After approximately 200 million years in the Earth, a dino-era ichthyosaur fossil surfaced after heavy storms rocked the southwest coast of England on Dec. 26, reported the BBC. Then the fossil nearly crumbled into the sea as another storm rumbled in with high waves.
However, fossil hunters excavated the remains of the extinct dolphin-like reptile (ichthyosaur is Greek for “fish lizard”) approximately eight hours before the storm hit. Had the storm hit before the excavation was complete, the crumbling rock of the cliff could have collapsed and destroyed the fossil.
“There was a very difficult, short window before another storm blew in so we were limited for time before it got ploughed out,” professional fossil hunter Paul Crossley, who was involved in the excavation, told the BBC.
The ichthyosaur fossil measured 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and included most of the ancient animals’ bones, making it one of only a few nearly-complete fossils found in the region during the past decade, according to Crossley. The region along the Dorset coast of the U.K. where the ichthyosaur excavation occurred goes by the name of Jurassic Coast, and is a U.N. World Heritage Site.
The Jurassic Coast holds a hallowed place in the history of ichthyosaurs. In the early 1800s, siblings Mary and Joseph Anning discovered a 17-foot-long (5.2 meter) fossil of an unknown beast in the cliffs of Charmouth, Dorset, near where the storm-threatened fossil rescue occurred. Continued fossil finds by Mary Anning informed the first published scientific description of the ichthiosaurs in 1821.
For two centuries, paleontologists and fossil hunters have been digging ichthyosaurs, long-necked pleisiosaurs and other extinct creatures from the Jurassic Coast. Last year, heavy storms exposed three ichthyosaurs, a higher number that usual, Richard Edmonds, the earth science manager for the World Heritage Site, told the BBC. Normally a discovery is made only approximately every other year.
Photo: Ichthyosaurus breviceps was one of the smallest members of the genus Ichthyosaurus measuring only 1.5 m (5 ft.) in length. Credit: © N. Tamura