Dr. F. Robin O’Keefe, a professor of biology in Marshall University’s College of Science, has led an international team of researchers in new discoveries related to marine life evolution.

Funded through a Drinko Distinguished Research Fellowship grant from the Drinko Academy at Marshall, his research has focused on the plesiosaur, an ocean-dwelling lizard from the age of dinosaurs, and was conducted in partnership with South American scientists. They discovered whale-like feeding habits of the marine reptile through fossils that are approximately 65 million years old. Involved in the research were fossils from Antarctica found in the early 1980s that could never be interpreted. O’Keefe and his co-authors, including scientists from Chile and Argentina, used different fossils from Chile and Argentina to determine how the pieces from Antarctica went together and may have functioned. Their research has been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The title of their paper was, “Cranial Anatomy of Morturneria seymourensis from Antarctica, and the Evolution of Filter Feeding in Plesiosaurs of the Austral Late Cretaceous.”

Previously, all plesiosaurs were thought to be predators that ate fish, squid, and even other marine reptiles, O’Keefe said. They discovered fossils of a plesiosaurus with teeth that “did not meet tip to tip, as in all other plesiosaurs, but lie together in a battery that acted in straining food particles from the water. This feeding style is unknown in other marine reptiles, but is found in today’s baleen whales,” he said.

“Our identification of whale-like filter feeding is a startling case of convergent evolution,” O’Keefe said. “Plesiosaurs and whales shared many of the intervening steps in the evolution of this feeding style, and their extreme morphologies are similar despite arising from different ancestors. The evolution of filter feeding may be linked to changes in ocean circulation brought on by the southward movement of Antarctica during the Late Cretaceous.”

O’Keefe is a globally recognized scientist specializing in the study of Mesozoic marine reptiles, and in the interplay between evolution and the physical environment. He is currently out of state doing field work.

To learn more, contact O’Keefe at okeefef@marshall.edu or 304-972-2450.