Keck professor’s sea monster discovery sheds light on marine evolution

A man lies next to a large dinosaur fossil to demonstrate how big the fossil truly is.
Schmitz has been involved in the process of excavating this fossil since 2003. (Courtesy: Martin Sander)

Deep in desertous Fossil Hill, Nevada, Lars Schmitz was part of a team that discovered a new gigantic species of marine ichthyosaur — a group of fish-shaped marine reptiles — from the early Triassic period, about 220 to 250 millions years ago.

Schmitz, an assistant professor of biology at the W.M. Keck Science Department, has been involved in the process of excavating this giant since 2003. 

In 2015, the fossil was finally “air-lifted off the mountain with helicopters … and brought to Los Angeles in a beer truck,” Schmitz told TSL. 

This phase of the project was funded by the W. M. Keck Science Center, Schmitz’s alma mater the University of Bonn and Great Basin Brewery. The fossil is currently on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

A paper co-authored by Schmitz was published in December, describing findings related to the ichthyosaur. 

Weighing in at 45 tons, with a six-and-a-half-foot-long skull and a 55-foot-long body, the rapid development of gigantism in this species is strikingly different from the modern day giants of our oceans, such as whales, Schmitz said.

In an interview with The New York Times, Schmitz said the team of researchers had just one question after discovering the fossil: “How did it become so big?” While modern whales took around 45 million years to evolve to their massive sizes, this ichthyosaur did it in three million. 

Two people with their arms raised stand next to a large mesh bag filled with dinosaur fossils.
The fossil was air-lifted off of the mountain in 2015 and brought to Los Angeles in a beer truck. (Courtesy: Martin Sander)

Schmitz hypothesizes that the rapid development of the ichthyosaur’s large size is partially a result of the short trophic networks caused by the Permian extinction. He explains that shorter food chains are more efficient in sustaining apex predators. 

Additionally, Schmitz said, researching the giant ichthyosaur can benefit modern marine conservation by enabling a deeper understanding of marine evolution, especially since the massive creature evolved rapidly after a mass extinction.

“So when we’re looking at conservation of modern giants, the changes to the trophic network can have massive consequences for the overall health of the ecosystem,” Schmitz said.

He hopes that this research can assist with efforts to stabilize climate change’s effects on fauna. Schmitz puts a positive spin on the events of mass extinction by emphasizing that “life has bounced back every single time.” 

“We are causing massive climate change right now. If we let it go back to a stable, stable condition, it should bounce back over geological time,” Schmitz said.

A large dinosaur head fossil has a yellow pickaxe next to it.
Members of the species weighed 45 tons and were 55 feet long. (Courtesy: Martin Sander)

In 1998, a group that included Schmitz’s masters adviser and long-time collaborator, Martin Sander, discovered Cymbospondylus youngorum, a giant marine reptile.

Schmitz refers to C. youngorum as a “fish-lizard” — one that dominated the Triassic era oceans after the mass extinction at the end of the Permian era. 

Schmitz also received press coverage in 2021 for his role in analyzing a much smaller creature — Shuvuuia deserti — which were only two feet in length. S. deserti were theropods (three-toed and bipedal carnivores) that lived about 75 million to 81 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period in what is now Mongolia.

The study, which was published in May and co-authored by Schmitz, was the first time that extreme specializations for both hearing and vision were documented in a fossil. According to a jointly authored article, the team’s findings describe the “most convincing evidence to date for nocturnal dinosaurs.” By studying the sensory abilities of these dinosaurs, they said, scientists can learn more about nocturnal animals. 

Schmitz’s Keck-based lab is currently working closely with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County to continue conducting comparative morphology research. 

His projects, which 5C students are actively involved in, include comparing the eye size of Ichthyosaurs to other reptiles, comparing eye size evolution of Ichthyosaurs to whales, and comparing the evolution of teeth specialization and arrangement of Ichthyosaurs, Mosasaurus and whales.

“My long-term goal is to help [with] facilitating the synthesis of phylogenetic comparative biology and quantitative paleobiology,” his website says. “A unification of these two distinct disciplines is expected to reconcile many of the conflicting conclusions and result in an improved understanding of evolutionary patterns and processes.”

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