A fossil found by a Montana elk hunter nearly seven years ago has led to the discovery of a new species of prehistoric sea creature that lived about 70 million years ago in an inland sea that flowed east of the Rockies, the AP reports. The new elasmosaur species is detailed in an article published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Most elasmosaurs, a type of carnivorous marine reptile, had necks that could stretch 18 feet, but the fossil discovered in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is distinct for a much shorter neck—about 7.5 feet. "This group is famous for having ridiculously long necks ... [with] as many as 76 vertebrae," says Patrick Druckenmiller, article co-author and a paleontologist with the University of Alaska Museum of the North. "What absolutely shocked us ... [was] it only had somewhere around 40 vertebrae."
The smaller sea creature lived around the same time and in the same area as the larger ones, contradicting the belief that elasmosaurs didn't evolve over millions of years to have longer necks, co-author Danielle Serratos says. The fossil discovered by ranch manager David Bradt, who found it sticking out of a rock when he went into a canyon to splash water on his face, was well-preserved. He originally thought it was a dinosaur. "I didn't know there was an ocean there," he says. Bradt reported his find to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies. Druckenmiller says the inland sea that stretched the width of Montana to Minnesota and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico was teeming with marine reptiles, but relatively few of their fossils have been excavated. (Read more discoveries stories.)