Scientists in the vast Atacama desert in Chile have uncovered the remains of one of the largest and most daunting marine predators to patrol the Earth’s oceans — dating all the way back to some 160 million years ago.

The Atacama is the driest desert in the world, a moonscape of sand and stone.

But once, it was largely submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean.

According to researchers who found the fossils there, they once belonged to ancient reptiles called pliosaurs — predators with a more powerful bite than the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Paleontologist Rodrigo Otero led the research project.

“Pliosaurs were marine reptiles with heads similar to those of modern crocodiles with short and very robust necks, an aerodynamic body and athletically-adapted limbs. These reptiles could reach large sizes and some specimens have been found with over two-meter-long skulls.”

Otero says the find helps scientists fill gaps in time and evolution between this species — and those that came before and after.

According to their findings, the beasts lived in the Atacama during the Jurassic period and these fossils are the second oldest record of the species in the Southern Hemisphere.

They found jaw, tooth and limb fragments at two sites in the Loa river basin near the mining city of Calama.

But Otero says the health crisis, combined with harsh conditions in the desert, have hampered their investigation, and that there are still fossil bones in the ground waiting to be unearthed.

“Considering the giant skulls that have been found of pliosaurs, it’s very likely that they were among the top predators of the system at the end of the Jurassic.”

Otero says the complete fossil, which has been excavated since 2017, is likely to measure between six to seven yards long.

Its skull alone is over three feet long, with teeth that are each around three to four inches.

Video Transcript

Scientists in the vast Atacama desert in Chile have uncovered the remains of one of the largest and most daunting marine predators to patrol the Earth’s oceans– dating all the way back to some 160 million years ago. The Atacama is the driest desert in the world, a moonscape of sand and stone. But once, it was largely submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean. According to researchers who found the fossils there, they once belonged to ancient reptiles called pliosaurs– predators with a more powerful bite than the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Paleontologist Rodrigo Otero led the research project.

RODRIGO OTERO: [SPEAKING SPANISH]

INTERPRETER: Pliosaurs were marine reptiles with heads similar to those of modern crocodiles with short and very robust necks, an aerodynamic body, and athletically-adopted limbs. These reptiles could reach large sizes, and some specimens have been found with over two-meter-long skulls.

Otero says the find helps scientists fill gaps in time in evolution between this species and those that came before and after. According to their findings, the beast lived in the Atacama during the Jurassic period, and these fossils are the second oldest record of the species in the Southern Hemisphere. They found jaw, tooth, and limb fragments at two sites in the lower river basin near the mining city of Calama. But Otero says the health crisis, combined with harsh conditions in the desert, have hampered their investigation, and that there are still fossil bones in the ground waiting to be unearthed.

RODRIGO OTERO: [SPEAKING SPANISH]

INTERPRETER: Considering the giant skulls of pliosaurs that have been found, it’s very likely that they were among the top predators of the system at the end of the Jurassic.

Otero says the complete fossil, which has been excavated since 2017, is likely to measure between 6 to seven yards 7 long. Its skull alone is over 3 feet long with teeth that are each around 3 to 4 inches.

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