New species of extinct British marine reptile emerges from Doncaster Museum storeroom

By Culture24 Reporter | 18 February 2015

A new type of ichthyosaur marine reptile - alive during the time of the dinosaurs - has been identified from a fossil

a painting of a dolphin like creature swimming in a blue sea
Ichthysosaurus anningae© Artwork by James McKay
It had been in the collections of Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery for more than 30 years before palaeontologist, Dean Lomax, uncovered its hidden secrets.

Now after five years of research the fossil originally found on Dorset’s Jurassic coast has been revealed as a new type of ichthyosaur, an extinct marine reptile which was alive at the time of the dinosaurs.

Lomax, who is Honorary Scientist at The University of Manchester, first examined the fossil in 2008 when he noticed several abnormalities in the bone structure which made him think he had something previously unidentified.

Working with Professor Judy Massare of Brockport College, New York, he travelled the world checking his findings against other specimens before he was able to establish the fossil as belonging to a new species of the sea reptile. 

Lomax and Professor Massare identified several unusual features of the limb bones (humerus and femur) that were completely different to any other ichthyosaur known.

“That became very exciting,” said Lomax. “After examining perhaps over a thousand specimens we found four others with the same features as the Doncaster fossil.

“The recognition of this new species is very important for our understanding of ichthyosaur species diversity during the early Jurassic, especially from this time interval.”

The new species has been named Ichthyosaurus anningae in honour of the British collector, and woman in science, Mary Anning, who first collected ichthyosaurs on Dorset’s Jurassic coast in the early 1800’s. It is the first new Ichthyosaurus identified for almost 130 years.

“Mary worked tirelessly to bring the ichthyosaurs, among other fossils, to the attention of the scientific world,” added Lomax.

Mary and her brother, Joseph, discovered the first ichthyosaur specimen to be scientifically recognised, collected at Lyme Regis around 1811.

“It is an honour to name a new species," said Lomax, "but to name it after somebody who is intertwined with such an important role in helping to sculpt the science of palaeontology, especially in Britain, is something that I’m very proud of.

"In fact, one of the specimens in our study was even found by Mary herself. Science is awesome.”

The research looked at the size and age of the new species, and enabled a look at sexual differences (males and females) and comparison with other groups of reptiles (living and extinct), whose limb bones are different between males and females.

The limb bones of the Doncaster specimen were professionally prepared and removed, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, as part of a grant awarded to Doncaster Museum Service.

As well as highlighting the fact that not all new discoveries are made in the field, the new discovery now raises the question of how many new species are awaiting discovery in museum collections.

a photo of a marine reptile fossil
The ichthyosaur fossil (ichthyosaurus anningea) at Doncaster Museum
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