In a matter of moments, a U.K. water utility became an unofficial archeological agency. Workers were on their corporate nature reserve to drain lagoons and regrade an island as part of routine maintenance. But, what at first glance was thought to be a pipe or a series of rocks actually turned out to be a historic discovery.
They initially uncovered just a jaw bone, but further excavation revealed a skeleton more than 10 metres long, later determined to be the largest complete ichthyosaur skeleton ever found in the U.K.
The skull alone weighs about one tonne; the rest of the skeleton weighs yet another tonne. The creature roughly resembles a large shark or dolphin.
Dubbed the Rutland Sea Dragon, the fossil is estimated to be from some 250 million years ago during the Triassic Period, which began after Earth’s worst-ever extinction event devastated life.
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The ichthyosaur discovery is credited to Joe Davis, conservation team leader at Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
Remarkably, the discovery is not the first at Rutland Water, with two incomplete and much smaller ichthyosaurs found when the reservoir was constructed in the 1970s. It is, however, the first complete skeleton found. The remains of the ichthyosaur were initially discovered in February 2021, and fully excavated during the summer and fall.
After excavation, the fossil was wrapped in a plaster jacket. Sections were lifted from the ground and moved safely to a research facility for further analysis.
A permanent home for the fossil has not yet been determined.
Rutland Water has the largest surface area of any reservoir in England, and provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Anglian Water customers in the east of England. The high proportion of clay in the Whitby Mudstone Formation makes it relatively impervious to water, and this was a key factor in the siting of Rutland Water.
The reserve, where the ichthyosaur was found, occupies the shoreline and shallow water lagoons along nine miles of the western end of Rutland Water, covering a total area of 1,000 acres. It was created in the 1970s with the construction of the reservoir and is a designated Special Protection Area of international importance for its populations of gadwall and shoveller birds.
The dig was supported by several volunteers, including Dr Emma Nicholls from the Horniman Museum, Emily Swaby from the Open University, Paul de la Salle from the Etches Collection Museum, and the Peterborough Geological & Palaeontological Group.