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Researchers working in China were surprised when they recovered the near-complete skeleton. The Ichthyosaur they uncovered measures around 5 metres (16foot). Yet the fossil turned out to be nothing like they had ever found.
Inside the enormous dolphin-like marine animal was another, almost equally as large, aquatic reptile.
On further investigation, it was revealed that the Ichthyosaur had devoured a thalattosaur shortly before dying.
It left both animals fossilised as a pair.
Ichthyosaurs first appeared around 250million years ago and survived until about 90million years ago.
The findings were later published in the journal iScience.
Fossils rarely give researchers the opportunity to analyse stomach contents.
This has left the majority of what we know about marine animals’ diet based on their tooth and jaw morphology.
Ichthyosaurs had blunt teeth so it was previously assumed that it preyed on smaller animals, such as cephalopods.
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However, the discovery now flips the previously accepted theory on its head.
It has painted an image of Ichthyosaurs as a giant apex predator who share a similar blunt tooth morphology as crocodiles.
The revelation has also broken other records.
It is one of the longest fossils ever found inside the stomach of a marine reptile.
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Although, on this point, researchers are still unsure whether the thalattosaur was scavenged from the sea bed or hunted while it was alive.
Co-author of the paper, Ryosuke Motani, a professor of paleobiology at the University of California, said in a statement: “If you look across all the similar marine reptiles that lived in the age of dinosaurs, we’ve actually never found something articulated like this in the stomach.
“Our ichthyosaur’s stomach contents weren’t etched by stomach acid, so it must have died quite soon after ingesting this food item.
“At first, we just didn’t believe it, but after spending several years visiting the dig site and looking at the same specimens, we finally were able to swallow what we were seeing.”
While inconclusive, the fact that the thalattosaur’s limbs were still attached to its body while its tail wasn’t, researchers say, indicates that it hadn’t started decomposing before it was swallowed.
The tail was found yards away from the ichthyosaur specimen, which is consistent with the reptile having been attacked and the tail being ripped off in the fray.
Prof Motani added: “Now, we can seriously consider that they were eating big animals, even when they had grasping teeth.
“It’s been suggested before that maybe a cutting edge was not crucial, and our discovery really supports that.
“It’s pretty clear that this animal could process this large food item using blunt teeth.”
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