South Carolina Researchers Discover 70-Million-Year-Old Sea Monster

by Caitlin Berard
(Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

On Monday, September 26, a research team led by College of Charleston geology professor Scott Persons published a paper in iScience. In it, they described their discovery of a prehistoric marine reptile that more closely resembles a nightmarish sea monster than the beloved sea turtle of today.

They lovingly named their discovery snakey crocodile-face. Not science-y enough? Okay, how about Serpentisuchops pfisterae (pronounced sur-pen-ta-soo-kops), the scientific name?

Scientists estimate the Serpentisuchops roamed the oceans of the Earth at least 70 million years ago. Measuring more than 23 feet in length, the ancient reptile is part of the group of prehistoric animals call plesiosaurs. The only problem is that it doesn’t quite fit the mold, according to Scott Persons.

“When I was a student, I was taught that all late-evolving plesiosaurs fall into one of two anatomical categories: those with really long necks and tiny heads, and those with short necks and really long jaws,” Persons explained to The College Today. “Well, our new animal totally confounds those categories.”

Unlike others in its family, the new discovery has both a long neck like a snake and long jaws like a crocodile. Because of this, scientists aren’t quite sure what to make of the strange sea creature.

To the surprise and delight of researchers, the entire skeleton of the neck is perfectly preserved. “The neck vertebrae just kept going,” Persons said. “For comparison, your own neck has a mere seven vertebrae. Serpentisuchops has thirty-two.”

How the Sea Monster Skeleton Remained Perfectly Preserved

As we know, the creature is 70 million years old. How is it possible that it’s still in such good condition? According to scientists, it sank to the bottom of the sea after its death, where it was then covered by fine-grained sediments. As such, it remained wholly undisturbed until its recent discovery.

In the age of this particular sea monster, it was far from the only marine lizard roaming the waters of North America. The Western Interior Seaway, a shallow sea covering the continent, was teeming with prehistoric animals. And it’s because of this intense environment that scientists believe the Serpentisuchops developed its unusual body structure.

“It’s called ecological niche partitioning,” Persons explained. “To avoid direct competition with each other, species have a tendency to evolve adaptations that let them access or specialize in a particular source of food, or other resource, that other species struggle to make use of.”

Scientists believe its body shape helped the sea creature to hunt small, agile prey. “The articulation joints between the basal neck vertebrae grant a lot of lateral flexibility,” Persons said. “You combine that with broad vertebral attachment surfaces for powerful neck muscles, and you have an animal that can rapidly swing its neck side-to-side.”

“The elongate and narrow jaws extended the animal’s reach that much farther,” he continued. “[It] could be swished through the water with a minimum of drag. What I think we have here is a fast, effective, sideways-striking fish snapper.”