Melting glacier uncovers 'exceptional' prehistoric discovery for researchers

·5 min read
Melting glacier uncovers 'exceptional' prehistoric discovery for researchers

The "exceptional" 130-million-year-old fossilized remains of a pregnant ichthyosaur with several fully intact embryos have been unearthed in Chile, a first-of-its-kind prehistoric discovery on the planet.

A melting glacier in Torres del Paine National Park in the Patagonia region slowly revealed the treasure: A 13-foot-long fossilized marine creature, nicknamed Fiona by scientists.

The fossil dates to the Early Cretaceous Period, between 129 million and 139 million years ago, when the mighty brachiosaurus roamed the Earth. Fiona is the only pregnant female ever recorded from the Valanginian-Hauterivian geologic era.

"So it's incredibly important," said paleontologist Judith Pardo-Pérez, who discovered the ichthyosaur and led the expedition for the University of Magallanes.

The magnitude of the expedition was undeniable.

Pardo-Pérez first discovered the fossil in 2009 deep in the Tyndall Glacier area. However, it would take her more than a decade to actually carry out the arduous task of retrieving the fully preserved species due to the fossil's remote location and the challenging terrain as well as the rather harsh climate.

A close-up of one of the fossilized intact embryos of the ichthyosaur unearthed in Chile in March-April 2022. (Photo via Reuters)

But the mission finally got underway in March of this year with the help of the Chilean National Agency for Research and Development, and an international team of paleontologists was assembled from Chile, Argentina, Germany and the United Kingdom.

The researchers called it an "intense" 31 days that wrapped up in April as a helicopter carefully lifted Fiona from her ancient seabed.

"In a month of fieldwork, we managed to get the most complete ichthyosaur from the southern tip of America to the world in two helicopter flights," said paleontological excavator Héctor Ortiz, of the Chilean Antarctic Institute and the University of Chile, who, along with the other scientists, discussed details of the expedition last week.

The scientists called it an "exceptional" find but described the excavation itself as "incredibly tough."

"The weather was so extreme that we couldn't get to the ichthyosaur site every day and had to remain in camp," said Dean Lomax, a British paleontologist on the team.

Paleontologists of the GAIA Antarctic Research Center of the University of Magallanes in Chile work to recover the first fossil of a 13-foot-long pregnant ichthyosaur in the Patagonia region of Chile on March 24, 2022. (Photo via Reuters)

Once the excavation got underway - with the use of extra specialized tools to pierce through the hard rock - the research team still had to contend with the harsh elements.

To combat the 56-mph winds, heavy rain and snow and to protect the prehistoric remains, scientists said they built a small hangar over Fiona so that the team could continue working.

As they kept uncovering more and more, the scientists discovered about 20 more ichthyosaurs and documented new specimens, bringing the total to nearly 100 ichthyosaurs found in the Tyndall Glacier over the years, according to Pardo- Pérez.

"Amazingly, on average, two ichthyosaurs were found every day," Lomax said, noting that complete skeletons of adults, juveniles and newborns were all unearthed.

"The fact that these incredible ichthyosaurs are so well preserved in an extreme environment, revealed by a retreating glacier, is unlike anywhere else in the world," he said.

"The results of the expedition met all expectations, and even more than expected," added Pardo-Pérez, a researcher at the GAIA Antarctic Research Centre at the University of Magallanes.

An image of what the prehistoric ichthyosaur would have looked like. (Photo via Reuters)

The ichthyosaurs, described as highly specialized aquatic reptiles, were distant relatives of lizards. They had an elongated snout, with four fins (two front and two rear) and a dorsal fin.

Researchers hope this discovery of a complete pregnant ichthyosaur will shed more light on embryonic development from this prehistoric period.

They also believe these fossil records could provide key insights into "a disease that affected [the creature] during its lifetime," Pardo-Pérez said, in addition to "examining the degrees of bone maturity and ecological niches to evaluate possible dietary transitions that occurred throughout their evolution and that could help to establish connections with ichthyosaurs from other locations."

The first complete ichthyosaur skeletons were found in England in the early 19th century.

"The Tyndall locality is very important to fill a gap in our knowledge about the types and general diversity of species that inhabited the ocean in the Southern Hemisphere, especially in temperate to polar latitudes," said Erin Maxwell, curator at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany, and an expert on ichthyosaurs.

This latest feat was also a personal milestone for Pardo-Pérez as well as the field of paleontology in more ways than one. She became the first female paleontologist to lead a major expedition in Patagonia.

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She now hopes more fossils can be extracted and preserved for science's sake.

"We have almost a hundred ichthyosaurs in the Tyndall Glacier fossil deposit and many of them, unfortunately, will never be excavated, due to the difficulty of access, being in risk areas and lack of funds," she said, adding that the ichthyosaurs that remain need to be protected from ongoing erosion that "they are being subjected [to] on a daily basis and is destroying them."

For now, Fiona's fate has been sealed. She is now being prepared for exhibition at the Río Seco Natural History Museum in Punta Arenas in southern Chile.

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