AN ENORMOUS Jurassic pliosaur skull extracted from a cliff in Dorset, UK, is offering scientists a wealth of new information about these sea reptiles. “It’s very likely a new species,” says Judyth Sassoon at the University of Bristol, UK.
The fossil was the subject of a new documentary, Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster, which premiered on BBC One on 1 January and will air on PBS in the US in February. The skull is so well preserved that CT scans revealed the sensory pits on the snout (pictured above) were connected to blood vessels and nerves, allowing the pliosaur to detect changes in pressure and hunt prey in murky waters (pictured below, in a CGI image from the documentary).
There is hope that the rest of the fossil is still intact in the cliff. “There may be evidence on its skeleton of how it met its death,” says Steve Etches, who led the team to extract and prepare the skull. Etches is shown below, examining the snout with David Attenborough, left, in a still from the documentary.
Surface scans of the specimen have helped scientists estimate the strength of its bite. Emily Rayfield, a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol, suggests its bite force would have been twice that of a saltwater crocodile, one of the most powerful known bites. Evidence of trihedral teeth, with two sharp cutting edges and striated grooves, is shown below.
The grooves are believed to stop a vacuum forming when the teeth are plunged into prey, allowing the pliosaur to repeatedly and swiftly bite down, and further cementing its place as one of the deadliest predators of its time. The skull is on show at the Etches Collection in Dorset, UK.