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Huge sea dragon fossil from 180 million years ago uncovered in England

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The remnants of a 33-foot-long (10-meter) "sea dragon" that swam in the oceans when dinosaurs were alive 180 million years ago have been discovered on an English nature reserve. The behemoth is the largest and most complete fossil of its kind ever found in the United Kingdom.

"It is an unusual discovery and one of the greatest finds in British paleontological history," said excavation leader Dean Lomax, a paleontologist and visiting scientist at the University of Manchester.

Though several such ichthyosaurs have been discovered in the United Kingdom, none have been as huge as the current one.

Ichthyosaurs are an extinct order, or large group, of marine reptiles that emerged around 250 million years ago in the Triassic period and vanished from the fossil record 90 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period. They had long snouts and resembled modern-day dolphins.

The recently discovered fossil belonged to a big ichthyosaur called Temnodontosaurus trigonodon, which is the first time this species has been discovered in the United Kingdom. According to the announcement, Joe Davis, a conservation team leader for the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, discovered the ichthyosaur on the Rutland Water Nature Reserve in the East Midlands in January 2021.

Davis was strolling across a drained lagoon with Paul Trevor, who also works for the trust on the reserve when he noticed what appeared to be clay pipes jutting out of the muck and told Trevor they looked like vertebrae. Davis was no stranger to marine creature skeletons, having discovered whale and dolphin remains while working on the Hebrides, a group of islands off the coast of northwest Scotland.

"We followed what appeared to be a spine, then Paul [Trevor] spotted something farther along that could have been a jawbone," Davis explained. "It was hard for us to believe."

Archaeologists excavated the fossil in 2021 between August and September. The discovery will be featured on a British television series called "Digging for Britain," which will show on BBC Two in the United Kingdom on Tuesday (Jan. 11).

According to the announcement, archaeologists are still investigating and conserving the ichthyosaur fossil, and scholarly articles about the discovery would be published in the future, though no timeline was mentioned.