It has been roughly twenty years since scientists uncovered a fossilized reptile in Somerset, England. Housed in a German until only very recently, the specimen had not been studied up close; but we should all be glad that has changed, as the fossil is unique in so many ways.
For one, the previously unstudied fossil has been identified as an ichthyosaur dating all the way back to the Jurassic period. More importantly, it is now the largest such fossil on record; and quite well-preserved considering its dating and its size.
Most importantly, though, the specimen also contains the remnants of a fetus.
Obviously, then, this ichthyosaur is a female. She measures more than 11 feet long (about 3. meters) and she must have died about 200 million years ago. When paleontologist Sven Sachs—of the Bielefeld Natural History Machine found the specimen in the museum, he recruited Dean Lomax, of the University of Manchester, to assist in analyzing it.
”It amazes me that specimens such as this [the biggest] can still be ‘rediscovered’ in museum collections,” said Lomax. ”You don’t necessarily have to go out in the field to make a new discovery.”
The scientists have categorized the reptile in the species, Ichthyosaurus somersetensis, named, of course, after the Southwest English country where many of these ancient marine reptile specimens have consistently been found. Specifically, this fossil was uncovered at Doniford Bay, in Somerset, and then sent to the Lower Saxony State Museum, Hannover.
Regarding its pregnancy, Lomax adds, ”This specimen provides new insights into the size range of the species, but also records only the third example of an Ichthyosaurus known with an embryo. That’s special.”
The embryo they found was resting between the adult female Ichthyosaurs’ ribs and has helped to shed light on what scientists believe is a pattern among the creatures. The other embryos, for example, were also single embryos (and not, for example, a set of eggs). The study authors note, “This may be because remains of other embryos have not been preserved or were unknowingly removed during preparation. Alternatively, the presence of a single embryo may suggest that Ichthyosauruscarried just one embryo.”
Of course, while three specimens with shared characteristics is certainly a trend, the researchers would still need quite a few more specimens to analyze before they could make a definitive conclusion.
The study has been published in the scientific journal, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.