Fossil of 10 metre-long ‘sea dragon’ discovered next to Rutland Water

The fossilised remains of a 10 metre-long ichthyosaur, a giant “sea dragon” that terrorised marine life 180m years ago, have been discovered beside England’s largest reservoir.

The discovery at Rutland Water nature reserve is the most complete large ichthyosaur ever found in Britain, with a skull the size of a piano and weighing one tonne, including the Jurassic clay encasing it.

The startling outline of the enormous dolphin-like aquatic reptile was spotted by Joe Davis, a conservation team leader for Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, during a routine draining of a lagoon island for re-landscaping in February last year.

Rutland Sea Dragon palaeontologists working on the ichthyosaur skeleton found at Rutland Water.
Rutland Sea Dragon palaeontologists working on the ichthyosaur skeleton found at Rutland Water. Photograph: Matthew Power Photography/Anglian Water

“It’s great to learn so much from the discovery and to think that this amazing creature was once swimming in seas above us,” said Davis, who rated the discovery as a “career highlight”.

The hefty ichthyosaur, the first of its species, Temnodontosaurus trigonodon, to be discovered in Britain, was painstakingly excavated in August and September last year by an expert team of palaeontologists.

Ichthyosaurs were not dinosaurs but a group of more than 100 species of marine reptile, which first appeared about 250m years ago and became extinct 90m years ago. They resembled dolphins in their body and jaw shape and varied in size from one metre to more than 25 metres in length.

The excavation of clay blocks containing the skull and skeleton was led by global ichthyosaur expert Dr Dean Lomax and specialist palaeontological conservator Nigel Larkin, in partnership with Anglian Water, the reservoir owners, and Rutland county council and the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.

Lomax said: “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.

“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.”

Dr Mark Evans, of the British Antarctic Survey, and a visiting fellow at the University of Leicester said: “It’s a highly significant discovery both nationally and internationally but also of huge importance to the people of Rutland and the surrounding area.”

Anglian Water is seeking heritage funding so that “the Rutland sea dragon” can remain on display in the county. The excavation will feature on BBC Two’s Digging for Britain at 8pm on Tuesday night.


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