Experts found the 30-foot skeleton of the dolphin-like ichthyosaur in Rutland Water, Rutland.
The ichthyosaur fossil was more than 32 feet long and had a 6-foot-long skull that weighed about a ton. It lived about 180 million years ago, during the Jurassic period when dinosaurs walked on land.
Paleontologist Dean Lomax, who led the excavation, said: “It’s the most complete and larger than any dinosaur skeleton ever found here, so it’s a mega-find for so many reasons.”
“During this time period, it would have been right at the top of the food chain. It’s an ultimate apex predator, perhaps one of the biggest animals in the sea worldwide.”
Two other incomplete and smaller ichthyosaurs were found on the site in the 1970s, according to Anglian Water, which co-operates the reservoir. Lomax added that larger ichthyosaur fossils have been found outside the Kingdom Britain, including in Canada, although such large remains are rare.
Ichthyosaurs, extinct marine reptiles resembling dolphins or sharks, were first discovered nearly 200 years ago on the Jurassic Coast of southern England. They went extinct 90 million years ago.
Rutland Water Conservation team leader Joe Davis first encountered the fossil when he and a colleague walked past an area of the reserve that was draining early last year.
He noticed what looked like clay tubes sticking out of the mud, but upon closer inspection, he thought the pieces might be vertebrae. He called local officials and it wasn’t long before Lomax arrived to examine the fossils.
The massive and fragile skeleton was then carefully excavated in a complex operation that took place over the course of two weeks in August and September 2021 by a team of paleontologists. The fossil was then encased in wooden splints and plaster to protect it.
Along with its size, the fossil is also notable as it was discovered outside areas on the south coast and Yorkshire of England, where ichthyosaurs have been found before. In contrast, this fossil was discovered in a landlocked county, 100 miles north of London. During the Jurassic, the area was covered in a warm tropical sea.
“The first ichthyosaurs found in the Jurassic Period were a couple of meters long, between five and 10 feet, whereas this ichthyosaur, and others that have been found but are less complete, are the first that are real Jurassic giants,” said Lomax.
“It’s an interesting way to look at the historical evolution of ichthyosaurs.”
Lomax said he hopes that the complete fossil will help paleontologists fill the gap in knowledge with other incomplete ichthyosaur fossil fragments that have been discovered in the UK.
The remains are now in the laboratory of paleontologist Nigel Larkin, where they will be cleaned, preserved and prepared, according to Lomax. The Ichthyosaur will be ready to go on display within the next 18 to 24 months.