New marine reptile species from Jurassic era discovered in Scotland

University of Edinburgh palaeontologists have identified a dolphin-like creature – a new species of reptile – from the Jurassic era, that inhabited warm, shallow seas around Scotland about 170 million years ago.

The 14-foot-long creature, identified from fossils found on the Isle of Skye, preyed on fish and other reptiles, and was on top of the food chain at the time.

The study has been published in the Scottish Journal of Geology.

The team of palaeontologists (scientists who study fossils. US spelling: paleontologists), led by the University of Edinburgh and including several Scottish institutions, studied fossils unearthed on the island over the past half-century, which included fragments of vertebrae, teeth, skulls and an upper-arm bone.

The scientists, part of the largest collaborative group of fossil experts working in Scotland, identified numerous examples of extinct aquatic animals – known as ichthyosaurs – which existed in the era during the Early-to-Middle Jurassic, including the completely new species.

An ichthyosaur is a fossil marine dolphin-like reptile with four flippers, a long pointed head, and a vertical tail.

Dr. Stephen Brusatte

Dr. Brusatte said these fossils are very rare (Image: Twitter)

The team members say their analysis of the fossil collection is the first ichthyosaur study found in Scotland. Many of the specimens they examined had been donated to museums by amateur collectors.

Dr Stephen Brusatte, Chancellor’s Fellow in Vertebrate Palaentology at the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, said:

“During the time of dinosaurs, the waters of Scotland were prowled by big reptiles the size of motor boats. Their fossils are very rare, and only now, for the first time we’ve found a new species that was uniquely Scottish.”

Fossil teeth

Cf. Ichthyosaurus communis teeth from the Early Jurassic (early Sinemurian) Ardnish Formation of Skye, Scotland. (a–b) Labial and lingual photographs of an isolated tooth preserved in three dimensions (NMS G. 2014.21.1). (Image: Scottish Journal of Geology)

Given a Gaelic name Dearcmhara shawcrossi

The new species has been given a Scottish Gaelic name Dearcmhara shawcrossi. Dearcmhara (pron: ‘jark vara’) means ‘marine lizard’ in Scottish Gaelic. The second name was in honour of Brian Shawcross, who recovered the creature’s fossils in 1959 from the island’s Bearreraig Bay.

It is one of very few species to be given a Gaelic name.

During the Jurassic period, much of the Isle of Skye was under water. It was joined to the rest of Great Britain and formed part of a large island between landmasses that gradually separated and became North America and Europe.

Fossils from the Middle Jurassic Period are rare. Skye is one of the few places where they can be found. Discoveries made there could provide palaeontologists valuable insights into how aquatic reptiles evolved.

Dr Nick Fraser, from the National Museums Scotland, said:

“Not only is this a very special discovery, but it also marks the beginning of a major new collaboration involving some of the most eminent palaeontologists in Scotland … We are excited by the programme of work and are already working on additional new finds. This is a rich heritage for Scotland.”

The study was performed by a consortium that included the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, National Museums Scotland, Scottish National Heritage and Staffin Museum, Isle of Skye.

The team, known as PalAlba, will be exhibiting Dearcmhara’s bones at a one-day fossil event at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh on Sunday, January 18th, from 10am-4pm.

Citation: Ichthyosaurs from the Jurassic of Skye, Scotland,” Stephen L. Brusatte, Mark T. Young, Thomas J. Challands, Neil D. L. Clark, Valentin Fischer, Nicholas C. Fraser, Jeff J. Liston, Colin C. J. MacFadyen, Dugald A. Ross, Stig Walsh, and Mark Wilkinson, Scottish Journal of Geology, first published on January 11, 2015, doi:10.1144/sjg2014-018.