Shattered by Nazi bombs, a fossil’s lost copies are discovered
WASHINGTON: In May 1941, the Royal College of Surgeons in London was bombed during a Nazi air raid. Among the specimens lost from its museum collection was a skeleton of an ichthyosaur — an extinct marine reptile that appeared millions of years before dinosaurs laid their first footprints on prehistoric soil.
But not just any ichthyosaur was lost. The three-foot-long “fish lizard” was the first complete fossil of the animal ever collected, and it was most likely discovered by Mary Anning, a trailblazing English paleontologist. In 1818, the ancient marine reptile landed on the desk of Everard Home, an anatomist at the Royal College of Surgeons. He named the fossil “Proteo-saurus” in a paper published in 1819.
Losing the fossil to the ravages of World War II was a blow to paleontology, depriving future scientists of a specimen that would have aided study of the long extinct animals while also being steeped in the field’s history. “At the time, they were like the real icons of evolution,” said Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester in England.
But just as the ichthyosaur fossil allowed modern humans to ponder the aquatic creature, scientists have discovered plaster copies of the specimen that may restore some of that historical connection.
In a study published Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science, paleontologists reported that they had located two casts of Anning and Home’s lost ichthyosaur. The copies have been sitting in collections at Yale Peabody Museum and the Natural History Museum, Berlin. Dr. Lomax, a co-author of the study with Judy Massare at the State University of New York, Brockport, matched the casts to an illustration in Home’s 1819 paper. And a tantalising discovery that emerged during the reporting of the article suggests there may be yet more casts of the fossil gathering dust in archives around the world.
The duo stumbled across the casts while scouring museum collections for overlooked ichthyosaurs. At the Peabody Museum in 2016, the researchers spotted a dusty cast of a fish-shaped lizard on a forgotten shelf. Somewhat worn and damaged, the cast triggered a strange sense of déjà vu.
“We both looked at each other, and we’re like, ‘Why does that seem familiar?’” Dr. Lomax said. “There was just something about this cast.” When Dr. Lomax returned to England, he realised what he had found: a copy of the “Proteo-saurus” that Everard Home had named. It is not known who created the cast or when, but records show that it was donated to Yale in 1930 by Charles Schuchert, a paleontologist at the university. The museum’s records listed the cast as an actual ichthyosaur skeleton, but the details told a different story.
“You can see the plaster underneath where it’s deteriorated over years,” Dr. Lomax said. On a visit to the Natural History Museum in Berlin in 2019, Dr. Lomax spotted another cast of the specimen hiding on a shelf behind a display of ammonites and other fossils. “Immediately, I was like, ‘I know what that is!’” he said, recounting the incident. The cast was clearer and more defined than its Yale counterpart, suggesting that it had been made later. The bones on the cast had also been carefully painted by an unknown artist.