'Weird' 200-Million-Year-Old 'Primitive' Reptile Discovered in Alaska

Researchers have identified a new species of marine reptile that lived more than 200 million years ago.

A team of scientists first uncovered a specimen of the species—dubbed Gunakadeit joseeae—at a coastal site in the southeast of the state in 2011, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

G. joseeae belongs to a group of marine reptiles known as thalattosaurs which inhabited coastal environments in Earth's low latitudes during the Triassic Period (around 251 million to 199 million years ago.)

To date, researchers have uncovered very little well-preserved material associated with this group of animals—which grew up to 13 feet in length—meaning their evolutionary history is still not well-understood.

But the researchers say the newly identified specimen is the most complete thalattosaur ever found in North America, casting new light on these enigmatic animals.

"Thalattosaurs were among the first groups of land-dwelling reptiles to re-adapt to life in the ocean," Neil Kelley, an author of the study from Vanderbilt University, said in a statement. "They thrived for tens of millions of years, but their fossils are relatively rare so this new specimen helps fill an important gap in the story of their evolution and eventual extinction."

Thalattosaurs, was first described from remains in California over 100 years ago, but mostly based on fragmentary bits and pieces.

"More complete remains are known from China and Europe," Patrick Druckenmiller, lead author of the study from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told Newsweek. "Our new skeleton is nearly complete (except for the last half of its tail) and articulated—all the bones in the proper order and place."

After identifying G. joseeae as a new species, the scientists tried to work out how it was related to other thalattosaurs by comparing it to dozens of other specimens from this group.

"When you find a new species, one of the things you want to do is tell people where you think it fits in the family tree," Druckenmiller said in a statement. "We decided to start from scratch on the family tree."

Gunakadeit joseeae
An artist's illustration of Gunakadeit joseeae. Ray Troll

They found that G. joseeae was a primitive kind of thalattosaur that managed to survive right until the end of the late Triassic, when the group went extinct.

"It was so specialized and weird, we thought it might be out at the furthest branches of the tree," Druckenmiller said.

One of the features that helped the scientists identify the specimen as a new species was its extremely pointed snout, a body trait that likely developed in response to the shallow marine environment the reptile once inhabited. However, this special adaptation may have potentially led to the extinction of the animal.

"It was probably poking its pointy schnoz into cracks and crevices in coral reefs and feeding on soft-bodied critters," Druckenmiller said. "We think these animals were highly specialized to feed in the shallow water environments, but when the sea levels dropped and food sources changed, they had nowhere to go."

This article was updated to include additional comments from Patrick Druckenmiller.