Dinosaur Hunters Find 180-Million-Year-Old 'Sea Dragon' Skeleton With One-Tonne Skull

The remains of a monstrous, 33-foot-long (10 meters) "sea dragon" that swam in the seas when dinosaurs were alive some 180 million years ago have been unearthed on a nature reserve in England. The behemoth is the biggest and most complete fossil of its kind ever discovered in the U.K.

"It is a truly unprecedented discovery and one of the greatest finds in British palaeontological history," excavation leader Dean Lomax, a paleontologist and visiting scientist at the University of Manchester, said in a statement.

Though many such ichthyosaurs have been found in the U.K., none have been as large as the current discovery.

Ichthyosaurs are an extinct order, or large group, of marine reptiles that evolved in the Triassic period about 250 million years ago and disappeared from the fossil record 90 million years ago, in the late Cretaceous period. They had long snouts and looked similar to modern-day dolphins.

Dinosaur Hunters Find 180-Million-Year-Old 'Sea Dragon' Skeleton With One-Tonne Skull
Dinosaur Hunters Find 180-Million-Year-Old 'Sea Dragon' Skeleton With One-Tonne Skull. The ichthyosaur skeleton is the largest and most complete fossil of its kind ever found in the UK. Photograph: Anglian Water/PA

The newly discovered fossil belonged to a large species of ichthyosaur called Temnodontosaurus trigonodon — the first time this species has appeared in the U.K. Joe Davis, a conservation team leader for the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, found the ichthyosaur on the Rutland Water Nature Reserve in the East Midlands, according to the statement.

Davis was walking across a drained lagoon with Paul Trevor, who also works on the reserve for the trust, when he saw what appeared to be clay pipes sticking out of the mud and remarked to Trevor that they looked like vertebrae. Davis was familiar with sea creature bones, having previously found whale and dolphin skeletons while working on the Hebrides, a series of islands off northwest Scotland.

"We followed what indisputably looked like a spine and Paul [Trevor] discovered something further along that could have been a jawbone," Davis said. "We couldn't quite believe it."

Archaeologists excavated the fossil between August and September in 2021. The discovery will be featured on a British television series called "Digging for Britain," which airs in the U.K. on Tuesday (Jan. 11) on BBC Two.

Archaeologists are still studying and conserving the ichthyosaur fossil and scientific papers about the discovery will be published in the future, according to the statement, though no timeframe was given.

The spectacular specimen, only recently revealed to the public, is still wrapped in its plaster cast, stored in a secret location, and has not yet been studied in detail. The researchers plan to prepare academic papers describing the discovery once it has been cleaned up and conserved.

"Despite the thousands of ichthyosaurs discovered in Britain, none of them are quite as large as this specimen, and few examples of this genus [have] been found in the UK that are this complete," Larkin added in a blog post.

Luckily for fossil fiends, the team took a 3D scan of the fully exposed specimen (which you can view in jaw-dropping detail here) before any bones were removed.

The researchers also took samples of fossils surrounding the main specimen, including squid-like ammonites and belemnites, to better understand the environment where the ichthyosaur lived and died, and to date the animal to roughly 182 million years old.

"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," says paleontologist Mark Evans of the University of Leicester.

Most other Temnodontosaurus fossils, known for their incredibly large eyes, have been found in Germany and North America, with another in Chile.

The team plans to apply for funding for the next phase of conservation to clean and prepare the fossil, after which they hope the creature's skeleton will be placed on permanent display close to where it was found.

The above story is based on Materials provided by Rutland Wildlife Trust manag.

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