Researchers have uncovered new details about the life of the pliosaur which roamed the earth in the Upper Jurassic era, 200 million years ago.
CT scans by scientists at the University of Bristol discovered that the reptile’s snout contained intricate nerve systems and it had a very keen sense of smell. The discovery was made after collating 2,000 individual scans from a fossilised skull.
“While looking at the CT scans we found that there were some branches and unusual channels that we never noticed before, so we thought it was a good idea to follow them and trace them digitally. In the end we discovered extensive neurovascular webs of channels,” explained David Foffa, a researcher at the University of Bristol.
The channels probably housed the maxillary artery and trigeminal nerve which carried signals to and from the upper jaw and snout. Researchers think they may have supplied blood and nerve connections to skin and soft tissue in the snout. This would have helped pliosaurs hunt prey and manipulate food in the water like a modern-day crocodile.
“We discovered that this kind of system which we found in the snout could be linked to prey detection in a way similar to how crocodiles act when hunting prey. In crocodiles the trigeminal nerve goes to some receptor in the snout which helps them to detect the movement of their prey,” said David Foffa.
Paleontologists have long thought pliosaur skulls contained small holes called foramina that led to internal channels, but this is the first concrete evidence of it. The pliosaur was around eight metres in length with a large crocodile head, a short neck and whale-like body.
It is believed the larger pliosaurs could have swallowed a cow in one single bite. CT scanning is helping to uncover the secrets of prehistoric life forms in unprecedented detail, while leaving fossils undamaged and intact.