Giant fossil from 180 million years ago reveals ‘sea dragon’ with 1-ton skull

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A man next to the unearthed “sea dragon” fossil.

Matthew Power/Anglican Water

In February 2021, Joe Davis, leader of the UK’s Rutland Conservation Team, was routinely draining a lagoon island for re-landscaping the land he manages. To his surprise, some strange-looking clay tubes protruded from the mud. Upon closer inspection, he realized they weren’t tubes. They were vertebrae.

“We followed what arguably looked like a pimple,” Davis said in a statement. Then, along with reserve officer Paul Trevor, Davis says he discovered something that could have been a jawbone. “We couldn’t believe it.”

Soon, the pair would understand that they had found a 180-million-year-old, 10-meter ichthyosaur, often called a sea dragon, with a 1-ton skull.

Contrary to the name, these ancient beings were not dinosaurs. Instead, all species classified as ichthyosaurs were aquatic creatures, distant relatives of lizards, bearing an uncanny resemblance to dolphins. However, they were most abundant during the Triassic and Jurassic periods, about 251 million to 145.5 million years ago, so they lived alongside our dinosaur friends.

Scientists have found fossils of these swimming giants in the past, such as the first discovered in the mid-1800s by British paleontologist Mary Anning and two smaller, incomplete skeletons analyzed in the 1970s; Interestingly, the last pair were located in the same Rutland Water nature reserve as the recently unearthed sea dragon. Even so, according to a statement released on Monday, the newly discovered Ichthyosaur, known as the “Rutland Sea Dragon”, is “the largest and most complete skeleton of its kind found to date in the UK” and “the first ichthyosaur of its kind found in the country.”

Led by Dean Lomax, a world expert on ichthyosaurs, a team of paleontologists has spent the last year excavating the massive fossilized remains. “It was an honor to lead the excavation,” said Lomax. “Britain is the birthplace of ichthyosaurs – their fossils were unearthed here over 200 years ago, with the first scientific data going back to Mary Anning and her discoveries along the Jurassic Coast.”

“It is a truly unprecedented discovery,” added Lomax, “and one of the greatest discoveries in British paleontological history.”

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