The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Italy

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These Dinosaurs, Pterosaurs and Marine Reptiles Terrorized Mesozoic Italy

Scipionyx (foreground), a dinosaur of Italy. Luis Rey

While Italy can't boast nearly as many fossils as the European nations farther north (especially Germany), its strategic location near the ancient Tethys Sea resulted in an abundance of pterosaurs and small, feathered dinosaurs. Here's an alphabetical list of the most important dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and other prehistoric animals discovered in Italy, ranging from Besanosaurus to Titanosuchus.

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Besanosaurus, a marine reptile of Italy. Wikimedia Commons

Discovered in 1993 in the northern Italian town of Besano, Besanosaurus was a classic ichthyosaur of the middle Triassic period: a slender, 20-foot-long, fish-eating marine reptile closely related to the North American Shastasaurus. Besanosaurus didn't give up its secrets easily, as the "type fossil" was almost completely enclosed in a rock formation and had to be carefully studied with the aid of X-ray technology, then meticulously chipped out of its matrix by a devoted team of paleontologists.

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Ceresiosaurus, a marine reptile of Italy. Dmitry Bogdanov

Technically, Ceresiosaurus can be claimed by both Italy and Switzerland: the remains of this marine reptile were discovered near Lake Lugano, which straddles these countries' borders. Yet another ocean predator of the middle Triassic period, Ceresiosaurus was technically a nothosaur--an obscure family of swimmers ancestral to the plesiosaurs and pliosaurs of the later Mesozoic Era--and some paleontologists think it should be classified as a species (or specimen) of Lariosaurus.

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Eudimorphodon, a pterosaur of Italy. Wikimedia Commons

Probably the most important prehistoric creature ever discovered in Italy, Eudimorphodon was a tiny, late Triassic pterosaur closely related to the better-known Rhamphorhynchus (which was discovered further north, ,in Germany's Solnhofen fossil beds). Like other "rhamphorhynchoid" pterosaurs, Eudimorphodon had a petite wingspan of three feet, as well as a diamond-shaped appendage at the end of its long tail that likely maintained its stability in flight.

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Mene rhombea

mene rhombea
Mene rhombea, a prehistoric fish of Italy. Wikimedia Commons

The genus Mene is still extant--the sole living survivor being the Philippine Mene maculata--but this ancient fish has a fossil history dating back tens of millions of years. Mene rhombea populated the Tethys Sea (the ancient counterpart of the Mediterranean Sea) during the middle Eocene epoch, about 45 million years ago, and its highly sought-after fossils have been excavated from a geologic formation a few miles from Verona, near the village of Bolca.

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Peteinosaurus, a pterosaur of Italy. Wikimedia Commons

Another tiny, late Triassic pterosaur closely related to Rhamphorhynchus and Eudimorphodon, Peteinosaurus was discovered near the Italian town of Cene in the early 1970's. Unusually for a "rhamphorhynchoid," the wings of Peteinosaurus were twice, rather than three times, as long as its hind legs, but its long, aerodynamic tail was otherwise characteristic of the breed. Oddly enough, Peteinosaurus, rather than Eudimorphodon, may have been the direct ancestor of the Jurassic Dimorphodon.

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Saltriosaurus, a dinosaur of Italy. Wikimedia Commons

Essentially a provisional genus waiting for a real dinosaur to be attached to it, "Saltriosaurus" refers to an unidentified meat-eating dinosaur discovered, in 1996, near the Italian town of Saltrio. All we know about Saltriosaurus is that it was a close relative of the North American Allosaurus, albeit slightly smaller, and that it had three fingers on each of its front hands. Hopefully, this predator will enter the official record books once paleontologists finally get around to examining its remains in detail!

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Scipionyx, a dinosaur of Italy. Wikimedia Commons

Discovered in 1981 in a village about 40 miles northeast of Naples, Scipionyx ("Scipio's claw") was a small, early Cretaceous theropod represented by the single, exquisitely preserved fossil of a three-inch-long juvenile. Amazingly, paleontologists have been able to "dissect" this specimen, revealing the fossilized remnants of this unfortunate hatchling's 's windpipe, intestines, and liver--which has shed valuable light on the internal structure and physiology of feathered dinosaurs.

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Tethyshadros, a dinosaur of Italy. Nobu Tamura

The most recent dinosaur to join the Italian bestiary, Tethyshadros was a pint-sized hadrosaur that inhabited one of the numerous islands dotting the Tethys Sea during the late Cretaceous period. Compared to the giant duck-billed dinosaurs of North America and Eurasia--some of which attained sizes of 10 or 20 tons--Tethyshadros weighed half a ton, max, making it an excellent example of insular dwarfism (the tendency of creatures confined to island habitats to evolve to smaller sizes).  

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Ticinosuchus, a prehistoric reptile of Italy. Wikimedia Commons

Like Ceresiosaurus (see slide #3), Ticinosuchus (the "Tessin River crocodile") shares its provenance with both Switzerland and Italy, since it was discovered on these countries' shared border. This sleek, dog-sized, archosaur prowled the swamps of middle Triassic western Europe, feasting on smaller reptiles (and possibly fish and shellfish). To judge by its fossil remains, Ticinosuchus seems to have been exceptionally well-muscled, with a heel structure that lent itself to sudden leaps on unsuspecting prey.

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Titanocetus, a prehistoric whale of Italy. Wikimedia Commons

As prehistoric whales go, the name Titanocetus is a bit misleading: in this case, the "titano" part doesn't mean "giant" (as in Titanosaurus), but  refers to Monte Titano in the republic of San Marino, where this megafauna mammal's type fossil was discovered. Titanocetus lived about 12 million years ago, during the middle Miocene epoch, and was an early ancestor of baleen whales (i.e., whales that filter plankton from seawater with the aid of baleen plates).  

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Strauss, Bob. "The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Italy." ThoughtCo, Apr. 20, 2017, Strauss, Bob. (2017, April 20). The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Italy. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Italy." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 16, 2018).