We should all be thankful that today’s marine reptiles are far less terrifying than those that patrolled the seas of the Jurassic. While nobody would sign up to tangle with a venomous banded sea krait or a saltwater croc, neither of these beasts have anything on the pliosaurs that swam 150 million years ago. One look at the pliosaur skull will tell you that they were hunters, but no one has ever been totally sure as to how they actually detected their prey. However, by conducting a CT scan of a well preserved pliosaur skull, Davide Foffa of the University of Bristol (UK), and his team were able to map channels leading from the surface of the snout to deep within the skull. These channels could have made up a highly complex sensory system that would have helped those terrifying jaws pinpoint something to snap down on.
The shapes of these channels indicated that they contained both the maxillary artery and the trigeminal nerve – parts which would have carried signals to and from the snout of the pliosaur. Nerves in crocodile snouts sense pressure and nerves in shark snouts sense electromagnetic fields, both of which are possible functions for this set of nerves in the pliosaur snout. “This kind of sensing system would have complemented the animals’ vision in turbid water,” said Foffa.
“It is quite likely the skull had sensitive and somewhat fleshy lip-like structures,” says Adam Smith of the Nottingham Natural History Museum (UK) who was not involved in the study. “Pliosaurs didn’t have any other appendages to manipulate food or other items in their environment,” he added, meaning that a super sensitive snout could have played an important role in how this ancient sea monster interacted with its surroundings.
HT: Naturwissenschaften, DOI: 10.1007/s00114-014-1173-3, Kronosaurus by ДиБгд, Fossil of Lioplueredon by Ghedoghedo