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The first complete skeleton of a prehistoric marine reptile was thought to have been lost forever in a bombing in London in 1941.
Paleontologist Mary Anning discovered the ichthyosaur fossil in 1818, two decades before the word dinosaur entered our lexicon.
The ancient marine reptiles were called ichthyosaurs or “lizard fish”. because these they resembled a cross between the two strange looking creatures. Anning’s fossil was dated to between 190 million and 195 million years old.
“The original fossil was very significant in that it was the first complete prehistoric reptile fossil skeleton to be found at the time,” said Dr Dean Lomax, palaeontologist and visiting scientist at the University of Manchester.
Although the actual bones are long gone, a chance discovery has resurrected Anning’s famous fossil.
Two plaster casts were made of the skeleton. But unrecorded, the actors remained hidden until two scientists stumbled upon them in recent years: in New Haven, Connecticut, and in Berlin.
Anning grew up in Lyme Regis, England, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site It is called the Jurassic Coast, and fossil discoveries are still made today. Anning and his older brother, Joseph, searched the seashore for fossils as children.
The scientific community learned it for the first time Anning’s first complete ichthyosaur skeleton, then named Proteosaurus, was examined in 1819 by the British surgeon Sir Everard Home. and published his findings. The locals thought it was a monster and the scientists thought it was a crocodile.
“The science of paleontology was in its infancy, and this discovery, among other things, sparked widespread interest in studying these remarkable fossils,” said Lomax, author of a study on the calcium discovery. by e-mail “His many discoveries continued to add many more pieces to the giant prehistoric puzzle that began to come together in the early 19th century.”
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James Birch, an avid fossil collector, acquired the fossil from Anning and sold it to the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1820, hoping to raise money for Anning and his family. The fossil was still at the university when it was destroyed by air raids during World War II.
The only record left it was an original illustration of the fossil from 1819—or so scientists thought.
Lomax and Judy Massare, professor emeritus of the State University of New York at Brockport, made the first discovery of an actor during a 2016 research trip to Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.
“Peabody’s curatorial staff assumed that the specimen was an actual ichthyosaur fossil and not a plaster cast painted to look like the original fossil” from which it was fashioned. Daniel Brinkman, assistant professor of vertebrate paleontology at the Yale Peabody Museum, said in a statement.
The staff knew that a Yale professor, Charles Schuchert, had purchased the specimen from the estate of Frederick A. Braun, a professional collector and dealer. Schuchert gave it to Peabody in 1930, but there were no details of who made the cast or when, or how Braun acquired the cast.
Lomax and Massare found a match when they compared the actor to the 1819 illustration.
In 2019, the couple met a second actor in Berlin Natural History Museum. After examining the Yale actor in detail, Lomax said he “knew right away what it was, and I had a huge smile on my face.”
The actors in Berlin were in better shape. Researchers believe this is because the two actors were made at different times and the Yale actor is older.
“When Dr. Lomax visited our collections, he kept asking me for information about this cast and I couldn’t help him much because of the lack of records and specimen (labeling),” said Dr. Daniela Schwarz, head of science. collection of fossil reptiles in the Berlin museum, in a note.
“So when I found out about the result of his detective work and that the actors of this important issue have been in our collections for more than a century, I was really surprised! This discovery once again shows that even unspecified and cast material in a natural history collection over the centuries needs to be carefully preserved, because eventually there will always be someone who discovers its scientific value!
The Berlin actor also joined the 1819 illustration.
“Now, with two actors, we can verify the reliability of the original illustration compared to the actors,” Massare said in a news release. “We’ve identified a couple of bones missing from Home, and we’ve found some discrepancies between the drawing and the plays.”
An examination Lomax and Massare published Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science describing the actors and their importance. It is one of the journals of The Royal Society, and he also published the first article on it the discovery of the skeleton in 1819.
Lomax and Massare have found other examples of funds that have been hidden in museum collections, losing importance over time.
“We hope that the discovery of these two plays will encourage curators and researchers to take a closer look at old plays in museum collections,” said Massare.
Just because the actors are unidentified doesn’t mean they aren’t important, Lomax said. Instead, they emphasize why museums are so crucial.
“When you visit a museum collection, you never know what you might find,” said Lomax, author of “Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils.”
Meanwhile, Lomax is spending his time studying the Rutland Sea Dragon, the most complete skeleton of a large ichthyosaur ever found in the UK, which is 32.8ft (10m) long.
Anning has been a hero to Lomax, and his pioneer the work still inspires. He and Massare named a previously undiscovered ichthyosaur species after Anning in 2015, known as Ichthyosaurus anningae.
“Mary was a true pioneering paleontologist, her discoveries truly changed the world,” Lomax said. “His knowledge was superior to anyone working on these fossils at the time and he was the expert of his time.”