Discovery of UK’s largest sea dragon among ‘greatest’ palaeontological finds

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Scientists have hailed one of the “greatest finds” in British palaeontological history after the largest fossilised remains of a prehistoric “sea dragon” were discovered in the Midlands.

The ichthyosaur, approximately 180 million years old with a skeleton measuring around 10 metres in length and a skull weighing approximately one tonne, is the largest and most complete fossil of its kind ever found in the UK.

It was discovered by Joe Davis of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust during a routine draining of a lagoon island at Rutland Water in February 2021.

The first ichthyosaurs, which are called sea dragons because they tend to have very large teeth and eyes, were discovered by fossil hunter and palaeontologist Mary Anning in the early 19th century.

The ichthyosaurs had very large teeth and eyes (Bob Nicholls/Anglian Water/PA)
The ichthyosaurs had very large teeth and eyes (Bob Nicholls/Anglian Water/PA)

Dr Dean Lomax, a palaeontologist who has studied the species, said: “Despite the many ichthyosaur fossils found in Britain, it is remarkable to think that the Rutland ichthyosaur is the largest skeleton ever found in the UK.

“It is a truly unprecedented discovery and one of the greatest finds in British palaeontological history.”

Ichthyosaurs, which were marine reptiles, first appeared around 250 million years ago and went extinct 90 million years ago, varying in size from one to more than 25 metres in length and resembling dolphins in general body shape.

The remains were dug out by a team of expert palaeontologists from around the UK in August and September.

Two incomplete and much smaller ichthyosaurs were found during the initial construction of Rutland Water in the 1970s. However, the latest discovery is the first complete skeleton.

Dr Mark Evans of the British Antarctic Survey said: “I’ve been studying the Jurassic fossil reptiles of Rutland and Leicestershire for over 20 years.

“When I first saw the initial exposure of the specimen with Joe Davis I could tell that it was the largest ichthyosaur known from either county.

The remains were dug out in August and September (Anglian Water/PA)
The remains were dug out in August and September (Anglian Water/PA)

“However, it was only after our exploratory dig that we realised that it was practically complete to the tip of the tail.”

He added: “It’s a highly significant discovery both nationally and internationally but also of huge importance to the people of Rutland and the surrounding area.”

Nigel Larkin, a specialist palaeontological conservator, said: “It’s not often you are responsible for safely lifting a very important but very fragile fossil weighing that much.

“It is a responsibility, but I love a challenge. It was a very complex operation to uncover, record, and collect this important specimen safely.”

The excavation of the remains will feature on BBC Two’s Digging For Britain on Tuesday at 8pm.

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