Wednesday, 29 July 2020

ICHY OF THE HUMBOLDT MOUNTAINS

A very well preserved ichthyosaur block with three distinct vertebrae and some ribs just peeking out. You can see the edges of the ribs nicely outlined against the matrix.

Ichthyosaurs are an extinct order of marine reptiles from the Mesozoic era. They evolved from land-dwelling, lung-breathing reptiles, they returned to our ancient seas and evolved into the fish-shaped creatures we find in the fossil record today.

They were visibly dolphin-like in appearance but seem to share some other qualities as well. These lovelies were warm-blooded and used their colouration as camouflage. The smaller of their lineage to avoid being eaten and the larger to avoid being seen by prey. Ichthyosaurs also had insulating blubber, a lovely adaptation to keep them warm in cold seas.

Over time, their limbs fully transformed into flippers, sometimes containing a very large number of digits and phalanges. Their flippers tell us they were entirely aquatic as they were not well-designed for use on land. And it was their flippers that first gave us the clue that they gave birth to live young; a hypothesis later confirmed by fossil embryo and wee baby ichy specimens.

We find their fossil remains in outcrops spanning from the mid-Cretaceous to the earliest Triassic. As we look through the fossils, we see a slow evolution in body design moving towards that enjoyed by dolphins and tuna by the Upper Triassic, albeit with a narrower, more pointed snout. 

During the early Triassic period, ichthyosaurs evolved from a group of unidentified land reptiles that returned to the sea. They were particularly abundant in the later Triassic and early Jurassic periods before being replaced as a premier aquatic predator by another marine reptilian group, the Plesiosauria, in the later Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The block you see here is from Middle Triassic (Anisian/Ladinian) outcrops in the West Humboldt Mountains, Nevada.