Simon Powell
The old female pliosaur sported huge jaws (its lower jaw shown here with researcher Judyth Sassoon) and teeth about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long.
By
updated 5/15/2012 7:15:55 PM ET 2012-05-15T23:15:55

Ancient creatures resembling stout-necked Loch Ness Monsters apparently developed arthritis in their monster jaws, revealing that even such lethal killers could suffer from and eventually succumb to diseases of old age, researchers find.

Scientists reached that conclusion while investigating the fossil of an extinct marine reptile known as a pliosaur. The carnivore was apparently an old female extending some 26 feet (8 meters). It had a 10-foot-long (3 meters), crocodilelike head, short neck, whalelike body and four powerful flippers to propel it through water to hunt down prey.

"This pliosaur, like many of its relatives, was truly huge," researcher Michael Benton, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Bristol in England, told LiveScience. "To stand beside its skull and realize that it is 3 meters long, and massive and heavy as it is, that it once functioned with muscles and blood vessels and nerves, is amazing. You can lie down inside its mouth."

Normally, with huge jaws and teeth about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long, this pliosaur could have ripped most other animals apart. However, paleontologists found this specimen was apparently afflicted with an arthritis-like disease.

School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol
Pliosaurs were huge, even compared with other giants, such as the great white shark (top), killer whale and the relatively small human.

Old lady pliosaur
Benton and his colleagues analyzed an approximately 150-million-year-old specimen of Pliosaurus that had been unearthed in 1994 by fossil collector Simon Carpenter and held since then in the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery in England.

The beast would have lived in what is now southern England, back when the area was covered in warm, shallow seas. "Imagine the Mediterranean or Florida," Benton said. Other fossils from the site include smaller marine reptiles such as marine crocodiles, turtles and plesiosaurs, other Loch Ness Monster-like creatures upon which the pliosaur likely fed, as well as fish and shellfish. [ Loch Ness Madness: Our 10 Favorite Monsters ]

The skeleton had a low ridge of bone running from front to back on top of its skull. Investigators regarded it as female because males were thought to have taller ridges. Its large size and fused skull bones suggested maturity. The investigators noticed the reptile had signs of a degenerative condition similar to human arthritis.

"The most exciting aspect of this research for me is the arthritic condition, which has never been seen before in these or similar Mesozoic reptiles," researcher Judyth Sassoon at the University of Bristol told LiveScience.

Simon Powell
Judyth Sassoon holds part of the snout of the Westbury pliosaur; the holes on the specimen are tooth sockets.

Crooked jaws
The degenerative condition had eroded the pliosaur's left jaw joint. This would have knocked its lower jaw askew.

"In the same way that aging humans develop arthritic hips, this old lady developed an arthritic jaw and survived with her disability for some time," Sassoon said. "But an unhealed fracture on the jaw indicates that at some time the jaw weakened and eventually broke.

"With a broken jaw, the pliosaur would not have been able to feed, and that final accident probably led to her demise."

Marks on the lower jawbone from the pliosaur's upper teeth suggest the predator lived with a crooked jaw for many years, long enough to damage its own bones.

"You can see these kinds of deformities in living animals, such as crocodiles or sperm whales, and these animals can survive for years as long as they are still able to feed. But it must be painful," Benton said. "Remember that the fictional whale Moby-Dick, from Herman Melville's novel, was supposed to have had a crooked jaw." [ Album: World's Biggest Beasts ]

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Despite its condition, the animal was evidently still able to hunt and avoid being eaten by other pliosaurs, which were the top predators in their environment, the researchers noted.

"To see the jaws distorted out of place substantially enough that the front tips of the jaws overlapped, and the lower teeth made definite holes in the upper jaw, 5 centimeters (2 inches) off to the side, and that it lived with this agonizing pain for so long, evidently still managing to feed, is quite impressive," Benton wrote in an email. "This was an old, weather-beaten animal when it died."

Sassoon, Benton and Leslie Noe detailed their findings online Tuesday in the journal Palaeontology.

Sassoon is currently investigating another pliosaur and hopes to better understand the creatures' diversity and habits and how they mechanically adapted to their huge size.

"I plan to carry on poking around in museum collections, looking for interesting specimens, until I am too old to lift a paintbrush and wipe the dust off a fossil," Sassoon said.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: The 2012 Weird Science Awards

  • Our annual Weird Science Awards pay tribute to the strangest scientific tales of the past year, and you just know the 2012 edition had to be a doozy. While we're waiting for the Maya apocalypse — and we may be waiting a long, long time — let's count down the top 10 Weird Science stories, as determined by an ironically unscientific Live Poll.

    No. 10 is the discovery that having a painful need to urinate can impair your judgment. "When people reach a point when they are in so much pain they just can't stand it anymore, it was like being drunk," says Brown University neurologist Peter Snyder. "The ability to hold information was really impaired." To say nothing of the ability to hold water.

    The research won Snyder and his colleagues a share in one of 2011's Ig Nobel Prizes, which honor science that makes you laugh, and then makes you think. Watch Snyder explain the study in this YouTube video, then click the "Next" button for more laugh-provoking science — or scroll quickly all the way down to the bottom if you have a painful need to go.

    — Alan Boyle, msnbc.com science editor

  • 9. Flies hooked on meth ... and sugar

    Image: Fruit fly
    Botaurus via Univ. of Illinois
    Researchers have found that the fruit fly is a useful model organism for studying the whole-body effects of methamphetamine exposure.

    When researchers noticed that meth addicts often take in large amounts of sugary drinks, they decided to do a little experiment: First, they got fruit flies hooked on methamphetamine. Then the scientists fed some of the flies a diet heavy on trehalose, an insect blood sugar. They found that the sugar-gobbling flies outlived the flies who didn't get the sweet stuff. Maybe sugar metabolism plays a role in meth's toxic effects. "Hopefully, some of these insights might lead to opportunities to deal with the problems associated with the drug," says University of Illinois toxicologist Barry Pittendrigh. But more research is required to trace the effects on mammals. In the meantime, watch out for those meth-head fruit flies.

  • 8. Monster pictures make a splash

    Courtesy of Discovery News
    A photo from a video that claims to show Alaska's own version of a sea monster.

    2011 saw a double-header (so to speak) in the marine-monster category. The most popular Loch Ness monster-like picture came from Alaska, where Andy Hillstrand of the "Deadliest Catch" TV show captured the footage for the Discovery Channel. Some might suggest that the creature is an eel, or a fish, or even a trick of light on the water. Not Hillstrand. "I've never seen anything like it," he told Discovery News. He suspects that the picture shows a Cadborosaurus, a legendary beast that has long been said to frequent Alaska's waters. Meanwhile, another picture purporting to show a creature that's been nicknamed "Bownessie" made waves in England.

  • 7. Glowing dog has an on-off switch

    Image: Glow-in-the-dark paw
    Lee et al. / Genesis
    Photos demonstrate the inducible glow-in-the-dark effect in a genetically modified dog: The left images shows the dog's paw in normal light (upper left) and under ultraviolet light (lower left) after doxycycline is added to the dog's food. The right-hand images show the dog's paw in normal and ultraviolet light after scientists stopped administering the drug.

    In past years, our Weird Science Award winners have included glow-in-the-dark kitties and glow-in-the-dark puppies. How could scientists possibly top that? Would you believe a dog with a gene that turns the fluorescence under UV light on or off, depending on whether a particular drug is added to its food? That's exactly the kind of dog that South Korean scientists produced in 2011. Why, you ask? Well, the ultimate aim of these glow-in-the-dark exercises is to splice in genes that can help treat diseases — and having an on-off switch would give physicians more control over the treatment. That feat would make other researchers turn green ... with envy.

  • 6. Just this once, Samoa skips a Friday

    Image: (FILE PHOTO) Samoa Cancels December 30th As Islands Skip Over The International Dateline
    Hannah Johnston  /  Getty Images
    Samoa and New Zealand-administered Tokelau skip a day as they jump over the international date line in an attempt to improve trade and tourism.

