If the Loch Ness Monster and a giraffe mated, it would more than likely look like a Tanystropheus. This incredibly odd-looking reptile had an exceptionally long neck that was three times longer than its body with a crocodile-like snout and sharp curved teeth.
This prehistoric reptile lived approximately 242 million years ago and its remains were found along the super-continent Pangaea’s coastal waters. As a matter of fact, there were two long-necked sea creatures living in those waters during the Triassic Period – the larger one has been named Tanystropheus hydroides while the smaller one is called Tanystropheus longobardicus.
And although they were very similar (so much so that scientists initially thought they were the same species), they were able to co-exist as they each hunted different prey so they didn’t have to battle for food. The larger Tanystropheus hydroides fed on squid and fish while the smaller Tanystropheus longobardicus ate small shelled creatures like shrimp.
In an email to Live Science, Stephan Spiekman, who is a former doctoral student at the University of Zurich's Paleontological Institute and Museum in Switzerland as well as the lead researcher of the study, explained, “They had evolved to feed on different food sources with different skulls and teeth, but with the same long neck.”
For having such long necks, they only had 13 vertebrae with some of them being reinforced with extra cervical ribs which made their necks quite stiff. For comparison, another long-necked reptile from the Triassic Period called Dinocephalosaurus had as many as 30 vertebrae in its neck, while sauropod dinosaurs had up to 19 neck vertebrae. These extra vertebrae made their necks more flexible.
Scientists have long wondered why these species had such long necks. Since they survived for approximately 14 million years, they now question the possibility of whether their long necks actually helped them survive for such a long time. Olivier Rieppel, who is the Rowe Family Curator of Evolutionary Biology at the Field Museum in Chicago and a co-researcher of the study, said that “this strange anatomy of Tanystropheus was ecologically much more versatile and adaptive than had previously been thought”.
It’s been suggested that their long necks may have helped them to hunt since their heads were so small. “My best guess is that this would make this head quite difficult to see for its prey, especially in somewhat turbid water,” Spiekman stated, adding, “This way, Tanystropheus, both the small and large species, were able to approach their prey closely without getting spotted and without having to be particularly good swimmers.”
At first, scientists were unsure as to whether Tanystropheus was a land or sea creature since so many of its bones were crushed so they decided to take a CT scan of its skull. Once they were able to get a full 3D image, they were able to analyze it in much more detail, specifically its bone structure.
They studied both Tanystropheus species and found that while their bodies were pretty much the same, they did have major differences in their skulls based on their contrasting food sources. For example, the larger Tanystropheus hydroides had long, fang-like, crown-shaped teeth and the smaller Tanystropheus longobardicus had cone-shaped teeth. Both species did have nostrils on the top of their snout similar to a crocodile. (An image of this creature can be seen here.)