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Although they weren't technically dinosaurs, mosasaurs hold a unique place in paleontological history: it was the discovery of a specimen of Mosasaurus in 1764, in a Dutch quarry, that galvanized scientists into the realization that species could become extinct (and that the earth used to be populated by some very strange creatures). Mosasaurus ("lizard from the Meuse River") was soon named by the renowned naturalist Georges Cuvier, and the general name "mosasaur" attached to other members of this ancient family. (See a gallery of mosasaur pictures.)
In evolutionary terms, mosasaurs were distinct from three other famous groups of marine reptiles, ichthyosaurs ("fish lizards"), long-necked plesiosaurs, and short-necked pliosaurs. These sleek, reptilian predators may have been responsible for the extinction of the ichthyosaurs by the end of the Cretaceous period (not necessarily by eating them, but by out-competing them for food), and their quick, agile, hydrodynamic builds gave plesiosaurs and pliosaurs a run for their money.