Once thought to be Loch Ness monster, ancient reptile's fossils now found in freshwater

An ocean-dwelling, slender-necked reptile once rumored to be the Loch Ness monster spent part of its life in a freshwater lake, contrary to what researchers previously believed.

Locals in Morocco found fossils belonging to the plesiosaur in a 100-million-year-old freshwater river system. The fossils, which include teeth and a humerus, were then identified by researchers from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

The findings were published in the scientific journal Cretaceous Research.

Previously, scientists thought the plesiosaur only lived in saltwater environments, said Nick Longrich, a senior lecturer in the University of Bath's life sciences department.

Now that the fossils have been discovered in a freshwater environment, the question is whether the plesiosaur was there on a temporary or permanent basis, said Longrich, who was part of the team that studied the fossils.

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Some of the fossils belong to juveniles, which were about the size of a dolphin, he told USA TODAY.

The plesiosaur can grow around 40 feet long, or as big as a whale, and it was known to live in saltwater and eat fish and possibly squid, he said.

But finding plesiosaur fossils in an ancient freshwater system has given the researchers more insight into how the marine reptiles lived.

For example, its neighbors included crocodilia, turtles, fish and a giant, aquatic dinosaur called the spinosaurus. Back then, the spinosaurus would've been a competitor and possibly a predator for the plesiosaur, Longrich said.

Could the Loch Ness monster actually have been a plesiosaur?

There's another reason everyone's talking about the discovery: 20 to 30 years ago, some people claimed the Loch Ness monster was a surviving plesiosaur, Longrich said.

Rumors about the Loch Ness monster started in May 1933. A couple claimed to see a huge animal in Loch Ness, a body of freshwater in Scotland, according to History.com.

A year later, a black-and-white photo of the alleged creature surfaced, but it was deemed a hoax in 1994.

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But Longrich said it's unlikely that the plesiosaur is the Loch Ness monster that made headlines nearly a century ago because the animal vanished from the fossil record 66 million years ago. It appears to have gone extinct the same time as dinosaurs, he said.

He also said Loch Ness, where the monster was allegedly spotted, measures about 20 square miles. It's much too small to support a plesiosaur, and while there are lakes that support marine mammals, they are much bigger than Loch Ness, he said.

"How would they exist undetected?" he asked. "Something like a plesiosaur, it's large. It's conspicuous. It has to surface and breathe air. If they existed, people would see them come up for air. One would die and wash up on-shore like whales."

But stranger things have happened, like finding a live, ancient fish initially believed to be extinct, a plant dating back hundreds of millions of years, or in this case, evidence that a saltwater-loving reptile spent time in freshwater Morocco.

He said scientists are still discovering new species and the vast majority of extinct animals, researchers have never found fossils for.

"I grew up on TV shows and magazines talking about fantastic creatures," he said. "This is kind of interesting to think about, but unfortunately, almost none of that stuff is real. Probably, the Loch Ness monster isn't real. But there's still a lot of surprising things happening in the natural world."

Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY's NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia the 757 and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas, and food. Follow her on Twitter at @Saleen_Martin or email her at [email protected].

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Plesiosaur fossils found: Reptile once thought to be Loch Ness monster

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