11-Year-Old Uncovers Fossils of Giant Ichthyosaur in England, the Largest Marine Reptile Ever Found, Scientists Say

The jawbone fragments belonged to an 82-foot-long creature that represents a new species, according to a new study

An artist's rendering of two massive Ichthyotitan severnensis swimming in the open ocean some 200 million years ago
An artist's rendering of two massive Ichthyotitan severnensis—a newly discovered species—swimming in the open ocean some 200 million years ago. Gabriel Ugueto

Fifteen-year-old Ruby Reynolds has been searching for fossils with her father, Justin Reynolds, for almost as long as she’s been alive. But in May 2020, while the pair was on a getaway to the village of Blue Anchor in southwest England, the then-11-year-old came upon her biggest find yet: several fragments of bone set into rock, one of which measured eight inches long.

The Reynolds family contacted paleontologist Dean Lomax at the University of Bristol and amateur fossil hunter Paul de la Salle. They recognized the fossils, uncovered along the River Severn, were from the jawbone of an ichthyosaur—a prehistoric marine reptile that resembles an enormous version of a modern-day dolphin.

Together, the quartet returned to the Severn’s shores and searched for additional evidence. They continued to collect fossils through 2022, piecing together the animal’s lower jawbone that, when complete, would have stretched at least seven feet long. The team suggests this particular ichthyosaur was gigantic—at an estimated 82 feet long, it appears to be the largest marine reptile ever discovered.

“I didn’t realize when I first found the piece of ichthyosaur bone how important it was and what it would lead to,” Ruby Reynolds tells the New York Times Kate Golembiewski. “I think the role that young people can play in science is to enjoy the journey of exploring, as you never know where a discovery may take you.”

These findings were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, with Lomax, Ruby Reynolds, Justin Reynolds, de la Salle and others all listed as co-authors. They named the specimen Ichthyotitan severnensis, which translates to “giant fish lizard of the Severn.”

The creature likely lived during the Late Triassic period, and despite it being the size of a blue whale, bone analysis suggests it was likely still growing when it died. Its shape, along with microscopic evidence of crisscrossed collagen fibers, confirmed the bone belonged to an ichthyosaur.

The discovery of the jawbone provides key evidence for an idea that both Lomax and de la Salle had previously worked on in 2018, after de la Salle uncovered an ichthyosaur jawbone two years prior. Because of that bone’s incomparably massive size, they thought the creature belonged to a new species of ichthyosaur, of which there are more than 100 species known. Since then, the duo had been hoping for another fossil that could verify their hunch.

“We kept our fingers crossed for more discoveries,” Lomax tells BBC News Georgina Rannard. The father-daughter pair’s find, which was just six miles away from de la Salle’s, was the smoking gun. “I was massively impressed—really, really excited. I knew that right at that point we had a second giant jawbone from one of these massive ichthyosaurs just like Paul’s.”

Dean Lomax, Ruby Reynolds, Justin Reynolds, and Paul de la Salle in 2020 with the newly discovered fossils and the fossil discovered in 2016.
Dean Lomax, Ruby Reynolds, Justin Reynolds and Paul de la Salle in 2020 with the ichthyosaur fossils. Dean Lomax

As longtime top predators in the prehistoric seas, ichthyosaurs can offer scientists new insights into the dynamic marine life of 200 million years ago. Each new fossil is another piece of the puzzle.

“From them we can understand how evolutionary laws shaped life, what led life to be what it is now,” Marcello Perillo, a paleobiologist at the University of Bonn in Germany and a co-author of the study, tells CNN’s Ashley Strickland. “We can understand how changes in the environment recoil on ecological communities and predict future ecological developments in our current environment.”

With Ruby’s discovery in 2020, history appears to have repeated itself. Experts have drawn comparisons between her and paleontologist Mary Anning, who at just 12 years old in 1811 discovered the first ichthyosaur fossil, making the massive species known to scientists.

Anning’s find also took place on a beach in southwestern England—less than 50 miles away from where Ruby picked up her ichthyosaur bones, per the New York Times.

An artist's rendering of an Ichthyotitan severnensis carcass, about the size of a blue whale, washed up on an English beach.
An artist's rendering of an Ichthyotitan severnensis carcass, about the size of a blue whale, washed up on an English beach. Sergey Krasovskiy

“For Ruby Reynolds, not only did she find this important fossil but also helped to name a type of gigantic prehistoric reptile,” Lomax tells CNN in an email. “There are probably not many 15-year-olds who can say that! A Mary Anning in the making, perhaps. But, whether or not Ruby goes down the path of paleontology or science, the important thing is that she and Justin and Paul have contributed immensely to paleontology and our understanding of the ancient world.”

The fossils will soon be put on display at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in England.

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