Gruesome new find shows two marine reptiles were decapitated in life

A new study puts to bed a 200-year-plus theory that long-necked marine reptiles, like Tanystropheus, would have been vulnerable to decapitation by predators.
Christopher McFadden
Artist's impression of the fate of one of the specimens.


In a fascinating new study, direct evidence has finally been found for a 200-year-old plus theory that long-necked marine reptiles must have been vulnerable to neck attacks by predators. As reported in the journal Current Biology, this study finally closes this debate once and for all.

While the mighty dinosaurs roamed the land during the Mesozoic Era, equally impressive reptiles prowled the planet's oceans for millions of years. Some of these, the long-necked plesiosaurs and archosauromorphs, have fascinated scientists and the general public since they were first discovered. But some, like the enigmatic Tanystropheus, are notable with incredibly long and narrow necks topped with a comically tiny heads.

Both specimens were missing their bodies

Now, two individuals of the Tanystropheus line, representing two distinct species, have been studied in detail, revealing that these two individuals were most likely decapitated before death and preservation. This is supported by the fact that only a portion of their necks and heads were found, with the rest of their bodies seemingly disappeared.

“Paleontologists speculated that these long necks formed an obvious weak spot for predation, as was already vividly depicted almost 200 years ago in a famous painting by Henry de la Beche from 1830,” said Stephan Spiekman of the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart, Germany. “Nevertheless, there was no evidence of decapitation—or any other attack targeting the neck—known from the abundant fossil record of long-necked marine reptiles until our present study on these two specimens of Tanystropheus," he added.

“Something that caught our attention is that the skull and portion of the neck preserved are undisturbed, only showing some disarticulation due to the typical decay of a carcass in a quiet environment,” said Eudald Mujal, also of the Stuttgart Museum, and a research associate at the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont, Spain. “Only the neck and head are preserved; there is no evidence of the other animals. The necks end abruptly, indicating another animal completely severed them during a particularly violent event, as the presence of tooth traces evinces," Mujal added.

“The fact that the head and neck are so undisturbed suggests that when they reached the place of their final burial, the bones were still covered by soft tissues like muscle and skin,” Mujal continued. “Interestingly, the same scenario—although certainly executed by different predators—played out for both specimens, which, remember, represent individuals of two different Tanystropheus species, which are very different in size and possibly lifestyle,” Spiekman says.

Predators probably decapitated both

The researchers have confirmed that the ancient reptiles had a distinctive evolutionary structure in their necks that was narrower and stiffer than the long-necked plesiosaurs. The findings suggest that there can be potential drawbacks to evolving a long neck as a sea reptile. However, it is noteworthy that elongated necks were a successful evolutionary strategy utilized by many marine reptiles for over 175 million years.

“In a broad sense, our research once again shows that evolution is a game of trade-offs,” Spiekmansays. “The advantage of having a long neck outweighed the risk of being targeted by a predator for a long time. Even Tanystropheus itself was quite successful in evolutionary terms, living for at least 10 million years and occurring in what is now Europe, the Middle East, China, North America, and possibly South America.”

You can read the study for yourself in the journal Current Biology.

Study abstract:


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