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Museum’s ichthyosaur fossil identified as new species

Dinosaur fossils

A 200-million year old fossil on show at Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery has been officially recognised as a whole new species.

The fossil of an ichthyosaur – an extinct marine reptile alive at the same time as the dinosaurs – has belonged to the museum collections since 1951, but recent examinations by a palaeontologist has have revealed the specimen is a unique new species.

Palaeontologist and Honorary Scientist at The University of Manchester, Dean Lomax, studied the ichthyosaur fossil on a visit to New Walk Museum and spotted unusual features which marked it out as a previously unknown species of the marine reptile.

This fossil, which was originally discovered in a Nottinghamshire quarry by Loughborough geologist Percy Faulkes, is from the earliest part of the Jurassic Period - 200 million years ago.

The discovery is particularly significant because it adds to the number of ichthyosaur species known from this time period, when they were recovering from mass extinction.

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

This week the fossil was put on public display as part of the museum’s dinosaur gallery.

Dean Lomax said: “When I first saw this specimen, I knew it was unusual.
“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.”

Similar-shaped to dolphins and sharks, ichthyosaurs - often misidentified as ‘swimming dinosaurs’ - swam the seas of the Earth for millions of years during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

This specimen is relatively complete, with a partial skeleton including a skull, chest bones, limbs, pelvis, ribs and vertebrae. The bones are described as being ‘disorderly’, suggesting that the dead creature may have nosedived into the seabed before it became fossilised.

Dr Mark Evans, palaeontologist and curator at New Walk Museum, added: “Parts of the skeleton had previously been on long-term loan to ichthyosaur specialist and former museum curator Dr Robert Appleby, and had only returned to the museum in 2004 after he sadly passed away.

“He was clearly intrigued by the specimen, and although he worked on it for many years, he had identified it as a previously known species but never published his findings.

"We had been calling it the 'Faulkes ichthyosaur', so it's good that it has got a proper name at last."

Dean has named the new species Wahlisaurus massarae in honour of two palaeontologists (Professor Judy Massare and Bill Wahl) who have contributed significantly to the study of ichthyosaurs, and who first introduced Dean to studying them.

Leicester assistant city mayor for culture, leisure and sport, Cllr Piara Singh Clair, added: “The museum’s dinosaur gallery is a much-loved attraction, and it is wonderful to know that one of the museum’s specimens has helped improve understanding of this prehistoric species.

“With the item now on show in the museum, it’s a great opportunity for visitors to see the ichthyosaur for themselves.”