In the spring of 2022, artist and fossil hunter Philip Jacobs was walking along the Jurassic Coast in southern England when he spotted a snout.
It was about two feet long, complete with teeth, and appeared to be from an ancient marine predator called a pliosaur. When the crews returned with the drone a few days later, they found the nose had fallen off a cliff that jutted out from the beach — the remains of a skull embedded in the cliff.
The more than six-foot-long fossil, with its skull intact and no bones found, is a “discovery of a lifetime,” an expert said.
“It has some special features that we haven’t seen in anything found before,” Steve Etches, a paleontologist who has been collecting and excavating fossils for more than 40 years, said Monday. “And it’s very complete. So the whole skull is there, no bones.
Bliosaurs were the largest carnivorous reptiles that ever lived, Mr. Etches said, and reigned at the top of the food chain in the oceans of the Jurassic period. He added that they were likely solitary hunters preying on plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs, other marine reptiles.
“They are like lions in the Serengeti,” Mr. Etches said of the pliosaurs. “You get a pride of lions, but thousands of beasts and everything else. It’s like Jurassic seas.
The skull is placed inside Museum Collection of Jurassic Marine Life Etches At Kimmeridge, seven miles west of the Jurassic Coast and 100 miles south-west of London. The museum is working to put the skull in a display case in January, Mr. Etchus said.
Pliosaurs lived between 200 million and 65.5 million years ago and could grow over 40 feet long. With extremely powerful jaws, massive flippers and dagger-like teeth, they could hunt quickly and crush prey into bite-sized pieces, said David Martle, emeritus professor of paleobiology at the University of Portsmouth in England. to find out. “There is nothing in the ocean that can survive the attacks,” he said.
The first pliosaur fossils were discovered on the Jurassic coast in the 1820s, and the discoveries expanded scientists’ knowledge of the species. But nothing came close to a nearly intact skull, Dr. Martle said. “One, it’s huge,” he added. “It’s very well preserved.”
The skull could provide new clues about the pliosaur, which had a nostril that flowed into its mouth, allowing it to smell and hunt prey. Scientists hope the skull will shed more light on this anatomy and, ultimately, the structure of the ecosystem in the Jurassic seas. More details about the skull will be featured in the documentary “Attenborough and the Jurassic Sea Monster” airing on PBS in February.
“We want to compare that ecosystem with other ecosystems, Cretaceous and even modern, to see if they are structured in the same way,” Dr Martle said. He added that because some vertebrae are attached to the skull, the rest of the pliosaur could be inside the cliff, waiting to be discovered.
Mr. Etches is determined, but excavating it won’t be cheap: it will cost about 250,000 pounds, or about $300,000, which he expects to raise.
“We really had to dissect it,” he said, acknowledging the team of people who helped bring the discovery to light. “They’ve done it for the best reasons for science, so that people around the world can benefit from the information we get from it.”