Scientists Find Plaster Copies of Fossil Destroyed by Nazis

Two casts of the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton ever unearthed were hidden in museum collections in Berlin and Connecticut

Two ichthyosaur casts
Yale cast (top) and Berlin cast (bottom) Dean Lomax via Twitter (cropped)

In 1819, anatomist Everard Home examined the complete fossilized skeleton of a fantastic creature—a fish-like reptile that scientists now know as the ichthyosaur. He wrote five papers about the extinct animal, naming it a Proteosaurus, and published them with an accompanying scientific illustration, writes Science’s Jack Tamisiea.

The fossil, which scientists believe was discovered by early paleontologist Mary Anning, was excavated in 1818 from southern England. It captivated scientists and the public alike, helping to grow the field of paleontology.

“Before the fame of the dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs were ‘the’ famous prehistoric reptiles. Their big skulls, eyes and teeth captured the public’s imagination, making the ichthyosaurs icons of evolution,” Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester in England and co-author of the paper, says in a statement.

The three-foot-long skeleton was placed in a London collection of the Royal College of Surgeons, where it remained for more than a century. Then, in May 1941, Nazis bombed the city during World War II, and the specimen was destroyed. With no written records documenting any casts made from the fossil, scientists assumed the ichthyosaur was lost forever—that only the scientific illustration remained.

But 75 years later, in 2016, Lomax and his colleague Judy Massare, a paleontologist at SUNY College at Brockport, made a discovery that would change that. While searching for ichthyosaurs in a collection at Yale University’s Peabody Museum, they stumbled across the plaster cast of a dusty crocodile-like specimen. 

“We both looked at each other, and we’re like, ‘Why does that seem familiar?’” Lomax tells the New York Times’ Gemma Conroy. “There was just something about this cast.”

“Once I returned back to the U.K., then it struck me: This is a cast of the original [ichthyosaur] specimen,” he tells BBC News. “At this point I got so, so excited. This is the first known cast of the original skeleton.” 

Three years later, Lomax came across another cast that resembled Anning’s ichthyosaur in the collections of Berlin’s Natural History Museum, though there was no record of it in the museum’s catalogs, writes Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger. 

“Having spent time studying the Yale cast already, I immediately knew what it was,” Lomax tells the publication. “I had a huge grin on my face.” 

Comparisons of the forefins of ichthyosaurs
Comparisons of the forefins (left is the illustration, center is the Yale cast, right is the Berlin cast) Lomax and Massare via The Royal Society

The Berlin cast was in better shape and more detailed than the Yale one, suggesting the Yale cast was created earlier or was a cast of a cast. However, both differed from the drawing, which, among other discrepancies, shows four or five extra bones on the forefin that connects to the animal’s humerus, per the Times. These extra bones had been painted on the Berlin cast to match the drawing more closely. 

With two casts of the ichthyosaur, Lomax tells BBC News, he “thought it’s time to write this up… We need to share it with fellow scientists and the public alike.” 

Lomax and Massare published their findings Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science

Other casts of the ichthyosaur fossil might be hiding elsewhere in museum collections, Lomax suggests in the statement. After hearing of the new paper, German paleontologist Martin Sander of the University of Bonn tells the Times that he believes he knows of another ichthyosaur cast. He prevented it from being thrown away 30 years ago.

Daniela Schwarz, the scientific head of the fossil reptile collection at the Berlin museum, says in the statement she was “really stunned that a cast of this important specimen had rested in our collection for more than a century.”

“This discovery demonstrates the necessity to carefully preserve undetermined and casted material in a natural history collection, because there will always be someone who discovers its scientific value in the end,” she adds. 

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