Fossils accidentally discovered by a hunter in 2010 belong to a new species of plesiosaur, according to new research appearing in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The bones were uncovered by ranch manager David Bradt when he stumbled upon them while hunting elk in northeastern Montana. Soon after their discovery, a team of scientists from University of Alaska Museum of the North analyzed the remains and found they belonged to a new species of prehistoric marine reptile they have named Nakonanectes bradti.
Researchers believe the ancient creature swam in the inland sea that flowed east of the Rocky Mountains some 70 million years ago. Though it belonged to the group of long-necked plesiosaurs, the creature was an elasmosaurid — aquatic reptiles known for their small heads and paddle-like limbs.
While some plesiosaurs had necks that stretched over 18 feet long, the neck of N. bradti measured just 7.5 feet. Further study showed that the creature lived in the same area and during the same time at its larger relatives. That is important because it goes against the common belief that elasmosaurids did not evolve over millions of years to grow their longer necks, Tech Times reports.
“This group is famous for having ridiculously long necks, I mean necks that have as many as 76 vertebrae,” said study co-author Patrick Druckenmiller, a paleontologist at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, according to ABC News. “What absolutely shocked us when we dug it out — it only had somewhere around 40 vertebrae.”
The fossils are some of the best-preserved elasmosaurid bones ever found. It took researchers roughly three days to excavate the remains and then years to study and identify them. The finding is interesting to researchers because they believe the inland sea where it was found has many more undiscovered fossils. Most of the focus in the area has been on land animals, but the team thinks there are many other sea creatures waiting to be unearthed.
“It’s a total bias — just more people out there are interested in land-living dinosaurs than marine reptiles,” said Druckenmiller, according to ABC Online. “There would be a lot more known if more people were studying them.”