Scientists Discover 180-Million-Year-Old Fossilized Blubber From ‘Sea Monster’

Computer-generated rendering of the ichthyosaur swimming underwater
Michael Rosskothen / Shutterstock

Scientists have found 180-million-year-old blubber from a true sea monster, the ancient ichthyosaur, according to the BBC. The fossilized specimen is very well-preserved, and it’s already answering some questions about this Jurassic-era sea creature.

The discovery has led scientists to confirm that the ichthyosaur was warm-blooded, which is rare in reptiles. The ichthyosaur had skin somewhat like that of modern dolphins and whales and did not have scales. The skin recovered with the recent find still has some of the camouflage patterns these ancient creatures developed to swim stealthily through the water.

Ichthyosaurs share many traits with modern dolphins and share some characteristics with sea turtles. The specimen came from the Urweltmuseum Hauff in Germany. It was discovered in the Holzmaden quarry, where several other well-preserved Jurassic Period fossils have been found.

Remnants of internal organs and the body outline is clearly visible in the fossil, according to scientists.

“Remarkably, the fossil is so well-preserved that it is possible to observe individual cellular layers within its skin,” said Johan Lindgren of the Lund University in Sweden.

Fatty acid molecules were found in the blubber. And while it doesn’t sound too thrilling — after all, it’s blubber — this is actually historic.

“This is the first direct, chemical evidence for warm-bloodedness in an ichthyosaur because blubber is a feature of warm-blooded animals,” says Mary Schweitzer, a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University.

The ichthyosaur was well-adapted for survival in its dangerous Jurassic world, where it would have been subject to attack from the flying pterosaurs and at risk from the large pliosaurs swimming in the waters below them. The smooth skin helped ichthyosaurs move quickly and maneuver underwater to evade predators.

Ichthyosaurs inhabited the oceans for millions of years, according to National Geographic. Scientists have been trying to prove the theory that these ancient “sea monsters” had blubber since the 1930s, a feat accomplished with this specimen.

A team of 23 researchers came together to examine the specimen from the museum. Using modern techniques, including spectroscopes, the team has made many stunning finds about this ancient creature from the deep.

Ichthyosaurs were not dinosaurs, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. They were about 10 feet long and likely moved in water at high speeds.

It was in the Jurassic Period that the supercontinent of Pangaea split apart, and the world’s continents began to form the shapes we see today. The oceans were filled with predators, while the land was covered with dinosaurs and the skies were dominated by pterosaurs. Finds like the well-preserved ichthyosaur fossil tell scientists much more about this period, and the animals who lived on Earth during this time.