On a beach in Dorset, a novice fossil digger discovered a brand-new species of prehistoric “sea dragon.” Thalassodraco etchesi, or Etches sea dragon, is the name given to the new two-meter-long ichthyosaur in honor of the fossil hunter Dr. Steve Etches who discovered it buried head-first in limestone.
Because of their propensity for having unusually huge teeth and eyes, ichthyosaurs are also known as sea dragons. Ichthyosaurs were not dinosaurs, despite the fact that they coexisted with reptiles at the same time.
Dr. Etches sent the specimen to the University of Portsmouth’s specialists for identification since he thought the teeth were peculiar. Megan Jacobs, a master’s student who has spent years studying ichthyosaurs, recognized it there as a new genus and species that existed 150 million years ago.
The discovery, which is by far the tiniest so far, is the fifth known ichthyosaur from the Late Jurassic period in the UK.
The fossil was discovered in a limestone known as the “white stone band” close to Kimmeridge Bay, which is a portion of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.
The bottom would have been a very soft ooze when the ichthyosaur died, allowing the front half of the animal to sink into the mud before scavengers arrived and devoured the tail end. It was maintained in remarkable conditions and even some of its soft tissues were preserved as a result of being buried in this manner.
“It was quite thrilling,” said Jacobs, “to compare it with those known from other Late Jurassic deposits across the world and not be able to discover a match.” Late Jurassic ichthyosaur skeletons are relatively uncommon in the UK.
“Thalassodraco etchesi is an exceptionally well-preserved ichthyosaur, and the preservation of its soft tissues makes it much more fascinating. Being granted the opportunity to describe this ichthyosaur was a true honour. Steve’s magnificent collection has many new and intriguing animals.
With a streamlined body for gliding through the water, big eyes for improved eyesight, and elongated jaws full of conical teeth, ichthyosaurs were highly adapted marine predators. These features made them ideal for hunting squid and fish that were slippery. The recently discovered species features small forelimbs, a deep ribcage, and hundreds of tiny, smooth teeth.
The specimen is on exhibit in the Etches Collection museum that Dr. Etches built in Dorset to hold the numerous discoveries he’s collected throughout a lifetime of fossil collecting.
The discovery of this ichthyosaur as a brand-new species for science has made Dr. Etches very happy, and I’m honored that it has been given my name. It’s great that new ichthyosaur species are continuously being discovered since it demonstrates how varied these amazing creatures were in the Late Jurassic oceans.