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New Species Of Ancient Marine Reptile Named

5 June 2002


It's been described as a snake threaded through the body of a turtle. Called the plesiosaur, this ancient giant fast-swimming reptile once roamed the world alongside dinosaurs. But now the discovery of a new genus and species of the plesiosaur embedded in the rocky shores of New Zealand is making a few waves in the world of palaeontology.

A University of Otago geologist's description of this creature has just been published in the British journal Palaeontology.

The plesiosaur fossil, discovered at Shag Point in North Otago, is the first of its family (Cryptoclididae) to be found in New Zealand, and is only the third such member to be found in the Southern Hemisphere.

The fossil, which represents a previously unknown breed, has been named Kaiwhekea Katiki by Associate Professor Ewan Fordyce of the University's Geology Department and Dr Arthur Cruickshank of Leicester Museums in England.

"Kaiwhekea is the genus, meaning squid-eater, and Katiki is the species, named for the beach immediately north of Shag Point, where the creature was found in a 70 million year old rock formation," says Professor Fordyce.

The fossil is "one of the most dramatic of its kind in New Zealand", as large portions of the body are almost in life position and its skull is naturally associated with its skeleton, says Professor Fordyce. "Other plesiosaur fossils found in New Zealand have previously been described either from skulls or from other parts, such as limbs. At last we can be sure what sort of skull goes with what sort of skeleton," he added .

Professor Fordyce and fellow University geologists have spent many years painstakingly removing the rock surrounding the fossil, which was collected and moved to the University in 1983. Their work has revealed the details of an air-breathing eight metre-long reptile that fed on medium sized soft-bodied prey such as squid, and probably weighed between two and three tonnes, he says.

"The shape of the skull suggests the creature had large fast-acting and/or powerful jaw muscles and its hind flipper features are consistent with fast swimming capabilities. Also, it appears to have had large forward-looking eyes, perhaps feeding in gloomy depths where this would be an advantage," he says.

The fossil record of the specimen's family, Cryptoclididae, is "intriguingly" incomplete, with mid-northern hemisphere fossils found being tens of millions of years older than the far southern ones. No intermediate age fossils have been found, nor any in localities in-between, says Professor Fordyce.

The plesiosaur is currently on display in Otago Museum's Southern Land, Southern People gallery.


Associate Professor Ewan Fordyce Simon Ancell
Department of Geology Media Specialist
University of Otago University of Otago
Tel 03 479 7510 Tel 03 479 5415
E-mail E-mail


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