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A Naturalist Stumbled on an Ichthyosaur Skeleton, the Largest in U.K. History

A Naturalist Stumbled on an Ichthyosaur Skeleton, the Largest in U.K. History
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At the bottom of a lake in a nature reserve in England, there has been a secret inactive for thousands of years, hidden in mud, water and ice.

The fossilized remains were only recently found, a throwback to the time when dinosaurs dominated the land and giant marine reptiles, colloquially referred to as “sea dragons,” were invading the oceans.

This wasn’t just an ancient find: the remains of the sea creature, the ichthyosaur, were the largest ever of this type in Britain, and who were involved in a now-completed excavation project announced on Monday. They said it was also one of the largest and most complete skeletons of an ichthyosaur (pronounced IK-thee-uh-sor) found anywhere in the world.

They said the skeleton dates back to the early Jurassic period about 180 million years ago and measured about 10 meters (over 30 feet). It may never have been discovered if the lake had not been drained as part of a landscaping project.

The fossil was found in 2021 in Rutland Water Nature Reserve in the East Midlands, England, a landlocked reservoir 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of London known to attract waterfowl and other birds.

Joe Davis, a conservation team leader for Leicestershire and the Rutland Wildlife Trust, said on Monday he first came across the fossil last February while hiking through the mud on a run with a colleague.

“We kind of looked at it and scratched our heads,” Mr. Davis recounted in an interview. “I realized it might be something from the age of the dinosaurs. We could see these bumps and bumps. That’s when the alarm bells started to ring.”

Mr Davis, 48, took pictures of the fossil and contacted Rutland County Council, who linked it to a geology trustee at the University of Leicester, who referred it to Dean R Lomax, a paleontologist who studies ichthyosaurs.

“I immediately recognized them as ichthyosaur vertebrae,” Dr. Lomax, head of the excavation project, said Monday. “He found this very coincidence.”

Ichthyosaurs, fish-shaped marine reptiles resembling whales and dolphins, first appeared about 250 million years ago, according to Dr. Lomax, who said they were predators that likely fed on other ichthyosaurs, fish, and other reptiles known as plesiosaurs and ammonites. , a type of mollusk. He said they disappeared about 90 million years ago and overlapped with dinosaurs.

“They had big eyes, and big teeth,” he said. “A lot of people tend to go back to the old days and call them sea dragons.”

From the photographs, Dr Lomax said he could not tell if the specimen was a complete skeleton or just fragments like many of those have been discovered over the centuries in England. He needed to see it for himself.

About two weeks later, he said, he led a small, one-day excavation in the nature reserve with four paleontologists.

“It really blew us away,” said Dr Lomax, 32, a visiting scientist at the University of Manchester.

But conditions in the nature reserve are not suitable for large-scale excavations. The lake has been frozen and will eventually need to be refilled with water so it does not disturb the natural habitat, according to Dr. Lomax, who said paleontologists covered the skeleton with plastic sheets and mud so they could return.

“As an expert,” he said, “I was eager to get there and dig for it.” “We had a group of migratory birds there as well. We had to wait for them to leave.”

In August, a team of experts that included Dr. Lomax returned to the site for several weeks to excavate the skeleton, perform daily coronavirus tests and sign nondisclosure agreements saying they would keep the discovery a secret.

“The skull weighs more than a ton,” said Mr. Davis, who made the initial discovery and whose son claimed the skeleton dates from the era of “Joe Rasi.”

To protect the skeleton while it was lifted off the ground, it was wrapped in plaster, which Mr. Davis and Dr. Lomax likened to casting a mold of broken bones. Dr. Lomax lay on the ground next to the excavated skeleton to show his size.

Mr Davis said it was fortunate that the skeleton was not damaged when the lake was initially excavated 12 years ago.

“They must have been inches away when they originally built the lake,” he said.

It could take 18 to 24 months to preserve the skeleton and remove rocks from the bones, according to Dr. Lomax, who said project participants hope to display the specimen in the Rutland area. He said the skeletal remains of an ichthyosaur were typically found along the Jurassic coast in southern England.

After the skeleton was removed from the ground, it was trucked to the lab of Nigel Larkin, co-leader of the project, which Dr Lomax said was about a 2.5-hour drive from Rutland. The main body section was too large to fit inside a truck, so it was loaded onto a trailer – this was not noticed by other drivers. It was wrapped.

Dr. Lomax said, “It would have scared people.”

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