The routine draining and maintenance of a lagoon has resulted in the discovery of the largest and most complete ichthyosaur skeleton ever found in Britain. Excitingly, it’s the first species of its kind to be discovered in the country.
Joe Davis, conservation team leader 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 inside the Rutland Water Nature Reserve, owned and operated by Anglian Water. This location, in landlocked Rutland, is fortuitous, as most discoveries of ichthyosaurs in England tend to be along the coastline or the result of quarrying and the building of new roads.
“In the world of British palaeontology, 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!” Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester and the leader of the expedition, said in the press release. “It is a truly unprecedented discovery and one of the greatest finds in British palaeontological history.”
Indeed, at 32 feet (10 meters) in length, it’s the largest ichthyosaur ever found in Britain. With fossilized bones from tip-to-tail, it’s also the most complete Ichthyosaur fossil unearthed in the country. Its species, Temnodontosaurus trigonodon, is the first of its kind to be discovered in Britain, expanding its known geographical range.
Ichthyosaurs are marine reptiles (not dinosaurs) that first emerged 250 million years ago, disappearing after a highly 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) long. Scientists in England have been finding ichthyosaur bones for the past 200 years, as the region, which was under water during the Jurassic period, was where the animals first emerged.
The Jurassic clay in which the specimen was found dated to between 181.5 million and 182 million years old. The skull measures 6.5 feet (2 meters) long and weighs over a ton. The excavation also yielded evidence of hundreds of squid-like organisms, gastropods, shellfish, and several vertebrae from other ichthyosaurs.
Experts and volunteers chipped in to help with the excavation and analysis, including teams from Horniman Museum, the University of Birmingham, and the Peterborough Geological and Palaeontological Group. Excavation of the specimen took place from August to September 2021, during which time thousands of photos were taken and a photogrammetric analysis conducted to build a 3D model of the ichthyosaur in its resting position.
Bones from the gigantic 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 specimen for more thorough analysis, in a process that’s expected to take 18 months. That is, assuming the team secures the required cash. Anglian Water is currently seeking funding to preserve the remains and to “also ensure that it can remain in Rutland where its legacy can be shared with the general public,” according to the press release.
Excitingly, the excavation of the Rutland Sea Dragon, as it’s known, was filmed for the BBC’s series Digging for Britain and be featured in an episode that will air on January 11.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article’s headline said the fossil ichthyosaur is one of the largest ever found; actually, it’s the biggest in Britain, but many larger ichthyosaurs have been discovered elsewhere in the world.