The Ichthyosaurus or ‘sea dragon’ fossil was found in the mid-1990s but remained unstudied until recently when experts made a startling discovery.
According to a press release on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) website, after closer examination of the fossil, scientists learned that the beast was pregnant. This makes it the third-known example on record of an Ichthyosaurus with an embryo.
The AAAS added that the beast was the largest on record, measuring between 3 and 3.5 meters in length and it was discovered on the Somerset Coast. It was part of the collections of the Lower Saxony State Museum in Hannover, Germany and remained unstudied until earlier this year. In 2016, Sven Sachs, a paleontologist at Germany’s Bielefeld Natural History Museum spotted the specimen on a routine visit and collaborated with Dean Lomax, a University of Manchester palaeontologist and ichthyosaur expert, to examine the specimen.
The embryo was incomplete and still developing, according to the AAAS. It also contained a portion of its backbone, a forefin, ribs and a few other bones. The vertebrae measured 7 cm. Also surprising is the specimen’s tail, which was found not to belong to the remains of the skeleton, but from a separate Ichthyosaurus and added to make the skeleton appear more intact.
Sachs told the AAAS: "It was not 'put together' to represent a fake, but simply for a better display specimen. But, if 'fake' portions remain undetected then scientists can fall foul to this, which results in false information presented in the published record.”
The species is one of the most common fossil reptiles in the UK, according to the AAAS. Thousands of its specimens are known and range from isolated bones to complete skeletons.
The team estimated that the female specimen hails from the early Jurassic period and is roughly 200 million years old.