Ichthyosaur goes boom! Or did it?

Ichthyosaurs were giant marine reptiles that existed between 90 and 245 million years ago. This was, in case you weren’t sure, before the Internet. But still, one wonders — if the interweb were around during the Jurassic period, do you think there would have been an Exploding Ichthyosaur website? Recently, a group of scientists published a paper that could help answer that question.

I received an email from one of the Swiss researchers:

Subject: a new publication about “exploding whales”
Date: February 4, 2012 10:28:01 AM PST

Hi there,
yesterday our paper about “exploding whales” was published:
“Float, explode or sink: postmortem fate of lung-breathing marine vertebrates”
Best regards from Switzerland

It’s not the first time the Exploding Whale has been the inspiration for an academic pursuit. Fellow University of Puget Sound alumnus Chris van Vechten’s senior thesis, “Rendered, Redeemed & Transformed: The Social History of Whale Carcass Disposal on Northwest Shores” [pdf], was similarly inspired. Van Vechten’s thoughtfully researched 31-page survey of whale disposal in the Pacific Northwest draws a slightly ominous conclusion:

All that is certain is that – just as beached whales have played a tremendous role in shaping our past – so too are they bound to shape our future.

As for the Swiss paleontologists, it was the extent to which exploding “whales” (er, ichthyosaurs) may have influenced the prehistoric past that concerned them. In their paper, “Float, Explode or Sink: Postmortem Fate of Lung-Breathing Marine Vertebrates,” Reisdorf et al. try to determine whether putrefaction-induced ichthyosaur carcass explosions could explain the “skeletal disarticulation observed frequently in the fossil record.” In other words, they’re trying to figure out if prehistoric “whale” explosions are the reason bone fossils are sometimes found scattered about instead of all together.

Because, as students of the Exploding Whale know, a violent internal explosion could do that, right? As would the detonation of 1,000 pounds of explosives next to a dead whale….

Regrettably, only an abstract of the article is available (for free), but the authors tip their hand on their conclusions. In what has to be one of the most disappointing scientific results of the 21st century, the scientists conclude that ichthyosaur carcasses probably did not frequently explode and scatter bones. Rather, they conclude that dead prehistoric whale-like creatures would have sunk to the sea floor and would have only resurfaced when “they remained in shallow water above a certain temperature and at a low scavenging rate.” Subsequently, bone scattering would have supposedly occurred as the carcass floated around and decomposed gradually.

And so, as for my original question, it sounds like TheExplodingIchthyosaur.com would not have been a very popular destination on the prehistoric Internet. Good thing, too, ’cause I’m pretty sure the dinosaurs of the time would not have been able to type it correctly.

A few links of interest:

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One Response to “Ichthyosaur goes boom! Or did it?”

  1. Patricio Says:

    Love the post! I really enjoy hearing interesting stories like this, especially about the prehistoric times.