    For more than a century, Samoa was on one side of the International Date Line, and Australia and New Zealand were on the other. When the Samoans were at Sunday church, the Aussies were starting their business week on Monday. And when Samoa was trying to finish up its own business week, the Kiwis were settling into the weekend. To remedy that, the Samoans switched over to the Australia-New Zealand side in 2011, going directly from Thursday, Dec. 29, to Saturday, Dec. 31. To top it all off, workers were paid for the non-existent Friday. If only we could all get to the weekend that quickly ... and spend it on a tropical island.

  • 5. Pole shift forces airport makeover

    Might as well face reality: Shift happens. Earth's shifting magnetic poles are not a sign of the apocalypse. They're just a fact of life on our dynamic planet. We do have to cope to the shift that life throws at us, though. For example, in early 2011, Tampa's airport had to repaint the numbers on its runways to reflect their shifting orientation with respect to magnetic north. The good news is that even dramatic changes in the poles' position would have no effect on life on Earth, despite what the doomsday prophets say.

  • 4. Corpse-dissolving machine invented

    "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." Does that old saying apply to building a better corpse-dissolving machine as well? Resomation Ltd. hopes so. The Scottish company installed its machine in a St. Petersburg, Fla., funeral home and hopes the system will be legalized in other jurisdictions. The alkaline hydrolysis unit liquefies a body's soft tissues and flushes the sterile liquid into the municipal water system. The bones and other hard parts are left behind to be crushed. Company founder Sandy Sullivan says the machine lets people express their environmental concerns "in a very positive and I think personal way." Sounds good, as long as they don't put a Soylent Green factory next door.

  • 3. Preacher gets doomsday wrong ... twice!

    First, figure out exactly when Noah's Ark was floated by the Flood, and exactly when Jesus was crucified. Then come up with an arcane biblical numerology to add 7,000 years to the former, and 722,500 days to the latter. That was California preacher Harold Camping's formula for determining that May 21 was the date for the beginning of an apocalyptic Rapture. When May 21 didn't work out, he said Oct. 21 was the fallback date for the end of the world. And when that didn't work out ... well, now Camping says he's rethinking this whole doomsday business. But what about the 2012 apocalypse? That's too kooky, even for Camping. "Mr. Camping does not believe the Mayan calendar holds any significance at all," a spokeswoman says. Camping's mathematical acumen earned him a share in one of 2011's Ig Nobel Prizes.

  • 2. 'Aflockalypse' is for the birds

    Image: A dead blackbird on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas,
    Warren Watkins/The Daily Citizen  /  EPA
    A dead blackbird on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas.

    The year 2011 was rung in with a series of reports about mass die-offs, involving blackbirds (the so-called "Aflockalypse" in Arkansas), fish, crabs and other creatures. Some wondered whether a global environmental crisis was in the offing, but experts said the Aflockalypse was simply a case of people connecting the dots between unrelated events, facilitated by global communication systems. Die-offs can happen for a variety of reasons. The Arkansas blackbird deaths, for example, took place after the birds were spooked by New Year's Eve fireworks. And wouldn't you know it? The Aflockalypse happened again to kick off 2012.

  • 1. Fungus turns ants into zombies

    David P. Hughes
    A dead ant, after being zombified by a species of parasitic fungus. The brain-controlling fungus turns ants into zombies that do the parasite's bidding before it kills them.

    If books like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and video games like "Resident Evil" can generate billions of dollars in sales, it shouldn't be surprising that the top Weird Science honors go to a story about zombie ants being taken over by a brain-controlling fungus. The fungus apparently uses temperature cues to decide when to have the ant clamp down on a cool leaf with a death grip. Pennsylvania State University's David Hughes speculates that the fungus does its thing to ensure it "has a long cool night ahead of it, during which time it can literally burst out of the ant's head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk." It's the perfect plot for a horror movie directed by one mean mother: Mother Nature.

  • Honorable (?) mention

    Other weird tales that almost made the top 10:

    Does 13th zodiac sign mean your horoscope is wrong?
    Was the Shroud of Turin created in a blinding flash?
    Science reveals how to win at 'Rock, Paper, Scissors'

    Previous Weird Science winners:

    Cricket testicles and 2011's other Weirdies
    Kinky fruit bats and other Weirdies from 2010
    2,700-year-old marijuana and other 2009 Weirdies
    Glow-in-the-dark kitties and other Weirdies from 2008

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