CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Robin O'Keefe teaches human anatomy at Marshall University. But in his spare time, he's making scientific history.
O'Keefe, 42, recently helped determine that a 78-million-year-old fossil of a plesiosaur, a large four-flippered water reptile, contained an embryonic skeleton -- providing the first evidence that the creatures gave birth to live young, instead of hatching offspring from eggs.
The paleontologist traveled to Los Angeles Thursday to help unveil the findings at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The research by O'Keefe and the museum's Luis Chiappe is being published today<co fri> in Science, one of the world's most cited scientific journals.
"This changes what people thought. Our biggest problem was that we had no information -- just a giant question mark," O'Keefe said Thursday via telephone from Los Angeles. "There was speculation about whether they laid eggs or gave birth, but no evidence. There wasn't much you could say with confidence.
"This is an exciting day."
O'Keefe has traveled the globe researching the extinct creature, which was commonly found in the world's oceans during the age of dinosaurs.
He said the discovery gives scientists a closer look into the unknown reproduction process and social characteristics of the sea creatures from the Mesozoic Era, which lasted from about 250 million years ago to about 65 million years ago.
The fossil reveals that plesiosaurs are one of the few aquatic reptiles to give birth to a single, large offspring. That suggests that the creatures may have engaged in parental care, making them similar to dolphins, O'Keefe said.
"What we found does strongly indicate that the animals did not lay eggs, and that's a big deal, but it's not unprecedented for marine reptiles to give live birth," he said. "What really makes this discovery special is that its reproduction process was much different than other marine reptiles."