From Academic Kids
Ichthyosaurs (Greek for "fish lizards") were giant marine reptiles that resemble a dolphin with teeth (see convergent evolution). They lived during a large part of the Mesozoic era, and appeared about 250 million years ago (Ma), slightly earlier than the dinosaurs (230 Ma); and disappeared about 90 Ma, about 25 million years before the dinosaurs became extinct. During the early Triassic, ichthyosaurs evolved from as-yet unidentified land reptiles that moved back into the water, in a development similar to dolphins' and whales'. They were particularly abundant in the Jurassic period, until they were replaced as the top aquatic predators by plesiosaurs in the Cretaceous. They belong to the order known as Ichthyosauria or Ichthyopterygia ("fish flippers" a designation introduced by Sir Richard Owen in 1840, although the term is now used more for the parent clade of the Ichthyosauria).
Ichthyosaurs averaged 2 to 4 metres in length (although a few were smaller, and some species grew much larger), with a porpoise-like head and a long, toothed snout. They had a large tail fin and their limbs were adapted for use as steering paddles. They were carnivorous, coming to the surface to fill their lungs with air and viviparous, for fossils have been found with their fossilized fetal young. Viviparity should not be as surprising as it appears at first: air-breathing marine creatures must come ashore to lay eggs, like turtles and some sea snakes, or else give birth to live young in surface waters. Built for speed, like modern tuna, ichthyosaurs also apparently were deep divers, like some modern whales (Motani, 2000). It has been estimated that ichthyosaurs could swim at speeds up to 25 mph (40 km/h).
According to weight estimates by Ryosuke Motani  (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/people/motani/ichthyo/weight.html) a 2.4 meter (8 ft) Stenopterygius weighed around 163 to 168 kg (360 to 370 lb), whilst a 4.0 meter (13 ft) Ophthalmosaurus icenicus weighed 930 to 950 kg (about a ton).
Although ichthyosaurs looked like fish they were not. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould said the ichthyosaur was his favorite example of convergent evolution, where similarities of structure are analogous not homologous, for this group:
- "converged so strongly on fishes that it actually evolved a dorsal fin and tail in just the right place and with just the right hydrological design. These structures are all the more remarkable because they evolved from nothing— the ancestral terrestrial reptile had no hump on its back or blade on its tail to serve as a precursor."
In fact the earliest reconstructions of ichthyosaurs omitted the dorsal fin, which had no hard skeletal structure, until finely-preserved specimens recovered in the 1890s from the Holzmaden lagerstätten in Germany revealed traces of the fin.
For their food, many of the fish-shaped ichthyosaurs relied heavily on ancient cephalopod kin of squids called belemnites. Some early ichthyosaurs had teeth adapted for crushing shellfish. They also most likely fed on fish, and a few of the larger species had heavy jaws and teeth that indicated they fed on smaller reptiles. Ichthyosaurs ranged so widely in size, and survived for so long, that they are likely to have had a wide range of prey. Typical ichthyosaurs have very large eyes, protected within a bony ring, suggesting they may have hunted at night.
History of discoveries
The first fossil vertebrae were published twice in 1708 as tangible mementos of the Universal Deluge. The first complete ichthyosaur fossil was found in 1811 by Mary Anning in Lyme Regis, along what is now called the Jurassic Coast.
In 1905, the Saurian Expedition led by John C. Merriam of the University of California and financed by Annie Alexander, found 25 specimens in central Nevada, which during the Triassic was under a shallow ocean. Several of the specimens are now in the collection of the University of California Museum of Paleontology. Other specimens are embedded in the rock and visible at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nye County. In 1977 the Triassic ichthyosaur Shonisaurus is the State Fossil of Nevada. Nevada is the only state to possess a complete skeleton, 55 ft (17 m) of this extinct marine reptile.
The earliest ichthyosaurs, looking more like finned lizards than the familiar fish or dolphin forms, are known from the Early and Early-Middle (Olenekian and Anisian) Triassic strata of Canada, China, Japan, and Spitsbergen in Norway. These primitive forms included the genera Chaohusaurus, Grippia, and Utatsusaurus. These very early proto-ichthyosaurs, which are now classified as Ichthyopterygia rather than as ichthyosaurs proper (Motani 1997, Motani et al. 1998), quickly gave rise to true ichthyosaurs sometime in the latest Early Triassic or earliest Middle Triassic. These latter diversified into a variety of forms, including the sea-serpant like Cymbiospondylus, which reached 10 meters, and smaller more typical forms like Mixosaurus. By the Late Triassic, ichthyosaurs consisted of both classic Shastasauria and more advanced, "dolphin"-like Euichthyosauria (Californosaurus, Toretocnemus) and Parvipelvia (Hudsonelpidia, Macgowania). Experts disagree over whether these represent an evolutionary continum, with the less specialised shastosaurs a paraphyletic grade that was evolving into the more advanced forms (Maisch and Matzke 2000), or whether the two were separate clades that evolved from a common ancestor earlier on (Nicholls and Manabe 2001).
