Ancient Scottish Sea Reptile Not 'Nessie,' But Just As Cute

Jan 11, 2015
Originally published on January 13, 2015 1:21 pm

Scientists in Scotland have found a prehistoric behemoth: a previously unknown species of reptile that lived in the oceans during the time of dinosaurs. And before you ask, no, scientists do not believe this new fossil has anything to do with the Loch Ness monster.

Paleontologist Stephen Brusatte, at the University of Edinburgh, led the team that characterized the new reptile species in a study published online Monday in the Scottish Journal of Geology. Brusatte says you could be forgiven if you were to mistake it for a dinosaur.

"It looks like a dinosaur, but it isn't technically a dinosaur," he says. "Dinosaurs didn't live in the ocean." The new reptile is from a class of marine creatures called ichthyosaurs.

"And it's the first one of these sea-living, enormous, colossal, top-of-the food-chain reptiles that's ever been found in Scotland," says Brusatte. "It was about motorboat size ... about 14 or 15 feet long or so."

Brusatte says the new fossil was found on the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. But he didn't find it. It was discovered more than 50 years ago by an amateur fossil hunter named Bryan Shawcross. Brusatte says the fossil has been sitting in a museum in Glasgow unidentified because 50 years ago there weren't a lot of paleontologists in Scotland.

That's changed, especially in the past decade, says Brussate, a native of Chicago, now living in Edinburgh. He and Scottish scientists recently have been searching through Scottish fossil collections trying to identify what earlier fossil hunters found.

Now, when you identify a new fossil, you get to name it.

"It's a new genus and species, so it gets two names," says Brussate. "And each one of those names is really special to us."

The genus name, Dearcmhara — pronounced "jark vara" — is the Scottish Gaelic word for marine lizard. (Scottish Gaelic is a traditional language for residents of Skye.)

The species name is shawcrossi, named for Bryan Shawcross, who found the fossil.

There are likely lots of dinosaur fossils still to be found in Scotland, Brusatte says, including many from around 170 million years ago — a time that isn't terribly well-represented in the fossil record.

And you don't have to be a paleontologist to find fossils. Anyone can come to the Isle of Skye and go hunting.

What's more, Brusatte says, there's a great whiskey distillery on the island.

"Have a nice whiskey tasting," he advises. "Get some smoky, peaty whiskey in the afternoon, and then go find fossils afterward. Or maybe do it in the reverse order."

And if you find a new species, Brusatte says, he and his colleagues will be happy to name it after you, if you donate it to them to study.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

So let's talk about reptiles now. Scientists in Scotland have identified a prehistoric behemoth, a new species of reptile that lived in the oceans during the time of dinosaurs - and no, they say, it has nothing to do with the Loch Ness Monster. Here's NPR's Joe Palca.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Paleontologist Stephen Brusatte at the University of Edinburgh led the team that characterized the new reptile species. He says you can be forgiven if you were to mistake it for a dinosaur.

STEPHEN BRUSATTE: It looks like a dinosaur, but it isn't technically a dinosaur. Now, that's a little bit confusing because it looks like one, and it lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. But dinosaurs didn't live in the oceans and these other types of reptiles were what were around in the oceans at that time. And it's the first one of these sea-living, enormous, colossal, top-of-the-food-chain reptiles that's ever been found in Scotland.

PALCA: And how big was it?

BRUSATTE: It was about motor-boat size, so 14, 15 feet long or so.

PALCA: Brusatte says it looks like a reptile version of a large dolphin and probably devoured fish and squid and stuff like that.

BRUSATTE: It was the top dog in the oceans while dinosaurs were the top dogs on land.

PALCA: Brusatte says the new fossil was found on the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. But he didn't find it. It was found more than 50 years ago by an amateur fossil hunter named Bryan Shawcross, and it's been sitting in a museum in Glasgow unidentified because 50 years ago, there just weren't a lot of paleontologists in Scotland.

BRUSATTE: But over the last few years and especially over the last decade, a number of paleontologists, including me, have been hired in Scotland. I was brought over from the U.S. You can certainly tell that I don't speak with a nice Scottish brogue. I'm from Chicago, but I'm a Scotsman now.

PALCA: And he and other Scottish scientists have been searching through Scottish fossil collections trying to identify what earlier fossil hunters have found. Now, when you identify a fossil, you get to name it.

BRUSATTE: It's a new genus and species, so it gets two names. And each one of those names is really special to us because the genus name is Dearcmhara.

PALCA: Dearcmhara is the Scottish Gaelic word for marine lizard.

BRUSATTE: And the species name then is shawcrossi.

PALCA: Named for Bryan Shawcross, who found the fossil. Brusatte says there's lots more fossils to be found in Scotland. In fact, he says Scotland could be quite a mecca for fossil hunters. There seem to be a lot from around 170 million years ago, a time not terribly well represented in the fossil record. And you don't have to be a paleontologist to find fossils. There are lots of amateurs hard at it. So anyone can come to the Isle of Skye and go hunting. What's more, Brusatte says there's a great whiskey distillery on the island.

BRUSATTE: Have a nice whiskey tasting, get some smoky, peaty whiskey in the afternoon and go find fossils afterwards. Or maybe do it in the reverse order.

PALCA: And if you find a new species, Brusatte says they'll be happy to name it after you if you donate it to them to study. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.