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Six-year investigation leads to discovery of new ichthyosaur species

Monday, October 10, 2016 9:06
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A six-year investigation into a large collection of marine reptile fossils has paid off in a big way for a group of British and American paleontologists, who this week announced the discovery of two previously unknown species of Jurassic Era sea-dwellers known as ichthyosaurs.

With their discovery, the total number of species of these so-called “sea dragons,” which lived approximately 200 million years ago and grew to lengths of up to 15 meters (over 49 feet), has now reached six, BBC News science reporter Helen Briggs wrote in a Thursday article.

Manchester University paleontologist Dean Lomax and his colleague Judy Massare at the New York-based College at Brockport spent six years examining several hundred ichthyosaur fossils in both Europe and North America, including some which had not been seen in decades.

One of the new species was identified using fossils that had been on display at the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences for many years, while the other was part of a fossil collection that was sent to the US and later donated to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

As Lomax, who along with Massare detailed the findings in the journal Papers in Paleontology, explained earlier this week in a statement , “It is our hope that other similar fossils will be found in uninspected collections and brought to the attention of paleontologists… Who knows what else is waiting to be (re)discovered?”

Newfound specimens were essentially hiding in plain sight

Both sets of fossils used to describe the new species originated from Somerset in southwestern England, the researchers told BBC News. The first has been on display at Bristol University, in direct view of countless students and faculty members for several decades, and has been named Ichthyosaurus larkini in honor of UK  paleontologist Nigel Larkin.

The second specimen is believed to have been collected from a quarry in Glastonbury, Somerset, in the 1840s by a researcher named Edward Wilson. Wilson likely sent the fossils to Delaware so that his brother, Dr. Thomas Wilson, could study them. In 1847, Thomas donated the remains to the Academy of Natural Sciences, where it quietly remained in storage for decades.

The researchers decided to name the Philadelphia species Ichthyosaurus somersetensis in honor of Somerset country, which Lomax explained has been the site of many “sea dragon” fossil finds over the years. Lomax went on to call this particular specimen “in my opinion… the best example of Ichthyosaurus collected to date.” Long kept in storage, it will now be put on display.

“’These are two new species – brand new species to science,” Lomax told Briggs. “They show that during the early Jurassic – around 200 million years ago – the ichthyosaur, and specifically this particular type, was a lot more diverse than previously thought.”


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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