U of A alumni help identify baby sea monster

Alumni from the University of Alberta are being credited with helping to identify the world’s smallest Tylosaurus specimen.

'It's kind of a story about the ugly duckling'

It took a former U of A scientist nearly ten years to determine these bones belonged to a baby Tylosaurus. (University of Alberta)

Alumni from the University of Alberta are being credited with helping to identify the world's smallest Tylosaurus specimen.

The Tylosaurus, found in Kansas, died about 85 million years ago, shortly after it was born. That made it difficult to identify, since it had not yet developed the characteristic snout and teeth of an adult.

"Having looked at the specimen in 2004 for the first time myself, it too took me nearly 10 years to think outside the box and realize what it really was, a baby Tylosaurus yet to develop such a snout," said Takuya Konishi, lead author on the study.

A U of A faculty of science alumni who now teaches at the University of Cincinnati, Konishi said the light went on when he saw another monasaur specimen.

"Certain bones just looked very similar among baby mosasaurs," he told CBC from a conference in New Mexico on Friday.

"It's kind of a story about the ugly duckling. It wasn't a graceful swan yet, it looks like a strange looking duckling."

Tylosaurus was one of the larger monasaurs that swam in the oceans millions of years ago. Renderings of adults show a creature that looks like a mix between a crocodile, a snake and a fish, or a large and terrifying platypus. 

A working 3D model of a Tylosaurus from the interactive Biosphere on the One Ocean website. 0:30

"This is a lizard, so [like] Kimodo dragons or snakes we have today, it's the same kind of scaly reptile," said Konishi. "It's basically a sea-going lizard with big flippers and big shark like tail fin."

An adult Tylosaurus could reach a length of 13 metres and had powerful jaws and large teeth, a sea monster that would give the most hardened sailor a bad case of thalassophobia​ (a fear of sea travel).

"It's even bigger than killer whales today," said Konishi. "Killer whales are 10 meters at most."

Konishi is optimistic the find will generate more interest in the big sea dwelling beasts.

"I hope that this means that more people would be interested in the sea-going reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs during the dinosaur times, and to just appreciate how rich the diversity was."