Digging History

Skeleton of prehistoric 'sea monster' found in Scotland

An artist's rendering of the ichthyosaur.

An artist's rendering of the ichthyosaur.  (Todd Marshall)

Move over, Nessie– there’s a new monster in town. This week, researchers in Scotland unveiled the fossilized skeleton of “the Storr Lochs Monster”– a Jurassic–era predator known as an ichthyosaur that roamed the oceans 170 million years ago.

It’s the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric sea reptile ever found in Scotland and is being hailed as the “crown jewel” of Scottish fossils.

The story of the skeleton’s discovery begins in 1966 on the Isle of Skye, when an amateur fossil hunter named Norrie Gillies came upon the rock–embedded bones while walking the beach near the SSE Storr Lochs Power Station he managed.

“They were sticking out of the rock in the tidal zone, so they would have been covered by water much of the day,” Dr. Stephen Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, told FoxNews.com. “The bones are chocolate brown and [would have stood] out from the much paler–colored rock.”

Gillies, who died in 2011, notified the local science community of his find. After unearthing the rocks, they were moved to a National Museums Scotland storage facility, where they sat for a good 50 years.

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“Back in the1960s there were two problems: the bones were in such hard rock that there wasn't the expertise to prepare them out of the rock, and there also weren't many (or any) vertebrate paleontologists in Scotland to study it,” Brusatte said, regarding the long storage period. “The museum did exactly what museums are supposed to do: preserve important historical and cultural specimens so they can be studied. That study doesn't always happen right after those specimens are found; sometimes it takes a little time.”

That time came in the past few years, when Brusatte and other paleontologists rediscovered the skeleton and set out to finally separate bone from stone. They hired one of the world's best fossil conservators, Nigel Larkin, to free the bones from the sedimentary rock using techniques that weren’t around back in the ‘60s. With the fossil now ready for study, it only took a short while for Brusatte and his team to realize that they had a near–complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur on their hands.

“Ichthyosaurs have very distinctive bones, most notably vertebrae that look like ashtrays,” Brusatte explained. “That is what told us immediately that the fossil is an ichthyosaur.”

A cousin of the dinosaur, ichthyosaurs looked like reptile versions of dolphins with their long snouts full of tiny teeth, flippers, and streamlined bodies. The Storr Lochs Monster would have been about 10 to 13 feet long, which Brusatte called a “middle of the road ichthyosaur,” as some could get up to 15 feet or so. It would have survived on a diet of fish and squid.

Now that the skeleton has been identified, Brusatte and his team plan on figuring out what species of ichthyosaur the Storr Lochs Monster is and if it can shed some light on how the dino–cousins evolved during the mysterious Middle Jurassic period. Not much is known about this particular time in history, and the Isle of Skye is currently one of the few places on Earth where Middle Jurassic–era fossils can be found, a fact Brusatte attributes to luck.

“170 million years ago, Skye was part of a small island perched in the middle of the Atlantic,” he said. “There were big rivers coursing across the land, which flowed past lagoons before emptying into the sea. Lots of animals lived in these environments, and they are perfect environments for preserving rocks. Put those two things together and Skye is a gold mine for Middle Jurassic fossils.”

Once analysis of the skeleton is finished, the Storr Lochs Monster will be shown at various locations around Scotland.