Meaning: Giraffe lizard
Geologic Era: Late Cretaceous
Location Discovered: Morocco, Africa
Size: 7 meters (23 feet) long
Estimated Range: Morocco, Africa
Extinction: 66 million years ago
Zarafasaura was a member of the elasmosaur family of plesiosaurs, usually characterized by long necks, short tails, and paddle-like limbs. This is the type of animal that the Loch Ness Monster is frequently thought to resemble. This type of animal typically possessed long, needle like teeth (see below photograph) than mosasaurs. The necks of these animals probably did not have a great degree of up-down mobility, but did have some lateral movement capabilities. In other words, most of the famous photographs that show the Loch Ness Monster with its head held vertically out of the water would have been impossible for this animal to do. Zarafasaura probably fed on fish and other smaller marine animals, but could have easily been prey for a larger mosasaur.
The vertebra photographed proved to be an interesting challenge for me. When I received it, it was much like how it had come out of the ground, covered in grey phosphate matrix (see top photo of the vertebra). I noticed that this matrix would come off on my hands when I held the vertebra, so I decided to try to remove more of it to show the underlying bone. My tools of choice were a spoon and a thin wire. Removing the matrix was surprisingly easy. Once I got the top of the vertebra cleared, I saw two indentations in the center-top. These foramen (small holes) were not visible previously. Using a thin wire, I was able to clear out the foramen, which go completely though the vertebral body. This is probably a cervical vertebra, based on the positioning of the processes.
This animal was formerly called Plesiosaurus mauritanicus, but that name is now considered dubious at best. Zarafasaura is the only plesiosaur / elasmosaur I could find that is currently being extracted from the phosphate beds of Morocco.
Zarafasaura was almost completely aquatic. It would have been extremely slow and clumsy on land, though it may have come ashore to lay eggs as modern sea turtles do. In water, they would have been as quick and graceful as they were slow on land. The reason for this agility would have been water partially supporting Zarafasaura’s body mass, which made moving such a large animal relatively easy. Nevertheless, a close look at Zarafasaura’s paddle-like limbs show just how large they are when compared to the rest of the body. A glance at the neck reveals why Zarafasaura vertebrae are relatively common finds. Most mammals have seven cervical (neck) vertebrae…Zarafasaura has several times that many.
Skull:By Ghedoghedo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons