Scientists have discovered one of the “greatest finds” in British palaeontological history at Rutland Nature Reserve near Leicester.
When Joe Davis of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust was carrying out a routine draining of the reservoir in February 2021, he was stunned to uncover the largest fossilised remains of a prehistoric “sea dragon.”
The ichthyosaur, approximately 180 million years old with a skeleton measuring around 10 metres in length and a skull weighing about one tonne, is the largest and most complete fossil of its kind ever found in the UK.
Ichthyosaurs, also referred to as “sea dragons” due to their large teeth and eyes, were first found by fossil hunter and palaeontologist Mary Anning in the early 19th century. The marine reptiles first appeared approximately 250 million years ago and became extinct 90 million years ago.
Dr Dean Lomax, a palaeontologist who has studied the species, said: “Despite the many ichthyosaur fossils found in Britain, it is remarkable to think that the Rutland ichthyosaur is the largest skeleton ever found in the UK.
“It is a truly unprecedented discovery and one of the greatest finds in British palaeontological history.”
A team of expert palaeontologists from around the UK dug out the remains over August and September. Two much smaller and incomplete ichthyosaurs were found back in 190 during the construction of Rutland Water, but the recent discovery. marked the first complete skeleton.
Dr Mark Evans of the British Antarctic Survey said: “I’ve been studying the Jurassic fossil reptiles of Rutland and Leicestershire for over 20 years.
“When I first saw the initial exposure of the specimen with Joe Davis I could tell that it was the largest ichthyosaur known from either county.
“However, it was only after our exploratory dig that we realised that it was practically complete to the tip of the tail.”
He added: “It’s a highly significant discovery both nationally and internationally but also of huge importance to the people of Rutland and the surrounding area.”
Nigel Larkin, a specialist palaeontological conservator, said: “It’s not often you are responsible for safely lifting a very important but very fragile fossil weighing that much.
“It is a responsibility, but I love a challenge. It was a very complex operation to uncover, record, and collect this important specimen safely.”
The excavation of the remains will feature on BBC Two’s Digging For Britain on Tuesday at 8 pm.