Plans for newly discovered ‘sea dragon’ fossil to be displayed in Rutland - Museums Association

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Plans for newly discovered ‘sea dragon’ fossil to be displayed in Rutland

UK's largest ever ichthyosaur specimen was unearthed in the county last year
Philippa Kelly
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An aerial shot of the Rutland 'sea dragon'
An aerial shot of the Rutland 'sea dragon' Anglian Water

Stakeholders are hoping to secure funding to display the fossilised remains of the largest ichthyosaur ever discovered in the UK close to where it was found in Rutland.

Rutland Water Reserve and Nature Park announced the find this week, revealing that the 180-million-year-old specimen, nicknamed the “Rutland sea dragon”, was first identified during a routine draining operation at the site in February 2021.

Anglian Water, which owns and operates Rutland Water Reserve and Nature Park, received funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to complete the excavation and conserve the specimen across the next 12 to 18 months.

In future, stakeholders including Rutland County Council and Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust, hope funding can be secured to return the skeleton to Rutland, for display at the reserve, county museum or other local location.

Peter Simpson, CEO of Anglian Water, said: “The correct preservation and conservation of something so scientifically valuable and part of our history, is as important to us as ensuring our pipes and pumps are fit and resilient for the future. 

“We also recognise the significance a find like this will have for the local community in Rutland. Our focus now is to secure the right funding to guarantee its legacy will last into the future.”

Close-up image of the excavation site, showing the ichthyosaurs 2 metre long skull.
The ichthyosaur skeleton mid-excavation Anglian Water

Measuring around 10 metres in length and with a skull weighing approximately one tonne, the specimen is the most complete ichthyosaur skeleton to be discovered in the UK to date. 

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Following the discovery of the specimen, excavation took place during August and September 2021, carried out by a team of expert palaeontologists from across the UK.

The team included Emma Nicholls, senior curator of natural sciences at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, who described living on-site and working 12-hour days to complete the project.

“Living and breathing ichthyosaur for that intense amount of time, when the dig was finished, watching the last bit of the skeleton going off into the distance on the back of a flatbed lorry was a bit emotional. It's like a part of our life had been taken away,” Nicholls said.

Palaeontological conservator Nigel Larkin works to excavate the skeleton.
Conservator Nigel Larkin plaster jacketing the specimen Anglian Water

Currently, the specimen is residing in a secret location, in the care of specialist palaeontological conservator Nigel Larkin, who worked alongside Nicholls on the excavation. 

Ensuring funding is secured to prepare and eventually display the ichthyosaur – hopefully in Rutland – is an important next step in the ongoing project, says Nicholls.  

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She said: “I think it's really important for any museum, including the Horniman Museum where I'm from, to connect with the local community. It gives people that visit the museum a feeling of identity and a feeling of having a relationship with the collections that are on their doorstep.

“And ultimately, that feeds back to the museum in a positive way, because it means that in some way, they become custodians of the collection as well.”

Academic papers on the specimen are expected to be published in the future. Footage of the excavation can be seen on BBC Two’s current series of Digging for Britain.

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