Tylosaurus was a mosasaur, a large, predatory marine lizard closely related to modern monitor lizards and to snakes. Along with plesiosaurs, sharks, fish, and other genera of mosasurs, it was a dominant predator of the Western Interior Seaway during the Late Cretaceous. Tylosaurus proriger was among the largest of all the mosasaurs (along with Hainosaurus and Mosasaurus hoffmannii), reaching maximum lengths of 15 meters or more (49+ ft). A distinguishing characteristic of Tylosaurus is its elongated, cylindrical premaxilla (snout) from which it takes its name and which may have been used to ram and stun prey and also in intraspecific combat. Stomach contents associated with specimens of Tylosaurus proriger indicate that this ferocious mosasaur had a varied diet, including fish, sharks, smaller mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, and flightless diving birds such as Hesperornis. In some paleoenvironments, Tylosaurus seems to have preferred shallow, nearshore waters (as with the Eutaw Formation and Mooreville Chalk Formation of Alabama), while favoring deeper water farther out from shore in other environments (as with the Niobrara Chalk of the western U.S.).
Like many other mosasaurs, the early history of this taxon is complex and involves the infamous rivalry between two early American paleontologists, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. Originally, the name "Macrosaurus" proriger was proposed by Cope for a fragmentary skull and thirteen vertebrae collected from near Monument Rocks in western Kansas in 1868. It was placed in the collections of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Only a year later, Cope redescribed the same material in greater detail and referred it, instead, to the English mosasaur taxon Liodon. Then, in 1872, Marsh named a more complete specimen as a new genus, Rhinosaurus ("nose lizard"), but this name soon proved to be preoccupied. Cope suggested that Rhinosaurus be replaced by yet another new name, Rhamposaurus which also proved to be preoccupied. Marsh finally erected Tylosaurus later in 1872, to include the original Harvard material as well as additional, more complete specimens which had also been collected from Kansas. A giant specimen of T. proriger, recovered in 1911 by C. D. Bunker near Wallace, Kansas is one of the largest skeleton of Tylosaurus ever found. It is currently on display at the University of Kansas Museum of Natural history.
In 1918, Charles H. Sternberg found a Tylosaurus, with the remains of a plesiosaur in its stomach. The specimen is currently mounted in the United States National Museum (Smithsonian) and the plesiosaur remains are stored in the collections. Although these important specimens were briefly reported by C. H. Sternberg (1922), the information was lost to science until 2001. This specimen was rediscovered and described by Everhart (2004a). It is the basis for the story line in the new (2007) National Geographic IMAX movie - "Sea Monsters", and a book by the same name (Everhart, 2007).
Note that the "early photograph" of a Tylosaurus skull (above) was taken by George F. Sternberg about 1926 after he collected and prepared the specimen. It was discovered in the Smoky Hill Chalk of Logan County, Kansas. Sternberg offered the specimen to the Smithsonian and included this photograph in his letter to Charles Gilmore. Copies of the original photos are in the archives of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History (FHSM). The specimen is FHSM VP-3, the exhibit specimen in the same museum.
Though many species of Tylosaurus have been named over the years, only a few are now recognized by scientists as taxonomically valid. They are as follows: Tylosaurus proriger (Cope, 1869), from the Santonian and lower to middle Campanian of North America (Kansas, Alabama, Nebraska, etc.); Tylosaurus nepaeolicus (Cope, 1874), from the Santonian of North America (Kansas); Tylosaurus haumuriensis (Hector, 1874; =Taniwhasaurus oweni), from the lower to middle Campanian of New Zealand; Tylosaurus kansasensis Everhart, 2005, from the late Coniacian of Kansas.
A closely related genus, Hainosaurus ("Haine lizard", named after the Haine River in Belgium) is known from the Creatceous of North America and Europe. Both Tylosaurus and Hainosaurus are grouped together into the subfamily Tylosaurinae and are referred to informally as "tylosaurines" or "tylosaurs." Bell placed the tylosaurines together with the plioplatecarpine mosasaurs (Platecarpus, Plioplatecarpus, etc.) in an informal monophyletic grouping which he called the "Russellosaurinae."