Huge 180 million-year-old ‘sea dragon’ fossil found in U.K. reservoir

What started as routine maintenance on a U.K. reservoir quickly shifted to a major paleontological dig when workers discovered a massive, 180 million-year-old ichthyosaur fossil at the bottom of the lake.

According to a press release from the Rutland Water Nature Reserve, the find happened last February during routine draining of a lagoon island that was set for re-landscaping.

The fossil, colloquially known as “Sea Dragon”, is approximately 10 metres long and its skull weighs about one tonne, making it the largest and most complete skeleton of its kind found to date in the U.K.

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It’s also thought to be the first ichtyosaur of its specific species (Temnodontosaurus trigonodon) found in the U.K.

“It’s the most complete and larger than any dinosaur skeleton ever found here, so it’s a mega-find for so many reasons,” paleontologist Dean Lomax, who led the excavation, told NBC News.

“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.”

The massive fossil was spotted by a couple of conservation team workers, who noticed what looked like pipes sticking up out of the mud. Upon further examination, they realized they had unearthed organic material and decided it was probably bones.

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Ichthyosaurs first appeared around 250 million years ago and went extinct 90 million years ago. The marine animals range anywhere from one to 25 metres in length and resembled dolphins in general body shape.

An artist’s reconstruction of the fossil, nicknamed the “Rutland Sea Dragon.” Matthew Power Photography / Anglian Water

Two incomplete and much smaller ichthyosaurs were found during the construction of Rutland Water in the 1970s, but the latest discovery is the first complete skeleton. Researchers told CNN that they also discovered the vertebrae of several other ichthyosaurs during the main dig.

The remains of the massive skeleton were excavated in August and September of last year by a team of expert paleontologists from around the U.K.

“It is a truly unprecedented discovery and one of the greatest finds in British paleontological history,” Lomax said in the press release.

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The excavation of the remains will feature on BBC Two’s Digging For Britain on Tuesday.

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