A paleontologist with the University of Manchester, England, has made the discovery of a lifetime — twice. Dean Lomax, who is an expert in ichthyosaurs and British dinosaurs, has recently come across an incredibly rare ichthyosaur fossil in Somerset.
The ichthyosaur fossil belongs to a rare species of “sea monster” known as Wahlisaurus massarae, and is, in fact, only the second known specimen of the entire species, according to a news release issued by the university.
In a serendipitous twist of fate, the first Wahlisaurus massarae specimen ever to be discovered was also found by Lomax, just four years ago.
Lomax identified (and named) the new species after analyzing an ichthyosaur fossil seen on display in 2014 at the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, in Leicester. That first specimen of Wahlisaurus massarae was “a partial skeleton and skull,” according to an article Lomax recently wrote for Capeia.
The paleontologist described the new species in a study published in 2016 the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. In the paper, Lomax explains that the ichthyosaur fossil found in 2014 had unusual features which pointed to a completely different species from other documented ichthyosaurs — large marine reptiles that shared the planet with dinosaurs.
One characteristic of the bones in particular, namely a “hole” he discovered in the coracoid bone (part of the pectoral girdle), led him to believe he had uncovered a distinct ichthyosaur species, which he named — as Lomax himself revealed — “in honor of two colleagues and mentors, Bill Wahl and Prof. Judy Massare.”
But, while Lomax was certain he had found a new ichthyosaur species, other paleontologists argued that the 2014 fossil was nothing more than a “variation of an existing species.”
After all, ichthyosaur fossils are a common find in the United Kingdom, where they have been discovered by the thousands, Lomax shows in his 2016 study. In fact, he himself has documented five different species of ichthyosaurs.
“When Wahlisaurus was announced, I was a little nervous about what other paleontologists would make of it, considering the new species was known only from a single specimen,” Lomax confessed in a statement.
These concerns have now been finally put to rest, since Lomax has stumbled upon the same peculiar feature in another ichthyosaur fossil, this time in a private collection in Somerset. This second occurrence of the unusual hole in the coracoid bone suggests the two fossils belong to the same rare species, Wahlisaurus massarae, thereby confirming Lomax’s discovery from four years ago.
The newfound fossil — an almost complete coracoid bone dated back 200 million years, to the end of the Triassic and the beginning of the Jurassic — resided in the private collection of Simon Carpenter, where Lomax spotted it 22 years after it was first unearthed in a quarry in Somerset.
“You can only imagine my sheer excitement to find a specimen of Wahlisaurus in Simon’s collection. It was such a wonderful moment,” Lomax remarked.
Shortly after being identified by Lomax as a Wahlisaurus massarae sample — the second known to science — Carpenter donated the ichthyosaur fossil to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, notes the news release.
In Lomax’s opinion, this second specimen of Wahlisaurus massarae validates his prior research.
“The discovery of the second specimen of Wahlisaurus has helped to add further credibility to my identification of Wahlisaurus massarae as a distinct ichthyosaur,” he wrote in the article.
“Hopefully, more complete remains will one day turn up. Maybe one with a few embryos. One can only hope,” Lomax added.
The paleontologist has published a second paper on this rare ichthyosaur species, describing the Somerset fossil, which was featured on February 1 in the Geological Journal.
Although researchers have estimated the newly discovered ichthyosaur fossil is 200-million-years-old, they can’t pinpoint whether the bone comes from the late Triassic or the early Jurassic. The most accurate classification places the fossil at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, soon after a mass extinction event.