A team of scientists found a 240-million-year-old reptile measuring 15 feet (4.5 meters) long containing the remains of a second, 13-foot (4-meter) thalattosaur, or "sea lizard" — swallowed shortly before the larger reptile's death, according to a recent study published in the journal iScience.
Colossal marine reptile died shortly after eating giant meal
Hundreds of millions of years ago, the seas turned with the motions of the reptilian predators called ichthyosaurs. Their fossils are haunting, but Ryosuke Motani — a paleobiologist at U.C. Davis said they might have appeared like friendly dolphins.
"Maybe in life ichthyosaurs would have been cute — at least the smaller ones," he said, Scientific American reports.
Motani's team of scientists discovered the new specimen in southwest China, and noticed the second animal in the belly of the beastly ichthyosaur because it hadn't yet been digested. This means the ichthyosaur died shortly after swallowing it.
Giant reptile's prey fought for survival
However, Motani wasn't comfortable attributing the reptile's death to the giant meal, although the larger specimen had a broken neck. This led him to speculate that the ichthyosaur snapped at the sea lizard, but its would-be meal put up a fight.
"And this fight between the two was fierce, probably," he said, reports Scientific American.
While the ichthyosaur tried to subdue its prey, breaking its neck, it also had to disjoin the smaller creature's bony head and tail from its more appetizing midsection.
"Now the predator had to do it through jerking and twisting like crocodiles do," added Motani to Scientific American.
Fossils suggest swallowing broke the giant reptile's neck
Repeated sudden jerking motions are not good for anyone's neck. Eventually, the ichthyosaur needed to swallow the animal — possibly with help from inertia or gravity to pull the prey down its throat.
"And chances are, by the time it was ingested, maybe the neck damage had accumulated to a certain level and maybe the neck could not support the head of the predator that well," said Motani.
Studies of this prehistoric battle are significant because scientists may only infer to a limited degree which creature ate which — judging from teeth alone. The latest fossil evidence directly supports the conclusion that sometimes ancient monstrous reptiles bite off more than they can chew.