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200 million-year-old Shipston-on-Stour skeleton goes on display for the first time

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Picture provided by the Birmingham Museums Trust
Picture provided by the Birmingham Museums Trust

THE 200 million-year-old skeleton of a prehistoric marine reptile found on farmland in Shipton-on-Stour 61 years ago has gone on display to the public for the first time.

Ichthyosaurus was unearthed by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery staff at Fell Mill Farm in 1955.

And it has finally gone on display at Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum, as the centrepiece of the new Marine Worlds gallery.

Luanne Meehitiya, Natural Science Curator at Birmingham Museums, who was part of the project team, said: “It has been a delight to see the Thinktank ichthyosaur develop, from just a skull that was too fragile to be displayed to a beautifully conserved and completed skeleton that is the centrepiece of a new permanent gallery.

"The project has been full of surprises, including finding the rest of the skeleton in storage and discovering quite how important this specimen is.

"It is an amazing thing for Birmingham Museums to have this in our collections, and I am looking forward to watching people reacting to it in the gallery!”

The Thinktank ichthyosaur is approximately 3.5 metres long.

Most ichthyosaurs are flattened during fossilisation but this was preserved in 3D, enabling experts to study individual bones that are not usually accessible in ichthyosaurs, such as those at the back of the skull and the braincase elements.

The skull, which is 80cm long and 33cm wide, was cleaned before being completely taken apart and reconstructed to be more anatomically correct, as knowledge of ichthyosaurs has increased since 1955 when it was first put together.

Ichthyosaurs evolved from a group of land reptiles that returned to the sea, just as modern dolphins and whales evolved from mammalian land ancestors.

They belong to a different group of reptiles from dinosaurs but they did live in the sea at the same time as the dinosaurs lived on the land.

The Ichthyosaur research team. Photo: www.birminghammuseums.org.uk
The Ichthyosaur research team. Photo: www.birminghammuseums.org.uk

Funding from the Arts Council in 2014 allowed a team to start work to repair, rebuild and clean the skull with conservator, Nigel Larkin, and palaeontologist Dean Lomax, of The University of Manchester.

During this work it was realised that the skull was so important that it was CT scanned so that researchers worldwide could study the individual bones once they had been fitted back onto the skull. A 3D model was created from that scan.

The project team began to be suspicious that there were more remains of the ichthyosaur in store.

Luanne added: “It was hugely exciting to find that we had the rest of the skeleton as well as the skull and gave us the new aim of conserving it and putting it on display for the first time.

"The bones were very fragmented so it was clear that they had never been displayed and memory of their link to the skull had been lost over six decades.”

Dean Lomax, who is an expert on ichthyosaurs and advised on the scientific rebuild and redisplay of the skull and skeleton, added: “This is a very important specimen. Not only is this the largest recorded Ichthyosaurus in the UK, but possibly in the world.

"It also comes from a location previously unrecorded for ichthyosaurs, so this adds to our understanding of the geographical distribution of ichthyosaurs during the Early Jurassic, a time when the UK was a series of islands. As for a new species, only time will tell.”

Dean is still studying the specimen with Nigel and Luanne.

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