The first complete ichthyosaur skeleton, believed to have been discovered by fossil hunter Mary Anning, was thought to have been lost forever when German bombs rained down on London during World War II.
But two plaster casts of the distinctive dolphin-like reptile have now been unearthed, although there was no trace of their making.
Researchers Dean Lomax, from the University of Manchester in northwest England, and Judy Massare, from the State University of New York, described the findings as “historically significant”.
“The specimen was the first skeleton of an extinct marine reptile in the scientific literature and the most complete ichthyosaur skeleton known at the time,” they said.
A cast, found at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University in the United States, is believed to be a “cast of a cast” and was donated to the institution in 1930.
He mentions that it is an ichthyosaur specimen from Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, southern England, where Anning and his family went fossil hunting in the early 19th century. .
The other, in the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, says only that it is a “plaster cast of an ichthyosaur skeleton from an unknown location”.
Lomax and Massare wrote in the newspaper Royal Society Open Science posted on Wednesday that the latter was in excellent condition and likely to be further cast using newer methods as it was more detailed.
Comparisons of the two casts led researchers to conclude that it was the lost ichthyosaur skeleton purchased for £100 by the Royal College of Surgeons after it was not auctioned by Anning in 1820.
The sum now equates to nearly £7,500 (US$8,600).
“Given that the original was destroyed during World War II, it is somewhat ironic that the cast in better condition is in the Berlin museum,” the researchers noted.
Ichthyosaurus, whose name translates to “lizard fish”, was part of a larger group called ichthyosaurs that were distant relatives of lizards and snakes.
They lived between 251 million and 65.5 million years ago and were common in the Jurassic period, which began around 200 million years ago.
Well-preserved fossils have been found in Germany and England.
They were about three meters (10 feet) long, with four fins, large eyes, a pointed snout, and rows of sharp teeth.
Although they lived in water, they breathed air and would not have had the ability to survive on land.
Ammonite, a fictional film inspired by Anning’s life, was released in 2020 starring Kate Winslet.
© Agence France-Presse