Casts of ancient sea monsters destroyed in World War II raids discovered

Plaster casts of the first complete ichthyosaur have been unearthed in the US and Germany, decades after the original fossils were destroyed in an air raid during World War II.

The discovery by Dean Lomax and Judy Massare has revealed new information about this historically significant sea monster.

“Ichthyosaurus was an extinct species of ancient marine reptile that lived in the Jurassic seas,” Lomax said news week. “Six species are currently known, including Ichthyosaurus anningaewhich Professor Massare and I named after Mary Anning in 2015.”

Dean Lomax with a cast of
Photo of Dean Lomax with a cast of ‘Proteosaurus’ now known as Ichthyosaurus. It was rediscovered in the collections of the Natural History Museum, Berlin, Germany.
Dean Lomax

Anning was a pioneering paleontologist in 19th-century Britain who is believed to have discovered the first such fossil. “The original specimen represented the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur brought to the attention of science,” said Lomax.

The fossil was first identified in 1818 at Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. At that time it was said proteosauruswhich was later changed to Ichthyosaurus.

In 1819, Sir Everard Home, who examined the fossil, published an article detailing his findings. It included an illustration of William Clift’s original skeleton, which until recently was the only visual evidence we had of the ichthyosaur.

The enigmatic creature had a long, fish-like body but a distinctly reptilian skull that caught the attention of naturalists, scientists, and collectors at a time before the word “dinosaur” was even invented. While some ichthyosaur species would have been only about 3 feet long, others would have measured more than 85 feet in length.

“Having these casts means we now have a three-dimensional copy of the original fossil that was destroyed,” Lomax said. “This allows us to see features of the original specimen that up to this point could only be seen in a single illustration in 1819. This means we can now verify the authenticity of the original image and compare it to the newly discovered casts.

“Our research has shown that there are discrepancies between the casts and the original illustration. For example, we were able to identify additional bones in the casts that were not previously identified, such as bones from the pelvis.”

Drawing and casts of ichthyosaurs
Original drawing by William Clift of “Proteosaurus”, courtesy of the Royal Society of London, and two recently discovered casts. Previously, it was assumed that no copies of the fossil existed.
Dean Lomax/Royal Society

Before these discoveries, it was thought that no copies of the ichthyosaur skeleton existed.

“During a 2016 research trip to the United States, Professor Judy Massare and I searched the collections of Yale University’s Yale Peabody Museum and found the first known cast,” Lomax said.

“In December 2019, accompanied by Natalie Turner, I was on a research trip to the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, where I found the second specimen in the museum’s collections.”

The casts were made at different times. The Berlin cast was the more pristine of the two, but the Yale cast is believed to have been made in the years immediately following its discovery, more than two centuries ago.

Lomax and Massare published their findings in an article published in the journal Open Science of the Royal Society. Casts of ancient sea monsters destroyed in World War II raids discovered

Rick Schindler

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