Medical scanners help unlock the mysteries of large prehistoric marine reptiles
This skull, nearly one metre long, is nearly 200 million years old. It was discovered in Fall Farm in Warwickshire, England in 1955, and it has never been officially studied before.
Recently, scientists have used sophisticated computed tomography (CT) techniques to study it, revealing new information, including details of brain cases that are rarely preserved. Now, thanks to the data collected from the CT scan, the team was able to digitally reconstruct the entire skull. This is the first time humans have used the digital reconstruction of the skull and mandible of large marine reptiles for research purposes.
Although thousands of ichthyosaur fossils have been unearthed in the UK, this specimen is particularly important and unusual because it is three-dimensionally preserved and contains few exposed skulls. In 2014, Birmingham and the University of Manchester palaeontologists Dean Lomax and Nigel Larkin first studied the fossil skull and its incomplete skeleton and soon discovered its importance. Dean, one of the world’s leading fish dragon experts, explained: “When I first saw this specimen, I wondered why it was so well preserved.”
The shapes of the ichthyosaur fossils of the early Jurassic are usually like “pancakes”, which means they are squeezed and the original skull structure is distorted or damaged. Therefore, there is a skull and part of the skeleton of the dragon of this age preserved in three dimensions, without any surrounding rock covering it, is quite special.
This ichthyosaur was originally thought to be a common species, but after careful study, Dean was convinced that it was a relatively rare species. According to the various characteristics of the skull, he identified it as a special dragon. Its skull is almost twice as long as other specimens of the dragon, which is by far the largest specimen of the species.
One of the authors, Nigel Larkin, added: “Initially, the goal of the project was to clean and preserve the skull and partially dismantle it to more accurately reconstruct the skull and prepare to re-display it in the think tank museum.”
“But we quickly realized that the individual bones of the skull are very well preserved in three dimensions, better than any other fish faucet we have ever seen.” In addition, they respond well to CT scans, enabling people to Digitally capture their shapes and see their internal details.
The skull is not very complete, but the bones in the brain are well preserved. To understand the information contained in the skull, a micro-CT scan of these bones was performed by an expert palaeontologist at Cambridge University in 2015 and Dr Laura Porro from University College London.
Although this fossil only preserves the bones on the left side of the brain, these elements are digitally mirrored and printed in actual size using a CT scan. Finally, the entire skull was scanned at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC).
Dr Porro added: “CT scans allow us to look inside the fossils, in which case we can see the blood vessels and nerves originally contained in the skull.” The scan also reveals the study of this specimen since its discovery in the 1950s. history.
The use of modern technology, such as medical scanners, has revolutionized the way palaeontologists study and describe fossils.
Dean added: “This dragon has been studied and described for more than half a century, but it is worth waiting. Our research not only reveals exciting information about the internal anatomy of this animal skull, but also The discovery will help other palaeontologists explore its evolutionary relationship with other ichthyosaurs.”