Ichthyosaur Fossil Cast

Unusual resurfacing of a valuable fossil that was destroyed during WWII has led to its recovery

In 1941, a bombing raid in London claimed that the first complete skeleton from a prehistoric marine reptile had resulted in its destruction.

Mary Anning, a paleontologist, discovered the ichthyosaur dinosaur fossil in 1818. This was two decades before the term dinosaur was even introduced to our lexicon.

Because these strange-looking reptiles resembled a mix of the two, the ancient marine reptiles were called ichthyosaurs or “fish lizards.” Anning’s fossil was between 190 million and 195 million years of age.

“The original fossil was extremely significant because it was the first complete skeleton of any prehistoric Reptile fossil ever discovered at that time,” stated Dr. Dean Lomax (paleontologist, visiting scientist at the University of Manchester).

Anning’s famous fossil has been resurrected even though the bones are now long gone.

The skeleton was cast in plaster twice. The casts were not recorded and kept secret until two scientists discovered them in Berlin, Connecticut, and New Haven.

The seashore is the best place to search for fossils

Anning grew up in Lyme Regis, England. This is part of the Jurassic Coast UNESCO World Heritage Site, where fossil discoveries can still be made today. Anning and Joseph, her older brother, searched the shoreline looking for fossils when they were children.

Anning’s first complete Ichthyosaur Skelet was discovered by the scientific community in 1819. This was when Sir Everard Home, a British surgeon, studied it and published his findings. It was initially thought to be a monster by locals, but scientists called it a crocodile.

Lomax, who coauthored a study about the castings’ discovery via email, said that “this was at the time when the science of paleontology was still in its infancy.” “Her numerous finds added many pieces to the prehistoric puzzle that had begun to fit together in the early 19th century,” Lomax said.

Thomas James Birch, a passionate fossil collector, purchased the fossil from Anning in 1820 and sold it to London’s Royal College of Surgeons, in the hope of raising money for Anning, and her family. The college still had the fossil when it was destroyed by an air raid in World War II.

Scientists believed that the only fossil record was an original 1819 illustration.

Happenstance leads to discoveries

Lomax and Judy Massare (professor emerita) at the State University of New York, Brockport made the first discovery of a cast during a 2016 research trip to the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University.

“Peabody curator staff assumed that this specimen was a genuine ichthyosaur dinosaur fossil and not a plaster cast painted to look like it,” said Daniel Brinkman (museum assistant in vertebrate paleontology at Yale Peabody Museum), in a statement.

Staff knew that Charles Schuchert, a Yale professor, had purchased the specimen from Frederick A. Braun’s estate, a professional dealer and collector. It was donated by Schuchert to the Peabody in 1930. However, there is no record of who made it, when, or how Braun acquired it.

Lomax and Massare were able to find a match when they compared their cast to the 1819 illustration.

The duo discovered a second cast at Berlin’s Natural History Museum in 2019. Lomax, who had spent a lot of time studying the Yale cast, said that he knew immediately what it was. This brought a big grin to his face.

The Berlin cast was in a better state. Researchers believe that the Yale cast was older and the Berlin cast was made at different times.

“Dr. Lomax was constantly asking me about the cast when he visited our collections. I was unable to help him because of missing records, (labeling), of the specimen,” Dr. Daniela Schwarz, the scientific head of the Berlin museum’s collection of fossil reptiles, said in a statement.

I was truly stunned when I found out about his detective work and discovered that the cast of this important specimen had been in our collections for over a century. This is yet another example of the importance of preserving undetermined and cast material in natural history collections for centuries. They will always be discovered scientifically, so it is important to preserve them!

The Berlin cast also was a match for the 1819 illustration.

Massare stated in a press release that “now, having two castings, we can verify and confirm the reliability of the original illustration through comparison with the casts.” “We identified some bones that Home did not see and discovered some discrepancies in the castings and drawings.”

Lomax and Massare published Tuesday a study that describes the casts and their significance in the journal Royal Society Open Science. It is one of The Royal Society’s journals, and also published the first paper about the discovery of the skeleton in 1819.

Museum secrets

Lomax and Massare discovered other casts in museum collections, which have remained hidden and lost their importance over time.

Massare stated that they hoped to inspire researchers and curators to look closely at the casts found in museum collections by revealing these casts.

Lomax stated that just because casts have not been identified doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable. They are a reminder of why museums are so important.

Lomax, the author of Locked in Time, Animal Behavior Uncovered in 50 Extraordinary Fossils, said, “When you go to a museum collection you never know what you might discover.”

Lomax will be spending his time studying the Rutland Sea Dragon. It is the largest skeleton of a large ichthyosaur in the UK and measures 32.8 feet (10 m) long.

Lomax has always considered Anning a hero, and his admiration for her pioneering work continues to inspire him. Massare and Anning named an undiscovered species of an ichthyosaur in 2015 after Anning, which is known as Ichthyosaurus anningae.

Lomax stated that Mary was a pioneering paleontologist whose discoveries truly changed the world. “Her knowledge was unparalleled by anyone working on fossils at that time, and she was the expert in her field.”

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