The icky factor
A local brewer helps unearth Nevada’s sea monsters
Tom Young, the owner of Reno-Sparks’ Great Basin Brewing Company, was driving one of his beer trucks through Douglas County en route to Los Angeles when a highway patrolman pulled him over on suspicion of a lane violation. For reasons that remain unclear, the trooper wanted to inspect the cargo.
Young, a mining geologist-turned-brewmeister, pointed at the image of an ichthyosaur, an ancient marine reptile, painted on the side of the vehicle. He explained his load was the remains of the beast itself and not cases of its namesake beer. He was engaged in the lawful transport of an extinct sea monster on a state highway.
The cop was skeptical. Young opened the truck. There, encased in plaster, were the fossilized bones of a newly identified species of ichthyosaur discovered in a mountain range near Lovelock. The behemoth was a super predator, the second-largest ichthyosaur ever found. The cop was puzzled.
“Luckily, he didn’t want us to bust open the plaster so he could see the bones,” Young said. “He pondered it for awhile, did a safety inspection of the truck, and let us go on our way.”
Young became a sea dragon smuggler almost by accident. He got involved with ichthyosaur digs about 10 years ago when some dusty scientists from Germany, who were digging for marine reptiles in the mountains of Humboldt County, trundled into Lovelock for supplies. They also shopped for beer. Being paleontologists, they were drawn to a brand called Icky IPA because the label featured a 200-year-old drawing of the skeleton of the very creature they were hunting. Conveniently, the cardboard six packs also had a map to Great Basin Brewery in Sparks. The scientists visited the business on their next trip to the Truckee Meadows.
Young, as excited to meet the fossil hunters as they were to discover the ale, gave them a tour. A partnership was born over pints of Icky. Young is now among the sponsors of the scientists’ fossil hunts, along with the National Geographic Society, the German Science Foundation, the University of Bonn, and the Los Angeles County Museum.
“Nevada is a great place to find these things and there’s a lot of interest in what was here hundreds of millions of years ago,” said Young, who hosted an event about ichthyosaurs in May. “We expected maybe 100 people and got 600—for a paleontology lecture! I was elated that people are so interested.”
Northern Nevada is the American epicenter of what the journal Nature calls an “ichthyosaur renaissance that is sweeping paleontology.” From the early 1800s to 2000, about 80 species of ichthyosaurs were identified. Over the last 17 years, another 30 or so new species have been added to the list. These are specialized animals who survived mass extinctions that laid dinosaurs low. They have lessons to teach about the evolution of modern species and how some ancient ones survived great environmental changes. The Silver State is a global destination for monster hunters looking for the biggest, deadliest and longest-reigning apex predators of ancient oceans.
Nevada’s landscape is a roller coaster of mountains and desert plains. In the higher elevations, millions of years of faulting and folding have made the terrain into a sprawling time capsule whose layers can be read like an ancient book. The rocks tell tales of vanished oceans and lost lava flows—mysteries and surprises. Recent Nevada finds include mega monsters, mouths crowded with ax-blade choppers, who ate lesser leviathans for lunch.
When ichthyosaurs reigned
Ichthyosaurs—which resemble giant, tubby dolphins with rows of teeth at the front of their long snouts—appeared about 250 million years ago. At least one type survived until 90 million years ago, a 160-million-year run that took place while many species of land-based dinosaurs and sea creatures went extinct. Scientists say the ichthyosaurs evolved from land animals that returned to the sea, a pattern later seen in dolphins and whales. They breathed air, gave birth to live young and were probably warm blooded. Their earth-bound origins are apparent in their appendages.
“Look at the bones of their flippers,” said Professor P. Martin Sander of the University of Bonn in Germany, a paleontologist who has been digging in Nevada for 25 years. “Then look at your own arm bone. You have one large bone in your upper arm. Follow it down past the elbow to the two lower arm bones and then to the fingers, which are a mosaic of smaller bones. That’s what you see in ichthyosaurs. The whole structure is encased in a fin, like you see in whales.”
In the vast span of time, many ichthyosaurs evolved. Some were a few feet long—the size of tuna—others were nearly 50 feet long, about the length of a sperm whale. The big ones ruled Nevada when most of the world was ocean and a supercontinent now called Pangaea was the only land above water.
“What is now Nevada was at the eastern edge of that world-wide ocean,” Sander said. “Nevada has three levels of the Triassic Period—230 million to 199 million years ago—and ichthyosaurs are found in all of them.”
She sells sea shells
The best-preserved fossils are found where dead animals sank into the depths of that ocean and ended up buried in a toxic muck, devoid of oxygen. Those conditions occurred in what is now Nevada and in a few other parts of the globe.
Ichthyosaur fossils were first identified along the coast of southern England in the early 1800s. Mary Anning, a cabinet maker’s daughter, collected fossils near her home in the beach resort of Lyme Regis. Anning—believed to be the inspiration for the tongue-twister “she sells sea shells by the sea shore”—began by hawking small fossils to tourists. She soon graduated to exhuming full skeletons. She and her brother, Joseph, discovered the first ichthyosaurs correctly identified, as well as other giant sea creatures. The self-taught woman became one of the foremost paleontologists of her time and laid the groundwork for Darwin’s theory of evolution. Her work, and Darwin’s later theories, didn’t sit well with some Christians who argued that God is perfect and extinction implied some of His creations were mistakes that had to be corrected. Gradually, science prevailed and the worldwide hunt for more dinosaurs and other vanished fauna was on.
