August 25, 2022

After posting yesterday’s blog on the megalodon shark I found a front page feature in my paper about the discovery of an 80 million year old “sea dragon” (mosasaur).  The fossil remains were found by a researcher in northern Mississippi while showing his wife the area where he had done his field research.  He had taken her on a tour of the area and were on their way back to the car when he noticed the large skull and several vertebrae exposed on the surface.  They had apparently stepped right over the fossils on their walk in.  When most sea creatures die their bodies are spread about by scavengers and currents.  This mosasaur had remained intact since it had settled to the seabed, and now lay exposed in the rocks of a small gully.  Even though the article did not say, I immediately wondered if the timing of this report might not be associated with the recent much publicized Shark Week on TV.

When I looked online, I found Shark Week is an annual, weeklong TV programming block on the Discovery Channel which features shark-based programming.  The promotion premiered July 17, 1988, and has continued to air annually in July or early August.  The shows were originally devoted to efforts at conservation and correcting misconceptions about sharks.  The promotion has grown in popularity and since 2010 has been the longest-running cable television event in history and is aired in over 72 countries.  Shark Week has also evolved into more entertainment-oriented and sometimes fictional programming.  This fictitious programming is known as docufiction and includes titles like “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives”.  The strategy was successful, as the megalodon program became one of the most watched shows in Shark Week history.  This was mainly for the controversy it generated, with critics even labeling it a mockumentary.  Since then, Discovery has increasingly been criticized for junk science, pushing dubious theories, creating fake stories, and misleading scientists as to the nature of the documentary being produced.  In 2017, the network heavily promoted a race between Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps and a great white shark that turned out to be computer generated (but based on actual speeds), and Phelps wearing illegal swim gear.  Phelps beat the CGI reef shark in a 50-meter match but lost to the CGI great white shark by two seconds.

It turns out the Mosasaur was not a shark, but a group of marine lizards containing a dozen or so different species that would have lived in the Western Interior Seaway of North America 75-69 million years ago.    The smallest-known mosasaur was Dallasaurus turneri, which was less than 3.3 feet (1 m) long.  Larger mosasaurs were more typical, with many species growing longer than 13 feet (4 m).  Mosasaurus hoffmannii is the largest known species and reached up to 56 feet (17 m).  Currently, the largest publicly exhibited mosasaur skeleton in the world is on display at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden, Manitoba.  The specimen, nicknamed “Bruce”, is just over 43 feet (13 m) long.  Mosasaurs breathed air, were powerful swimmers, and were well-adapted to living in the warm, shallow inland seas prevalent during the Late Cretaceous period.  Mosasaurs were so well adapted to this environment that they most likely gave birth to live young, rather than returning to the shore to lay eggs as sea turtles do.  Mosasaurs belong to a group of reptiles called Toxicofera, which includes today’s snakes as well as monitor lizards and Komodo dragons.

THOUGHTS:  A mosasaurus played a prominent role in the fourth instalment of the of the Jurassic Park franchise and the first in the Jurassic World trilogy.  This animal was depicted living in a huge Sea World-style arena.  The mosasaurus in the movie was big enough to eat a great white shark in a single bite.  While this was slightly exaggerated, it would not have been an unrealistic size.  Interestingly, there were no mosasaurs in either the Jurassic or Triassic periods.  The seas were dominated by two other groups of marine reptiles, the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, and the long-necked plesiosaurs.  There are times when we become too critical of what we see and need to stop and remind ourselves, “It is only a movie.”    Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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