ANCHORAGE, Alaska, (Reuters) – Alaska scientists have discovered the fossil of a rare, prehistoric marine reptile that is likely the most complete remnant of the creature ever found in North America.
The nearly complete fossilized skeleton is of a thalattosaur, a long-tailed sea creature that plied warm, shallow waters in the early days of dinosaurs and became extinct at the end of the Triassic period some 200 million years ago.
The discovery of the fossil, found during an extreme low tide along the shore of the Tongass National Forest, was announced this week by the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
“We were just having our morning coffee out on the outcropping when somebody said, ‘What’s that?’“ Jim Baichtal, the U.S. Forest Service’s Tongass geologist and part of the discovery team, said on Thursday.
Geologists had been conducting field surveys at the site when the fossil was spotted.
Unlike most thalattosaur discoveries, which are fossilized remnants of individual bones and bone fragments, this specimen appeared to be a nearly full skeleton.
“In North America, this may be the most articulated specimen that we have right now,” Baichtal said.
Scientists excavated the fossil in June and have been studying it to determine whether it represents a previously unknown species.
There are only about a dozen full thalattosaur specimens in the world, Baichtal said. “So the probability of this being something that wasn’t seen before is probably pretty high,” he said.