A team of fossil hunters, led by renowned collector Steve Etches have uncovered what is thought to be the most complete Jurassic pliosaur skull ever found.
Embedded high up on a cliff in Dorset, UK, Etches and his collaborator Chris Moore spent weeks suspended on the cliff face, digging out the fossil before winching it to safety. “This is the pinnacle really of the things that I’ve been involved with,” Etches told New Scientist. “All I want from that is more information. The science is the thing that draws me in,” he says, “what does it show you? What does it tell you?”
“It’s very likely a new species”, says Judyth Sassoon, a leading expert on pliosaurs at the University of Bristol. Of particular interest was the fossil’s large sagittal crest, a ridge of bone at the rear of the skull. “The height of the crest might be an indication of differences between the male and female sexes”, says Sassoon. And, more intriguingly, the crest may not be fully formed suggesting the animal was still a juvenile. With an already huge 1.7 meters skull and potential for growth, this adds further evidence that pliosaurs were much larger than previously thought. “We have fragmentary data from the Kimmeridgian: vertebrae or paddle bones and so on, that suggest that there were larger pliosaurs around. We just haven’t found the skulls yet.”
In addition, new CT scans of the sensory pits found on the reptile’s snout reveal that these were connected to blood vessels and sensory nerves able to detect changes in pressure, which could help pliosaurs hunt prey. And with a complete set of fossilised teeth in an interlocking jaw, scientists now understand more than ever about pliosaurs’ hunting and eating ability.
The skull will go on show to the public next year at the Etches Collection in Dorset, UK, and is the subject of a new David Attenborough BBC documentary, Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster on BBC and iPlayer January 1, 2024.