Motorboat-Sized Predator Swam in Jurassic Scotland

A Jurassic Era beast that looked like a sinister dolphin might have munched on sharks and dinosaurs in what is now Scotland.

A motorboat-sized beast that was at the top of its food chain 170 million years ago is Scotland's first known native marine reptile.

The formidable ocean predator, described in the latest issue of the Scottish Journal of Geology, might have munched on dinosaurs and sharks, since both also lived at or around what is now the Isle of Skye. The predator was an ichthyosaur, meaning an extinct marine reptile that had a pointy head, four flippers and a vertical tail. Together, these features made such animals look like sinister dolphins.

A group of paleontologists working in Scotland studied the remains of the newly discovered ichthyosaur, named Dearcmhara shawcrossi. Dearcmhara --[/i ]pronounced jark vara -- is Scottish Gaelic for "marine lizard." The species is one of just a handful ever to have been given a Gaelic name.

"Believe it or not, this is the first distinctly Scottish marine reptile species that has ever been described, and our paper is the first paper on ichthyosaurs from Scotland," project leader Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences told Discovery News.

Remains of the animal were found at the Isle of Skye's Bearreraig Bay, where amateur collector Brian Shawcross found them. Instead of keeping or selling them, which often happens, Shawcross donated the specimens to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. This allowed researchers to study them, determine their significance and piece together what this animal looked like in the flesh.

"It would have been roughly 14 feet long or so, and probably would have fed on fish and marine invertebrates," Brusatte said.

Much of Skye was under water 170 million years ago. Skye was joined to the rest of the U.K. then, and was part of a large island positioned between land masses that gradually drifted apart and became Europe and North America.

Sharks in the region during the marine reptile's lifetime were generally smaller and more primitive than today's sharks, so it's possible that Dearcmhara ate them.

As for dinos, Brusatte said, "Dinosaurs did live in other parts of Scotland at the same general time as this ichthyosaur was living in the water. We know this from other rare fossils from Skye -- bones, teeth and footprints of very different type of dinosaurs, including big long-necked sauropods and carnivorous theropods."

If any waded or fell into the shallow, warm seas where Dearcmhara lived, they likely would have been dinner for the stealthy ichthyosaur.

Nick Fraser of National Museums Scotland is excited by the discovery, and what it means for his country.

"Scotland is well noted for its geology and geologists, including perhaps the most famous of all, James Hutton (often dubbed the Father of Modern Geology, although he lived from 1726 to 1797)," Fraser told Discovery News. "However, it is not widely noted in the public realm for its fossils, which is unfortunate, as it boasts some incredibly important localities and specimens."

He explained that remains for prehistoric fishes and very early reptiles from the Triassic have been found in Scotland.

"Admittedly, there are not the huge rock exposures in Scotland that permit the excavation of spectacular death-beds of dinosaurs as you might find in the American West," Fraser said. "Yet, even some of the fragmentary remains that we do find are often of great scientific importance, and that is certainly the case with the Skye Jurassic fossils."

Fraser said that the remains represent a time period, the Middle Jurassic, which is rather poorly known worldwide in the fossil record. Evidence, however, from surrounding periods suggests that animal life then, in the seas and on land, was incredibly rich and diverse.

"Skye now seems set to play something of a starring role in shedding light on this window in time," Fraser said.

Both he and Brusatte also have a message for amateur fossil collectors in Scotland.

"If you find fossil vertebrate specimens in Scotland, those of us in the scientific community would love to work with you," Brusatte said. "If you work with us and donate your fossils to a museum, you might also get a new species named after you!"

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We all enjoy a tall tale. Cultures with seafaring traditions are especially ripe in what seem like the tallest sea monster tales of all: hydra, kraken, sirens, scylla, leviathans, assorted serpents and mermaids. Usually the stories are never confirmed and deemed baseless. Then again, some of the tales are based on something. With our skeptical hats on, let's have a look at sea monsters both real and fanciful. We begin with a story that went viral just this week, about a supposed monster that revealed itself during a swim in the Thames River. A


bump in the water, filmed from overhead, started it all. But you'll have to judge for yourself: Real or fake? Watch the video and read

Ben Radford's take

on the tale.

'Thames Monster' Video: Hoax Or Mammal?

In keeping with our subject of monsters of the deep, we also learned this week that at least

some whales

really can, and will, use their heads for ramming -- just as the fictional Moby Dick did, in the Herman Melville classic of the same name. Did whales perfect the head-butt long before people started banging heads?

Real Moby Dick: Some Whales Ram With Their Heads

Sea monsters are truly global, of course. This one from Japan serves as the villain for the classic maiden in distress, who awaits rescue by her hero. The poor monsters are almost always cast as the bad guys. And so they usually end hacked to pieces; fish food. But is there any truth behind these sea serpent tales?

Ancient Sea Monsters Were Black

Maybe it's the oarfish. It looks too monstrous to be true. It can grow many meters long, has strikingly bright silver scales, scarlet fins and some ornate headgear that more than explains why some call it a roosterfish. If only it were a reptile, it'd be a true sea serpent. Alas. It is a fish. A very weird and beautiful fish, but still a fish.

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There are also other, newfound "sea serpents" our sea-going ancestors never imagined. This one was spotted by a satellite coiling off the south coast of Japan's Hokkaido island. What do we know about it? 1) It's arguably one of the largest organisms on Earth, 2) It swallows ships, engulfs islands and generally does what it wants, and 3) We're darned lucky it's made of plankton.

Monster Goldfish Found in Lake Tahoe

Research into such massive blooms and the individual plankton cells that comprise them has revealed surprising cooperation among the microorganisms. They appear to operate like more than just floating individual cells. They live and die for the greater good, it seems. So they may be, in fact, a gigantic watery superorganism. Now that's a cool monster for you: You can swim in it and never know you've been in the belly of a beast.

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Mermaids and mermen have always been the stuff of fantasy. Where did the fantasies come from? There are some standard answers to this question, which have always seemed rather inadequate. For instance ... (next slide, if you please) ...

Mermaids Exist! And They Are Seismically Sensitive

The manatee has often been called the source of mermaid myths. It's a mammal, so it breathes air. But who would ever mistake a manatee for a sleek and beautiful mermaid? Could it be love-starved sailors with poor eyesight? There was no shortage of these fellows in the days before optometrists.

Make Way For Manatees Month: Photos

Another possibility is that merfolk were inspired by fish with roughly human-looking faces, like this fellow. Some fish can look humanoid. That would be enough to get superstitious sailors started.

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How about giant, ship-destroying squid and octopi? These monsters were old hat even to the easily freaked-out. Most folks figured they were historical exaggerations. That's until some very large and unusual squids started washing up or being hauled in by marine biologists in recent years. Colossal squid are meters long, pretty amazing beasts. Still, they have never been known to lift ships out of the water. And since were on the topic of squids ...

Giant Squid Photos

Do you remember when this one hit the headlines? It's not so gigantic, at four meters long, but it was observed 3,380 meters down in the Pacific Ocean near Oahu. It's pretty big to have gone unseen before its May 2001 discovery. So what else is out there? It's pretty clear marine biologists have only just begun discovering what lives in the deep sea. The more time they spend searching, the more they will find. But none would dispute that the nastiest sea monster to ever rise out of the sea is ... (drum roll please) ...

You might have guessed it: Human garbage. Yep. It's the ugliest, most alien-looking, fatal and pervasive monster in the seas. Garbage patches have been getting a lot of attention lately. These are areas on the seas where currents and winds tend to concentrate floating garbage.

Life On The Ocean Floor Garbage Patch: Photos