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Another new ichthyosaur in the golden age of Jurassic discovery
Time:16-01-2015  Hits:5

   Jurassic Park is alive and well and found in Scotland. A 4.2 metre ichthyosaur fossil on the Isle of Skye has been identified as a new species of sea-going reptile, dating back roughly 170 million years – slap-bang in the middle of the Jurassic period.

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    The creature – named Dearcmhara, Scottish Gaelic for “marine lizard” – apparently hunted fish and its fellow reptiles in what in those days were nice warm seas off Scotland’s west coast.

    It has been described as a cross between a dolphin and a crocodile – although given its appearance and location, Nessie’s distant ancestor might be more appropriate.

    The timing of Dearcmhara’s appearance is perfect – and not just because Jurassic World is out soon. This is also an election year, and so the discovery of a “uniquely Scottish” ichthyosaur must be cause for nationalist celebration.

    Identifying the reptile was not easy: scientists at the University of Edinburgh and the National Museums Scotland had to piece it together from a few fossilised fragments of teeth and vertebrae – like doing a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing.

   They only have the bones at all thanks to amateur fossil-hunter Brian Shawcross, who first came across them back in 1959. His efforts are commemorated in the species’ scientific name, Dearcmhara shawcrossi.

Dearcmhara isn’t the only ancient species to have been discovered recently. Back in 2008, it was announced that a new species of turtle – perhaps the earliest to live in water – had been found, also on Skye. And the footprints of an even older lizard known as the “hand-beast”, dating back about 270 million years to the Permian period, also roamed this part of the world.

Such dramatic discoveries are nevertheless few and far between – or are they? The past few years have seen a fossil boom, perhaps even fuelled by the films, which researchers have described as “the golden age of discovery”. The number of newly discovered species, which used to average just over one per month, is currently running at one every week. Last year these included a tiny Arctic-dwelling dinosaur, Spinosaurus, the world’s first semi-aquatic dinosaur, and two of the biggest dinosaurs ever found, aptly known as “titanosaurs”, which would have tipped the scales at the weight of a dozen elephants.

And as the closing credits of the original Jurassic Park movie revealed, dinosaurs are still with us – it’s just that they have evolved feathers and become birds. And although the vast majority of the world’s ten thousand or so species of bird have now been discovered, there is always the chance that new ones will be found – even close to home.

In 1980, scientists announced that a new species of bird had been found – not in some distant South American rainforest, but in Scotland’s Spey Valley. Careful examination of crossbills, a nomadic species of finch, revealed that there were slight but crucial differences in the size of their bills, to enable each kind to feed on different foods. It turned out that Britain’s only unique species of bird – the Scottish crossbill – had been under our noses all the time.

Not that they are easy to tell apart from their commoner cousins. If you can’t see their beaks, the best way to do so is to listen to their calls – Scottish crossbills have a distinct regional accent, we are told.


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