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A tiny pre-historic reptile sported some impressive armour

Posted July 2, 2017

When we talk about dinosaurs, we typically imagine giant reptiles, much bigger than an average house. However, scientists are gladly researching much smaller ancient reptiles. For example, scientists from the University of Zurich are happy to reveal pictures of what Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi probably looked like. This achievement was made possible by a well-preserved sample found 15 year ago.

Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi was around 20 cm, but had some touch skin. Image credit: Beat Scheffold, Paleontological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich.

This particular animal lived 241 million years ago. Its remains were found south of Davos in the canton Grisons in Switzerland with some marine animals, even though Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi lived on land. It was probably washed away by the sea after its death, which is fortunate for today’s scientists – it got extremely well-preserved in the finely layered marine sediments. This sample was found 15 years ago and was described a year after. But that, of course, did not mean that the work with it is over and now scientists got a chance to study it once more, to try and recreate what Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi actually looked like.

Scientists were particularly interested in reptile’s skin. Although Swiss reptile was relatively small, around 20 cm in length, it had an impressive kit of armour. Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi had smooth, jagged or even thorny osteoderms, making it look like a tiny dragon. In fact, scientists noticed that it should’ve looked very similar to girdled lizards from southern Africa – a surprising observation, having in mind that the extinct species is not closely related to today’s African lizards. Closest relatives of the Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi, as closer examination revealed, actually were marine reptiles such as ichthyosaurs (Ichthyosauria or “fish lizards”), sauropterygians (Sauropterygia “lizard flippers”) or even Helveticosaurus.

At first, 15 years ago, this was identified as some fish remains. Image credit: Torsten Scheyer, Paleontological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich.

So how scientists know Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi was not a marine animal itself? Its body is not streamlined in any way to work well in water. Also, this reptile did not have arms or legs that have transformed into flippers, as well as no tail fin, which would indicate a life at sea. Scientists are very happy to research this small dinosaur, but it almost never happened, because when the skeleton was discovered 15 years ago, it was identified as fish remains.

Excavation near Ducanfurgga are still in progress and scientists are hopeful that they may reveal some other small reptiles or other animals. But you can never be sure about such thing. Good thing that nowadays all specimens are carefully labelled and organized, trying to prevent throwing away scientifically valuable artefacts.


Source: University of Zurich

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