The Real-Life Monsters of Scotland’s Jurassic Seas

Who needs the Loch Ness monster when you have Dearcmhara shawcrossi?

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Jan 12 2015, 11:30am

​Concept drawing of Dearcmhara shawcrossi. Image: paleoartist Todd Marshall.

​The Loch Ness monster ranks among the most famous cryptid legends in the world, attracting upwards of a million tourists a year to Scotland's famous lake. But as it turns out, Scotland was once home to a magnificent diversity of aquatic predators that put Nessie to shame.

"There's no need to come up with tall tales about fake sea monsters that live today," Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, told me. "There were sea monsters that used to live hundreds of millions of years ago, and they lived right here in Scotland. And they were even larger and more spectacular than any rumor of Nessie!"

Indeed, in a study published today in The Scottish Journal of Geology, Brusatte and his colleagues have analyzed a wealth of ichthyosaur fossils from the Isle of Skye, including a new species dubbed Dearcmhara shawcrossi (more on this unique name later). Ichthyosaurs were magnificent, dolphin-like predators that thrived in the warm Scottish seas of the Middle Jurassic.

Ichthyosaur diversity. Image: Nobu Tamura.

"Amazingly, our paper is the first paper of any kind on Scottish ichthyosaurs, and the new species Dearcmhara is the first uniquely Scottish marine reptile that has been studied in detail and given a name," Brusatte said.

One of the major reasons why there has been such a dearth of scientific literature on Scotland's abundance of fossils is because these specimens tend to end up in private markets. "[P]rivate collectors are a critical part of our science," Brusatte told me, "but we need to work together."

"It's always a huge shame when an important fossil is sold or disappears into a private collection," he said. "This means that the fossil is essentially lost to science—it can't be studied and isn't guaranteed to be conserved. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but it has been a particular problem in Scotland."

The issue is doubly frustrating because Scotland happens to preserve fossils from one of the most intriguing and under-represented periods in evolutionary history: the Middle Jurassic, which ran from 180 to 160 million years ago. According to Brusatte, it is among the most poorly sampled eras in the fossil record.

"It's just dumb luck," he explained. "[By] sheer chance few fossils were preserved from that time. And this is a great shame because it seems to have been a really interesting time in reptile evolution."

That's why it's so vital to keep Scottish fossils in the public sphere—these specimens are not only time capsule's to Scotland's past, but they are essential in building a larger picture of the Middle Jurassic world on a global level.

"Scotland, of all places, has one of the best Middle Jurassic fossil records of reptiles from anywhere in the world," Brusatte said. "So Scotland is a one-of-a-kind window on this dark period of reptile history."

The Isle of Skye. Image: A' chachaileith.

The problem is incentivizing amateur fossil hunters to donate specimens to scientific institutions instead of selling them into private collections. And that's what makes the discovery and analysis of the new species Dearcmhara shawcrossi such a great success story.

The fossil was found by amateur collector Brian Shawcross, who recognized its scientific value and donated it to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. Grateful for the important contribution, the research team named the animal Dearcmhara shawcrossi, Scotland's first uniquely Scottish ichthyosaur, after Shawcross.

"If it wasn't for Brian both finding and donating the specimen, we would never know that this unique new species ever existed," Brusatte said. "We hope this is a story that encourages other collectors. There is great stuff out there in Scotland, and if you follow the laws and find new material and want to work with scientists, we are very happy to work with you. If you donate what you find to a museum and it's new, we'll even promise to name it after you!"

Hopefully, the discovery and naming of Dearcmhara shawcrossi will inspire other collectors to do right by the fossils they find. There's no question that it's tempting to sell fossils privately or keep them for oneself. As a dinophile who grew up next to the fossil-rich Albertan badlands, it's an impulse I can definitely relate to, as can Brusatte. 

"I collected fossils when I was young," he said, "and let's face it, some fossils are really gorgeous. You get attached to them. When you find them, you don't want to let them go."

"But this one was so important, and Brian realized that, and he did a great thing by donating it," he continued. "He could have sold it and made a few bucks, but I think having a new species of 170 million year old marine reptile named after you is better than a little money anyday!"