Have you seen the sea dragon at Hull Museums?

Published: Wednesday 5th July 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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An ichthyosaur may sound like a nasty rash, but in fact it’s an ancient sea creature. And there’s one at Hull and East Riding Museum.

Each week, HEY Today pairs up with Hull Museums to delve into the city’s history and bring you fun facts and inspiring stories. This week, we’re going all the way back to the Jurassic period.

The ichthyosaur swam in our oceans during the time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. They first appeared around 250 million years ago and managed to survive an incredible 150 million years, before becoming extinct. To put that in perspective, humans have only walked the planet for around 200,000 years so far.

So, who were the ichthyosaurs? The name translates from Greek as ‘fish lizard’, but in fact they were marine reptiles. However, it has taken us a while to categorise this interesting species correctly. Although they lived underwater, we now know that they weren’t fish.

In the past, people have suggested that the ichthyosaur was a mammal, because of its likeness to the modern day dolphin. Also, these fascinating creatures breathed air, just like whales. They would come up to the surface to gulp oxygen and dive back down, similar to a modern aquatic mammal.

Meanwhile, the ichthyosaur didn’t lay eggs like most other reptiles. Fossils have given evidence that mothers gave birth to live young. What we don’t know is whether the labour would usually take place on land or underwater.

Intriguingly, early collectors believed that they were sea dragons. This is probably due to their unusual characteristics.

An average ichthyosaur would have been around two to four metres long, which is quite terrifying. Some were much larger than this, with remnants of a 21-metre animal found in 2004. Later, more evolved ichthyosaurs had a porpoise-like head, with flippers and a long snout. Earlier versions would have looked more like an eel.

Analysis of fossils has further told us information about the ichthyosaur’s diet. As it may be expected, this mainly consisted of fish and squid. Other research has found the remains of smaller ichthyosaurs, birds and turtles in their stomachs. This suggests that they weren’t too fussy about what they ate and consumed whatever meat was available.

The ichthyosaur that resides at Hull and East Riding Museum has been identified as a Leptonectes, which lived during the late Triassic and early Jurassic era. The bones are roughly around 175-235 million years old.

Before Hull Museums acquired this fossil in the 1960s, it lived on the staircase of the Kendal Museum in Cumbria. We don’t know its exact place of origin, but records tell us that dozens of similar fossils were unearthed in the Yorkshire region in 1819.

You can marvel over the ichthyosaur at Hull and East Riding Museum on the High Street for free 10am-5pm Monday tlo Saturday and 11am-4:30pm on Sundays.

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Published: Wednesday 5th July 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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