Whilst taking a stroll along a picturesque, rocky beach in south Wales, a computer programmer with a passion for fossil hunting stumbled upon a rather remarkable find: a 7-foot-long skeleton of an ancient, predatory reptile that swam our oceans from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous period. What’s more, experts believe that the specimen could be complete, making the rare discovery even more exciting.
The fossil was found along Penarth beach, Glamorgan, which is the most popular spot in Wales for fossil collectors to fill their boots due to the abundance and rich variety of specimens so far unearthed here. Its discoverer was 34-year-old Jonathan Bow, who has had a keen interest in fossils for the best part of a decade now.
He first noticed the skeleton after a small piece, around one inch in size, became exposed on a changing tide in September, BBC News reports. Bow and his brother then began the laborious task of uncovering the rest of the specimen, which took them around a day. During this process, the impressive size of the specimen became quickly apparent, which he eloquently described as a “whopper.”
Then, the duo had to begin removing some of the vast amount stone that surrounded the fossil, which weighed some 60 kilograms (132lb) in total. After completing this extremely labor intensive process, Bow alerted the National Museum of Wales of the find, and it didn’t take long for paleontologists to recognize its potential importance given the remarkable preservation.
The skeleton belonged to an ancient group of marine vertebrates called ichthyosaurs, which means “fish lizards.” So far, more than 80 different species of ichthyosaur have been described since their discovery in the early 19th century, but more are being added to the extensive list each year.
These animals were not dinosaurs, but they did roam Earth’s oceans while dinosaurs ruled the land. They first appeared during the Triassic period, reaching peak diversity during the Jurassic, before dying out during the Cretaceous period- some 25 million years before dinosaurs were wiped out.
Although there is a lot of controversy over what ichthyosaurs evolved from, the earliest versions had many lizard-like features, leading many to believe the land vertebrate they evolved from was probably a lizard of some kind. Early ichthyosaurs still possessed necks and also had long, slender bodies which probably meant that they weaved through the ocean much like modern day eels. These animals then rapidly diversified into a much more streamlined form with fish-like bodies and crescent-shaped tails, allowing them to cruise through the seas at impressive speeds.
Computer generated illustration of an ichthyosaur. Michael Rosskothen, via Shutterstock. 162711728.
[Via BBC News and Wales Online]