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Calling all amateur fossil collectors! Geologists appeal after new species of Ichthyosaur discovered in Scotland

A geologist at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences has encouraged fossil collectors to come forward with their finds, after a new species of marine reptile, described as ‘the size of a motor boat’, was discovered from fossils found on the Isle of Skye.

Dearcmhara shawcrossi image c. Todd Marshall

Dearcmhara shawcrossi image c. Todd Marshall

The fossils were collected at Bearreraig Bay by amateur collector Brian Shawcross in 1959, and have been analysed by a collaborative group of paelaeontologists, led by the University of Edinburgh. The group concluded they were evidence of a new species of Ichthyosaur, living around 170 million years ago in warm, shallow seas around Scotland. They have named the species Dearcmhara shawcrossi after their discoverer.

‘Without the generosity of the collector who donated the bones to a museum instead of keeping them or selling them, we would have never known that this amazing animal existed’ said Dr Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences. ‘We are honoured to name the new species after Mr. Shawcross and will do the same if any other collectors wish to donate new specimens!’

Ichthyosaurs first appeared around 250 million years ago, and survived until around 90 million years ago. Though they co-existed with dinosaurs, they were a separate vertebrate group, characterised by dolphin like features, with flippers, pointed head and long, fishlike bodies.

Dearchmhara shawcrossi lived during the Jurassic period; a time when much of Skye was under water. What was to become the UK was part of a large island positioned between the landmasses which eventually drifted apart to become Europe and North America.

Dr Brusatte said ‘during the time of dinosaurs, the waters of Scotland were prowled by big reptiles the size of motor boats. Their fossils are very rare, and only now, for the first time, we’ve found a new species that was uniquely Scottish.’

Members of the PalAlba palaeontology research group. Left to right: Mark Young, Nick Fraser, Neil Clark, Stig Walsh, Steve Brusatte, Tom Challands, Colin MacFadyen. Photo by Bill Crighton

Members of the PalAlba palaeontology research group. Left to right: Mark Young, Nick Fraser, Neil Clark, Stig Walsh, Steve Brusatte, Tom Challands, Colin MacFadyen. Photo by Bill Crighton

The team who analysed the finds, known as PalAlba, included scientists from the University of Edinburgh, National Museums Scotland, the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, Scottish National Heritage and Staffin Museum, Isle of Skyle.

Dr Nick Fraser, of National Museums Scotland, said ‘not only is this a very special discovery, but it also marks the beginning of a major new collaboration involving some of the most eminent palaeontologists in Scotland.’

If you want to see the finds, they will be exhibited at a one day fossil event at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh on Sunday, 18 January, 10am – 4pm. And if you want your name immortalised as the name of a species, you know what to do!

  • The results of the study are published by the Geological Society Publishing House in the Scottish Journal of Geology, a joint publication of the Geological Societies of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

 

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