Extinct Reptile Plucked From Pacific

A Russian trawler in the Pacific Ocean yesterday hauled up a 12-meter-long marine reptile that appears to be a member of a species thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago. The creature, tentatively identified as an Elasmosaurus, suggests that serpentlike relics from the age of dinosaurs--believed to live in Loch Ness, Scotland, and elsewhere--may be real.

The vessel, Roulette, had been scooping up Pacific sea sturgeons early yesterday morning near Guam when the Russians netted a whopper. "At first we thought it was a deformed bottle-nosed whale," says skipper Vlad Vydumshchik, who spoke to ScienceNOW via cell phone. But when the crew emptied the net's contents onto the deck, they realized they had caught a piece of history. "Someone shouted, 'We got a dinosaur!' " Vydumshchik says. He and his mates filled a 60-meter cargo container with seawater and gently lifted the reptile, which was breathing shallowly, into the makeshift holding pen.

The skipper radioed to Micronesia University in Guam, which then dispatched a team by helicopter. "I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it," says Yul Behad, chair of the department of maritime paleontology. He says the reptile has an 8-meter-long neck that connects a tiny, sharp-toothed head to a dappled, blubbery body. Its long paddlelike fins, Behad says, "suggest the creature shimmies up the beach to lay eggs, just like Plesiosaurus did." Its length, however, pegs it as an Elasmosaurus, which Behad emphasizes is not a dinosaur. "Still, when I saw it I instantly thought of Jurassic Park," he says.

Other experts can't wait to see the discovery for themselves. "Wow," says Bea Cirius of Oopsala University in Oslo, Norway, the world's leading elasmorologist. Cirius says it is certainly possible that elasmosaurs and other plesiosaurs have been lurking in the oceans undetected until now. "I've secretly been longing for this day my whole life," says the spry octogenarian. "How much does a ticket to Guam cost?"

The Russians have invited Behad's team and a few other bona fide paleontologists to stay aboard and study the reptile, which appears to be healthy, until the ship returns to its port in Baku in early May, after the sturgeon season ends. The crew has nicknamed the beast Ossichka, after the Russian word for sturgeon, and are feeding it its namesake. "Of course," Vydumshchik says, "we remove the caviar first. There's no reason to spoil her."

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Posted in Paleontology