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'Sea dragon' found in Rutland Water



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An enormous 'sea dragon' that lived about 180 million years ago has been discovered at Rutland Water.

The fossilised remains reveal it to be the largest and most complete ichthyosaur ever found in the UK.

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Dr Dean Lomax reveals the scale of the sea dragon found at Rutland Water. Photo: Matthew Power Photography
Dr Dean Lomax reveals the scale of the sea dragon found at Rutland Water. Photo: Matthew Power Photography

It is also the most complete skeleton of its kind.

The remains have now been fully excavated and will feature on BBC Two’s Digging for Britain at 8pm on Tuesday (January 11).

Joe Davis, conservation team leader at Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, discovered the sea dragon during the routine draining of a lagoon at Rutland Water in February last year.

He said: “The find has been absolutely fascinating and a real career highlight.

An artistic reconstruction of the ichthyosaur. Image: Bob Nicholls
An artistic reconstruction of the ichthyosaur. Image: Bob Nicholls

"It is great to learn so much from the discovery and to think that this amazing creature was once swimming in seas above us."

The ichthyosaur has a skeleton measuring about 10m in length and a skull weighing a tonne.

Ichthyosaurs, which first appeared about 250 million years ago and became extinct 90 million years ago, were a group of marine reptiles ranging from one to more than 25 metres in length, with a body shape resembling dolphins.

The remains of the Rutland sea dragon were carefully excavated in August and September by a team of palaeontologists assembled from around the UK.

Dr Dean Lomax and Dr Emma Nicholls at work on site. Photo: Matthew Power Photography
Dr Dean Lomax and Dr Emma Nicholls at work on site. Photo: Matthew Power Photography

Dr Dean Lomax and specialist palaeontological conservator Nigel Larkin led the excavation, along with marine reptile specialist Dr Mark Evans and Dr Emma Nicholls from the Horniman Museum.

Dr Lomax, who has studied thousands of ichthyosaurs and named five new species in the process, said it was an honour to lead the excavation.

"Britain is the birthplace of ichthyosaurs – their fossils have been unearthed here for over 200 years, with the first scientific dating back to Mary Anning and her discoveries along the Jurassic Coast," he said.

Experts will continue to study the remains. Photo: Matthew Power Photography
Experts will continue to study the remains. Photo: Matthew Power Photography

"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.”

The discovery is not the first at the Anglian Water reservoir, with two incomplete and smaller ichthyosaurs found during the construction of Rutland Water in the 1970s.

Dr Evanssaid: “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 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.

"Rutland’s motto, “Multum in Parvo”, translates as “Much in Little” so it is fitting that we have found Britain’s largest ichthyosaur skeleton in England’s smallest county.

"It is a highly significant discovery both nationally and internationally but also of huge importance to the people of Rutland and the surrounding area.”

The sea dragon was discovered on an island in a lagoon at Rutland Water. Photo: Matthew Power Photography
The sea dragon was discovered on an island in a lagoon at Rutland Water. Photo: Matthew Power Photography

The team of palaeontologists will continue to work on the research and conservation of the ichthyosaur, which is of the species Temnodontosaurus trigonodon, with academic papers to be published in the future.

In order to preserve the remains and ensure they can remain in Rutland, Anglian Water is seeking heritage funding.

Rutland was recently in the news after a Roman mosaic was uncovered. Click here to read more.

To see more photos and videos of the discovery, click here.

Science behind ichthyosaurs

Ichthyosaurs evolved from a terrestrial ancestor that returned to the sea. They lived exclusively in water and gave birth to live young. Some ichthyosaurs have been found with unborn foetuses inside.

The very first ichthyosaur brought to the attention of science was discovered in 1811 by Mary and Joseph Anning, in Lyme Regis, Dorset, along the Jurassic Coast.

Ichthyosaurs are a specialised group of marine reptiles that lived in the water whilst dinosaurs walked on land.

A 3D model of the Rutland sea dragon. Image: ThinkSee3D
A 3D model of the Rutland sea dragon. Image: ThinkSee3D

More than 100 species of ichthyosaurs have been discovered all around the world.

Ichthyosaurs this large and this complete are rare and are normally found in Germany and North America.

The size and completeness of the Rutland ichthyosaur will help to identify other ichthyosaurs found in the UK that are already in museums.

Rutland’s bedrock is entirely Jurassic in age and spans the period between about 195 and 160 million years ago.

The ichthyosaur was found in clay-rich rocks dating from approximately 180 million years ago from the early Jurassic period.

Study of the other fossils found with the ichthyosaur, such as ammonites, relatives of present-day squid and octopus, will help to date the find more precisely.

The high proportion of clay makes it relatively impervious to water and this was a key factor in the siting of Rutland Water.

To see more pictures of the sea dragon and watch videos, click here.

For more information on the ichthyosaur visit www.anglianwater.co.uk/rutlandseadragon



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