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Massive Sea Dragon Fossil Found in Plain Sight

A fossil in a German museum has been ‘rediscovered’ this week after a pair of paleontologists spotted it with an incorrect label. As it turns out, the fossil represents one of the only known fossils of an early sea creature. The fossil was discovered on England’s Somerset coast in the 1990s, eventually finding a home in the collections of Lower Saxony State Museum in Hanover, Germany. Paleontologist Sven Sachs was conducting research at the museum recently when he noticed that the fossil didn’t quite look like the animal it was labelled as belonging to. After notifying University of Manchester paleontologist and ichthyosaur expert Dean Lomax, the pair realized that this fossil was a one-of-a-kind find, lying in plain sight.

The sea dragon fossil

The sea dragon fossil

The fossil turns out to be a specimen of Ichthyosaurus somersetensis or “sea dragon,” a 250-million-year-old marine reptile which predates most dinosaurs. This particular specimen measures over three meters in length and was actually pregnant at its time of death. The tail of the fossil was added sometime after its discovery, and was found to not belong to the same species. Still, the find is incredible as the embryo is only the third known Ichthyosaur embryo and is the first to be identified down to a species level.

Artist's depiction of the Ichthyosaur and embryo

Artist’s depiction of the Ichthyosaur and embryo

Lomax says the fossil is significant not only because of its unique discovery, but because it fills in a large gap in our understanding of the evolution of these Ichthyosaurs:

It amazes me that specimens such as this [the biggest] can still be ‘rediscovered’ in museum collections. You don’t necessarily have to go out in the field to make a new discovery. 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 duo have published their study of the fossil in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and hope their study can help contextualize other Ichthyosaur fossils. It will also no doubt inspire plenty of amateur sleuths to pore over museum installations in the hopes of discovering other mislabelled fossils. Brace yourselves, curators. Nerd winter is coming.