Elasmosaurus platyurus was described in March, 1868 by Edward Drinker Cope from a fossil discovered and collected by Dr. Theophilus Turner, a military doctor, in western Kansas, USA. Although other specimens of elasmosaurs have been found in various locations in North America, Carpenter (1999) determined that Elasmosaurus platyurus was the only representative of the genus.
When E. D. Cope received the specimen in early March, 1868, he had a pre-conceived idea of what it should look like, and mistakenly placed the head on the wrong end (e.g. the tail). In his defense, at the time he was an expert on lizards, which have a short neck and a long tail, and no one had ever seen a plesiosaur of the size of Elasmosaurus.
Although popular legend notes that it was Othniel Charles Marsh who pointed out the error, there is no factual justification for this account (see below). However, this event is often cited as one of the causes of their long-lasting and acrimonious rivalry, known as the Bone Wars. In fact, although Marsh personally collected at least one plesiosaur from Kansas, and had several more from Kansas in the Yale Peabody collection, he never published a single paper on them.
Elasmosaurus had a large body and four flippers for limbs. More than half of its length was neck, which had more than 70 vertebrae, more than any other animal. It had a relatively small head with sharp teeth. The head and neck of the Elasmosaurus most likely acted as a rudder. If the animal moved the head/neck in a certain direction it would cause the rest of the body to move in that direction. Thus Elasmosaurus could not have swum in one direction while moving its head and neck either horizontally or vertically.Like most plesiosaurs, Elasmosaurus was incapable of raising anything more than its head above the water as it is commonly depicted in art and media. The weight of its long neck placed the center of gravity behind the front flippers. Thus Elasmosaurus could only have raised its head and neck above the water if in shallow water, where it could rest its body on the bottom. The weight of the neck, the limited musculature, and the limited movement between the vertebrae would have prevented Elasmosaurus from raising its head and neck very high as well. Elasmosaurus was a slow swimmer and may have stalked schools of fish. The long neck would allow Elasmosaurus to conceal itself below the school of fish. It then would have moved its head slowly and approached its prey from below. The eye of the animal could have had stereoscopic vision, which would help it find small prey. Hunting from below would also have helped by silhouetting the prey in the sunlight while concealing Elasmosaurus in the dark waters below. Elasmosaurus probably ate small bony fish, belemnites (similar to squid), and ammonites (molluscs). It swallowed small stones to aid its digestion.
Elasmosaurus is believed to have lived mostly in open ocean. The paddles of Elasmosaurus and other plesiosaurs are so rigid and specialized for swimming that they could not have come on land to lay eggs. Thus it most likely gave live birth to its young like modern sea snakes.