A giant ‘sea dragon’ found in the Midlands has been hailed as one of the greatest finds in British fossil history.
The ichthyosaur, spotted at the bottom of Rutland Water, is the largest and most complete skeleton found in the UK, measuring 32 feet (10 meters) long, with a skull weighing a ton.
The new specimen, which lived around 180 million years ago, was found in England’s largest reservoir as conservationists drained water to improve habitat for nesting birds.
Joe Davis, 48, of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, who found the skeleton, said: ‘My colleague thought the ridges we saw at the muddy bottom of the reservoir were probably just pipes.
“When paleontologists and our team discovered the complete skeleton and lifted it up using a tractor with a loader, the head was as big as me and I’m six feet tall. It is a formidable beast.
History: A giant ‘sea dragon’ discovered in the Midlands by wildlife trust worker Joe Davis (pictured with the skeleton) has been hailed as one of the greatest finds in British fossil history
The first ichthyosaurs (pictured) were discovered by paleontologist Mary Anning in the 19th century. They are often referred to as “sea dragons” because of the size of their teeth and eyes.
The ichthyosaur is believed to be a species called Temnodontosaurus trigonodon. But if it turns out to be a new species, it could be named after Mr. Davis.
Dr Dean Lomax, a world ichthyosaur expert from the University of Manchester who spent 14 days excavating the fossil, hailed it as “one of the greatest finds in British paleontological history”.
He said: “Despite the many ichthyosaur fossils found in Britain, it is remarkable that Rutland’s ichthyosaur is the largest skeleton ever found in the UK.
“This is a truly unprecedented find and one of the greatest discoveries in British paleontological history.”
Ichthyosaurs, which were marine reptiles, first appeared around 250 million years ago and became extinct 90 million years ago, varying in size from one to over 25 meters in length. and resembling dolphins in general body shape.
The remains were unearthed by a team of expert paleontologists from across the UK in August and September.
Pictured: Team of experts working on the Ichthyosaur skeleton in Rutland Nature Reserve
Ichthyosaurs: deep divers with sharp teeth
Ichthyosaurs had the largest eyes of any vertebrate animal – eyeballs up to 10 inches wide.
The larger ones were the size of a blue whale and could swim at 25 mph.
Their sharp, needle-like teeth were used to catch squid and mollusks.
They were deep divers like modern whales.
Ichthyosaurs had fingers and toes, but these locked into the skin to form fins.
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.
After being discovered in February of last year, the new specimen was removed in August so as not to disturb the birds of the nature reserve.
Dr Mark Evans of the British Antarctic Survey said: ‘I have been studying Jurassic fossils from Rutland and Leicestershire for over 20 years.
“When I first saw the initial exhibit of the specimen with Joe Davis, I could tell it was the largest ichthyosaur known in either county.
“However, it wasn’t until after our exploratory digs that we realized it was practically full to the end of the tail.”
He added: “This is a very important discovery nationally and internationally, but also of great importance to the people of Rutland and the surrounding area.”
Nigel Larkin, a curator specializing in paleontology, said: “It is not often you who are responsible for safely lifting a very important but very fragile fossil weighing so much.
Paleontologists spent 14 days excavating the find before it was pulled in August
“It’s a responsibility, but I like challenges. It was a very complex operation to safely discover, record and collect this important specimen.
The discovery comes amid a wave of interest in reptiles, which are nicknamed sea dragons because of their large teeth and eyes.
The first ichthyosaurs were discovered by fossil hunter and paleontologist Mary Anning in the early 19th century.
Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur known to science at the age of 12 and was the subject of Ammonite, a 2020 film starring Kate Winslet.
The excavation will air on BBC2’s Digging For Britain tomorrow at 8 p.m. ET.