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A team from the University of Chile discovered in Cerritos Bayos the fin and skull of a pliosaur, a sea beast that could reach 10 meters. They are still in process of the permission to unearth the king of the seas.
The Atacama Desert, which today has the veneer of the most inhospitable and dry place on the planet, was the opposite millions of years ago. In the Jurassic, in fact, the area was covered by a fertile sea, home to the most varied marine fauna that the era could offer. And in that period, where ichthyosaurs and marine crocodiles lived, who reigned was a feared giant reptile that was recently found: the pliosaur.
For several decades it has been known that Calama was a cradle of the prehistoric megafauna 150 million years ago. Therefore, lately there are several researchers who have moved there in search of great paleontological findings. Such is the case of the team chaired by Rodrigo Otero, and who are accompanied by Sergio Soto, Jhonatan Alarcón and Osvaldo Rojas, from the Natural History Museum of Calama.
The work has allowed them to publish the discoveries of fossil remains of marine crocodiles and flying dinosaurs -pterosaurus- in 2015 , however, the biggest one is still on their hands.
It was in 2017 when paleontologists, led by Otero, from the Phylogeny Laboratory of the University of Chile, found a giant fin in the middle of the desert, in the area of Cerritos Bayos, which is a few dozen kilometers from Calama.
By the size, they determined that it was a pliosaur, a prospect of nature that these days would have no rival on the planet. Nor had competition in their time: the sea beast could reach 10 meters in length, endowed with four fins, huge skulls and teeth several times larger than those of today’s crocodiles.
“They were supra-predatory marine animals, they were at the top of the food chain,” explains Sergio Soto, paleontologist at the University of Chile.
On the other hand, Soto’s specialty is the marine crocodiles, which, according to the account, were “very particular because they are very different from the current ones.” They were adapted to marine life, they had fins instead of legs, tail like that of a fish and they could live to great depths, “he says. However, he adds, “the pliosaur has become the star of the area.”
After the discovery of the fin of pliosaur, the team of paleontologists arrived last December to the skull of the dinosaur. Then they began the titanic task of digging to rescue the fossilized rest of the animal, since, they believe, the two parts identified allow to believe that the rest of the body would be complete, and embedded in the rock.
The researchers are funded by a Ring Project of Conicyt, but the size of the animal still has them looking for funds to finance the full “rescue”. Unearthing a Jurassic fossil, despite what can be believed, is not about digging the earth and getting bone for bone. Given the patrimonial value of the remains, and their fragility, researchers must extract the rock completely, transport it and in the laboratory separate the remains.
“Even though they are rocks, they are still fragile because they weathered with time, they lost the organic part and they are like crystal”, explains Soto.
Given the rareness of the discovery, thinking that there are no records of Jurassic pliosaurs in South America, the team does not rule out that it is a new species of dinosaur.
The findings are in a piece of the desert that could well become the regional or world paleontological capital. “It is already the most important zone of the northern zone of Chile”, says Osvaldo Rojas, from the Culture and Tourism Corporation of Calama.
Cerritos Bayos “is a deposit of marine origin that correspond to the Jurassic and that due to tectonic conditions have risen to this Andean area of northern Chile, which is why we find marine species 130 kilometers from the coast”, says Rojas.
On the pliosaur, the director of conservation and museums in the area clarifies that, while looking for the precise mechanism to extract large blocks of rock and upload them to trucks, they are “awaiting the prompt permission of the council of national monuments for prospecting”.
“All the fossils are heritage, but those of Cerritos Bayos are peculiar because it represents an age that is not represented in South America.In the world there are about 3 or 4 localities of the same age.It is a little known event and it provokes interest because it is probably new fauna for science “, says the paleontologist.
In fact, a few kilometers away, in the San Salvador ravine, Rojas points out that “vestiges of the continental Jurassic were found, which is allowing us to reconstruct the ancient paleoecology of this sector of the Andes”.