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Rutland Sea Dragon will return "one way or another" as talks begin for return of 180 million-year-old ichthyosaur



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An expert leading the conservation of the Rutland Sea Dragon says the unprecedented find will return for permanent display in the county.

The fossilised remains of the largest and most complete ichthyosaur ever found in the UK were excavated at Rutland Water last summer.

They are currently housed in a Shropshire industrial unit belonging to Nigel Larkin, a specialist palaeontological conservator who led the excavation with Dr Dean Lomax.

Nigel Larkin with the skeleton and an exact life-size 2D print out of the 3D digital model made from a 3D scan. Photo: Steven Dey @ThinkSee3D
Nigel Larkin with the skeleton and an exact life-size 2D print out of the 3D digital model made from a 3D scan. Photo: Steven Dey @ThinkSee3D

Nigel estimates work to clean up and conserve the find for research and display will take up to two years once funding is found.

But he is adamant the Rutland Sea Dragon will ultimately find its way home and bring with it tourism and jobs.

"The aspiration is to make sure it goes into a museum or into an Anglian Water visitor centre," Nigel said.

Palaeontologists working on the ichthyosaur skeleton found at Rutland Water last August. Photo: Matthew Power Photography.www.matthewpowerphotography.co.uk.07969 088655.matthew@matthewpowerphotography.co.uk.@mpowerphoto...
Palaeontologists working on the ichthyosaur skeleton found at Rutland Water last August. Photo: Matthew Power Photography.www.matthewpowerphotography.co.uk.07969 088655.matthew@matthewpowerphotography.co.uk.@mpowerphoto...

“But it will go back to Rutland one way or another.

“There is a 100 per cent aspiration to get it on display locally and that would be a great boon for Rutland.

“Wherever it goes people will want to see it. Every museum wants an example like this.

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’s the kind of thing children will drag their parents to go and see.”

But finding a new home will not be straightforward and may require a new purpose-built venue because of the scale - and significance - of the find.

The skeleton measures about 10m in length, while the skull weighs a tonne.

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

"This is a huge beast and will also need space for interpretation.

"It's a fossil and it's fragile so climatic conditions also have to be right so there are all sorts of considerations."

Nigel also took back with him a treasure trove of other fossils including ammonites and belemnites, while bones of another ichthyosaur were found.

The skeleton fossilised, preserving it for millions of years. Photo: Matthew Power Photography
The skeleton fossilised, preserving it for millions of years. Photo: Matthew Power Photography

"There are more there," he said.

"Two ichthyosaurs were found in the 1970s when the reservoir was being dug.

"It is known as a fossil location, but we don't normally get to see them because they are under fields or under water."

The odds of making this discovery were long, with so much potential for mishap.

The sea dragon was given a protective plaster field jacket before its transportation. Photo: Matthew Power Photography
The sea dragon was given a protective plaster field jacket before its transportation. Photo: Matthew Power Photography

"It is very rare for anything to be fossilised in the first place," Nigel explained.

"And it was only found because the water levels had been dropped for maintenance.

"We figured out it would have been just two or three feet beneath the field surface.

"If there had been any heavy ploughing there it would have been destroyed to it must have been used as pasture.

"Then you are lucky that it wasn't bulldozed into oblivion when the reservoir was dug."

Even when the experts were called in, the excavation presented a unique set of challenges.

Everyone who worked on the site, as well as visitors, such as Rutland and Melton MP Alicia Kearns, had to sign a non-disclosure form to keep the location secret and prevent potential theft.

Shovelling away bird poo from the local inhabitants was another consideration, as was the unseasonal August weather.

"When it came to the field jacket, getting the plaster to set was a real problem because it was so cold and damp," Nigel explained.

"What we had here was dense Jurassic clay so it was heavy, but the bones had the consistency of biscuit.

"It hadn't fossilised to the extent it would have had it been found in hard rock.

"If we went to pick up one of the ribs it would just have fallen apart so we needed this rigid plaster jacket."

But after three weeks of painstaking 12-hour shifts, the Rutland Sea Dragon was ready to be shipped.

The next phase is to apply for funding to clean up and conserve the 180 million-year-old specimen for research and display.

Support from the Pilgrim Trust and Heritage Lottery Fund has already allowed initial preservation work,

Talks are ongoing with stakeholders, including Rutland Museum, Rutland County Council, Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, and Anglian Water which owns the skeleton.

“As a water company we have a role to bring environmental and social prosperity to our region,” an Anglian Water spokesman said.

“Which is why the correct preservation and conservation of something so scientifically valuable as the Rutland Sea Dragon is as important to us as ensuring our pipes and pumps are fit and resilient for the future.

“The next stage is to begin working on our shared future ambition with the wildlife trust and Rutland County Council to secure further funds to fully conserve the Sea Dragon and bring it home to Rutland for the benefit of the local community.”

To see incredible 3D model of the Rutland ichthyosaur made from scans at the site, click here.



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