Fossils of Giant Whale-Like Creatures Called Ichthyosaurs Found in Swiss Alps

The fossils of three large Ichthyosaurs, extinct marine reptiles that lived roughly 250 million years ago, have been found in a surprising place – the Swiss Alps.

As reported by CNN, these Ichthyosaurs are thought to have been some of the largest animals on Earth, reaching 80 tons and 65 feet. Their size would compare to modern sperm whales. However, one would not expect to find large marine animals high up in the Swiss Alps.

A drawing of the whale-size Ichthyosaur can be seen on the right side of the image among other marine animals. Image Credit: Heinz Furrer

The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology published a study detailing how these Ichthyosaurs found themselves 9,186 feet above sea level, and it all has to do with these rock layers in question being on the floor of a wide lagoon some 200 million years ago.

“We think that the big ichthyosaurs followed schools of fish into the lagoon. The fossils may also derive from strays that died there,” said study coauthor Heinz Furrer, retired curator at the University of Zurich’s Paleontological Institute and Museum, in a statement.

95 million years ago, the African tectonic plate began to push against the European tectonic plate, and this caused these fossils to become “tectonically deformed,” meaning they were “squashed by the tectonic plate movements that pushed them to a rock formation at the top of a mountain.”

The largest of the three Ichthyosaurs found was 65 feet long and the others were roughly 49 feet. Perhaps most exciting about the find was the largest Ichthyosaur tooth ever found.

Ichthyosaur Tooth - Image Credit: R. Roth, University Zurich.

Ichthyosaur Tooth – Image Credit: R. Roth, University Zurich.

“This is huge by ichthyosaur standards: Its root was 60 millimeters in diameter — the largest specimen still in a complete skull to date was 20 millimeters and came from an ichthyosaur that was nearly 18 meters (59 feet) long,” said lead study author P. Martin Sander, professor of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Bonn in Germany.

Many of these fossils were first discovered during geological mapping of the Alps between 1976 and 1990, but the teams behind the finds have been more focused on studying them recently as more fossils have been found.

Ichthyosaur had previously been found mainly in North America, so finding them in modern-day Switzerland reveals much more about these creatures that we still know very little about despite their size.

“It amounts to a major embarrassment for paleontology that we know so little about these giant ichthyosaurs despite the extraordinary size of their fossils,” Sander said. “We hope to rise to this challenge and find new and better fossils soon,” which very well may be “hidden beneath the glaciers.”

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Adam Bankhurst is a news writer for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamBankhurst and on Twitch.

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