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Nature

Giant "Sea Dragon" Ichthyosaur Is One Of UK's Greatest Ever Fossil Finds

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockJan 10 2022, 16:07 UTC
Ichthyosaur

“It is a truly unprecedented discovery," said Dr Dean Lomax. Image credit: Anglian Water

Beneath the Jurassic clay of England's East Midlands, the remains of a real-life sea monster have been discovered. It isn’t a mythical beast, nor even a misidentified squid, but the most remarkable fossilized remains of an ichthyosaur ever discovered in Britain

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The 180 million-year-old ichthyosaur fossil was first found by Joe Davis, Conservation Team Leader at Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, during the routine draining of a lagoon island at Rutland Water back in February 2021. The fragile remains were excavated in August and September 2021 by a team of paleontologists and their findings were publicly revealed just this week. 

Measuring some 10 meters (~33 feet) from snoot to tail, the fossil is thought to be the largest and most complete example of an ichthyosaur fossil ever discovered in Britain. The skull alone measures a colossal 2 meters (6.5 feet) in length – that's about the size of one fairly tall paleontologist – and weighs just under a tonne.

Ichthyosaur skull. Image credit: Anglian Water

“It is a truly unprecedented discovery and one of the greatest finds in British palaeontological history,” Dr Dean Lomax, a paleontologist and world-leading ichthyosaur expert, said in a statement.

“To put this find into context for the public, in the world of British paleontology, the discovery is like finding a complete Tyrannosaurus rex out in the Badlands of America, only this Jurassic giant was found in a nature reserve in Rutland, of all places!”

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Analyzing and excavating the fossil was no small feat. Recovering and collecting the fossil took a huge amount of expertise and over 14 days of fieldwork. Prior to this, the researchers had to painstakingly document the remains using thousands of photographs and a technique called photogrammetry, from which they created a 3D model of the specimen. Dr Lomax and the team will continue to work on the research and hope to publish academic papers on the incredible find in the near future.

3D model of the Ichthyosaur fossil. Image credit: ThinkSee3D

Ichthyosaurs were famously discovered by English paleontologist Mary Anning in the early 19th century. The creatures swam the Earth’s oceans from around 250 million years ago to 90 million years ago when they fell into extinction. Samples of the Jurassic clay taken from around this newly discovered fossil suggest the animal lived around 181.5 to 182 million years ago.

Whatever you do, don’t call them dinosaurs (unless you want to really annoy paleontologists). Although certain species of ichthyosaur lived in the Triassic, Jurassic, and parts of the Cretaceous period, this gang of extinct marine reptiles represents a separate band of animals to dinosaurs. It’s believed they evolved from a group of land reptiles that returned to the sea. Although these resemble dolphins or whales, this is just an example of convergent evolution, whereby similar features evolve among distantly related species to adapt to similar pressures.

This is what the Ichthyosaur might have looked like. Image credit: Bob Nicholls

Speaking about this latest discovery, marine reptile specialist Dr Mark Evans added: It’s a highly significant discovery both nationally and internationally but also of huge importance to the people of Rutland and the surrounding area. If our identification of the ichthyosaur is correct, as a species called Temnodontosaurus trigonodon, this will provide new details on the geographic range of the species as it hasn’t been confirmed from the UK before.”


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