A collaborative team of paleontologists and geoscientists from China University of Geosciences and Hubei Geological Bureau, along with a colleague from the University of Bristol, have unveiled further evidence hinting that the ancient marine reptile, Hupehsuchus nanchangensis, had a filter-feeding lifestyle. Their study, published in BMC Ecology and Evolution, involved comparing newly discovered Hupehsuchus skulls to those of present-day baleen whales and other creatures.
Around 252 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions blanketed the atmosphere with debris, triggering a climatic shift that wiped out roughly 95% of marine species—an event known as the “great Dying.” This drastic alteration led to the survival and evolution of certain species, including Hupehsuchus, which emerged over several million years.
Initially unearthed in 1972 in China’s Hubie Province, Hupehsuchus has posed a mystery due to its unusual features. In contrast to its contemporaries, the creature lacked teeth and possessed a slender snout. These traits seemingly made it impractical for the creature to capture and consume smaller prey, prompting speculation that it may have adopted a filter-feeding strategy similar to modern baleen whales. However, conclusive evidence had been missing until now. In their recent study, the researchers examined two recently discovered Hupehsuchus fossil specimens, one comprising a complete skeleton and the other featuring a head, neck, and clavicle. These specimens offered a unique top-down view of the skull, a perspective that was absent in previous finds.
Although neither of the fossils displayed any traces of baleen or its equivalent, this was unsurprising, as baleen in modern whales is composed of soft tissue that does not fossilize well. Undeterred, the team took an alternative approach by comparing the new fossils with skulls from 130 contemporary aquatic creatures, encompassing both filter feeders and non-filter feeders. Through this comparative analysis, they established that the closest resemblance was observed with the skulls of present-day baleen whales, providing strong indications that Hupehsuchus likely employed filter feeding as its feeding mechanism.