Archaeologist Accidentally Finds 8-meter Giant Lizard Fossil in Israel

A bone of an 85-million year old elasmosaur, sticking out of the ground on a hillside in the Negev, was noticed by Gideon Ragolsky in the middle of an archaeological survey.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Elasmosauruses in action: They are now believed to have held their necks rather stiffly.
Elasmosauruses in action: They are now believed to have held their necks rather stiffly. Credit: Illustration by Nobu Tamura (Wikimedia Commons)
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

An 8-meter long fossil reptile from the days of the dinosaurs was serendipitously found on a hillside in the Arava Valley.

The 85-million year old elasmosaurus is actually the second giant lizard fossil to have been found in Israel, the first being the skull and some vertebrae from a gigantic mosasaur discovered in 1993 by phosphate miners in the Negev.

The elasmosaurus, of undetermined species, was found equally by accident. Gideon Ragolsky of the Dead Sea and Arava Center was conducting an archaeological survey in the desert one day, in 2012, when he noticed a bone sticking out of the hillside. Today the site, about five kilometers south of Moshav Faran, is arid, sandy desert but back then, it was part of the prehistoric Tethys Sea seafloor.

It was a vertebra. A big one. Ragolsky realized he'd come across something unusual and alerted Dr. Rivka Rabinovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Hanan Ginat of the DSAC.

When Rabinovich realized that not one isolated bone but more had been found in the same place, she was intrigued and ordered a proper paleontological survey of the site.

A fossil elasmosaurus: Note the extremely elongated neck, which was about a third of the reptile's total body length.Credit: MCDinosaurhunter, Wikimedia Commons

That proper paleontological excavation by Rabinovich and Ginat revealed the motherlode of information for dinosaur hunters, not that the elasmosaurus was one: The scientists found about 20 pieces of skeleton, including seven vertebrae and a tooth. ("It's small," Rabinovich says, when pressed for a description of the fang. "But the vertebrae were big.")

Rarely and wonderfully, the bones were embedded in the rock, which enabled proper and reliable dating of the bygone beast, Dr. Sarit Ashckenazi-Polivoda of the DSAC told Haaretz.

Painstaking study of the remains by Rabinovich and others concluded that the animal belonged to the genus of elasmosaurians, though there isn't enough evidence to determine which species of that group. They could also conclude that it had been 8 meters long, as long as a city bus, and had a neck three meters long – that's probably about double your height.

To debunk a common misconception, the elasmosaur is not a dinosaur. It is a plesiosaur – a kind of giant marine lizard - that lived in the late Cretaceous, concurrently with dinosaurs. They could reach as much as 14 meters in length, as much as a semi-trailer.

Specimens of elasmosaurians have been found all over the basin of what had been the Tethys Sea, from Israel (as of 2012) in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and as far west as Morocco. This was the first time one had been found in Israel.

Ashckenazi-Polivoda's contribution was mainly to study the conditions in the ancient Tethys Sea. Based in large part on fossils of foraminifera, which preserve extraordinarily well, she concluded that the sea was a relatively shallow one, about 200 meters deep, and was very rich in life.

"It was a very fertile sea with lots of biological activity," she says. The sea was packed with nutrients, in part because of ocean current changes at the time. There was a lot of algae on the surface of the seawater, which would have translated into rich fish life. That in turn would have translated into rich reptile life, such as elasmosaurs.

if the sea was teeming with life, why have so few fossils of these gigantic reptiles been found in Israel? Other seabed sites, for instance the chalk cliffs of Dover, have been rich in findings of plesiosaurs, another great marine beast.

One reason could be sheer bad luck – finding any fossil is a lucky break.

"Also, the fossilization of any creature is very rare," observes Ashckenazi-Polivoda. Shells and bones may both contain calcium but shells are a lot harder, and they are not "alive" in the sense that bone tissue is, she explains. Bones have soft tissue too and are a lot more vulnerable to bacterial decay than shells, which Israeli fossil hunters can find in abundance.

Theoretically, the more animals there were, the more should be preserved – but in that heaving sea of life, bodies sinking to the sea floor would be eaten. Then the rare ones that do fossilize into rock would then have to reach the surface of the planet and get found by paleontologists before the weather erodes them forever. And that helps explain why only two such specimens have been found in Israel so far, both by people not looking for them at all.

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