During the Carnian and Norian, shastosaurs reached huge sizes. Shonisaurus popularis, known from a number of specimens from the Carnian of Nevada, was 15 meters long. Norian shonisaurs are known from both sides of the Pacific. Himalayasaurus tibetensis and Tibetosaurus (probably a synonym) have been found in Tibet. These large (10 to 15 meters long) ichthyosaurs probably belong to the same genus as Shonisaurus (Motani et al, 1999; Lucas, 2001, pp.117-119). While the gigantic Shonisaurus sikanniensis, whose remains were found in the Pardonet formation of British Columbia by Elizabeth Nicholls, reached as much as 23 meters in length - the largest marine reptile known to date.
These giants (along with their smaller cousins) seemed to have disappeared at the end of the Norian. Rhaetian (latest Triassic) ichthyosaurs are known from England, and these are very similar to those of the Early Jurassic. Like the dinosaurs, the ichthyosaurs and their contemporaries the plesiosaurs survived the end-Triassic extinction event, and immediately diversified to fill the vacant ecological niches of the earliest Jurassic.
The Early Jurassic, like the Late Triassic, was the heyday of the ichthyosaurs, which are represented by four families and a variety of species, ranging from one to ten meters in length. Genera include Eurhinosaurus, Ichthyosaurus, Leptonectes, Stenopterygius, and the large predator Temnodontosaurus, along with the persistantly primitive Suevoleviathan, which was little changed from its Norian ancestors. All these animals were streamlined, dolphin-like forms, although the more primitive animals were perhaps more elongated than the advanced and compact Stenopterygius and Ichthyosaurus
Ichthyosaurs were still common in the Middle Jurassic, but had now decreased in diversity. All belonged to the single clade Ophthalmosauria. Represented by the 4 meter long Ophthalmosaurus and related genera, they were very similar to Ichthyosaurus, and had attained a perfect "tear-drop" streamlined form. The eyes of Ophthalmosaurus were huge, and it is likely that these animals hunted in dim and deep water (Motani 2000).
Ichthyosaurs seemed to decrease in diversity even further with the Cretaceous. Only a single genus is known, Platypterygius, and although it had a worldwide distribution, there was little diversity species-wise. This last ichthyosaur genus fell victim to the mid-Cretaceous (Cenomanian-Turonian) extinction event (as did some of the giant Pliosaurs), although ironically less hydrodynomically efficient aniamls like Mosasaurs and long-necked Plesiosaurs flourished. It seems that the ichthyosaurs became the victim of their own overspecialisation, and were unable to keep up with the fast swimming and highly evasive new teleost fishes that were becoming dominant at this time, and against which the sit and wait ambush strategies of the mosasaurs proved superior (Lingham-Soliar 1999).
- Ellis, Richard, (2003) Sea Dragons - Predators of the Prehistoric Oceans. University Press of Kansas ISBN 0-7006-1269-6
- Stephen Jay Gould, "Bent out of Shape" in Eight Little Piggies.
- Lingham-Soliar, T. (1999): A functional analysis of the skull of Goronyosaurus nigeriensis (Squamata: Mosasauridae) and Its Bearing on the Predatory Behavior and Evolution of the Enigmatic Taxon. N. Jb. Geol. Palaeont. Abh. 2134 (3): 355-74
- Maisch, M. W. & Matzke, A. T. (2000) The ichthyosauria. Stuttgarter Beitraege zur Naturkunde. Serie B. Geologie und Palaeontologie. 2000; (298): 1-159.
- McGowan, Christopher (1992) Dinosaurs, Spitfires and Sea Dragons, Harvard University Press, ISBN 067420770X
- Motani, R. (1997), Temporal and spatial distribution of tooth implantation in ichthyosaurs, in JM Callaway & EL Nicholls (eds.), Ancient Marine Reptiles. Academic Press. pp. 81-103.
- Motani, R. (2000), Rulers of the Jurassic Seas, Scientific American vol.283, no. 6
- Motani, R., Minoura, N. & Ando, T. (1998), Ichthyosaurian relationships illuminated by new primitive skeletons from Japan. Nature 393: 255-257.
- Motani, R., Manabe, M., and Dong, Z-M, (1999) The status of Himalayasaurus tibetensis (Ichthyopterygia) pdf (http://www.uoregon.edu/~rmotani/pdf/sMotanietal1999a.pdf), Paludicola2(2):174-181 June 1999
- Nicholls, E. L. & Manabe, M. 2001. A new genus of ichthyosaur from the Late Triassic Pardonet Formation of British Columbia: bridging the Triassic-Jurassic gap. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 38, 983-1002.
- USMP Berkeley's ichthyosaur introduction (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/ichthyosauria.html)
- Ryosuke Motani's detailed Ichthyosaur homepage, with vivid graphics (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/people/motani/ichthyo/)
- Eureptilia: Ichthyosauria - Palaeos (http://www.palaeos.com/Vertebrates/Units/210Eureptilia/300.html)
- Ichthyosauria - cladogram (http://www.fmnh.helsinki.fi/users/haaramo/Metazoa/Deuterostoma/Chordata/Reptilia/Ichthyosauromorpha/Ichthyosauria.htm) (Mikko's Phylogeny Archive)de:Fischsaurier