Monday, March 15, 2010

Reconstructing Ichthyosaurs

Welcome to Grade 1:
"Alright students, what does an ichthyosaur look like?" 
"They look like dolphins!"  "Whales, like whales!"  "Yeah FISH!!!"  "SHAAARKS!"  "Ooo ooo, Mr. Bond, oooo???!"
"Yes, Billy?"
"Miga!  They look like Miga!"  "YEAH!!! MIGA!!!"  "MIGAMIGAMIGAAAAA!!!!"
"Settle down CHILDREN! CHILDREN! Ugh..."

Miga, for the uninitiated, was an Olympic mascot here in Vancouver - part bear and part orca.  I assume it is the orca that Billy, the made-up child in this real-life situation, is relating ichthyosaurs to.  Dolphins, whales, fish, orca - ARE ichthyosaurs so similar?  Or, like Miga, more of a mix of creatures?

Or are we just imposing our understanding of extant animals upon extinct ones?  What did ichthyosaurs look like?

With these beautiful aquatic reptiles being the focus of ART Evolved's next Gallery, I thought we should begin discussing how exactly they should be reconstructed.  What are the current controversies palaeo-artists are dealing with when restoring ichthyosaurs from fossil to flesh?

Darren Naish (at Tetrapod Zoology) recently (Sept. 2008) discussed a few of the assumptions we make when we think of what ichthyosaurs look like and how they behave.  Did they really have dorsal fins?  How much of our knowledge of ichthyosaur body shape was faked by unscrupulous preparators?  Most aquatic swimmers (fish, dolphins) have a dorsal fin, two pectoral fins and a powerful tail.  Why did ichthyosaurs retain their two hind-fins?  In an older article, Naish ponders the question: Did they use their pectoral fins and "fly" underwater? 

There are also a few questions I'd like to ask here, confronting the traditional view about ichthyosaurs:
1) Was their skin slick and smooth like a dolphin, or bumpy and scaly like a monitor lizard?
2)  Did they eat only squid and ammonites?
3)  Did all genus of ichthyosaur reproduce through live birth?
4)  Did they partake in cannibalistic behavior?
5)  What did the huge Shonisaurs eat?
6)  Could I have ridden one?
7)  Isn't there an easier way to spell "ichthyosaur?"  Maybe with less h's?

I am hoping that some of our readers might have some insight into the World of Ichthyosaurs!  Help us reconstruct more accurate creatures!  Speak up!  We won't bite! ...much!

And to get our collective ichthyosaur brains working, watch this They Might Be Giants "Nine Bowls of Soup," staring Mr. Ichthyosaur...