Scientists discover new species of "uniquely Scottish" boat-sized Jurassic reptile on Isle of Skye

By Ben Miller | 12 January 2015

New species of predatory reptile could reveal more about Jurassic era when dinosaurs thundered through Scotland

A mock-up image of a large sharky sea creature in a blue sea with a large beak
New species the Dearcmhara has been named after the Scottish Gaelic for marine lizard and its finder more than 50 years ago© Todd Marshall
A 14-foot long, dolphin-like ichthyosaur would have swum the warm, shallow seas near Scotland during the Jurassic period, according to scientists who have identified an entirely new species from a “very special” set of bones found by an amateur enthusiast in 1959 and given to Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum.

The largest group of palaeontologists ever to have worked together in Scotland believe fossil fragments of skulls, teeth, vertebrae and an upper arm bone would have belonged to a previously unknown type of long-extinct aquatic animal, named the Dearcmhara shawcrossi after Brian Shawcross, who recovered the fossils from the island’s Bearreraig Bay.

A photo of a group of people standing around a table in a lab with rocks on it
The PalAlba group behind the identification of the new species© Bill Crighton
The species is one of the first to have been given a Gaelic name, partly in homage to the history of the Hebrides and Skye, much of which was underwater during Jurassic times. Some reports have likened the predator to an ancestor of the Loch Ness monster.

“During the time of dinosaurs, the waters of Scotland were prowled by big reptiles the size of motor boats,” explained Dr Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who led the study.

“Their fossils are very rare, and only now, for the first time, we’ve found a new species that was uniquely Scottish.

“Without the generosity of the collector who donated the bones to a museum instead of keeping them or selling them, we would have never known that this amazing animal existed.

“We are honoured to name the new species after Mr Shawcross and will do the same if any other collectors wish to donate new specimens.”

The creature was near the top of the food chain 170 million years ago, preying on fish and other reptiles during an age when Skye was joined to the rest of the UK as part of a large island positioned between landmasses that gradually drifted apart to become Europe and North America.

The island is one of the few places in the world where Jurassic fossils can be discovered. Experts hope to use the research to learn more about the evolution of marine reptiles.

“It may seem surprising that the fossils here are the first Scottish ichthyosaur specimens to be comprehensively described,” said Dr Brusatte.

“Several other marine reptile specimens have been mentioned in the literature, but the whereabouts of many of these fossils are currently unclear.

“A handful of Skye ichthyosaur specimens are accessioned into the collections of National Museums Scotland and the Hunterian Museum and await further preparation and study.

“Most material, however, has apparently been privately collected and has since disappeared from the scientific record, with little or no information on current whereabouts, ownership or accessibility.

“This is an unfortunate situation that has developed over the past several decades and one that we hope will change, as fossil vertebrate specimens from Skye and elsewhere are the rare and irreplaceable natural heritage of Scotland, providing the only information on what prehistoric creatures lived in Scotland during the Age of Dinosaurs.

“We are pleased that some of the specimens were collected by amateurs and donated to museum collections, including the holotype of an important new genus and species that would have been lost to science had it remained in private hands.

"We look forward to working together with amateur collectors to preserve important fossil discoveries and paint a clearer picture of what Scotland was like when dinosaurs thundered across the land and marine reptiles dominated the oceans.”

The team, known as PalAlba, will reveal the bones to the public at a one-day event this Sunday.

“Not only is this a very special discovery, but it also marks the beginning of a major new collaboration involving some of the most eminent palaeontologists in Scotland,” said Dr Nick Fraser, of National Museums Scotland.

“It has brought together key organisations, local collectors on Skye and specialists from further afield.

“We are excited by the programme of work and are already working on additional new finds.”


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A photo of a large rock from the jurassic age on a black surface next to a ruler
The team say the discoveries could provide valuable insights into how marine reptiles evolved© Steve Brusatte
A photo of a large rock from the jurassic age on a black surface next to a ruler
The species lived during the Early-to-Middle Jurassic period© Steve Brusatte
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