The skeleton of a dinosaur-era reptile found in the Midlands is being described by experts as “one of the greatest finds in British palaeontological history”.
Discovered at Rutland Water Nature Reserve, scientists estimate the fossil of the ichthyosaur – which are sometimes called sea dragons – is about 180 million years old.
Measuring around 10m (33ft) in length and with a skull weighing approximately one tonne, it is the largest and most complete fossil of its kind ever found in the UK.
It was discovered by Joe Davis, conservation team leader at Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, during the routine draining of a lagoon at reservoir Rutland Water.
Mr Davis said: “It’s all been remarkable and a bizarre turn of events. This is bigger than a killer whale, it’s just amazing.”
Describing himself as “very chuffed”, he added: “A lot of people spend their careers looking for something like this… I just feel very blessed.
“My kids have now named me Joe-rassic!”
‘Truly unprecedented discovery’
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 rather than dinosaurs, first appeared around 250 million years ago and went extinct 90 million years ago.
Called sea dragons because they tended to have very large teeth and eyes, they were first discovered in the early 19th century by fossil hunter and palaeontologist Mary Anning, the subject of the recent Netflix film Ammonite.
Similar in shape to dolphins, the reptiles varied in size from 1-25m (3-82ft).
Dr Lomax said he was bowled over as soon as he saw photos of the find.
“I thought, ‘wow, this could be pretty epic’. You’ve got these vertebrae which were massive, and immediately I realised they belonged to an ichthyosaur… We had something pretty cool.”
The scientist led a mini team to the site in February 2021, he said, adding they were “blown away” to discover “a practically complete skeleton.
“Not only is this the largest ichthyosaur skeleton ever found in Britain,” said Dr Lomax, “it’s also the largest complete skeleton of any pre-historic reptile found in the UK as well.”
Mr Lomax was among the team of palaeontologists that dug the skeleton out in August and September.
‘Complete to the tip of the tail’
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.
“However, it was only after our exploratory dig that we realised that it was practically complete to the tip of the tail.”
“It’s a highly significant discovery both nationally and internationally,” Dr Evans added.
Anglian Water, which owns the area, said it was now seeking funding to protect and display the bones nearby.