Shattered by Nazi Bombs, a Fossil’s Lost Copies Are Just Being Found

The first full ichthyosaur fossil was thought lost to the ravages of World War II. But researchers recently identified a copy, then more started to emerge.

Three images of a fossil ichthyosaur are stacked on top of each other, with a drawing, top, and photos of two casts from the same fossil.
An 1819 drawing by William Clift of the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton featured in a scientific paper published by Everard Home, top, with two casts of the specimen from the Yale Peabody Museum, middle, and the Natural History Museum, Berlin.Credit…The Royal Society

In May 1941, the Royal College of Surgeons in London was bombed during a Nazi air raid. Among the specimens lost from its museum collection was a skeleton of an ichthyosaur — an extinct marine reptile that appeared millions of years before dinosaurs laid their first footprints on prehistoric soil.

But not just any ichthyosaur was lost. The three-foot-long “fish lizard” was the first complete fossil of the animal ever collected, and it was most likely discovered by Mary Anning, a trailblazing English paleontologist. In 1818, the ancient marine reptile landed on the desk of Everard Home, an anatomist at the Royal College of Surgeons. He named the fossil “Proteo-saurus” in a paper published in 1819.

Losing the fossil to the ravages of World War II was a blow to paleontology, depriving future scientists of a specimen that would have aided study of the long extinct animals while also being steeped in the field’s history.

“At the time, they were like the real icons of evolution,” said Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester in England.

But just as the ichthyosaur fossil allowed modern humans to ponder the aquatic creature, scientists have discovered plaster copies of the specimen that may restore some of that historical connection.

In a study published Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science, paleontologists reported that they had located two casts of Anning and Home’s lost ichthyosaur. The copies have been sitting in collections at Yale Peabody Museum and the Natural History Museum, Berlin. Dr. Lomax, a co-author of the study with Judy Massare at the State University of New York, Brockport, matched the casts to an illustration in Home’s 1819 paper. And a tantalizing discovery that emerged during the reporting of the article suggests there may be yet more casts of the fossil gathering dust in archives around the world.

The duo stumbled across the casts while scouring museum collections for overlooked ichthyosaurs. At the Peabody Museum in 2016, the researchers spotted a dusty cast of a fish-shaped lizard on a forgotten shelf. Somewhat worn and damaged, the cast triggered a strange sense of déjà vu.

“We both looked at each other, and we’re like, ‘Why does that seem familiar?’” Dr. Lomax said. “There was just something about this cast.”

Dean Lomax stands in an office with other fossils on a shelf behind him, holding an ichthyosaur cast upright and looking directly at the camera.
Dean Lomax of the University of Manchester with the Berlin cast, which he spotted in 2019, hidden on a shelf behind a display of ammonites and other fossils.Credit…The University of Manchester
A possible third cast of the original fossil that emerged during the reporting of this article.
A possible third cast of the original fossil that emerged during the reporting of this article.Credit…Martin Sander

When Dr. Lomax returned to England, he realized what he had found: a copy of the “Proteo-saurus” that Everard Home had named. It is not known who created the cast or when, but records show that it was donated to Yale in 1930 by Charles Schuchert, a paleontologist at the university. The museum’s records listed the cast as an actual ichthyosaur skeleton, but the details told a different story.

“You can see the plaster underneath where it’s deteriorated over years,” Dr. Lomax said.

On a visit to the Natural History Museum in Berlin in 2019, Dr. Lomax spotted another cast of the specimen hiding on a shelf behind a display of ammonites and other fossils. “Immediately, I was like, ‘I know what that is!’” he said, recounting the incident. The cast was clearer and more defined than its Yale counterpart, suggesting that it had been made later. The bones on the cast had also been carefully painted by an unknown artist.

Although both casts’ positions matched the illustration, there were intriguing discrepancies. For instance, the illustration shows four or five tiny bones in the left forefin connecting to the reptile’s humerus, a feature yet to be seen in any of the 100 or so known species of ichthyosaurs, Dr. Lomax said. While most of the extra bones in the drawing had not appeared in the Yale cast, they had been liberally painted on the Berlin copy so that it matched the illustration, indicating that some artistic license was at play in the drawing.

These discrepancies highlight the importance of studying old casts of lost fossils over relying on illustrations, as the former are more likely to represent specimens accurately, said Erin Maxwell, a paleontologist specializing in ichthyosaurs at the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History in Germany who was not involved in the new study.

The surprise discovery also shows the value of specialized museum curatorial staff who have the eye to spot significant specimens in forgotten drawers or overlooked shelves. “Many collections staff clearly saw these casts,” said Dr. Maxwell. “They just didn’t recognize the significance.”

Sometimes, it’s a case of finding the treasure in the trash. Three decades ago, Martin Sander, a paleontologist in Germany, rescued a broken ichthyosaur skeleton cast from being tossed in the garbage at Goldfuss Museum in Bonn. Dr. Sander, now at the University of Bonn, suspected it was a replica of a specimen lost during World War II.

Dr. Sander didn’t have an answer about the specimen’s origins until he was contacted in the past week by a reporter to comment on Dr. Lomax and Dr. Massare’s paper. Comparing the images in the study with his cast, he proposed it might be a third replica of Anning and Home’s “Proteo-saurus.”

Dr. Lomax thinks his hunch may be correct. Although the cast is similar in color to the version found in Berlin, some parts of the skeleton are not as detailed or clear. Still, the surprise discovery hints that more casts of the lost English fossil are waiting in drawers and cabinets that haven’t been opened in a long time.

“It provides some serious hope that additional specimens will come to light,” Dr. Lomax said.

New York Times – November 1, 20222

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