With its 19 feet-long torpedo-shaped body and long teeth the newly-described Lorrainosaurus was a fearsome mega predator. The fossilized remains of a 170-million-year-old marine reptile is the oldest-known pliosaur and dates back to the Jurassic era. The discovery is described in a study published October 16 in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Pliosaurs were members of a group of ocean-dwelling reptiles that are closely related to the more famous long-necked plesiosaurs. Unlike their cousins, these pliosaurs had short necks and massive skulls. From snout to tail, it was likely about 19 feet long and very little is known about the plesiosaurs from this time.

“Famous examples, such as Pliosaurus and Kronosaurus–some of the world’s largest pliosaurs–were absolutely enormous with body-lengths exceeding 10m [32 feet]. They were ecological equivalents of today’s killer whales and would have eaten a range of prey including squid-like cephalopods, large fish and other marine reptiles. These have all been found as preserved gut contents,” study co-author and Uppsala University paleontologist Benjamin Kear said in a statement.

An illustration of tje oldest megapredatory pliosaur, Lorrainosaurus, in the sea that covered what is now northern France 170 million years ago. The reptile has large jaws that are open, bearing two rows of very sharp teeth and four pectoral fins.
The oldest megapredatory pliosaur, Lorrainosaurus, in the sea that covered what is now northern France 170 million years ago. CREDIT: Joschua Knüppe

Pliosaurs first emerged over 200 million years ago and remained relatively small players in marine ecosystems. Following a landmark restructuring of the marine predator ecosystem in the early to middle Jurassic era (about 175 to 171 million years ago) they reached apex predator status.

“This event profoundly affected many marine reptile groups and brought mega predatory pliosaurids to dominance over ‘fish-like’ ichthyosaurs, ancient marine crocodile relatives, and other large-bodied predatory plesiosaurs,” study co-author and paleobiologist at the Institute of Paleobiology of the Polish Academy of Sciences Daniel Madzia said in a statement.

The fossils in this study were originally found in 1983 in northeastern France, but were recently analyzed by an international team of paleontologists who identified this new pliosaur genus called Lorrainosaurus. The teeth and bones represent what was once a complete skeleton that decomposed and was spread along the ancient seafloor by scavengers and ocean currents. 

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Lorrainosaurus was one of the first truly huge pliosaurs. It gave rise to a dynasty of marine reptile mega-predators that ruled the oceans for around 80 million years,” Sven Sachs, a study co-author and paleontologist from the Naturkunde-Museum Bielefeld in Germany, said in a statement.

Other than a short report published in 1994, these fossils remained obscure until the team reevaluated the specimens. Finding Lorrainosaurus’ remains indicates that the reign of gigantic mega-predatory pliosaurs likely began earlier than paleontologists previously thought. These giants were also locally responsive to the major ecological changes in the marine environments that covered present day Europe during the early Middle Jurassic.

Lorrainosaurus is thus a critical addition to our knowledge of ancient marine reptiles from a time in the Age of Dinosaurs that has as yet been incompletely understood,” said Kear.