(photo credit: DEAD SEA AND ARAVA SCIENCE CENTER)
The 85-million-year-old remains of a large carnivorous, seafaring reptile have been discovered in the South, making them the oldest fossils ever found in Israel, researchers announced on Tuesday.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Dr. Sarit Ashckenazi-Polivoda – a geologist who specializes in micropaleontology at the Dead Sea and Arava Sciences Center and analyzed the creature’s remains – described the finding as unprecedented.
“This is the first time that a fossilized animal like this has been found in Israel during this period,” she said. “It’s very rare for an animal like this to be fossilized.”
Researchers found roughly 30 fossilized remnants of the reptile known as the Elasmosaurus, which Ashckenazi- Polivoda described as the “cousin of dinosaurs.” It was 8 meters long, with its elongated neck constituting a third of its body, she said.
“The most exciting thing is that this is the first time that a single species’ bones [of this type] were found in the same place here,” she added. “We’ve found similar fossils from 10 million years later, but never during this time.”
According to Ashckenazi- Polivoda, the first fossil belonging to the reptile was found by an archeologist and tour guide in the Arava Valley in 2012, who brought the relic to her colleague Dr. Hanan Ginat and a researcher at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University for analysis.
“They both agreed it looked interesting, and together with rock formations found there, we started to analyze it and reconstruct the ancient environment of where the bone was found,” she said.
Upon retrieving dozens more fossilized bones from the reptile – including tooth and jaw fragments, broken limbs, fins, and seven cervical vertebrae – Ashckenazi-Polivoda was able to identify the creature after several months of analysis.
“Dr. Rivka Rabinovich of HU’s Earth Science Department reconstructed it using the bone fragments, and based on my analysis of the fossils, I determined it was from 85 million years ago,” she said. Moreover, Ashckenazi-Polivoda said she had utilized micro fossils to determine the environment where the carnivorous Elasmosaurus had lived, which at the time was under the ocean.
“During that time, the area was covered in ocean water 200 m. deep; all of Israel was under water until 20-30 million years ago,” she said. “The sea had a lot of algae and plankton that bloomed then that attracted a lot of fish that fed on the algae, which the reptile ate.”
All dinosaurs and reptiles from that period went extinct 66 million years ago, she added.
“One of the biggest arguments in geology is how they became extinct,” she said. “Many believe that it was due to an asteroid, but that doesn’t explain everything.
There were also many global changes, including volcanic eruptions creating warming and cooling changes that caused changes in the circulation of the ocean, as well as to the fish and algae in the area.”
To date, she said, the only other significant findings that match the Elasmosaurus include a dinosaur footprint found in Jerusalem in the 1980s, and a 75-million-year-old reptile skeleton discovered in the Negev in 2005.
“In Israel, there have not been a lot of reptiles found,” she said, noting that the Elasmosaurus’s remains were currently on display at Hebrew University.
Asked if she believed similar fossils from that period might yet be found, Ashckenazi-Polivoda said she was sanguine.
“Why not?” she said with a laugh. “The creature didn’t live alone; everyone has friends and parents.”