Ichthyosaurs (Greek for “fish lizard” – ιχθυς or ichthys meaning “fish” and σαυρος or sauros meaning “lizard”) are large marine reptiles. Ichthyosaurs belong to the order known as Ichthyosauria or Ichthyopterygia (‘fish flippers’ – a designation introduced by Sir Richard Owen in 1840, although the term is now used more for the parent clade of the Ichthyosauria).
Ichthyosaurs thrived during much of the Mesozoic era; based on fossil evidence, they first appeared approximately 250 million years ago (mya) and at least one species survived until about 90 million years ago, into the Late Cretaceous. During the early Triassic Period, ichthyosaurs evolved from a group of unidentified land reptiles that returned to the sea, in a development parallel to that of the ancestors of modern-day dolphins and whales, which they gradually came to resemble in a case of convergent evolution. They were particularly abundant in the later Triassic and early Jurassic Period, until they were replaced as the top aquatic predators by another marine reptilian group, the Plesiosauria, in the later Jurassic and Cretaceous Period. In the Late Cretaceous, ichthyosaurs became extinct for unknown reasons.
Science became aware of the existence of ichthyosaurs during the early nineteenth century when the first complete skeletons were found in England. In 1834, the order Ichthyosauria was named. Later that century, many excellently preserved ichthyosaur fossils were discovered in Germany, including soft tissue remains. Since the late twentieth century, there has been a revived interest in the group leading to an increased number of named ichthyosaurs from all continents, over fifty valid genera being now known.
Ichthyosaur species varied from one to over sixteen metres in length. Ichthyosaurs resembled both modern fish and dolphins. Their limbs had been fully transformed into flippers, which sometimes contained a very large number of digits and phalanges. At least some species possessed a dorsal fin. Their heads were pointed, the jaws often equipped with conical teeth to catch smaller prey. Some species had larger bladed teeth to attack large animals. The eyes were very large, probably for deep diving. The neck was short and later species had a rather stiff trunk. These also had a more vertical tail fin, used for a powerful propulsive stroke. The vertebral column, made of simplified disc-like vertebrae, continued into the lower lobe of the tail fin. Ichthyosaurs were air-breathing, bore live young, and were probably warm-blooded.