A fascinating recent fossil discovery in China unveils an intriguing aspect of ancient reptile behavior. Research conducted jointly by Chinese and UK scientists sheds light on the skull of an early marine reptile known as Hupehsuchus. This remarkable finding suggests that these reptiles exhibited whale-like filter feeding tactics even 250 million years ago. The examination of Hupehsuchus's skull reveals soft structures that facilitated the intake of water containing shrimp-like prey. Additionally, it appears that the reptile possessed baleen whale-like features that enabled it to filter its food as it swam forward.
The study further highlights intriguing parallels between Hupehsuchus and baleen whales. Both creatures exhibit grooves and notches along the edges of their jaws, albeit baleen whales have keratin strips in place of teeth. The leader of the research team, Zichen Fang from the Wuhan Center of China Geological Survey, expressed astonishment at discovering these adaptations in an early marine reptile. He emphasized the unique nature of the hupehsuchians, which are close relatives of ichthyosaurs and have been known for half a century. However, their way of life remained partially elusive until now.
Professor Michael Benton, a collaborator from the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, contextualized the findings. The Hupehsuchus lived during the Early Triassic period, around 248 million years ago, marking a significant period of re-population following the massive end-Permian mass extinction. This rapid resurgence of life led to the rapid emergence of these large marine reptiles, fundamentally altering marine ecosystems during a time of upheaval. The discovery showcases the incredible pace at which these ancient creatures transformed their environment and offers valuable insights into the distant past.
Professor Long Cheng, who directed the project at the Wuhan Center of China Geological Survey, shared the exciting news: “We've unearthed two new hupehsuchian skulls, which provide more comprehensive insights than previous discoveries.”
Examining these skulls revealed a fascinating detail about the elongated snout structure. The snout was composed of separate, unfused straplike bones, creating a unique gap running the entire length of the snout. A similar arrangement is observed only in modern baleen whales. This flexible snout and lower jaw configuration in baleen whales enables them to accommodate an expansive throat region that expands significantly as they move forward, allowing them to engulf small prey with ease.
Li Tian, a collaborator from the University of Geosciences Wuhan, added another intriguing observation: “The teeth—or lack thereof—played a crucial role.”
Distinguishing modern baleen whales from toothed whales like dolphins and orcas is the absence of teeth in the former. Baleen whales possess specialized grooves along their jaws that support baleen curtains—long, thin strips of keratin, the same protein found in hair, feathers, and fingernails. Remarkably, Hupehsuchus exhibited identical grooves and notches along its jaw edges, leading researchers to propose that it might have independently developed a form of baleen adaptation.
Source: University of Bristol