Have you ever found a Liopleurodon in the dinosaur bags you bought when you were little? I haven’t, but I would have liked it, especially after watching the third episode (Cruel Sea) of the TV series Walking With Dinosaurs (BBC, 1999), which made this genus one of the most famous pliosaurs to the public. Who realizes my childhood dream is Recur, a Chinese brand that mainly produces soft toys, but that surprised us for the excellent Sinosaurus it published this year. It more or less dropped out the sky, but in reality the signs that Recur was able to produce scientifically interesting toys were already in his catalog: this Liopleurodon, for example.
Measured from head to tail, the Recur Liopleurodon is about 30 cm long, with a 7 cm skull, which puts it roughly on…1:19 scale. Oh yes, because the real Liopleurodon was much smaller than the monster seen on WWD: the largest specimen (NHMUK R3536) measures about five and a half meters (according to Dan Folkes’ skeletal), a size comparable to a modern white shark… or Ophthalmosaurus, which could hardly have figured among its usual prey – at least as an adult.
Unlike most soft toys, whichtend to be given random names, the Recur Liopleurodon is clearly recognizable in proportions, if not as a Liopleurodon (the head is a little too small compared to the body), at least as a pliosaur, with a large head supported by a relatively elongated neck, a robust body and a short tail. Being an aquatic animal, the “stoutness” typical of soft toys is more or less consistent with the likely life appearance, as well as preventing lasting damage if a child decides to use it as an improper shuriken.
The head of the Recur Liopleurodon has the classical pliosaur skull shape, where the postorbital region gently degrades to the snout when viewed from the side, while from above the tapered snout widens towards the orbits.The nostrils are located in the correct position, just ahead of the eyes. Respecting the tooth count is asking a little too much from a soft toy: they are too numerous and uniform, sculpted in a single block as in the old Carnegies. On the other hand, if they had respected the dental formula of pliosaurs, with conical teeth that have a visible “gap” between premaxillary and maxillary teeth, they would probably have been too fragile and dangerous for this kind of toy. This little flaw in tooth accuracy is somewhat balanced by the fact that they are vertically oriented: many old reconstructions, and even more recent works, show these animals with teeth pointing outwards, but this is a preservational artifact: sediment pressure literally “squished” the skulls during fossilization.
After these positive notes, there is some criticism: we recall you that these are mistakes that much more famous brands have committed in their time and that, after all, we are talking about a soft toy. To begin with, on the underside of the body there are quite evident seams: this is, however, an unavoidable thing, considering that the model (made of soft and non-toxic vinyl) is hollow and filled with cotton. Although pliosaurs are traditionally restored with cigar-shaped bodies, they were actually rather dorsoventrally flattened; I can’t tell if the Recur is flat enough, but it’s definitely not as cylindrical as, for example, the old Carnegie Kronosaurus. Body and neck were rigid, therefore probably incapable of the flexion shown by the Recur model: in all probability it is an artistic license in order to make the reconstruction more interesting. When I began reviewing this model, I believed that the proportions of the flippers were respected too, with the rear ones of a fifth larger than the anterior ones (they provided most of the power), but apparently this is true only for the left side: the right rear flipper is about half a centimeter shorter and comparable in length with the front one.
The Recur model features a skin sculpted with wrinkles and folds, very reptilian: although pleasant to the eye, it is unlikely to represent the real appearance of Liopleurodon’s skin: we have plesiosaur skin impressions, and they all show a smooth skin with rectangular scales so small they’re practically invisible unless you are dangerously close to the pliosaur. It’s no surprise: today’s large marine predators, from sharks to dolphins, also have a smooth skin, because it reduces the friction with water that would slow them down during the hunt.
On the other hand, the Recur model shows another detail that we can deduce from the skin impressions: a vertical caudal fin, composed entirely of soft tissues. The presence of a tail fin (horizontal or vertical) has been discussed since the XIX centyry and is a complex issue that goes beyond the scope of this blog, however it’s interesting how the Recur Liopleurodon’s tail fin looks to be based on Wilhelm’s (2010) Cryptoclidus restoration: a note in favor of the Recur model, considering that Wilhelm listed the traits linked to a tail fin of such shape, as opposed to the diamond-shaped one featured in the famous Seeleysosaurus skin impression (which, unfortunately, it may not be authentic).
If a child is in love with the WWD Liopleurodon, this model is probably the best choice on the market, balancing an affordable price, a remarkable robustness and a decent educational value, but the details of its anatomy can make it appealing even to the adult collector … who can finally play in the bathtub with WWD’s Liopleurodon.
Wilhelm B. (2010) Novel anatomy of cryptoclidid plesiosaurs with comments on axial locomotion. M.S. thesis, Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia, 76 pp
The author would like to thank Twitter user @fishboy86164577, whose plesiosaurs posts were vital in writing this review