A rare 200 million-year-old fossil of a marine reptile that lived alongside the dinosaurs has been identified more than two decades after it was discovered.
The ichthyosaur, whose name translates as ‘fish lizards’ from ancient Greek, were widespread during the Mesozoic Era.
Ichthyosaurs recently featured in the BBC documentary Attenborough And The Sea Dragon and their remains have been discovered as far afield as the Americas, Europe and Australia.
The newly identified fossil, originally found in a quarry in northern Somerset in 1996, is only the second example of a recently discovered species of ichthyosaur.
Scroll down for video
A rare 200 million-year-old fossil of a marine reptile that lived alongside the dinosaurs has been identified more than two decades after it was discovered. The find was made thanks to an almost complete coracoid bone, part of the shoulder blade, contained in a private collection
The find was made by Manchester University palaeontologist, Dean Lomax, who teamed up with Dr Mark Evans, palaeontologist and curator at the New Walk Museum in Leicester, and fossil collector Simon Carpenter.
The study focused on a specimen identified in Mr Carpenter’s collection, which is an almost complete coracoid bone, part of the shoulder blade.
They found it had the same unique features of the same bone in the recently discovered species, named Wahlisaurus massarae.
Once the specimen’s rarity was realised, Mr Carpenter immediately donated it to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
In a written statement, Mr Lomax said: ‘You can only imagine my sheer excitement to find a specimen of Wahlisaurus in Simon’s collection.
‘It was such a wonderful moment.
‘When you have just one specimen, “variation” can be called upon, but when you double the number of specimens you have it gives even more credibility to your research.
Ichthyosaur fossils are often found in Britain and in recent years Mr Lomax has described five different species of the prehistoric reptile.
Ichthyosaurs (artist’s impression) recently featured in the BBC documentary Attenborough And The Sea Dragon and their remains have been discovered as far afield as the Americas, Europe and Australia
The species to which the new fossil belongs was uncovered by Mr Lomax in 2016, when he described an ichthyosaur skeleton that he had examined in the collections of Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.
Mr Lomax spotted several unusual features of the bones and determined that they were unique, representing a new species.
He named it in honour of two of his colleagues and mentors, Bill Wahl and Judy Massare.
About the initial find, Mr Lomax said: ‘When Wahlisaurus was announced, I was a little nervous about what other palaeontologists would make of it, considering the new species was known only from a single specimen.
‘As a scientist you learn to question almost everything, and be as critical as you can be.
‘My analysis suggested it was something new, but some palaeontologists questioned this and said it was just ‘variation’ of an existing species.’
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE ICHTHYOSAURUS?
Ichthyosaurs were a highly successful group of sea-going reptiles that became extinct around 90 million years ago.
They appeared during the Triassic, reached their peak during the Jurassic, and disappeared during the Cretaceous period.
Often misidentified as swimming dinosaurs, these reptiles appeared before the first dinosaurs had emerged.
They evolved from an as-yet unidentified land reptile that moved back into the water.
The huge animals, which remained at the top of the food chain for millions of years, developed a streamlined, fish-like form built for speed.
Scientists calculate that one species had a cruising speed of 22 mph (36 kmh).
The largest species of ichthyosaur is thought to have grown to over 20 metres (65 ft) in length.
The largest complete ichthyosaurus fossil ever discovered, at 3.5 metres (11ft), was found to have a foetus still inside its womb.
Scientists said in August 2017 that the incomplete embryo was less than seven centimetres (2.7 inches) long and consisted of preserved vertebrae, a forefin, ribs and a few other bones.
There was evidence the foetus was still developing in the womb when it died.
The find added to evidence that ichthyosaurs gave birth to live young, unlike egg-laying dinosaurs.
The new discovery is from a time known as the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, immediately after a world-wide mass extinction.
The team has been unable to determine exactly whether the ichthyosaur was latest Triassic or earliest Jurassic in age, although it is roughly 200 million-years-old.
Mr Lomax added: ‘The discovery of the new specimen in a private collection helps to recognise the important contribution of dedicated and responsible fossil collectors.
‘I am especially grateful to Simon for donating the specimen and collecting all of the data available with the specimen when he found it.’
The study was published in the Geological Journal.
The newly identified fossil, originally found in a quarry in northern Somerset in 1996, is only the second example of a recently discovered species of ichthyosaur