A British fossil hunter has found a previously unidentified “sea dragon” off the south coast of England.
Steve Etches unearthed the well-preserved ichthyosaur fossil in limestone on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset. He thought the fossil was so unusual that he gave it to experts at the University of Portsmouth in southern England to study.
Megan Jacobs, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth and a doctoral student at Baylor University, Texas, who has spent years working with ichthyosaurs, identified it as a new genus and species.
The two-meter-long ichthyosaur, which lived 150 million years ago, has been called the “Engraved Sea Dragon” (Thalassodraco etchesi).
Etches said in a press release published by the University of Portsmouth that he was honored that the discovery was named after him.
“It’s great that new species of ichthyosaurs are still being discovered, which shows how diverse these incredible animals were in the late Jurassic seas,” Etches added.
Scientists have now identified five species of ichthyosaurs from the late Jurassic period in the UK.
They are known as sea dragons because of their generally large teeth and eyes.
Ichthyosaur fossils from this period are rare, according to Dr. Jacobs, but this one was well preserved because it settled on a very soft seabed when it died.
This meant that the front of its body sank into the mud, protecting it from scavengers who ate its tail.
“Thalassodraco etchesi is a beautifully preserved ichthyosaur, with soft tissue preservation which makes it even more interesting,” Dr. Jacobs said in the press release.
Ichthyosaurs were highly adapted marine predators with large eyes, streamlined bodies, and many conical teeth for catching fish.
The recently identified species has a deep rib cage, small fins, and smooth teeth, which distinguish it from other ichthyosaurs.
“It almost looks like a barrel with little fins sticking out,” Dr. Jacobs told CNN.
Thalassodraco etchesi would have likely glided through the water using its tail for propulsion rather than its fins, Dr. Jacobs added, and its deep rib cage correlates with large lungs that would have allowed it to dive deep underwater.
The newly discovered species has eyes even larger than other ichthyosaurs, covering nearly a quarter of its entire skull, which would have allowed it to see in low-light conditions underwater, said Dr. Jacobs, who explained that its tiny teeth smooth were probably used to catching soft prey like squid.
This is the smallest ichthyosaur found so far. The largest known ichthyosaur lived in North America during the Triassic period and had skulls nearly five meters long, 10 times the size of Thalassodraco etchesi.
The fossil will be on display at the Etches Collection, a museum in Dorset that is also home to many other Etches discoveries.
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The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday.