In the seaside village of Blue Anchor in Somerset, a remarkable discovery by an 11-year-old girl has unveiled a piece of Earth’s ancient history. 

An illustration of the ichthyosaur severnensis in its natural habitat. Photo: Gabriel Ugueto

In May 2020, Ruby Reynolds and her father, Justin Reynolds, stumbled upon several bone fragments embedded in rock on a beach in the southwest of England near the River Severn. 

The fossil turned out to be the jawbone of an ichthyosaur, an extinct marine reptile that first appeared 250 million years ago during the Mesozoic era. At 25 metres long, or the length of a modern-day blue whale, the ichthyosaur is the largest marine reptile to ever have been discovered.

The shape of the fossil, coupled with microscopic evidence of its collagen fibres, confirmed its identity as an ichthyosaur.  

The father and daughter, who hail from Braunton near the North Devon coast, reached out to Dr Dean Lomax, an award-winning palaeontologist, author, presenter, and world expert on ichthyosaurs. 

Dr Lomax studies the ichthyosaur at Berlin Natural History Museum. Photo: Dr Lomax Facebook page

Dr Lomax was struck by the similarity of the fossil to a less well-preserved jawbone that had been recovered by fossil collector Paul de la Salle in May 2016 along the coast of Lilstock.

“When Ruby and I found the first two pieces, we were very excited, as we realised that this was something important and unusual,” Mr Reynolds said. “When I found the back part of the jaw, I was thrilled, because that’s one of the defining parts of Paul’s earlier discovery.” 

Analysis of the two virtually identical specimens confirmed that they belonged to the same species of ichthyosaur. 

“To think that my discovery in 2016 would spark so much interest in these enormous creatures fills me with joy,” Mr de la Salle said. “When I found the first jawbone, I knew it was something special. To have a second that confirms our findings is incredible. I’m overjoyed.”

Throughout 2022, researchers continued to collect fossils and managed to piece together the ichthyosaur’s lower jawbone, which is believed to be at least seven feet long. 

By October 2022, the jawbone was reassembled, offering scientists a more complete picture of the ichthyosaur. 

“These jawbones provide tantalising evidence that perhaps one day a complete skull or skeleton of one of these giants might be found,” Dr Lomax said. “You never know.”

The findings were published in the scientific journal PLOS One in April 2024. Researchers proposed the name Ichthyotitan severnensis for the new species, meaning “giant fish lizard of the Severn”. 

Comparison between the ichthyosaur jawbone fossils and the same bones from orca-sized animals. Photo: Tony Jolliffe, BBC

The research paper details how it was in the Late Triassic period that the largest known ichthyosaur emerged, and bone analysis revealed that it was likely still growing at the time of death. 

This latest puzzle piece offers a window into the role that the prehistoric predator played in evolutionary history and sheds light on the marine ecosystem that it inhabited. 

“From the findings we can understand how evolutionary laws shaped life, what led life to be what it is now,” said Marcello Perillo, a research assistant at the University of Bonn in Germany and co-author of the study. 

“We can understand how changes in the environment recoil on ecological communities and predict future ecological developments in our current environment.” 

The Reynolds’s discovery has drawn parallels with the pioneering work of 19th-century palaeontologist and fossil collector Mary Annning who uncovered the first ichthyosaur fossil at just 12 years old, a discovery that first brought the species to scientists’ attention. 

The Ichthyotitan severnensis lived in the Triassic seas around 202 million years ago. Photo: Sergey Krasovskiy

Mary Anning’s fossil was found on a beach in southwestern England less than 50 miles away from where the Reynolds discovered the ichthyosaur bones. 

Reflecting on the journey of discovery, Dr Lomax said, “I was amazed by the find. In 2018, my team (including Paul de la Salle) studied and described Paul’s giant jawbone and we had hoped that one day another would come to light.

“This new specimen is more complete, better preserved, and shows that we now have two of these giant bones – called a surangular – that have a unique shape and structure. I became very excited, to say the least.” 

The fossils discovered by the Reynolds and Mr de la Salle are due to go on display in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. 

“I didn’t realise when I first found the piece of ichthyosaur bone how important it was and what it would lead to,” said Miss Reynolds. 

“I think the role that young people can play in science is to enjoy the journey of exploring, as you never know where a discovery may take you.”

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Zayna is a Content Editor at Salesforce Ben, a Freelance Writer at LeadGeneratorsDigital, and a Contributing Writer at Good News Shared. She hopes to cast light on the ripple effect of small acts of kindness that lead to great waves of change.

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