Researchers excavated the remains of this pliosaur — a type of short-necked plesiosaur with four flippers that lived during the dinosaur age — along the banks of the Volga River, near the Russian city of Ulyanovsk, in the fall of 2002. Now, scientists have classified the ancient marine reptile as a new species.
Unlike other pliosaurs, such as Pliosaurus funkei and Liopleurodon, which had larger teeth and likely dined on sizable four-legged prey, the newfound pliosaur probably wasn't a top predator, as it had "fairly small" teeth and likely hunted small prey such as cephalopods, including squid, and small fish, said study lead researcher Valentin Fischer, a lecturer in the geology department at the University of Liege in Belgium.
The scientists named the 26-foot-long (8 meters) newfound beast Luskhan itilensis. The name reflects the region's cultural history, as the area used to be part of the Mongol Empire. In Mongolian and Turkic mythology, "luuses" were spirits and masters of the water. "Khan" is the Mongolian word for "chief."
The species name refers to "Itil," the Volga River's ancient Turkic name. (Turkic refers to groups of people who used and still do live in the region.) Thus, the reptile's name essentially translates to "master spirit from the Volga," the researchers said.
L. itilensis' skull was long — 5 feet (1.5 m) — and its snout resembled those of the modern-day river dolphin and gharial, a long-snouted crocodile.
"We show that pliosaurids have actually evolved a long-snouted, 'piscivorous' [fish-eating] ecological niche multiple times in their history," Fischer told Live Science in an email. "Each time they have done this, they have actually evolved convergently with another, distantly related group of plesiosaurs called the polycotylids."
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