Giant fossil is one of the largest marine reptiles ever found


A paleontologist poses next to the ichthyosaur skeleton found in Rutland Water. Photo: Matthew Power Photography

The routine draining and maintenance of a lagoon has led to the discovery of the largest and most complete ichthyosaur skeleton ever found in Britain. Excitingly, it is the first species of its kind discovered in the country.

Joe Davis, leader of the conservation team at Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, discovered the fossil in January 2021, according to a press release from the University of Manchester. He found it in the Rutland Water Nature Reserve, owned and operated by Anglian Water. This location, in landlocked Rutland, is a fluke, as most discoveries of ichthyosaurs in England usually take place along the coastline or are the result of quarrying and the construction of new roads.

“In the world of British paleontology, the discovery is like finding a complete Tyrannosaurus rex in the Badlands of America, only this Jurassic giant was found in a wildlife sanctuary in Rutland, of all places!” Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester and the leader of the expedition, said in the press release. “It is truly an unprecedented discovery and one of the greatest finds in British paleontological history.”

At 10 meters in length, it is indeed the largest ichthyosaur ever found in Britain. With fossilized bones from head to tail, it is also the most complete Ichthyosaurus fossil excavated in the country. Its genus, Temnodontosaurus trigonodon, is the first of its kind discovered in Britain, expanding its known geographic range.

Ichthyosaurs are marine reptiles (not dinosaurs) that first emerged 250 million years ago and disappeared after a very successful 160 million year run. These diverse creatures resembled dolphins – a classic example of convergent evolution—and measured anywhere from 3 to 82 feet (1 to 25 meters) tall. Scientists in England have been finding ichthyosaur bones for the past 200 years, as the region, which was submerged during the Jurassic period, was where the animals first emerged.

Artistic impression of an ichthyosaur. Image: The University of Manchester

The Jurassic clay in which the specimen was found dates to between 181.5 million and 182 million years old. The skull is 2 meters long and weighs more than a ton. The excavation also revealed evidence of hundreds of squid-like organisms, gastropods, crustaceans and several vertebrae from other ichthyosaurs.

Experts and volunteers assisted in the excavation and analysis, including teams from the Horniman Museum, the University of Birmingham and the Peterborough Geological and Paleontological Group. The exhumation of the specimen took place from August to September 2021, during which time thousands of photos were taken and a photogrammetric analysis was performed to build a 3D model of the ichthyosaur in its resting position.

Paleontologists stand next to the ichthyosaur fossil. Photo: Anglian Water

Bones of the giant ichthyosaur were wrapped in protective plaster casts and transported to a safe location. There, scientists will remove the plaster, clean the bones and prepare the sample for more thorough analysis, in a process expected to take 18 months. That is, assuming the team secures the required funds. Anglian Water is currently seeking funding to preserve the remains and to “also ensure it can remain in Rutland where its legacy can be shared with the general public,” the press release said.

Excitingly, the excavation of the Rutland Sea Dragon, as it is known, was filmed for the BBC series Digging for Britain and will be featured in an episode airing January 11.

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