Anning’s ichthyosaur has been rediscovered, in a way, 71 years after its fossil was destroyed in London.
Mary Anning, an early paleontologist, discovered and excavated a small fossil in 1818 in southern England. It was complete and clear, appearing to be something between a caiman and a fish, and helped fan the early flames of interest in paleontology.
The anatomist Everard Home named it a Proteosaurus and wrote many papers about it, along with a detailed illustration. The fossil, a mere three feet long, was put in a collection of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and it stayed there for over a century. But in May 1941, the building where it was housed was hit by a Nazi bomb during the blitz, and the fossil was destroyed. Home’s drawing appeared to be all that remained of it.
In 2016, paleontologists Dean Lomax and Judy Massare were searching through the crated backlog of the Peabody Museum in Yale of other ichthyosaur fossils or fragments, when they found an old plaster cast.
“We both looked at each other, and we’re like, ‘Why does that seem familiar?’” Lomax told reporters. “There was just something about this cast.”
The cast, unlabeled and unattributed, was of Anning’s ichthyosaur. Lomax didn’t confirm his find until he’d returned to the U.K. It was a lightning stroke of luck.
Incredibly, three years later, lightning struck for Lomax again. He found a second cast of Anning’s ichthyosaur in the collection of Berlin’s Natural History Museum. This one was not only unattributed, there was no record of it at all in the museum’s files. This second cast was in better shape, and more detailed.
After the second find, Lomax and Massare together decided it was time to publish their findings. Their paper was published on Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science, a paywall-free publisher for scientific works.
A third, unconfirmed find was reported immediately after the publication, by a German paleontologist who read their paper, proving the value of writing what they knew.
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