Ichthyosaur unveiling – new tech reveals secrets of the sea monster

The ichthyosaur was a ferocious, prehistoric dolphin like creature which swam in the oceans some 200 million years ago, and a team of researchers has just learned a whole lot more about them.

The ichthyosaur in question may have died millennia ago, but its skull was discovered in a British farmer’s field in 1955. The find was made on land which is now in Warwickshire, UK, but the facilities were not in place to study the remains in any great detail beyond external observation.

The skull was held in the Birmingham Museums Trust for many years, until a plan was devised to study it in detail.

Thanks to modern 3D technology, a joint collaboration between the University of Manchester, University College London and Cambridge University, was able to harvest and analyse data from CT scans, which were then used to digitally rebuild the skull.

Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester, said “It’s taken more than half a century for this ichthyosaur to be studied and described, but it has been worth the wait.”

Coming from the Lower Jurassic period, this marine creature was a viscous carnivore, designed for stealthy and poweful hunting. “The unusual three-dimensional preservation of the specimen permitted computed tomography (CT) scanning of individual braincase elements as well as the entire reassembled skull.”

PeerJ Skull My Good Planet

The results of the study were published in the academic journal PeerJ on January 8th, enthusiastically celebrating ‘one of the first times that medical imaging and three-dimensional reconstruction methods have been applied to a large skull of a marine reptile.’

Copyright Nigel Larkin, taken at Royal Veterinary College, London.

This isn’t the only ichthyosaur to be discovered. A previous fossil was found containing both skin and blubber elements, as well as liver fragments. This allowed scientists to ascertain many elements about this mysterious sea creature, including suggestions that they may have been warm blooded, and that it could use colourisation techniques to avoid predators.

Ichthyosaurs are interesting because they have many traits in common with dolphins, but are not at all closely related to those sea-dwelling mammals,” says Mary Schweitzer, author of a previously published study on the creatures, “We aren’t exactly sure of their biology either. They have many features in common with living marine reptiles like sea turtles, but we know from the fossil record that they gave live birth, which is associated with warm-bloodedness. This study reveals some of those biological mysteries.”

Dr. Laura Porro, one of the other leading researchers on the current study added, “CT scanning allows us to look inside fossils – in this case, we could see long canals within the skull bones that originally contained blood vessels and nerves.”

After the scans the team were able to 3D-print a number of key missing pieces, including a flipper, which allowed them to complete the skeleton, a video of which has been posted by the BBC. One other remarkable revelation is that the specimen is a rare ichthyosaur called Protoichthyosaurus prostaxalis and not a common species, as previously imagined.

Colin J McCracken
Colin J McCracken

Director and Executive Editor

Colin J McCracken is an Irish editor and writer of both fiction and journalism. Coming from a background in education and film, his passions are split between the environmental and the entertaining. Constantly striving for a more sustainable existence and trying to balance it while simultaneously buying too many books.