10 - Temnodontosaurus
We start off with Temnodontosaurus, a large genus of ichthyosaur that lived during the Early Jurassic. Temnodontosaurus is noted for having fairly blunt and robust teeth, which seem to indicate that Temnodontosaurus specialised in eating armoured prey. Further to this, broken shells from ammonites have been found in association with the stomach contents of specimens of Temnodontosaurus, further supporting that Temnodontosaurus was a specialised predator of tough prey like ammonites. Temnodontosaurus also seems to have dived deep to hunt for prey, as indicated by the large eyes of Temnodontosaurus which could be as much as twenty centimetres in diameter. In marine animals large eyes only seem to develop in animals that spend time in the dark depths of the ocean where very little sunlight from the surface penetrates.
9 - Eurhinosaurus
At least in terms of appearance, Eurhinosaurus was half ichthyosaur, half swordfish. The greatly extended snout of Eurhinosaurus may have been used in a similar manner to how a swordfish uses its elongated snout. This would involve swimming up to a shoal of fish and then thrashing its head about, swiping the fish with the long snout like a sword. This would not actually cut up the fish, but it would stun and injure the fish so that they could swim away very quickly, making them easy pickings. Eurhinosaurus was not the only ichthyosaur to develop such a specialised snout, but it had one of the most fish like bodies, indicating that it may have been one of the fastest swimming of its kind.
Living in the Triassic, Besanosaurus was a primitive ichthyosaur but one that had already gone down a specialised form of hunting. Clue to this are the eyes which at twenty centimetres across would have been perfectly suited to seeing in the gloomy depths of the ocean where the sunlight did not penetrate. At least one specimen of Besanosaurus also shows us that ichthyosaurs were capable of giving birth to several live young at a time.
7 - Platypterygius
cannot be denied that the ichthyosaurs were one of the success stories
of the Mesozoic, though as we already know they too went extinct.
With their origins at least as far back as the early Triassic, the
ichthyosaurs survived well all the way to the end of the Cenomanian.
It was at this point that an anoxic event took place which caused a
severe drop in oceanic oxygen levels, which in turn caused massive
amounts of fish and other prey animals to die out. As air breathers
the ichthyosaurs were not primarily affected by this oxygen drop, but
the resulting lack of prey animals meant that there was no longer
enough food to feed them.
The genus Platypterygius is one of the few genera of ichthyosaurs that we know about that actually survived past this oceanic mass extinction. The reason for this may be down to the adaptations for fast swimming that are some of the most highly advanced of any ichthyosaur. Being able to swim more quickly meant that Platypterygius would have been able to hunt a greater range of fish, and so they managed to survive past the main extinction, until eventually disappearing themselves in the Turonian period of the Late Cretaceous.
6 - Ophthalmosaurus
Since appearing in a key role in the series Walking With Dinosaurs, Ophthalmosaurus has become one of the popular genera of ichthyosaurs. Aside from being a popular genus, Ophthalmosaurus is also a very interesting genus. Fossilised bones of Ophthalmosaurus show decompression damage caused by sudden diving and surfacing to and from deep depths, and like with the aforementioned Temnodontosaurus, Ophthalmosaurus had very large eyes for capturing low light in the dark depths (Ophthalmosaurus actually means ’eye lizard). Combined with tightly packed vertebrae to prevent pockets of gas forming and a very streamlined body, this all paints a picture of an ichthyosaur that would dive very deep, very quick, snatch up soft bodied prey like deep sea squid, and then quickly swim up to the surface before running out of air. Ophthalmosaurus is also one of the genera that shows in explicit detail not only how ichthyosaurs gave birth to live young, but how many young could be born at one time.
5 - Cartorhynchus
Named in 2015, Cartorhynchus has been one of the most standout important discoveries concerning our understanding of how ichthyosaurs evolved. Classed as an ichthyosauroid, Cartorhynchus was a small semi-aquatic reptile that hunted for fish and other aquatic creatures in shallow waters. Cartorhynchus had a broad tail, wide skull and well developed eyes, and already the legs were forming into paddles for steering while swimming. From forms such as this, the ichthyosaurs would eventually and rather quickly make the full transition to life in the seas and oceans.
4 - Mixosaurus
Study of Mixosaurus has been very important to our study of how the ichthyosaurs evolved over the Triassic. This is because Mixosaurus has a mix (the clue is in the name!) of both primitive and advanced features. In turn this has allowed for a greater understanding of how the ichthyosaurs went from reptiles that adapted themselves for swimming, to resembling open water fish.
3 - Ichthyosaurus
is the genus that started it all, first described in 1821,
Ichthyosaurus was used to establish the
Ichthyosauria which is why all
marine reptiles similar to ichthyosaurus in their lineage are called
ichthyosaurs. Because the study of ichthyosaurs as well as the wider
science of palaeontology was still in its infancy during the early
nineteenth century, Ichthyosaurus ended up
becoming what is known as
a ‘wastebasket taxon’. What this means is that any ichthyosaur
remains that vaguely resemble (and sometimes not even closely
resembling) the Ichthyosaurus type fossils were
identified and described as Ichthyosaurus without
much further thought
as to if they actually belong. This led to a great many species being
named for Ichthyosaurus which simply should not
have been done, and
today at the time of writing there are only four species of
To be fair it can be difficult to tell one genus of ichthyosaur from another, even with modern techniques and some two hundred years of study into ichthyosaurs behind us. Still, Ichthyosaurus has been a poster animal for the prehistoric oceans for many generations now, and remains one of the most popular prehistoric animals in popular culture for this reason.
2 - Thalattoarchon
During the Triassic the ichthyosaurs quickly diversified into many ecological niches, and while the majority became hunters of fish and squid, there was one notable exception. Thalattoarchon went down the route of becoming an apex predator, hunting other large marine organisms, including other ichthyosaurs. To do this Thalattoarchon had large robust jaws in which grew large teeth with cutting edges, perfect for cutting through the flesh of other marine reptiles. Growing at least eight and a half meters in length Thalattoarchon was big, but as we shall now see it was not even close to being the biggest ichthyosaur.
1 - Shastasaurus
is the big one, both figuratively and literally. The largest
ichthyosaur was once thought to be Shonisaurus
because of a set of
unusually large fossils attributed to the genus. However it was
later realised that these fossils actually belonged to another genus
named Shastasaurus. Today we now know that the
largest individuals of
Shastasaurus grew to lengths of at least twenty-one
Aside from being exceptionally large, Shastasaurus was also very specialised. The jaws were noticeably short, and worked in such a way so that they could be opened very quickly. The jaws were also toothless which meant that Shastasaurus could only eat soft bodied animals. Currently thinking has it that Shastasaurus would casually cruise into the depths where it would approach shoals of squid. It would then open its mouth so quickly that a vacuum would be created inside its mouth, which would then literally suck the squid in. Such a method of hunting would require very little energy expenditure compared to the more active fish hunting ichthyosaurs, which would free up more calories that could be spent upon growing big.
Utatsusaurus - One of the most primitive ichthyosaurs, and thought to have been one of the first to appear until the description of Cartorhynchus.
Cymbospondylus - Once thought to have been one of the most predatory of other marine reptiles until the description of Thalattoarchon.