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200 million-year-old Jurassic sea creature discovered in 1951 finally identified

Illustration of a Wahlisaurus massarae is by James McKay.
Illustration of a Wahlisaurus massarae is by James McKay. Photo: Courtesy of The University of Manchester

A sea creature that lived during the Jurassic period 200 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the Earth has finally been identified after its fossil sat in a British museum for 65 years.

The fossil found in an old quarry in Nottinghamshire in 1951 and acquired by the New Walk Museum in Leicester is a new type of ichthyosaur, an extinct marine reptile similar in shape to dolphins and sharks, The University of Manchester announced Tuesday.

The research by paleontologist Dean Lomax was published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

Lomax, an Honorary Scientist at The University of Manchester, named the new species Wahlisaurus massarae in honor of Professor Judy Massare and Bill Wahl, two who contributed significantly to the study of ichthyosaurs and who introduced him to the study of them.

Lomax examined the relatively complete fossil after viewing it at the museum. It consists of a partial skeleton, including a skull, pectoral bones, limbs, pelvis bones, ribs and vertebrae.

But the bones were said to be disorderly and Lomax determined that it appeared that the carcass "nosedived" into the seabed before it became fossilized, which may have hampered previous study.

"When I first saw this specimen, I knew it was unusual," Lomax said. "It displays features in the bones—especially in the coracoid (part of the pectoral girdle)—that I had not seen before in Jurassic ichthyosaurs anywhere in the world.

"The specimen had never been published, so this rather unusual individual had been awaiting detailed examination."

Former museum curator Dr. Robert Appleby previously examined parts of the skeleton during a long-term loan, but he passed away in 2004 and never published his findings.

The discovery is significant for two reasons: Only a handful of ichthyosaurs are known from this period, and it is the first time a species of this geological age has been found outside Dorset and Somerset.

It is also the first new genus of ichthyosaur from the British Early Jurassic period to be described since 1986.

"This new species is also important for our understanding of ichthyosaur species diversity, and their geographical distribution during the Early Jurassic period," The University of Manchester wrote.

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