May 21, 2024

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An enormous ancient marine reptile has been identified through an amateur fossil discovery

An enormous ancient marine reptile has been identified through an amateur fossil discovery
  • Written by Georgina Ranard
  • Science Reporter

Image source, Sergey Krasovsky

Scientists have identified what is likely the largest marine reptile to ever swim the seas, a creature longer than two busses from nose to nose.

This creature lived about 202 million years ago alongside the dinosaurs.

The fossilized jawbone was found in 2016 by a fossil hunter on a beach in Somerset, UK. In 2020, a father and daughter found another similar jawbone.

Experts now say the fossils belong to two giant ichthyosaur reptiles, which could have been up to 25 meters long.

“Based on the size of the jaw bones – one is more than a meter long and the other is two meters long – we can conclude that the length of the entire animal was about 25 metres, roughly equivalent to the length of a blue whale,” says Dr. Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol, Who wrote the scientific paper published on Wednesday.

But he says more evidence, such as a complete skull and skeleton, is needed to confirm the creature's exact size because only a few parts have been found so far.

He added that the giant ichthyosaur died in a mass extinction, and that the ichthyosaurs that lived after that never reached gigantic size again.

The first glimpse of the creature came in 2016 when fossil hunter Paul de La Salle was scouring the beaches of Somerset. He has collected fossils for 25 years after being inspired by the famous paleontologist Steve Etches.

Image source, Tony Joliffe BBC

Comment on the photo, Paul de La Salle and his wife Carol go together to search for fossils

When he spoke to Dean Lomax, they suspected they might be on the way to a big discovery. They published their findings in 2018.

But they wanted more evidence to understand the size of this creature.

“We kept our fingers crossed for more discoveries,” Dean says. In 2020, father and daughter Justin and Robbie Reynolds found what Dean was looking for, 10 kilometers down the coast at Blue Anchor.

Image source, Tony Joliffe/BBC

Comment on the photo, Newly discovered jawbone fossils (top) dwarf the same bones found in orca-sized animals (bottom)

“I was very impressed — really, really excited. I knew that at that point we had a second giant jawbone from one of these huge ichthyosaurs just like Paul's,” says Dean.

Paul rushed to the beach and helped them find out more. “I dug in the thick mud,” he says. “After about an hour, my shovel hit something hard, and this bone came out completely preserved.”

The team, as well as family members, continued to search for parts of the second jaw, and the final piece was found in 2022.

Comment on the photo, Dean Lomax, Robbie Reynolds, Justin Reynolds and Paul De La Salle with the creature's fossilized jawbone

This discovery gave them more evidence to estimate its size. They have now determined that the massive animal is a new species of ichthyosaur, which they have named Ichthyotitan severnensis, or giant Severn fish lizard.

Image source, Gabriel Oguito

The sample Paul found sat in his garage for three years while the team analyzed it. It will soon be on public display at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

“It would be a bit sad to say the cheerio. I've gotten to know it and studied it in such intense detail. But it's also a relief that I won't have to worry about it as much,” Paul says.

Dean says this discovery highlights how important amateur fossil collectors are.

“Families and all kinds of people can make amazing discoveries,” he says. “You don't have to be a world expert. As long as you have that much patience and a keen eye, you can make a discovery.”