In Nevada, fossils of marine reptiles were first excavated in 1895. Ichthyosaur remains were discovered in Nye County in 1928, and 40 specimens were uncovered by the 1960s. Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park was created in 1957. Twenty years later the ichthyosaur was designated Nevada’s state fossil. In 1989, the designation was given to a species called Shonisaurus that was found in the park. For 70 years, partial skeletons from Nevada were the biggest ichthyosaurs known, but in 2004 a fossil found in Canada claimed the title. Now, the state has more firsts—the skeletons of two fearsome sea creatures who swam at the top of an ancient food pyramid.
Sander said ichthyosaurs knifed through the sea like dolphins and were as swift as tuna. They had huge eyes, surrounded by a bony ring that, in fossil form, looks like a slice of pineapple. Their long snouts had rows of dangerous-looking teeth.
“If you want to know what type of living ichthyosaurs made, just look at their teeth,” Sander said. “They are conical, sharp. The conical teeth in front were used to grasp fish and some have larger teeth in the rear used for crushing. They swallowed their meals whole. So they really caught fish, not dismembered them. … And they had large eyes like you see today in birds of prey.”
Sander and his team from Bonn hike over mountain ranges, seeking out the steep slopes that have the most weathering. The same forces—earthquakes, water and wind—that help sow placer gold into the state’s streams also expose portions of entombed fossils. “When we find a lot of bones together we get excited,” he said. “We have found whole skeletons and lots of interesting stuff in a very small area.”
In 1996, they found a species they dubbed Cymbospondylus (meaning “boat spine”), a 33-foot long ichthyosaur that lived between 210 million and 240 million years ago. They discovered Augustasaurus—which they named for Nevada’s Augusta Mountains—the first ancestor of plesiosaurs found outside of Europe. That creature looks like a boa constrictor threaded through the body of a giant turtle. They also dug up a pregnant ichthyosaur, further proof that the animals gave birth to live young, unlike their egg-laying reptile cousins on land.
In more than two decades of hunting and digging, the teams have found new species and well-preserved examples of known types. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell exactly what they have unearthed in the black shale and limestone of Nevada’s remote ranges.
The newest monsters
In 1998, Jim Holstein, a scientist from Chicago’s Field Museum, hunting fossils with Sander, spotted huge teeth poking out of a rock face in eastern Nevada. The incisors were unlike the usual cone-shaped ichthyosaur choppers: they had sharp cutting edges like blades.
“We started out with just a few of these teeth, but they were huge,” Sander said. “This was not a fish eater. This was like a sea-going T. Rex that probably preyed on other ichthyosaurs. He’s the macro-predator that could eat apex predators; he’s the big guy on the block… We see this kind of lifestyle today in crocodiles and killer whales. In Nevada, we see it in ichthyosaurs for the first time.”
The fossil was freed from the rock face in 2008. The sea monster once called “Jim” after its discoverer is now called “the lizard-eating ruler of the seas” (Thalattoarchon Saurophagis is the scientific name). It resides in the Field Museum. In 2014, Sander’s team found a creature they thought was another example of the species, so they designated it Jim II. That’s the beast Young later transported to Los Angeles. But as the fossils were freed from the rock and cleaned, the scientists saw it was yet another new species. “It wasn’t just another Jim. We realized we’ve got ourselves a whole different monster,” he said. It was about the same size as Jim, but its lower jaw was longer and its upper arm bone was the second-largest of any ichthyosaur yet found.
“So we have two monsters in this sea 244 million years ago. Jim was so huge he could have eaten other ichthyosaurs, but we think Jim II, although as large, probably took smaller prey. The amazing thing is that two giants could exist in this environment,” Sander said.
“Jim, a.k.a. the lizard-eating ruler of the seas, is the first macro-predator in the sea in geologic history, the one that ruled them all. It could be that it was a little smaller than Jim II, but more ’ferocious’ if you will.”
The Great Dying
Sander said it’s significant that these bad boys were able to prosper “just” 8 million years after the Permian Extinction, the most severe mass-extinction event in Earth’s history. In the context of geologic time, finding such mega-predators so soon after the “Great Dying” is remarkable, Sander said.
Understanding these long-lost Earthlings “helps us understand our next-of-kin, other mammals,” Sander said. “Ichthyosaurs did a lot of the things that were later done by whales. There are differences in the details … but whales clearly evolved along the lines of ichthyosaurs.”
When the “Great Dying” took place about 252 million years ago, 96 percent of sea life and 70 percent of terrestrial creatures with backbones went extinct. The speed at which new ecosystems arose in the sea is “mind boggling,” Sander said. “Marine reptiles show up just 3 million years after the extinction” whereas whales didn’t arrive on the planet until 15 million years after the last dinosaurs vanished (66 million years ago).
Great changes happen and long-established life forms vanish, but new ones evolve. The presence of macro-predators in the Nevada ocean of the Triassic period means that there was a thriving ecosystem to support such hunters. Once it takes hold, life surges forward, adapting to new conditions. The Nevada fossils help tell that hidden story.
With the latest sea monster safe in La La Land, “now comes the hard part,” Sander said: “What takes so much time and costs the big money is freeing the specimen from the rock. They work with fine tools and small jackhammers.” Chip by chip, the fossilized bones emerge from the ancient mud.
Meanwhile, Sander is back in Nevada looking for more bones and more answers. He said he’s not sure what they will call the beast-now-known-as-Jim II, but “we’re thinking about naming it after Tom Young, to honor his support.”
So, the tale has come full circle. Young named a beer after a sea monster, and now the newest example of the fearsome beast may be named after the brewer. The behemoths vanished 90 million years ago, but their legacy keeps on swimming. It’s a safe bet that Nevada’s wind-swept ranges and weathered slopes conceal creatures even more remarkable than can be dreamt of in our philosophy.
“Everything was so unexpected,” Sander said. “It’s clear we’re not done yet. We’re really eager to go out and find more.”