Monday, 12 March 2012

The Fossilised Remains Of An Ancient Battle

The 120 million year old battle scene between the armoured fish Aspidorhynchus and the pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus
120 million years ago, the dinosaurs dominated the Earth. Yet they were not the only predators around. In a toxic lake in Cretaceous Europe, a giant, armored fish and pterosaur had a brutal, chance encounter. The fish and the pterosaur were locked in combat when they were overcome by the fumes bubbling up through the water. Still entwined, they drifted to the lake bed and were buried by layers of sediment until they were no more.

Some fossils preserve a specific moment in time. A perfect example is the 100 million year old 'fighting dinosaurs' which consists of two complete and perfectly preserved dinosaurs locked in combat: a Velociraptor gripping a Protoceratops with its claws while the Protoceratops bites the leg of its assailant with its beak, protecting a nest full of its eggs. The couple were stuck together when they were buried by a sandstorm, preserving their conflict forever.

This new fossil also preserves a conflict between a pterosaur and an armoured fish in a toxic lake in Cretaceous era Germany. The pterosaur, Rhamphorhynchus, was probably flying low over the lake surface, hunting fish, when the giant armoured beast, Aspidorhynchus, leapt from the water, grabbing onto its wing membrane with its jaws. Fragments of the pterosaur species have been found within the jaws and stomachs of the fish.

A close up of the fish's jaws clamped around the wing bone of the pterosaur
Yet the presence of a tiny fish in the stomach of the Rhamphorhynchus specimen suggests that it was seized alive whilst trying to swallow a catch. With its wingspan of 70 centimetres, it was barely bigger than the 65 centimetre fish, and was problematic to eat. The leathery, fibrous wing membrane of the pterosaur became caught in the closely packed teeth of Aspidorhynchus. Stuck together, they would have sunk into the anoxic deep water of the lake, causing them to suffocate.

The fossil itself is fantastic. As it is preserved in very fine grained limestone in a fashion similar to the world famous and museum quality fossils from the Solnhofen Plattenkalk which is not only in the same country, but the same region (Bavaria) where the remains were found. It was very well preserved with every scale of the fish and wing bones of the pterosaur present. Even the jaws of Aspidorhynchus were still clamped around the humerus of Rhamphorhynchus.

'These animals normally have nothing to do with each other,' said researcher Eberhard Frey, a palaeozoologist at the State Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe, Germany. 'Apparently these encounters were fatal for both of them.' These kinds of fossils are the most rare. Every body part is present, but the subject matter is of course most important, a single moment preserved in time for eternity, revealing the fundamental ways in which past ecosystems worked.