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Ancient excavations lead to the discovery of the largest marine reptiles known

Ancient excavations lead to the discovery of the largest marine reptiles known

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The massive jawbone found by a father-daughter fossil collecting duo on a beach in Somerset along the English coast belongs to a newly discovered species, likely the largest known marine reptile to swim Earth's oceans.

Scientists consider the blue whale to be… Grows up to 110 feet (33.5 metres), to be the largest animal ever known on the planet. But this 202-million-year-old reptile, known as the ichthyosaur or “fish lizard,” likely rivaled it in size.

The ichthyosaur's jawbone, or rectangle, was a long, curved bone at the top of the lower jaw just behind the teeth, measuring more than 6.5 feet (2 m) long. Researchers believe the creature, called Ichthyotitan severnensis, or “giant Severn fish lizard” in Latin, was more than 82 feet (25 metres) long, or the length of two city buses.

Justin and Robbie Reynolds, who live in Braunton, England, recovered the first pieces of a jawbone in May 2020 while searching for fossils on the beach at Blue Anchor, Somerset. Ruby, who was 11 at the time, spotted the first piece of bone, and then she and her father found additional pieces together.

The remarkable discovery could shed more light on the role of the prehistoric giant in evolutionary history and the ocean ecosystem in which it was home, according to Marcelo Perillo, a graduate student in evolutionary paleobiology at the University of Bonn in Germany. He is one of the authors of a new report describing the discovery that appeared on Wednesday Magazine PLOS ONE.

Dean Lomax

Dr. Dean Lomax, Robbie Reynolds, Justin Reynolds and Paul de La Salle (from left) are shown with the fossils discovered in 2020.

Encouraged by the idea that the fossil find could be important, the Reynolds family contacted Dr Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester and an 1851 Research Fellow at the University of Bristol in the UK. Lomax, an expert on ichthyosaurs, has named several species new to science in recent years.

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Intrigued by the fossil, Lomax contacted fossil collector Paul de La Salle, who found a giant ichthyosaur jawbone that looked remarkably similar in May 2016. De La Salle discovered the first jawbone about 6.2 miles (10 km) from Devon along the coast at Lilystock .

Lomax, who served as lead author on the new report, and co-author De La Salle, studied the earlier finding together and He co-authored an April 2018 paper on the discoveryOn suspicion that it might belong to a previously unknown species of ichthyosaur. But the researchers needed additional evidence, and the nearly identical second jawbone represented a chance to confirm the possibility of a new species.

“The belief that my discovery in 2016 will spark so much interest in these huge creatures fills me with joy,” De La Salle said. “When I found the first jawbone, I knew it was something special. To have a second one that confirms our findings is incredible. I'm so happy.”

The Reynolds, Lomax, De La Salle and others returned together to the Blue Anchor to search for additional parts. The team recovered other pieces that fit together perfectly, like completing a puzzle.

“When Robbie and I found the first two pieces, we were so excited because we realized this was something important and extraordinary,” Justin Reynolds said in a statement. “When I found the back of the jaw, I was thrilled because this is one of the distinctive parts of Paul's early discovery.”

Researchers reassembled the jawbone by October 2022.

“I was astonished by this discovery,” Lomax said in a statement. “In 2018, my team (including Paul de La Salle) studied and described Paul's giant jawbone, and we hoped that one day another would come to light. This new specimen is more complete, better preserved, and shows that we now have two “From these giant bones – called rectangular – which have a unique shape and structure I became very excited, to say the least.”

The bones date back to the end of the Triassic Period, during a period known as the “Rhaetian” when ichthyosaurs swam in the oceans and dinosaurs ruled the land.

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Lomax said the newly discovered jawbone is a better quality specimen than the first, displaying features of the creature's rectangular shape that made it distinct from other species.

The jaw bones of Severnensis date back approximately 13 million years after fossils of giant ichthyosaurs belonging to different species were previously found in Canada and China.

Ichthyosaurs, which are somewhat similar to modern dolphins, first appeared about 250 million years ago. Over time, some evolved to have larger body sizes, and by 202 million years ago, ocean giants like Severnensis were likely the largest marine reptiles.

But scientists believe the giant ichthyosaurs disappeared during an ocean acidification event that occurred about 200 million years ago, and the surviving ichthyosaurs never grew to such massive sizes again before they disappeared 94 million years ago.

Lomax said researchers stressed that more evidence is needed to confirm the exact size of Severnensis, and they still hope to discover a complete skull or skeleton in the future.

Co-author Perillot of the University of Bonn studied the histology, or microscopic anatomy, of ichthyosaur bones and discovered that the reptile was most likely still growing at the time of its death, i.e. an adult severnensis. It was probably larger than a blue whale.

Dean Lomax

The giant, almost complete jawbone is shown next to the jawbone (middle and lower) found by Paul de La Salle in 2016.

He said histology could reveal biological information hidden in fossilized bones, revealing how individual animals evolved and adapted to specialized lifestyles. For example, some ichthyosaurs had bones that helped them dive deep or live in shallow water.

“From tissue we can also understand how fast it grows and how long it grows; “In the case of (Ichthyosaur) we could not see convincing signs of stunted growth,” Perillo said. “This supports the idea that if the animal had not died, it would likely have continued to grow, reaching an estimated length of 25 metres. Much is still shrouded in mystery about these giants, but one fossil at a time we will be able to unravel their secret.”

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Unraveling the history of marine reptiles is crucial to understanding ancient ocean ecosystems, Perillo said, because these creatures populated different environments and shaped ocean food chains, creating competition and a “never-ending spiral of evolution.”

He said: “From them we can understand how the laws of evolution shaped life, and what led to life being what it is now.” “We can understand how environmental changes impact ecological communities and predict future ecological developments in our current environment.”

Paleontologist Mary Anning and her older brother Joseph discovered the first known ichthyosaur fossils in 1811 and 1812, decades before the word dinosaur entered our vocabulary. Since then, fossils belonging to more than 100 species of ichthyosaur have been identified worldwide.

Sergey Krasovsky

Illustration depicting the carcass of Ichthyotitan Severnensis washed up on a beach.

The discovery by the Reynolds and de La Salle pair will soon be on display at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in the UK.

“It was amazing to discover part of this giant ichthyosaur. I am very proud to have played a part in a scientific discovery like this,” Robbie Reynolds said in a statement.

Lomax said he has enjoyed working with fossil collectors in recent years because he believes paleontology is a scientific field in which anyone can make a significant contribution.

“For Ruby Reynolds, not only did she find this important fossil, she also helped name a species of giant prehistoric reptile,” Lomax said in an email. “Maybe there aren't many 15-year-olds who can say that! Mary Anning may be in the making. But, whether or not Ruby goes the paleontology or science route, the important thing is that she, Justin and Paul have contributed significantly to Paleontology and our understanding of the ancient world.