Across Earth’s five known mass extinction events, intriguing life has occasionally reappeared and thrived in the wake of disaster. Now, researchers have discovered the fossils of a previously unknown reptile from the Early Triassic Period that did exactly that. And fans of J.R.R. Tolkien may recognize the name of this “Strider,” which lived between 247 to 251 million years ago.
The fossil’s story begins with the largest mass extinction event in Earth’s known history, which occurred 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian era. The Permian mass extinction event, as it’s known, wiped out 95% of marine life and 70% of species on land. Unlike the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, the cause of the Permian extinction isn’t directly known – although researchers believe volcanic eruptions and a warming climate played a role.
An evolution of animal life happened in the years after the Permian mass extinction event, but some groups flourished more than others. A category of reptiles called archosaurs were among them.
Archosaurs included large predatory reptiles; plant-eating ones; armored, crocodile-like reptiles; and primitive dinosaurs. They thrived and spread out across the globe during the Triassic Period.
A mysterious group from this time period called tanystropheids has long captivated researchers. Various specimens of these long-necked reptiles have appeared over the years, usually from the Middle to Late Triassic period in areas across Asia, Europe and North America.
The bizarre reptiles had necks so long, they included anywhere between eight and thirteen elongated vertebrae. The long neck carried down to an elongated spine that was low to the ground.
Previously discovered tanystropheid fossils were found in marine sediments, suggesting that they lived in bodies of water.
But remains from the earliest days of these strange reptiles are incredibly rare. So it came as a welcome surprise when researchers discovered the Early Triassic fossil of a similar-looking reptile in southern Brazil’s Sanga do Cabral Formation.
They believe it’s a cousin, and the closest known relative, of the tanystropheid. The study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.
The researchers named the new species Elessaurus gondwanoccidens. Fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series may recognize part of the first name, derived from Tolkien’s Elvish language called Quenya. In Quenya, Elessar means “elf-stone.” And Elessar Telcontar is the name chosen by King Aragorn II – who also goes by the nicknames Strider and Longshanks.
Given the fact that this reptile had long legs, the researchers felt it was appropriate, they said.
The species name, gondwanoccidens, is derived from the supercontinent Gondwana that once included the modern-day regions of Antarctica, South America, Africa, India, the Arabian Peninsula, Australia and New Zealand. And in Latin, “occidens” means “from west.” Together, the species name suggests the location of the fossil.
An analysis of the long-legged Elessaurus revealed that it likely lived on land, the researchers said. The fact that this tanystropheid cousin lived on land, and further south from its mysterious relative, suggests that Elessaurus diversified, spread and evolved after the Permian extinction.
The researchers now believe that Elessaurus may be the ancestor of later tanystropheids, which evolved to live in the water of northern continents.