Unearthing the Jurassic Marvel: A Complete Pliosaur Skull Revealed
In the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast in southern England, the fully intact skull of a colossal ‘sea monster’ has been unearthed. This skull, belonging to a wild marine reptile known as a pliosaur that roamed the oceans approximately 150 million years ago, measures an impressive two meters in length. This fossil stands out as one of the most comprehensive examples of its species, providing new insights into this ancient predator.
A Unique Find in the World of Fossils
Renowned paleontologist Steve Etches believes this discovery is unparalleled. “One of the best fossils I’ve worked on. What makes it unique is its completeness,” he says. “The lower jaw and the other part of the skull are connected, a level of detail rarely found worldwide. Often, when fossils of this kind are discovered, many pieces are missing. But this one has all its bones intact.”
The size of the animal’s skull, surpassing the height of most humans, gives a significant indication of the creature’s overall immense size. With 130 teeth in its mouth, particularly prominent in the front, it paints a vivid picture of the creature’s formidable nature.
Dr. Andre Rowe from the University of Bristol suggests, “The animal was so large that it could effectively prey on anything unfortunate enough in its domain. I have no doubt it resembled an underwater T. rex of sorts.”
Feasts of the Ancient Predator
The pliosaur’s menu likely included other reptiles such as its long-necked cousin, the plesiosaur, and dolphin-like ichthyosaurs. Fossil evidence indicates it even feasted on other pliosaurs it encountered.
The discovery of this colossal fossil skull was itself extraordinary. It all began with a serendipitous find during a walk on a beach near Kimmeridge Bay, part of the famous Jurassic Coast World Heritage site in southern England. Steve Etches’ friend and fossil enthusiast, Phil Jacobs, stumbled upon the tip of the pliosaur’s nose embedded in the rocks. Unable to move the heavy fossil, they fetched Steve, and the duo improvised a makeshift stretcher to safely transport the fossil to a secure location.
But where was the rest of the animal? A drone survey of the high cliff surface identified a potential location. However, the challenge lay in excavating the point where the body lay, requiring a descent from top to bottom.
Extracting fossils from rocks is always a delicate task, but doing so by dangling from ropes down a crumbling cliff, 15 meters above the beach, demands an additional level of skill.
The courage, dedication, and months spent cleaning the skull were undoubtedly worth it. Scientists from around the world eagerly anticipate visiting the Dorset fossil to gain new insights into how these magnificent creatures lived and ruled ecosystems.
Insights from the Skull’s Anatomy
Paleobiologist Prof Emily Rayfield examined the large circular openings at the back of the skull. These openings narrate the size of the muscles that operated the pliosaur’s jaws and the forces generated when its mouth closed to crush its prey.
At the top, this amounts to approximately 33,000 Newtons. For comparison, the most powerful jaws in currently living animals are found in saltwater crocodiles, measuring around 16,000 Newtons.
“A powerful bite can render your prey helpless, reducing the chance of escape. A strong bite also means effective crushing of tissue and bone,” explains Prof Rayfield.
Specialized Senses and Possible Third Eye
The newly discovered specimen suggests the pliosaur had particularly sharp and useful senses. Its nose, equipped with small pits that could be glands detecting changes in water pressure, could have helped it locate potential prey.
A hole in its head could have housed a parietal or third eye, a feature found in lizards, frogs, and some modern fish. Light-sensitive, this could have aided the pliosaur, especially when emerging from the deep, murky waters, in detecting the positions of other animals.
Towards the back of the skull, some vertebrae protrude but disappear after a few bones, offering a hopeful hint that a significant portion of the fossil might still be within the cliff. Steve is eager to complete what he started.
“I bet the rest of the animal is there. And it really needs to come out soon because it’s in a rapidly eroding environment. This part of the rocky coastline recedes by meters every year. The remainder of the pliosaur will surface and vanish before long. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Steve Etches plans to exhibit the skull at his Etches Collection museum in Kimmeridge next year.