- An mature female pliosaur fossil shows signs of a degenerative condition in her jaw similar to human arthritis.
- The condition has never been seen before in these or similar Mesozoic reptiles.
Ancient creatures resembling stout-necked Loch Ness Monsters apparently developed arthritis in their monster jaws, revealing that even such lethal killers could suffer from and eventually succumb to diseases of old age, researchers find.
Scientists reached that conclusion while investigating the fossil of an extinct marine reptile known as a pliosaur. The carnivore was apparently an old female extending some 26 feet (8 meters). It had a 10-foot-long (3 meters), crocodilelike head, short neck, whalelike body and four powerful flippers to propel it through water to hunt down prey.
"This pliosaur, like many of its relatives, was truly huge," researcher Michael Benton, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Bristol in England, told LiveScience. "To stand beside its skull and realize that it is 3 meters long, and massive and heavy as it is, that it once functioned with muscles and blood vessels and nerves, is amazing. You can lie down inside its mouth."
Normally, with huge jaws and teeth about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long, this pliosaur could have ripped most other animals apart. However, paleontologists found this specimen was apparently afflicted with an arthritis-like disease.
Benton and his colleagues analyzed an approximately 150-million-year-old specimen of Pliosaurus that had been unearthed in 1994 by fossil collector Simon Carpenter and held since then in the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery in England.
The beast would have lived in what is now southern England, back when the area was covered in warm, shallow seas. "Imagine the Mediterranean or Florida," Benton said. Other fossils from the site include smaller marine reptiles such as marine crocodiles, turtles and plesiosaurs, other Loch Ness Monster-like creatures upon which the pliosaur likely fed, as well as fish and shellfish. (Loch Ness Madness: Our 10 Favorite Monsters)
The skeleton had a low ridge of bone running from front to back on top of its skull. Investigators regarded it as female because males were thought to have taller ridges. Its large size and fused skull bones suggested maturity. The investigators noticed the reptile had signs of a degenerative condition similar to human arthritis.