December 23, 2010

CT Scan Will Help In Study Of Aquatic Reptile Skeleton

An ultra-powerful CT scanner will be used to help determine whether or not a massive fossilized skull that was discovered in the UK belongs to a new species of aquatic predator.

According to a Wednesday article by BBC News Science Reporter Rebecca Morelle, the 7.9-foot long skull was discovered recently along the Jurassic coast and belongs to a ferocious "sea monster" known as a pliosaur. The fossil in question could belong to one of the largest pliosaurs ever discovered.

Pliosaurs lived in oceans some 150 million years ago, according to the BBC News report, and were aquatic reptiles that belonged to the plesiosaur family. Notable features include large, bulky bodies; gigantic, crocodile-like heads; razor-sharp teeth; and paddle-like limbs, Morelle also noted.

"The skull, which was unearthed by a local fossil collector and then purchased by Dorset County Council using Heritage Lottery Funds, would have belonged to one of the most fearsome beasts the seas have ever seen," Morelle said, adding that experts that the creature in question might have been as much as 52 feet long and weighed up to 12 tons.

To find out for sure, however, experts must first remove the fossils--a lower jaw and the upper part of a skull--from a rocky casing. That task will fall to preparator Scott Moore-Fay, who said that the job was "incredibly exciting" but could take as over 1,000 hours to complete.

The fossil will then be passed on to University of Southampton Professor Ian Sinclair, who Morelle said first learned about it through an earlier BBC News report. Sinclair then contacted the skull's owners in order to let them know about his school's powerful new CT scanner, which he claims will be powerful enough to penetrate the dense fossil.

"When we have the situation of rare samples that are precious, like the pliosaur, we have to extract the most information from them and we certainly don't want to destroy them, so this really is the perfect tool," Sinclair told BBC News on Wednesday.

Paleontologist Richard Forrest told Morelle that the creature had a bite so powerful that "it could have bitten a car in half," and that he hoped that the CT scans "will show the internal structure of the jaws, and how they are built to withstand such incredible forces" so that experts can learn more about the creature, including "how it hunted and attacked other creatures."

"From the outside, it looks similar to other pliosaurs found in the UK, although much, much bigger," Forrest added. "By looking at the inner architecture of the skull, in particular the brain-case, we should be able to establish if this is a species that we have not seen before."


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