You pop out of the ocean and hear the faint yells of the lifeguard. The whole beach panics. Your turn around. Something lurks in the water. Before you can say “Loch Ness monster,” a tall shadow emerges, lunging with its sharp teeth headed your way. If the Styxosaurus were around today, where would it live? What would your potential demise have to do with being crushed by stones? And why could it be more afraid of you than you’d be of it?
Technically speaking, this marine reptile wasn’t a dinosaur, although it sure swam the Earth alongside many of them. Styxosaurus lived 70 to 85 million years ago, in the Late Cretaceous Period, long before humans set foot on the planet. And this monstrosity measured 10 m (35 ft) in length. And its prominent neck accounted for close to half its size. At 5 m (16 ft), that’s almost three times longer than the neck of the average giraffe.
This freak of nature was no lightweight either. With more than 3,600 kg (8,000 lb) of reptilian goodness, making it as heavy as a killer whale. So how come this enormous reptile wouldn’t swallow you whole? Scientists have found fossils of this ancient behemoth in what is now Kansas and South Dakota. So if Styxosaurus were alive today, it would mainly inhabit the coasts of North America.
But it’s unlikely you’d see this beast in its full size. All you’d be able to spot is its head and a good chunk of its long neck protruding from the water. That’s because Styxosaurus would bury its large turtle-like body in the murkiest and darkest waters, making it appear much smaller than it actually is. This would reduce the chances of it being detected. And it would make it seem less intimidating to the fish and squid it’ll later munch on.
This feasting would be pulled straight from a horror movie. As Styxosaurus shut its mouth around its prey, sharp teeth would intermesh with each other and fully trap the animal inside. Like a cage from which there’s no escaping. But the process wouldn’t quite end there. Some of the Styxosaurus fossils were found with over 200 small stones in their bellies.
These stones could have served as a ballast, helping this prehistoric creature sink closer to the ocean floor. But it’s more likely that the rocks aided with digestion. While the teeth of the Styxosaurus evolved for seizing slippery prey, they weren’t particularly effective at cutting through flesh. So this behemoth would swallow its still-living prey whole.
The stones in its belly would take care of crushing bones and rubbing off scales. So if it set eyes on you, would you end up rock n’ rolling in its stomach? Well, the head of the average Styxosaurus would be around 50 cm (1.6 ft) long, with a snout of about 30 cm (1 ft) in length. That means that, if you happen to be an average-sized adult, this sea reptile wouldn’t want to try swallowing you whole. You wouldn’t fit in its mouth.
Now, if Styxosaurus could swallow you whole, you’d experience a sudden, inescapable darkness as you slide down a long neck and land in a stone pit. And that’s where you’d be finally pummelled to death. With rocks. What a bizarre way to go. Good thing this behemoth wouldn’t be big enough to swallow you in one piece. But this doesn’t mean you’d go completely unharmed.
The Styxosaurus might try taking a bite out of you in self-defense. Your best bet for surviving would be to do what you would during a shark attack. The worst thing you could do is panic and splash around. That would only pique the Styxosaurus’ curiosity. Instead, try to look as big and intimidating as you possibly can. Of course, that’s easier said than done when facing a predator 45 times your size.
If you managed to gain the Styxosaurus’ respect and it left you alone, it could settle for the smaller portions options. But sticking to fish and squid would make it run into some fierce competition. Namely sharks and killer whales, who also gorge on similar sea life. But here’s a twist. With this potential swimming buffet around, the oceanic predators of today might add a new item to their menu. And this would be, you guessed it, a generous serving of Styxosaurus.
That’s because this giant reptile was never really the apex predator its intimidating appearance might suggest. Prehistoric sharks, with a size similar to the modern great white, were Styxosaurus’ natural-born enemy and very likely aided in its extinction. On top of being hunted by ancient sharks, it seems like the Styxosaurus also wasn’t immune to the temperature changes in the ocean that were brought on by the changing climate.
Our long-necked friend could not have chosen a worse time to stick around. But here’s a twist. It is actually how cold the oceans currently are that might give the Styxosaurus trouble. During the Cretaceous Period, the planet’s oceans had an average temperature of 37 °C (99 °F). The Styxosaurus will have a real hard time withstanding the cooler waters that can be found off North American coasts today.
Unless it had adapted through evolution, not even warmer tropical waters would be able to provide it sufficient heat. If the Styxosaurus was around today, it might not pose the greatest of threats to us ocean-loving humans. If anything, the risk to this behemoth’s survival would go beyond killer whales and sharks. You can bet our more avant-garde foodies would also be dying to give Styxosaurus a taste.
Seeing as it is a reptile, odds are it would have the sweet and juicy flavor of an iguana, with the fish-like texture of its favorite marine life. Putting aside the risk of parasites, viruses and Salmonella that comes from eating reptiles, it actually sounds delicious. Which leads me to wonder. What if we raised dinosaurs for food? I can’t be the only one craving a Dilophosaurus tartar.
- “Fun Styxosaurus Facts For Kids”. 2022. kidadl.com.
- “Gastroliths Associated with Plesiosaur Remains in the Sharon Springs Member of the Pierre Shale (Late Cretaceous), Western Kansas”. 2022. jstor.org.
- “Giraffe Fact Sheet”. 2020. pbs.org.
- “The Ten Largest Sharks In History”. Michael Rogers. 2016. sharksider.com.
- “Climate Change Indicators: Sea Surface Temperature”. 2016. epa.gov.