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Reptile fossil found in Alaska may be newly discovered species

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - The fossil of a sea reptile found two years ago in Alaska may be that of a previously unknown species, a scientist who was part of a team that discovered and excavated the remains said on Wednesday.

The creature, a kind of thalattosaur, swam in the ocean and crawled on land about 210 million years ago, said Pat Druckenmiller, a geologist and the earth-science curator of the University of Alaska's Museum of the North in Fairbanks.

"This does not look like anything else that's ever been discovered before," said Druckenmiller, who is studying the fossil.

The animal was 3 to 4 feet long with an extended tail to help propel it, an unusual skull and a very pointy beak, Druckenmiller said. It also had sharp teeth, but only at the back of its mouth.

It was "kind of lizard-like, kind of iguana-like," he said.

The rare complete fossil was found on a beach near the Native Tlingit village of Kake and removed during an extremely low tide.

The animal apparently died, sank to the sea floor and lay undisturbed by scavengers or volcanic eruptions, Druckenmiller said.

It likely will take 18 months or longer to prove that this is a newly discovered species of thalattosaur, he said, with more research and a published article required.

It is not a dinosaur because dinosaurs did not swim in marine waters, he added.

The fossil was found in the cool, rain-drenched coastal forest of southeastern Alaska, a region thought to be much different when the thalattosaur was alive.

At that time, the Triassic period, what is now southeast Alaska was close to the equator and composed of an arc of islands with frequently erupting volcanoes, somewhat like a tropical version of today's Aleutian Islands, Druckenmiller said.

Possibly to come, he said, is an analysis of the contents of the thalattosaur's gut to figure out what it ate.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Xavier Briand)

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