At the bottom of a lagoon in a nature reserve in England, a secret had been sleeping for millennia, hidden by mud, water and ice.
It was only recently that the fossilized remains were found, a throwback to the days when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and gigantic marine reptiles, colloquially known as “sea dragons”, marauded the oceans.
It wasn’t just any ancient find: the remains of the sea creature, an ichthyosaur, were the largest of its kind ever to be found in Britain, those involved in a now completed excavation project announced 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.
The skeleton dates from the early Jurassic, around 180 million years ago, and measures around 10 meters (over 30 feet), they said. It might never have been dug up had the lagoon not been drained as part of a landscaping project.
The fossil was found in 2021 at Rutland Water Nature Reserve in England’s East Midlands, a landlocked reservoir about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of London, known to attract waterfowl and other birds.
Joe Davis, conservation team leader at Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, said on Monday he first encountered the fossil last February as he waded through the mud in his waders with a colleague.
“We kind of looked at it and scratched our heads,” Davis said in an interview. “I realized it could be something from the age of dinosaurs. We could see these ridges and bumps. That’s when the alarm bells started ringing.
Mr Davis, 48, took photographs of the fossil and contacted Rutland County Council, who put him in touch with a geological curator at the University of Leicester, who referred him to Dean R. Lomax, a paleontologist specializing in the study of ichthyosaurs.
“I immediately recognized them as ichthyosaur vertebrae,” Dr Lomax, head of the excavation project, said on Monday. “He had found it so accidentally.”
Ichthyosaurs, fish-shaped marine reptiles that resemble whales and dolphins, first appeared around 250 million years ago, according to Dr Lomax, who said they were predators in the world. summit who were probably feasting on other ichthyosaurs, fish, another reptile known as plesiosaur and ammonites, a kind of mollusk. They went extinct around 90 million years ago and overlapped with dinosaurs, he said.
“They had those big eyes, those big teeth,” he said. “A lot of people tend to go back to the good old days and call them sea dragons.”
From the photos, Dr Lomax said, he couldn’t tell if the specimen was an entire skeleton or just fragments like many that had been discovered over the centuries in England. He needed to see it for himself.
So about two weeks later, he said, he conducted a one-day mini-excavation in the nature reserve with four paleontologists.
“We were all blown away by this,” said Dr Lomax, 32, a visiting researcher at the University of Manchester.
But the conditions of the nature reserve did not lend themselves to a large-scale excavation. The lagoon was frozen over and would eventually need to be filled with water so as not to disturb the natural habitat, according to Dr Lomax, who said paleontologists covered the skeleton with plastic sheeting and mud until they can come back.
“As an expert, I couldn’t wait to get there and excavate it,” he said. “We also had a bunch of migratory birds there. We had to wait for them to leave.
In August, a team of experts including Dr Lomax returned to the site for several weeks to search the skeleton, performing daily tests for the coronavirus and signing nondisclosure agreements saying they would keep the find a secret.
“The skull weighs over a ton,” said Davis, who made the initial discovery and whose son joked that the skeleton was from the “Joe-rassic” era.
To protect the skeleton as it was lifted off the ground, it was wrapped in plaster, which Mr Davis and Dr Lomax likened to a plaster cast for broken bones. Dr Lomax lay down on the ground next to the excavated skeleton to show its size.
Mr Davis said he was glad the skeleton was not damaged when the lagoon was initially excavated 12 years earlier.
“They must have been a few inches away when they originally built the lagoon,” he said.
It could take 18 to 24 months to preserve the skeleton and remove rock from the bones, according to Dr Lomax, who said those involved in the project hoped to display the specimen in the Rutland area. Ichthyosaur skeletal remains have more commonly been found along the Jurassic Coast in southern England, he said.
Once the skeleton was removed from the ground, it was transported by truck to the laboratory of Nigel Larkin, co-leader of the project, which Dr Lomax says is about a 2.5 hour drive from Rutland. The main body part was too big to fit in a truck, so it was loaded onto a trailer, which other drivers would not have noticed. He was enveloped.
Dr Lomax said: “It would have scared people. “