LOUISE THOMAS tells how a prehistoric 'eating machine' is giving scientists new clues on the world's early days.
A geological expedition in Antarctica has unearthed huge deposits of dinosaur bones in a surprise find that has excited scientists around the world.
The fossilised bones were discovered in the remote Vega and Seymour Island and Antarctica Peninsula areas, and give powerful support to the theory of "continental drift."
The remains include bones of two giant marine reptiles - the mosasaur, an alligator-like animal with paddles, and the plesiosaur, which resembled popular images of the Loch Ness monster.
American geologists made the find in January, but did not announce it until this week when expedition leader Dr Jim Martin, of the Museum of Geology in South Dakota, spoke to the International Symposium on Antarctica Earth Sciences at Victoria University in Wellington.
He said at least four different types of mosasaur lived in Antarctica. One type had previously been found only in North America and Europe.
The find gives further evidence that continents were once much closer than they are now, with connecting marine corridors. It also shows that Antarctica was once much warmer it is now.
Dr Martin said the creatures probably came to Antarctica around 75 to 80 million years ago.
"Mosasaurs were fantastic animals," he said.
"Some were up to 10m long, maybe more, and they were armed with teeth seven to 10cm long. The skulls would easily be 1m long.
"The lower jaw was hinged so they could eat things larger than their own heads. They were very fast in the water, tail-propelled.
"They were eating machines - they were designed to eat anything and they did."
Dr Martin said expedition members were very excited at the find.
"Mosasaurs have been found across the world from Sweden to New Zealand, but we had no idea of them in Antarctica," he said.
"To find a whole bunch of them like this is really surprising."
The fossils include complete vertebrae, partial skeletons, whole jaws and teeth.