Resourceful Palaeontologist Reels In Ichthyosaur's Secrets With Aid Of Fishing Rod "Selfie Stick"

An artistic life reconstruction of Nannopterygius. Andrey Atuchin

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

The much-loved meme format has seen Bear Grylls encourage all manner of out-of-the-box thinking and I think it’s safe to say the Ray Mears-knock off would be proud of the efforts of one Russian palaeontologist who refused to let the high glass display cases of London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) get between him and an aquatic reptile specimen. Eager to get a closer look, the resourceful scientist turfed up, fishing rod in hand, to secure a shot that would reveal new information about ichthyosaurs in both England and Russia. The resulting study was published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

The specimen in question was an ichthyosaur that had been sitting safely in a glass case high up on a wall of the Museum for almost a century. The visiting palaeontologist, Nikolay G. Zverkov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was interested in the exhibit because he wanted to see how the bones compared to Russian specimens of similar animals. He was desperate for a closer look, but the specimen couldn’t be brought down, so, as the proverb goes, if the mountain won’t go to Zverkov, Zverkov must go to the mountain.

Paleontologist Nikolay Zverkov "fishes" for ichthyosaur at the Natural History Museum in London. Nannopterygius enthekiodon is at the far top left in the glass case. Nikolay Zverkov

Armed with a digital camera hooked up to a fishing rod, an improvised "selfie stick", the researcher cast off to get some up-close photos of the ancient fossil. The photos revealed to him that the ichthyosaur seemed very similar to a genus he recognized from Russian collections. He then emailed images to fellow palaeontologist Megan L Jacobs from Baylor University who confirmed the specimen’s skeletal structure was also very similar to some ichthyosaurs she was studying on the English Channel coast, as well as some she’d inspected elsewhere in the UK. Jacobs and Zverkov merged their research to compare specimens from England and Russia and found that they actually all belonged to the same genus and were far more common and widespread than previously thought.

"[T]his 5-foot ichthyosaur from some 150 million years ago was the least known and believed to be among the rarest ichthyosaurs,” Jacobs explained about the NHM's specimen in a statement. "Nikolay's excellent detailed photos significantly expand knowledge of Nannopterygius enthekiodon. Now, after finding examples from museum collections across the United Kingdom, Russia and the Arctic, as well as several other Nannopterygius species, we can say Nannopterygius is one of the most widespread genera of ichthyosaurs in the Northern Hemisphere."

Holotype of Nannopterygius enthekiodon on display in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery at the National History Museum, London

The study also revealed a new species of the genus, Nannopterygius borealis, which is believed to be the northernmost and youngest representative of the genus.

"For decades, the scientific community thought that Nannopterygius was the rarest and most poorly known ichthyosaur of England," Zverkov said. "Finally, we can say that we know nearly every skeletal detail of these small ichthyosaurs and that these animals were widespread. The answer was very close; what was needed was just a fishing rod."

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