There are many instruments that can be used to make scientific discoveries, from picks and chisels to powerful high-resolution electron microscopes. Now this honor can also be given to a selfie stick.
It wasn’t a typical selfie stick that gave Russian paleontologist Nikolay G. Zverkov a better perspective. During his time at the Natural History Museum in London, he wanted to zoom closer to the fossil of a 150-million-year-old late Jurassic ichthyosaur, a prehistoric sea monster that resembled a troubled dolphin with big eyes and much more scary teeth. The skeleton had been in the museum for a century, but looked suspiciously like a genus of ichthyosaurs that Zverkov recognized. Since the glass cabinet was mounted too high on the wall, he ingeniously attached his digital camera to a fishing rod and took some photos that were a great revelation.
Because Zverkov had seen eerily similar skeletons in Russia, he pulled this bizarre train to see if it was really the same extinct creature or not. After emailing the fossil photos to Baylor University paleontologist and PhD student Megan L. Jacobs, she found that the skeletal morphology matched that of ichthyosaurs in the UK. She and Zverkov were able to prove that the specimen that had been hanging around in the Natural History Museum for so long was actually the same type of ichthyosaur as the Russian and British specimens. This special ichthyosaur, Nannopterygius enthekiodon, was considered rare until it turned out to be much more common due to a photo taken with a selfie stick.
Ichthyosaurs (Eurhinosaurus pictured above) was one of the fearsome marine reptiles that ruled the oceans for 76 million years. Nannopterygius enthekiodon, The first part of its scientific name, which literally means “tiny wing” in relation to its fins, was about 5 feet long, with its tail taking up half its body length. This creature thrived in the warm and shallow waters that covered most of Europe. His sharp teeth were covered with cement, which prevented them from falling out, which explains Enthekiodon or “covered tooth”. It is believed that these teeth are clamped on fish that also lived in shallow water. It didn’t have to be a problem to chase her, as his bones showed that it was a fast, torpedo-shaped swimmer, an ambush predator that fired short distances to catch frightened prey.
Zverkov and Jacobs recently published their results in the Linnean Society Zoological Journal, where they claim that N. enthekiodon was not nearly as rare as previously thought, and that another type of Nannopterygius, N. borealis, had been unearthed while looking through Russian specimens. Both species are related to the much larger ichthyosaur Opthalmosaurus. This carnivorous animal dipped so deep for a meal that some fossils show signs that it suffered from the bends. With saucer eyes that looked like night vision goggles, it navigated through the ocean’s Eldritch depths in search of the octopus it longed for.
Next time you go to a museum, remember to bring a selfie stick, as you never know what might be lurking there – even if it’s been dead for hundreds of millions of years.