Amateur Fossil Hunter Discovers New ‘Sea Dragon’ Species on British Beach

Researchers think the new species may have been a deep diving specialist, due to its cavernous ribcage and enlarged eyes

Thalassodraco etchesi
An artist's illustration of a newly described species of ichthyosaur called Thalassodraco etchesi swimming in the Late Jurassic seas off the coast of England. Megan Jacobs

An amateur fossil hunter scouring an English beach discovered a new species of bug-eyed, barrel-chested marine reptile that patrolled the area’s prehistoric seas roughly 150 million years ago, reports Christa Leste-Lasserre for New Scientist.

When Steve Etches started to extract what he soon recognized as an ichthyosaur fossil from a white band of coastal limestone near Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset, he thought the teeth looked unusual. Unsure of exactly what he’d dug up, Etches sent the mineralized bones off to paleontologists at the University of Portsmouth for a closer look, reports Jack Guy for CNN.

Ichthyosaurs were sleek, dolphin-like reptilian predators with sharp teeth for snagging fish, squid and other prey. After years of examination, the researchers determined this particular specimen was not just a new species, but that it was different enough from other known ichthyosaurs that it merited the creation of a new genus.

In a new paper published in the journal PLOS One, the researchers dubbed the creature Thalassodraco etchesi. Its name derives from Thalasso, the word for sea in Greek, draco, the Latin word for dragon, and etchesi in honor of Etches’ discovery, according to New Scientist.

“I’m very pleased that this ichthyosaur has been found to be new to science, and I’m very honoured for it to be named after me,” Etches, a plumber by trade, tells Sara Rigby of PA Media. “It’s excellent that new species of ichthyosaurs are still being discovered—which shows just how diverse these incredible animals were in the Late Jurassic seas.”

Thalassodraco etchesi
A fossil of the new species of ichthyosaur Thalassodraco etchesi alongside fossil collector Steve Etches who first discovered it on an English beach. The Etches Collection

Researchers estimate that the Etches sea dragon measured about 6 feet from nose to tail, and had anatomical features that suggest it may have been a deep diving specialist.

“This animal was obviously doing something different compared to other ichthyosaurs. One idea is that it could be a deep diving species, like sperm whales,” says Megan L. Jacobs, a paleontologist at Baylor University and co-author of the new paper, in a statement. “The extremely deep rib cage may have allowed for larger lungs for holding their breath for extended periods, or it may mean that the internal organs weren't crushed under the pressure. It also has incredibly large eyes, which means it could see well in low light. That could mean it was diving deep down, where there was no light, or it may have been nocturnal.”

Thalassodraco etchesi is also unusually small for an ichthyosaur, some of which have skulls longer than Thalassodraco’s entire body, per CNN.

Now that it’s been properly described by paleontologists, the fossil will go on display at Etches’ collection museum in Dorset, which is home to the fossil enthusiast's numerous other finds.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.