You never know what you’re going to find in storage – photographs you forgot existed, clothing that’s become valuably vintage, the fossil of an extinct species that’s never been identified before. Admittedly, the latter hasn’t happened to most people, but that’s what happened to scientists at the University of Nottingham.
Dr. David Large, a geologist and Head of the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, has been with the university since 1995. Years ago, he visited primary schools and showed the children fossil specimens to encourage them to explore science and engineering. One of those fossils was recently rediscovered in a storeroom, where it had been sitting for years. Dr. Large recognized the uniqueness of the fossil and retrieved it, allowing scientists and paleontologists to study it more closely.
They discovered that the fossil belonged to a species of ichthyosaur, a type of marine reptile that lived from the early Triassic to late Cretaceous period, that had never been named. The fossil had never been studied closely, so the species remained unknown for years. Now the fossil holds the distinction of being a holotype, an original specimen that reveals a new species. The species was named Protoichthyosaurus applebyi, after Dr. Robert Appleby, the paleontologist who first announced the discovery of the genus Protoichthyosaurus in 1979.
The fossil came to light when Dr. Large was contacted in 2014 by Dean Lomax, a paleontologist and Visiting Scientist at the University of Manchester, who was looking for another ichthyosaur fossil. Lomax, along with Professor Judy Massare of the State University of New York and Rashmi Mistry, a former student at the University of Reading, studied the holotype and presented their findings in a recent paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.The fossil will be CT scanned to create digital images which can be further studied, and casting and 3D printing will be used to fill in its missing parts. The University of Nottingham is well versed in these technologies, housing a full additive manufacturing center, as well as their applications, showcased during the annual International Conference on Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing. In this use, technology will be used to fill out the complete fossil to show all of the extinct creature.
“When I first saw the fossil, I knew it was special and I am delighted that Dean has confirmed just how special it is,” said Dr. Large. “A new species of ichthyosaur is exciting and this particular one is a unique example of its kind. The fossil was a great way to introduce a young audience to science and it got many children asking the right questions about palaeontology. I’m delighted that we saved the fossil and it’s been great to have the faculty’s support in bringing this specimen to a wider audience. We’re now using the latest technology to find out more about this unique animal.”
According to Lomax, Protoichthyousaurus applebyi would have lived about 200 million years ago, in the early Jurassic period. It was small- to medium-sized for an ichthyosaur, measuring less than two meters in length, and could be found in large numbers in the seas around Britain during the time of the dinosaurs.
“As part of our study we have identified over 20 specimens of Protoichthyosaurus, but only one example of P. applebyi, making this the only known specimen recorded so far,” said Lomax. “I’m confident that there will be more out there… As part of the wider study, Protoichthyosaurus has improved our understanding of the evolutionary changes in the forefins of ichthyosaurs, which set it apart from other species.”
Currently, the fossil is on display as part of the Dinosaurs of China exhibition at Nottingham Lakeside Arts.
“I am delighted with today’s announcement that a new species of ichthyosaur has been discovered in the University’s collections. This is not the kind of thing that engineering faculties report every day and it’s the first time that our Faculty can claim to have discovered a new species. David’s passion for geology helped him to recognise the fossil’s importance. The Faculty has carefully restored the fossil and categorised it with information on what it is, where it came from and how it lived,” said Professor Andy Long, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Engineering.
“We get visiting researchers from all over the world to share their expertise with our staff and students, including Dean and Judy who came to examine, photograph and document the specimen in greater detail. All these studies form the basis of a constantly growing research effort here at Nottingham.”
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