London | Scientists have identified a new species of an extinct marine reptile, that lived at the same time as the dinosaurs about 200 million years ago. Similar-shaped to dolphins and sharks, ichthyosaurs – often misidentified as ‘swimming dinosaurs’ – swam the seas of Earth for millions of years during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
The fossil found in the UK is from the earliest part of the Jurassic Period — 200 million years ago — and only a handful of ichthyosaur species are known from this period, making the discovery very significant. It is also the first time a species of this geological age has been found outside of Dorset and Somerset.
The specimen is relatively complete, consisting of a partial skeleton including a skull, pectoral bones, limbs, pelvis bones, ribs and vertebrae. However, the bones are disorderly – it appears that the carcass ‘nosedived’ into the seabed before it became fossilised, researchers 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, said Dean Lomax, from The University of Manchester, who examined the specimen Dean has named the new species Wahlisaurus massarae in honour of two palaeontologists Judy Massare and Bill Wahl who have contributed significantly to the study of ichthyosaurs.
The specimen is the first new genus of ichthyosaur from the British Early Jurassic to be described since 1986. Thousands of specimens from this time are known, and many of these have been examined – and continue to be re-examined in light of new knowledge and technologies.
However, as the specimen is from a practically unknown location for the discovery of ichthyosaurs, any new discovery could be of real scientific significance. This new species is also important for our understanding of ichthyosaur species diversity, and their geographical distribution during the Early Jurassic.