Paleontologist Dirley Cortés Parra grew up in a mountainous region of Colombia that was an ancient inland sea, now she reveals the secrets of the intriguing teeth of ichthyosaurs, huge marine reptiles that once swam there.
Cortés, a researcher at McGill University in Canada, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, and the Paleontological Research Center in Colombia, described a new ichthyosaur, Kyhytysuka sachicarum, from his hometown of Villa de Leyva.
These results have been described in a Journal of Systematic Paleontology paper, who examined any clues these teeth might give about the diet of these massive marine reptiles (which, though toothy and huge, is not a dinosaur), whose parents appear in the fossil record between 251 million and 65.5 million years ago.
“This animal had really unique teeth for an ichthyosaur which exhibits several discrete dental morphologies ranging from piercing to cutting to crushing and the large ichthyosaur exhibits a renaissance of hypercarnivory (eating large prey)”, explains Cortés. , “Although some early-evolving ichthyosaurs had this, they moved into small fish and invertebrates for the next 70 million years.
This is far from the first time that she has studied these “tuna-shaped” marine reptiles. As part of his undergraduate thesis at the Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Colombia in the central Colombian city of Tunja, Cortés described and helped to prepare the fore-fin of a 130-million-year-old ophthalmosaur ichthyosaur from Colombia.
From the land of fossils to the fossil hunter
Cortés was born and raised in one of the most fossil-rich places in Colombia: Villa de Leyva, a small town in central Colombia in the northern Andes range.
Several members of his family have been involved in collecting and preparing fossils for many years, but due to a lack of formal education in geosciences, they were unable to proceed further.
“From a young age I had a particular taste for rocks and fossils and in high school I prepared a pliosaur jawbone, which led me to choose natural sciences as my profession.”
Because no Colombian university offers a BSc in paleontology, Cortés studied biology, but in recent years the paleontological sciences have started to gain more attention in my country and created more opportunities for them. local students to follow a path in this field.
“Being trained as a scientist and contributing to paleontology doesn’t feel like regular work, but rather an opportunity to pursue my passion and think broadly about the natural world,” she says, “Everything is exciting about this profession: learn a second language, interact with great scientists, travel the world, collect fossils, answer questions about Earth and its ancient life, and on top of that, understand our tiny place as a species in the great exuberant and extremely diverse. tree of life!”
Paleontology of the Global South
Cortés says the fossils found in South America are among the most interesting animals and plants ever to be found.
“The ages of the rocks in which these fossils are kept and the fossils themselves tell exciting stories about ancient ecosystems, including those about large charismatic animals such as dinosaurs, snakes, crocodiles, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs. but also how organisms further in the ecosystem like crustaceans and gymnosperms and flowering plants evolved, ”she says.
In the long term, according to Cortés, the work of scientists in southern countries can help conserve biological and paleontological heritage and, through science and education, lay the foundations for a more equitable, inclusive and united society. .
“It is a great joy for me to work on fossils collected in my hometown with researchers from all over the world,” says Cortés, adding that local research is important and that she hopes her work will inspire more Colombians to get into science, learn from international experts and bring that talent back to Colombia.
“Each country has its own unique Earth story and should be explored by those for whom it matters most,” she says.
Another Colombian paleontologist is Catalina Suarez, who studies ancient mammal fossils, their paleobiology and paleoecology, looking for clues to understand how climate change affects the rates of mammalian diversification and extinction.
She is studying La Venta, in southern Colombia, a region particularly rich in fossils of metatherians, an ancient group of mammals recorded in the world since the Cretaceous period which ended with the extinction of the dinosaurs.