Marine reptiles

Marine reptiles

Marine reptiles of the JurassicMarine reptiles of the Jurassic The dinosaurs lived only on land. But from the Triassic Period and on through the entire Age of Dinosaurs, various groups of large reptiles swam in the oceans. Most were hunters, chasing prey such as fish, squid and shellfish. In some ways, the marine (sea-dwelling) reptiles were similar to dinosaurs. They had scaly skins, big eyes for seeing well, plenty of teeth, four limbs and a tail. But their limbs were not legs for running—they were paddles or flippers for swimming. The marine reptiles could not breathe underwater like fish. So they had to stay near the surface and poke their heads out now and again for fresh air, before diving below the waves.

Placodonts and nothosaurs

Marine reptiles of the TriassicMarine reptiles of the TriassicSome kinds of reptile began to feed on marine life during the Triassic Period, and gradually the body design of marine reptiles adapted to an underwater lifestyle. The first big sea reptiles, in the Triassic, were placodonts and nothosaurs. Placodus, a placodont, was 2 metres (6.6 feet) long. Apart from its long, fishy tail, it looked very much like a land reptile, with its short neck, heavy body and sprawling legs. Perhaps it searched for shellfish along the beach and at the water’s edge, crushing them with its large, flat teeth.

A more streamlined swimmer, Nothosaurus was 3 metres (10 feet) long. Its fossils occur in ancient seabed rocks now on three continents—Europe, Asia and Africa. It probably dived to catch food then waddled with its webbed feet on to the shore to rest, in the same way that seals do today. Over millions of years, new kinds evolved from reptiles like these to become permanent sea-dwellers.



The best-adapted ocean reptiles were the ichthyosaurs, such as Ichthyosaurus. They were at their most abundant during the Jurassic Period, a time when shallow, warm seas covered much of the Earth. Like modern dolphins, ichthyosaurs were perfectly streamlined, with long flippers for steering and strong tails to propel them quickly through the water. They were the first marine reptiles to spend all of their lives in the water. They gave birth to live young. Different species of ichthyosaur lived through the Jurassic Period and on into the Cretaceous. Some were enormous, growing up to 15 metres (49 feet) long.



The Jurassic Period saw the emergence of another important group of marine reptiles: the plesiosaurs. Like dinosaurs, they had long necks, small heads and sharp teeth. Instead of legs, their limbs evolved into large, paddle-like flippers which they used like underwater “wings” to pull themselves through the water, beating in a slow, steady rhythm. Plesiosaurs fed on fish and squid, darting their long, flexible necks backwards and forwards to pick off their prey. They spent most of their time in the water, coming ashore only to lay their eggs.

Pliosaurs, short-necked plesiosaurs, such as Kronosaurus and Liopleurodon, were the top predators of the Jurassic seas. Armed with massive, teeth-lined jaws, they could prey on even the largest sea creatures. Their streamlined bodies were built for speed through the water.

Marine reptiles of the Late CretaceousMarine reptiles of the Late Cretaceous

Lizards and turtles

Lizards, turtles and crocodiles lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. Some kinds survived the extinctions that claimed the dinosaurs end of the Cretaceous. Other reptile species also adapted to life in the sea. Platecarpus and Tylosaurus were both mosasaurs: sea lizards. Platecarpus fed on fish and ammonites, while Tylosaurus, a 9-metre (30-foot) giant, competed with the massive, predatory fish Xiphactinus for larger prey. Archelon was the largest-known sea turtle, measuring some 4 metres (13 feet) in length. Like a modern leatherback, its “shell” was a bony frame with a leathery covering.


A fossil of Steneosaurus, a saltwater crocodileA fossil of Steneosaurus, a saltwater crocodileThe earliest crocodiles evolved in the Triassic Period. Some grew to massive lengths, such as Sarcosaurus (12 metres / 40 feet long), a Cretaceous crocodile. Most crocodiles today live in fresh water. A number of prehistoric crocodiles spent all their lives at sea, while some lived entirely on land. A sea-dweller, Geosaurus had flippers for limbs and a fishy tail, helping it swim more easily. Both Steneosaurus and its relative Telesuaurus looked more like modern-day gharials, crocodiles with narrow, elongated snouts. They lived both on land and in the sea.


ConsultantChris Jarvis

See also in Prehistoric

Archelon was unable to withdraw its head or flippers inside its bony shell for protection, so it was an easy target for large predators such as mosasaurs or sharks.

Studies of fossil remains of Archelon show it may have lived to 100 years old.

The first fossil remains of a mosasaur ("Meuse lizard") were discovered in a limestone quarry at Maastricht on the Meuse in 1764, many years before the first dinosaurs were identified. The second fossil was sold in Paris in 1794 in exchange for 600 bottles of wine.

The Maastricht limestone beds where mosasaur fossils were discovered became so famous that they gave their name to the epoch that came right at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, the final 6 million years of the Cretaceous: the Maastrichtian.

© 2017 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile