Fossils found in Somerset by 11-year-old girl are from largest-ever marine reptile

Paleontologists Dr Dean Lomax, Ruby Reynolds, Justin Reynolds and Paul de la Salle - Fossils found in Somerset by 11-year-old girl may be largest-ever marine reptile
Ruby Reynolds (second left) may still be at school but she's already a published scientist who not only found, but also helped to name a type of gigantic prehistoric reptile - PA/Dr Dean Lomax

The bones of what is believed to be the largest marine reptile ever discovered were found on a beach by an amateur fossil-hunting father and daughter duo.

Palaeontologists think the remains are thought to be from a type of ichthyosaur, a prehistoric marine reptile that lived during the time of the dinosaurs.

Fossilised pieces of jawbone, some measuring more than two metres long, were uncovered on the Somerset coast in May 2020, and are thought to be part of the large sea creature that measured 25 metres long.

Justin Reynolds and his daughter Ruby from Braunton, Devon, made the discovery while hunting for fossils on the beach at Blue Anchor.

The bones are about 202 million years old and date back to the end of the Triassic Period in a time known as the Rhaetian. Gigantic ichthyosaurs, thought to be the size of a blue whale, swam the seas during this period, while dinosaurs roamed the land.

Ruby, then aged 11, found the first chunk of giant bone before the pair searched for more pieces together. After realising the significance of the fossils, they approached Dr Dean Lomax, a palaeontologist at The University of Manchester.

Dr Lomax contacted Paul de la Salle, a seasoned fossil collector who had found a similar giant jawbone in May 2016, further along the coast at Lilstock.

Mr Reynolds said: “When Ruby and I found the first two pieces we were very excited as we realised that this was something important and unusual.

“When I found the back part of the jaw, I was thrilled because that is one of the defining parts of Paul’s earlier discovery.”

Ruby added: “It was so cool to discover part of this gigantic ichthyosaur. I am very proud to have played a part in a scientific discovery like this.”

Ichthyotitan severnensis
How paleontologists at Manchester University think the Ichthyotitan severnensis would have looked - PA/Sergey Krasovskiy

Dr Lomax, said: “I was amazed by the find. In 2018, my team [including Paul de la Salle] studied and described Paul’s giant jawbone and we had hoped that one day another would come to light.

“This new specimen is more complete, better preserved, and shows that we now have two of these giant bones – called a surangular – that have a unique shape and structure. I became very excited, to say the least.”

A team of researchers, led by Dr Lomax, found that the jawbones belong to a new species of giant ichthyosaur. The team, including the Reynolds duo, unearthed more parts of the same jaw, with the last piece discovered in October 2022.

They named the creature Ichthyotitan severnensis, which means giant fish lizard of the Severn.

Rock and fossil records suggest the giant ichthyosaurs became extinct after the Late Triassic global mass extinction event, meaning the bones discovered in the study represent the last of their kind.

Handout issued by Manchester University showing the nearly complete jawbone compared with the 2018 bone
Handout issued by Manchester University showing the nearly complete jawbone compared with the 2018 bone - PA/Dr Dean Lomax

Dr Lomax added: “I was highly impressed that Ruby and Justin correctly identified the discovery as another enormous jawbone from an ichthyosaur.

“They recognised that it matched the one we described in 2018. I asked them whether they would like to join my team to study and describe this fossil, including naming it.

“They jumped at the chance. For Ruby, especially, she is now a published scientist who not only found but also helped to name a type of gigantic prehistoric reptile.

“There are probably not many 15-year-olds who can say that. A Mary Anning in the making, perhaps.”

Master’s student, Marcello Perillo, from the University of Bonn, Germany, carried out further investigations and found that the animal was still growing at the time of death.

He said: “So much about these giants is still shrouded by mystery, but one fossil at a time we will be able to unravel their secret.”