During routine maintenance at Rutland Water Nature Reserve in England, naturalist Joe Davis noticed something strange sticking out of the mud. At first, his colleague Paul Trevor, who also works at the reserve, thought it was a pipe. After closer inspection, they realized it was a large skeleton.
"We followed what indisputably looked like a spine and Paul [Trevor] discovered something further along that could have been a jawbone," Davis, who is the conservation team leader at Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, tells Live Science’s Patrick Pester. "We couldn't quite believe it."
Davis took photos of the bones and contacted paleontologist Dean Lomax at the University of Manchester.
“I immediately recognized them as ichthyosaur vertebrae,” Lomax, who led the excavation project, tells the New York Times’ Neil Vigdor. “He had found this so serendipitously.”
I’m absolutely thrilled to reveal the largest ichthyosaur skeleton EVER discovered in Britain!— Dr Dean Lomax (@Dean_R_Lomax) January 10, 2022
It was an honour to lead the excavation and unearth this incredible Jurassic GIANT from its ancient rocky tomb in Rutland! Found by Joe Davis @RutlandWaterNR #RutlandSeaDragon pic.twitter.com/dfTTXT9zwu
Davis had accidentally discovered the largest and most complete ichthyosaur skeleton in the United Kingdom. It measures more than 32 feet in length, with a 6.5-foot-long skull that weighs about a ton.
“To find a specimen of this size and completeness is remarkable,” University of Liège paleontologist Rebecca Bennion, who was not involved in the excavation, tells National Geographic’s Riley Black.
The ichthyosaur is a large marine reptile with paddle-like limbs and sharp teeth. It emerged on Earth around 250 million years ago and went extinct approximately 90 million years ago.
“During this time period, it would have been right at the top of the food chain. It’s an ultimate apex predator, perhaps one of the biggest animals in the sea worldwide,” Lomax tells NBC News' Rachel Elbaum.
Paleontologists estimate the one found in Rutland is between 181.5 to 182 million years old.
The team began the ichthyosaur excavation in August 2021, and completed it in 14.5 days spread over 3 weeks. They used plaster reinforced with wooden frames to protect sections of the skeleton before lifting them out.
“A significant part of the excavation was to understand the ancient environment in which the ichthyosaur lived and died,” wrote Nigel Larkin, a freelance paleontological conservator who helped lead the excavation, in a blog post. “Whilst removing the clay from the bones, the team were careful to look out for and collect additional fossils in the associated matrix, which included numerous molluscs, principally ammonites and belemnites.”
Next, the team will remove the plaster jackets and prepare the specimen for research and display, which Larkin estimates could take another 18 months.
In a Tweet, Lomax, who has spent his career studying ichthyosaurs across the world, describes the Rutland skeleton as “one of the greatest finds in British paleontological history.”
“This is the height of my career,” he says on BBC News. “It’s incredible.”