Paleontologists have made a massive discovery in the UK’s smallest county: the fossilized remains of a giant Jurassic sea creature. The fossil, which the researchers say is “very well preserved”, is said to be the “paleontological find of a lifetime,” according to the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
The fossil was found in Rutland Water Nature Reserve in central England in February 2021, according to a Wildlife Trust announcement. Joe Davis, who works on the water conservation team for the trust, found it during a routine drain procedure for the landscaping.
At first, he said in a statement, he thought the remains were clay pipes sticking out of the mud, except “they looked organic.” He told a colleague they looked like vertebrae, and when they got closer they saw “what unmistakably looked like a spine” as well as a jaw at the end of the spine.
“We couldn’t really believe it,” Davis said. “The discovery was absolutely fascinating and a true career highlight. It’s great to learn so much from the discovery and to think that this incredible creature once swam in the seas above us.”
The fossil was excavated in August and September and has since been identified as an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile that looked somewhat like dolphins. This particular fossil, found almost complete, is nearly 33 feet long and is around 180 million years old, the researchers say. His skull is over 6.5 feet long.
Davis told the BBC the fossil was “very well preserved, better than I think we all could have imagined”.
Ichthyosaur expert Dean Lomax, who assisted in the search for the fossil, said the find is the “largest ichthyosaur skeleton ever to be found in Britain.”
“These animals first appeared in a time called the Triassic Period, around 250 million years ago,” Lomax said in a video for Rutland Water Nature Reserve. “Our specimen, the Rutland Ichthyosaur, or the Rutland Sea Dragon, is the largest complete ichthyosaur ever found in Britain in over 200 years of scientific collection of these objects, which is an incredible feat.”
Ichthyosaurs are not swimming dinosaurs, he clarified.
According to the Anglian Water Company, which helps maintain the reservoir in which the fossil was found, ichthyosaurs of this size and completeness are “incredibly rare”, especially in the UK, with most comparable examples being found in Germany and North America.
Alicia Kearns, who represents Rutland Melton in Parliament, said the find “exceeded all possible expectations”.
“It is quite impressive,” she said.
Although the largest, it was not the first ichthyosaur fossil found in the tank. The Wildlife Trust said two incomplete and “much smaller” remains were found in the 1970s when the reservoir was first built.
Paleontologists working on the remains are continuing their research and working on an academic paper on the findings.