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Bone Yard or Birthplace?

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    This illustration depicts a group of adult and newborn ichthyosaurs. (Gabriel Ugueto/NMNH via AP)
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    Researchers work next to an ichthyosaur skeleton at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in 2015. (Neil Kelley/Vanderbilt University via AP)
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    An ichthyosaur tooth, in hand, and a snout fragment (Natural History Museum of Utah via AP)
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    A researcher crouches next to an ichthyosaur skeleton at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. (Neil Kelley/Vanderbilt University via AP)
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    Ichthyosaurs could grow to the size of a bus. (Neil Kelley/Vanderbilt University via AP)
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This graveyard might once have been a place of new life. Scientists say a fossil site in Nevada may have been a maternity ward for giant ichthyosaurs.

Now-extinct ichthyosaurs (the name means “fish lizards”) were marine reptiles that could grow to be bigger than a school bus. The underwater predators had large, paddle-shaped flippers and long jaws full of teeth.

Once covered in water, the site inside Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park now sits in a dry, dusty landscape near an abandoned mining town.

Since the ichthyosaur bones were excavated there in the 1950s, many paleontologists have investigated how all these creatures could have died together. Now researchers propose a different theory in the journal Current Biology.

Co-author Nicholas Pyenson believes that evidence shows that “this was a place where giant ichthyosaurs came to give birth.”

The massive skeletons boast vertebrae the size of dinner plates and flipper bones as thick as boulders. Researchers used 3-D scanning to create a detailed digital model.

They identified fossils from at least 37 ichthyosaurs scattered around the area. The bones were preserved in different rock layers, suggesting the creatures died years apart rather than all at once.

The researchers spotted some tiny bones among the massive adult fossils. They say those bones belonged to embryos and newborns. But they didn’t find juveniles. Researchers would expect those if the site was struck by unexpected disaster.

Testing chemicals in the dirt didn’t turn up signs of volcanic eruptions or huge shifts to the local environment. And the geology showed that the reptiles were preserved on the ocean floor, not the shore. That means they probably didn’t die in a mass beaching event, co-author Randy Irmis says.

The researchers concluded that the creatures traveled to the site in groups for protection as they gave birth, like today’s marine giants. The fossils are believed to be from the mothers and offspring that died there over the years.

“Finding a place to give birth separated from a place where you might feed is really common in the modern world—among whales, among sharks,” Pyenson says.

Paleontologist Erin Maxwell told ScienceNews that scientists have previously proposed the idea of birthing areas for ichthyosaurs. But this study “is the first to support these speculations with data,” Maxwell says.

The study doesn’t fully close the case. But maybe it helps to unlock a bit more of the mystery.

Why? God gave humans the gift of learning about all of His creation—even creatures that became extinct long ago!