Museums are odd places; a casual visitor sees only the tip of the iceberg. But behind the exhibits are treasure troves of carefully archived items. And occasionally the right person comes along and finds that something previously thought of as totally insignificant is actually an incredible discovery.
The Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery had just such a moment. For decades, the museum’s curators believed that they had a fake, plastic replica of an ichthyosaur. Ichthyosaurs were huge marine reptiles; their name literally means fish lizard.
Doncaster had lost its paleontologist, and with no appropriate exhibit they abandoned the presumed replica ichthyosaur to gather dust in the basement.
Then one day the Education Officer offered up the “replica” to the museum’s new Assistant Curator of Paleontology, Dean Lomax, to use in a small exhibit. When Lomax examined the specimen he was startled to realize that it was actually the real deal.1 In fact, it was so real you could actually see its last meal: delicious squid tentacles, identified by their hooklets, in case you were wondering both what an ichthyosaur might eat and how you identify a fossilized meal. It’s pretty incredible to be able to determine exactly what a 180 million-year-old dinosaur ate for dinner.
Doncaster’s rediscovery of their ichthyosaur got some cool press at the time. The museum even held a competition to name the dino: Fizzy won out. Fizzy is now finally getting well deserved international recognition, even if the ichthyosaur did have to wait an extra 130+ years from the time it was first discovered. Because not only was the “replica” actually a real fossil, Lomax became convinced that it was a totally new species of ichthyosaur, previously unknown to science.
Professor of Geology at SUNY, Brockport, Judy Massare agreed. This particular ichthyosaur had subtly different limb bones from the known species. The pair compared “Fizzy” with over a thousand other specimens to prove that Doncaster’s fake really was a new species. They published their results in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology this month.2
And just to add to the awesome: the pair named their newfound new species Ichthyosaurus anningae in honor of Mary Anning, who discovered the first ichthyosaur remains in 1811.3
Featured Image: Life restoration of Ichthyosaurus anningae Credit: James McKay
Lomax, D., & Massare, J. (2015) A new species of Ichthyosaurus from the Lower Jurassic of West Dorset, England, U.K., Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 35(1) ↩