xinpusaurus xingyiensis and is also a marine reptile. It is commonly called a thalattosaur, and it measured roughly four 4 meters in length.

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Researchers' Analysis

An international research team studied the fossils, and they found valuable insights revealed by the find. They published their results in iScience.

Nature World News - Fossil of Marine Prehistoric Reptile with Last Meal in its Stomach Discovered
(Photo: Da-Yong Jiang et. al. / Creative Commons CC-BY)
(A) The skeleton. (B) Close-up of the stomach area, highlighted by red rectangle in (A). (C) Line drawing to show selected bone elements of prey in (B). (D) 3D rendering showing the ventral side view of the bromalite, revealing two strings of vertebrae. Red triangles point at the vertebrae that can been seen from the top surface, and white triangles with red outlines mark three vertebrae that are hidden by the humerus. Yellow triangles point to the vertebrae of the second string. Abbreviations: cl, clavicle, color in dark orange; co, coracoid, in light orange; fe, femur, in tan; fi, fibula, in goldenrod; h, humerus, in blue; icl, interclavicle, in yellow; il, ilium, in dark green; isc, ischium, in purple; mt, metacarpal, and all possible digit elements in light purple; ns, neural spine, in light yellow; pu, pubis, in light green; r, radius, in light green; ti, tibia, in khaki; u, ulna, in light blue; v, vertebral centrum, in dark gold. Bones in dark gray and gray, ribs of thalattosaur Xinpusaurus xingyiensis. Bones in black, ribs, and gastralia of ichthyosaur Guizhouichthyosaurus (XNGM-WS-50-R4). Scale bars, 25 cm in (A), 10 cm in (B and C), and 5 cm in (D).

They said that it was previously thought that Guizhouichthyosaurus, the ichthyosaur predator, could not have been a species classified among top predators, because it did not have cutting edges on its teeth. This led scientists to speculate that it grasped soft prey like squid. However, the fossils are proof that this is not so; its prey was not a delicate creature, and the food item was larger than the average human adult.

The researchers consider the discovery as the oldest megafaunal predation record by marine reptiles. It is also the longest prey item found to be eaten by this predator.

Archeological Implications

These findings can change the perceptions of the scientific community regarding other similar creatures. According to the research team, many other marine reptiles from the Mesozoic Era have the same grasping teeth, and so these creatures could have also engaged in megafaunal predation. The phenomenon may have likely been practiced more widely than previously thought.

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The researchers also said that most likely, the ichthyosaur sought the thalattosaur prey and not scavenged it. This is because if another predator aside from the ichthyosaurus preyed on the thalattosaur, it would be unusual for it to have left intact its nutritious limbs and trunk.

Another evidence points to the fact that the prey will have quickly decomposed. Also, the tail and head of the victim were seemingly torn off before being eaten. 

The researchers also think that the prey may have been eaten near the water surface because its large size prevents it from being quickly swallowed.

National Museums Scotland paleontologist Nick Fraser said that he agrees with the study authors' assessment that the prey was captured live instead of scavenged. He says perhaps the victim was not healthy. He adds that it could have been an uncommon act for the ichthyosaur to have eaten such large prey. 

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