10 Facts About Liopleurodon

Thanks to its cameo appearances on the TV show Walking with Dinosaurs and the YouTube favorite Charlie the Unicorn, Liopleurodon is one of the better-known marine reptiles of the Mesozoic Era. Here are 10 facts about this gigantic marine reptile that you may or may not have gleaned from its various depictions in the popular media.

01
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The Name Liopleurodon Means "Smooth-Sided Teeth"

liopleurodon
Liopleurodon (Andrey Atuchin).

Like many prehistoric animals discovered in the 19th century, Liopleurodon was named on the basis of very scanty fossil evidence--exactly three teeth, each of them almost three inches long, excavated from a town in France in 1873. Since then, marine reptile enthusiasts have found themselves saddled with a not particularly attractive or transparent name (pronounced LEE-oh-PLOOR-oh-don), which translates from the Greek as "smooth-sided teeth."

02
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Estimates of Liopleurodon's Size Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

liopleurodon
BBC

Most peoples' first encounter with Liopleurodon was in 1999, when the BBC featured this marine reptile in its popular Walking with Dinosaurs TV series. Unfortunately, the producers depicted Liopleurodon with a grossly exaggerated length of over 80 feet, while a more accurate estimate is 30 feet. The problem seems to be that Walking with Dinosaurs extrapolated from the size of Liopleurodon's skull; as a rule, pliosaurs had very big heads compared to the rest of their bodies.

03
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Liopleurodon Was a Type of Marine Reptile Known as a "Pliosaur"

gallardosaurus
Gallardosaurus, a typical pliosaur (Nobu Tamura).

Pliosaurs, of which Liopleurodon was a classic example, were a family of marine reptiles characterized by their elongated heads, relatively short necks, and long flippers attached to thick torsos. (By contrast, closely related plesiosaurs possessed small heads, long necks, and more streamlined bodies.) A vast assortment of pliosaurs and plesiosaurs plied the world's oceans during the Jurassic period, achieving a worldwide distribution comparable to that of modern sharks.

04
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Liopleurodon Was the Apex Predator of Late Jurassic Europe

liopleurodon
Wikimedia Commons

How did the remains of Liopleurodon wash up in France, of all places? Well, during the late Jurassic period (160 to 150 million years ago), much of present-day western Europe was covered by a shallow body of water, well-stocked with plesiosaurs and pliosaurs. To judge by its weight (up to 10 tons for a full-grown adult), Liopleurodon was clearly the apex predator of its marine ecosystem, relentlessly gobbling fish, squids, and other, smaller marine reptiles.

05
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Liopleurodon Was an Unusually Fast Swimmer

liopleurodon
Nobu Tamura

Although pliosaurs like Liopleurodon didn't represent the evolutionary peak of underwater propulsion--which is to say, they weren't as speedy as modern Great White Sharks--they were certainly fleet enough to fulfill their dietary needs. With its four broad, flat, long flippers, Liopleurodon could thrust itself through the water at a considerable clip--and, perhaps more important for hunting purposes, quickly accelerate in pursuit of prey when circumstances demanded.

06
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Liopleurodon Had a Highly Developed Sense of Smell

liopleurodon
Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to its limited fossil remains, there's still a lot we don't know about the everyday life of Liopleurodon. One convincing hypothesis--based on the forward-facing position of the nostrils on its snout--is that this marine reptile had a well-developed sense of smell, and could locate prey from a fair distance away. (Of course, Liopleurodon didn't "smell" in the above-ground sense, but, rather, funneled water through its nostrils to pick up trace chemicals secreted by its prey).

07
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Liopleurodon Wasn't the Largest Pliosaur of the Mesozoic Era

kronosaurus
Kronosaurus (Nobu Tamura).

As discussed in slide #3, it can be very difficult to extrapolate the length and weight of marine reptiles from limited fossil remains. Although Liopleurodon was certainly a contender for the title of "biggest pliosaur ever," other candidates include the contemporaneous Kronosaurus and Pliosaurus, as well as a couple of yet-unnamed pliosaurs recently discovered in Mexico and Norway. (There are some tantalizing hints that the Norwegian specimen measured over 50 feet long, which would place it in the super-heavyweight division!)

08
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Like Whales, Liopleurodon Had to Surface to Breathe Air

liopleurodon
Wikimedia Commons

One thing that people often overlook, when discussing plesiosaurs, pliosaurs and other marine reptiles, is that these creatures weren't equipped with gills--they had lungs, and therefore had to surface occasionally for gulps of air, just like modern-day whales, seals and dolphins. One imagines that a pack of breaching Liopleurodons would have made for an impressive sight, assuming that you survived long enough to describe it to your friends afterward.

09
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Liopleurodon Was the Star of One of the First Viral YouTube Hits

The year 2005 marked the release of Charlie the Unicorn, a silly animated YouTube short in which a trio of wisecracking unicorns travel to the mythical Candy Mountain. On the way, they encounter a Liopleurodon (incongruously relaxing in the middle of a forest) who helps them on their quest. Charlie the Unicorn quickly garnered tens of millions of page views and spawned three sequels, in the process doing as much as Walking with Dinosaurs to cement Liopleurodon in the popular imagination.

10
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Liopleurodon Went Extinct by the Start of the Cretaceous Period

plioplatecarpus
Plioplatecarpus, a typical mosasaur (Wikimedia Commons).

As deadly as they were, pliosaurs like Liopleurodon were no match for the relentless progress of evolution. By the start of the Cretaceous period, 150 million years ago, their undersea dominance was threatened by a new breed of sleek, vicious marine reptiles known as mosasaurs--and by the K/T Extinction, 85 million years later, mosasaurs had completely supplanted their plesiosaur and pliosaur cousins (to be supplanted themselves, ironically, by even better-adapted prehistoric sharks).