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A new type of prehistoric ‘sea dragon’ has been found off the coast of Dorset. The fossilised remains of a two-metre-long ichthyosaurus was discovered buried head-first in a bed of limestone near Kimmeridge Bay – part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site in Dorset.
Ichthyosaurs, an extinct group of marine reptiles, are known as sea dragons due to their huge bulging eyes and mouths full of teeth.
This newly discovered species of ichthyosaur has been called Thalassodraco etchesi, or the ‘Etches sea dragon’, named after its discoverer Dr Steve Etches MBE.
Dr Etches passed his discovery on to experts at the University of Portsmouth, who were able to piece together the history of the Etches sea dragon.
Masters student Megan Jacobs was able to identify the ancient beast as a new genus and species of ichthyosaur which lived 150 million years ago.
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The find is the UK’s fifth known ichthyosaur from the Late Jurassic period.
According to researchers, when the reptile died 150 million years ago, the seafloor was a soft ‘ooze’ of limestone.
Its head would have buried in the seabed, while scavengers would have come along and eaten its back half.
As a result, the front of the Etches sea dragon is extremely well preserved, according to the research published in the journal PLOS One.
Ms Jacobs said: “Skeletons of Late Jurassic ichthyosaurs in the UK are extremely rare, so, after doing some research, comparing it with those known from other Late Jurassic deposits around the world, and not being able to find a match was very exciting.
“Thalassodraco etchesi is a beautifully preserved ichthyosaur, with soft tissue preservation making it all the more interesting.
“Steve’s incredible collection contains many new and exciting animals, and being given the chance to describe this ichthyosaur was a real privilege.”
According to the research, the Etches sea dragon has a deep rib cage, small forelimbs and hundreds of tiny, delicate, smooth teeth.
Professor David Martill, who leads the vertebrate palaeontology research at the University of Portsmouth, said: “Steve is an exceptional fossil collector and although he is sometimes referred to as an amateur collector, he has done so much for palaeontology that he has been awarded an MBE, and is truly a pro.
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“If it were not for collectors like Steve, scientists would have very few specimens to work on.
“There are a number of things that make this animal special, not least of which is its unusual rib cage and small flippers.
“It may have swum with a distinctive style from other ichthyosaurs.”
Dr Etches said: “I’m very pleased that this ichthyosaur has been found to be new to science, and I’m very honoured for it to be named after me.
“It’s excellent that new species of ichthyosaurs are still being discovered, which shows just how diverse these incredible animals were in the Late Jurassic seas.”
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