UK researcher discovers new 200 million year old marine reptile

A fossil previously discovered in a quarry at Nottinghamshire, England has been identified as a new species of ichthyosaur – an extinct marine reptile which dates back some 200 million years to the earliest part of the Jurassic Period – according to new research published Monday.

The fossil was identified by Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester who explained that the creature is one of just a few ichthyosaur species dating back to that era, which makes the discovery of this dolphin-like creature very significant to the scientific community.

It also marks the first time that a species this ancient has been located in the UK in a place other than Dorset and Somerset, he noted. Lomax examined the specimen while visiting the New Walk Museum in Leicester, which acquired the partially-complete skeleton of the creature in 1951.

“When I first saw this specimen, I knew it was unusual,” he said in a statement. “It displays features in the bones – especially in the coracoid (part of the pectoral girdle) – that I had not seen before in Jurassic ichthyosaurs anywhere in the world. The specimen had never been published, so this rather unusual individual had been awaiting detailed examination.”

UK’s first Early Jurassic ichthyosaur specimen in 30 years

The creature was represented by a skull, pectoral bones, pelvic bones, limbs, ribs, and vertebrae, the university said. While relatively complete, the remains were described as “disorderly,” as it appeared as though the carcass had settled into the seabed prior to becoming fossilized.

“Parts of the skeleton had previously been on long-term loan to ichthyosaur specialist and former museum curator Dr. Robert Appleby, and had only returned to the museum in 2004 after he sadly passed away,” said Dr. Mark Evans, paleontologist and curator at New Walk Museum. “He was clearly intrigued by the specimen, and although he worked on it for many years, he had identified it as a previously known species but never published his findings.”

Lomax has dubbed the new species Wahlisaurus massarae in honor of paleontologists Bill Wahl and Judy Massare, who he said first inspired him to study ichthyosaurs. The creature is said to be the first new genus of ichthyosaur from the British Early Jurassic to be described since 1986, and a paper detailing the creature appears this week in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology.

While thousands of ichthyosaur specimens from this period are known and have been studied extensively over the years, the new creature identified by Lomax is from a location where it is practically unheard of for researchers to find ichthyosaurs, meaning that any new discovery may be scientifically significant, the university said. It could also shed new light on the diversity and geological distribution of the creatures, particularly during the Early Jurassic period.


Image credit: James McKay