Press reports of the finding of a plesiosaur on the Somerset coast hit the news last week, and were accompanied by some frustratingly small and pixelated images which hinted at a rather remarkable specimen.
Arthur Cruickshank, Mark Evans and I (Richard Forrest) have visited the Somerset County Museum to have a close look.
It's difficult to write about this find without sounding as if I'm indulging in hyperbole - words such as 'unique', 'exceptional', 'extraordinary' have been heavily overused. It this case, they are apt and applicable.
The fossil was found by Nick Collard, a local fisherman, on the foreshore in the Lias of the Somerset coast. Nick notified the County Museum immediately and the museums service staff collected the specimen. It is in four blocks of finely laminated shales, loosely consolidated, and held together in part by gravity. There has a bare minimum of preparation so far. It has had a good wash to get rid of any salt, and been dried slowly under controlled conditions to minimise delamination of the shale. A light coating of Butvar has been applied to some parts of the specimen, partly to consolidate the very fragile matrix and partly to highlight the extent of the bones for temporary public display.
The bones are covered by a thin layer of shale; in spite of this the full extent of the specimen is easily traced. As far as we can tell it is complete and fully articulated from the tip of the snout to the tip of the tail. The paddles are preserved in articulation, right down to the smallest phalange.
First impressions are that the animal is fairly juvenile judging from the propodials and visible features of the vertebrae. This may make specific identification difficult. The skull is rather wide at the back, and the neck is formed of 28-30 cervical vertebrae. These features suggest that it is a Rhomaleosaur of some kind, but it is early days!
This is probably the best preserved and most scientifically valuable fossil plesiosaur to have been found in the UK for at least 150 years, possibly ever. It is possibly the best preserved plesiosaur ever to have been found from anywhere in the world. Its provenance is impeccable; it has not been 'improved' by preparation; we know that what Somerset County Museum have is exactly what was found. Nobody has restored anything, or added a few bits to make a better specimen. In a word, it is pristine.
I've worked on an ichthyosaur found no more than 300 meters from this specimen and from the same bed which shows good soft tissue preservation. Very little soft tissue has been reported in plesiosaurs; it seems very likely that we will have at least some.
This is a rare scientific opportunity. The research potential is enormous, not only in the specimen itself, but also for taphonomy, micropalaeontolgy, geochemistry and other related disciplines. Dennis Parsons, Keeper of Natural Sciences at Somerset County Museum is very keen that the full potential of this extraordinary specimen is realised.
The Museum needs to raise funds for preparation and research; if you can help, contact Dennis Parsons (DWParsons@somerset.gov.uk).