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 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 palaeontologists working in Scotland studied the remains of the newly discovered ichthyosaur, named Dearcmhara shawcrossi. Dearcmhara pronounced jark vara which 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 media.
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.
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 dinosaurs, 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.