Palaeontologist Dean Lomax with the rediscovered Ichthyosaur fossil

Q&A with Dean Lomax

Geraldine Kendall, 04.03.2015
The palaeontologist who discovered a new species of ichthyosaur at Doncaster Museum
It was revealed last month that a new species of ichthyosaur – the extinct marine reptile that lived in the era of the dinosaurs – had been discovered in the collections of Doncaster Museum.

Originally mislabelled as a plaster cast, the ichthyosaur fossil first came to the attention of palaeontologist Dean Lomax while he was studying the museum's collections seven years ago.

Lomax, who is an honorary palaeontologist at the University of Manchester, spent the following years conducting extensive research to confirm the discovery. This included removing some bones from the specimen with the help of a grant from the Museums Association's Esmée Fairbairn-funded Effective Collections scheme.

The fossil is estimated to be 182-189 million years old.

Museums Journal spoke to Lomax about his findings and the impact that funding cuts are having on collections research.

How did you first come to suspect that there was something different about this fossil?
 
In 2008, when I first saw this specimen, it was shown to me as an “exceptional cast”. However, I immediately recognised it was original and even identified preserved stomach contents, which formed part of a research project that was published in 2010.

It was during those two years, while examining the specimen in more detail, that I determined various portions of the specimen (the morphology of certain elements) and the age (Early Jurassic, Pliensbachian) as unusual.

How did your research progress to the point that you were able to confirm the fossil as a new species?

As I had noticed potentially unusual features that may hint at something new, I began to collaborate with Judy Massare, a professor at the State University of New York. After researching the specimen further, we noted additional features that we deemed to be unique.

We had the humeri (upper forefin–arm) bones removed from the specimen in order to examine them in three dimension, paid for as part of an Effective Collections grant awarded to Doncaster Museum Service.

Upon confirmation of these unusual features, we then set out on a long voyage. We visited countless museums across the UK, Europe and the US, comparing the Doncaster specimen with up to a thousand ichthyosaurs. We were able to determine the Doncaster specimen as a new species and find an additional four specimens that were referable to the new species.

Do you think museums are doing enough to realise the full research potential of their collections and forge strong links with research institutions?
 
Yes and no, but there is a reason for the latter. To explain, some museums, especially the smaller, local museums, lack the curatorial expertise to recognise and identify specimens in collections. Unfortunately, there is a severe lack of palaeontologists and geologists in museums.
 
Museums (at least those I have visited) are doing everything that is financially possible to promote their collections; members of staff are stretched so thin. But, alas, most museums must now rely upon assistance from externally funded sources.
 
Doncaster Museum, where the studied specimen is stored, received external funding in order to assess and fully review its entire palaeontology collection, making it accessible for all. Prior to this, the collection was simply in poor condition to which access was not really possible: a “closed collection”.
 
It is such funding that is vitally important to museum collections and their future longevity. It is a shame that such projects cannot be funded from within, as with externally funded projects museums are essentially competing against one another.
 
I feel there would be far stronger links between museums and scientists or universities if this were the case, and far more exciting and surprising rediscoveries would be made.

Have funding cuts made it more difficult for palaeontologists and other scientists to conduct research into museum collections?

Yes, they certainly have. As briefly touched upon above, the lack of funding means the lack of an appropriately curated and maintained collection, which results in information being lost or incorrectly recorded, or specimens simply undervalued, albeit unintentionally.

The primary concerns are: lack of specialist staff in museums – indeed, professionally employed museum palaeontologists have become a rare breed; and funding cuts that mean collections are currently undervalued, uncatalogued, unstudied, and are simply unknown in the wider palaeontological community.
 
The rediscovery of the ichthyosaur at Doncaster Museum demonstrates the severity that funding cuts have on museums and their respective collections: a specimen originally identified as real, then misidentified as a cast, has now been re-identified and become the holotype of a new species.

What collection would you most like to have a look through next, and why?

Great question! I’ve had the privilege of looking through most palaeontological collections in the UK, which in reality have so many hidden gems, but I’d probably like to focus on a collection similar to Doncaster, where the palaeontological collection was unexamined.

I’m not quite sure what collection that is – I’m sure that museum is out there, I just need to find it. In fact, if museum members reading this have a palaeontology collection that needs examining, please do get in touch. Who knows what else may be out there.

A paper on the findings, entitled A new species of Ichthyosaurus from the lower Jurassic of West Dorset, England, will be published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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