Cambridgeshire

Plesiosaur 'sea monster' bones put back together

A plesiosaur Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Plesiosaurs were sea creatures that lived at the time of the dinosaurs

A Jurassic "sea monster" found in a quarry is taking shape as scientists carry out the painstaking task of putting together hundreds of bones.

A museum team has now put 165 million-year-old plesiosaur "Eve" together, although a few bones are missing and the skull is still embedded in clay.

They hope to put her on show but admitted she is too long and heavy for any of their current display cases.

Plesiosaurs were sea creatures that died out 66 million years ago.

Image copyright OUMNH
Image caption Eve has been laid out in a lab with her tail to the left, and long neck on the right of the photograph
Image copyright OUMNH
Image caption However, palaeontologists began with what they described as a "puzzle" of more than 600 pieces of bone

The "fantastic fossil" was discovered at Must Farm quarry near Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, by archaeologists from Oxford Clay Working Group

It has an 8ft (2.5m)-long neck, a barrel-shaped body, four flippers and a short tail.

They named the creature Eve, as it was their first major find.

Bone 'puzzle'

However, scientists at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, to which the bones were donated, are unable to confirm the sex of the plesiosaur.

"We might never know," palaeontologist Dr Hilary Ketchum said.

Image copyright OUMNH
Image caption Dr Hilary Ketchum put Eve back together, including the bones of the fore-flipper on the right
Image copyright OUMNH
Image caption Hundreds of bones were recovered from the Must Farm quarry site

"It is very difficult to tell between males and females in the fossil record because soft parts are rarely preserved.

"The only definite female plesiosaur ever found was one that was discovered with a foetus preserved inside."

Image copyright Dr James Neenan/Professor John Hutchinson
Image caption The plesiosaur's skull is still encased in clay and has been scanned to enable the bones to be retrieved without damaging them

Dr Ketchum was tasked with putting together the "puzzle" of more than 600 pieces of bone uncovered by archaeologist Dr Carl Harrington and his team.

When various pieces were glued they were left with 232 bones plus the skull, which is still preserved in a block of clay.

Gradually, using the archaeologists' notes and Dr Ketchum's "own knowledge of plesiosaur anatomy", Eve began to take shape.

Plesiosaurs (Plesiosauroidea)

66

million years ago plesiosaurs became extinct

  • 76 vertebrae in their necks - mammals such as humans and giraffes have just seven

  • 5mph (8.2km/h) the top swimming speed of the creature

  • 6m the average length

  • 660lb (300kg) the approximate weight

Chris Butler 2001
Image copyright Chris Butler 2001

A number of bones are missing including the thigh bones and parts of the tail, Dr Ketchum said.

The "delicate task" of removing the skull bones could take several months.

'New species'

The clay block which encases them was CT-scanned to help scientists extract the bones without causing damage. So far they have exposed part of the lower jaw and the back of the skull near the neck.

Eventually they hope to release a time-lapse video of the process.

Scientists have said Eve could prove to be a new species of plesiosaur, as she has anatomical features that differ from other plesiosaurs found in the Oxford Clay.

Image copyright OUMNH
Image caption The plesiosaur's neck is about 8ft (2.5m) long (left). A number of bone pieces had to be glued together (right)

The Jurassic sediment lies under parts of England from as far west as Dorset and north to Yorkshire - taking in the Peterborough area which was Eve's last resting place.

Eve's upper and lower arm bones and wrist show some differences, as do parts of the neck vertebrae, Dr Ketchum said.

"It is possible this is because Eve is a new species, however, we still have lots more research to do before we can be sure."

The museum hopes to put Eve on temporary display in the autumn, however, first they have one large problem to solve.

"Eve is the biggest and most complete plesiosaur specimen that we have. Our largest display case is just over four metres long, so it's not quite big enough for Eve to be displayed entirely straight," Dr Ketchum said.

"We might have to bend the neck around a little."

Eve was donated to the Oxford museum by Cambridgeshire landowners Forterra.

Image copyright OUMNH
Image caption The vertebrae and other bones are being studied by palaeontologists

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