Dean Lomax: Unearthing a 180-million-year-old sea dragon Known now as the mother of paleontology, Mary Anning's work was largely overlooked. But her research helped paleontologist Dean R. Lomax make groundbreaking discoveries about the ichthyosaur.

Unearthing a 180-million-year-old sea creature

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And we're going to start today's show by going back in time to meet a girl named Mary Anning.

DEAN LOMAX: Where do I begin with Mary Anning? Let me tell you. So Mary Anning - this is way back in 1811, 1812...

ZOMORODI: This is Dean Lomax.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES BREAKING)

LOMAX: She was just 11, 12 years old and walking on the beach with her older brother, Joseph, at a seaside town called Lyme Regis here in the U.K.

ZOMORODI: Lyme Regis is known for its harbor, its fishing, its shipbuilding and its craggy beachside cliffs. And that is where Mary grew up.

LOMAX: You imagine these really tall - what today we would consider Jurassic cliffs that were just constantly crumbling away, being eroded and smashed by the waves. And as a result of that constant erosion, you'd have rocks falling down that would contain fossils. And not only would you have the fossils preserved in the cliff face itself, you'd get them on the foreshore.

So you'd have young Mary Anning and her family looking for these things. Often, they'd find the remains of shellfish-like animals like ammonites and bullet-shaped belemnites. And it kind of was a case - it was kind of come rain or shine. Whatever the weather, they would be out there collecting these things. It became - for the family, it became massively important for their survival.

ZOMORODI: Important because their father, Richard, had recently died.

LOMAX: They were already quite a poverty-stricken family, but the fact that Richard passed away when she was so young and left them in so much debt, they had to find another way to survive.

ZOMORODI: And so to make ends meet, Mary and her brother would dig out, carefully clean and sell fossils to gentlemen scientists visiting the coast.

LOMAX: Because at this time, paleontology was really in its infancy, and people had begun to question kind of what came before - you know, question the story of the Bible and things like that. And people had began to try to work out if animals were on the planet before - you know, what was the age of the earth? A lot older than they thought.

ZOMORODI: And one day...

LOMAX: Mary and her older brother, Joseph, they made a remarkable discovery that would change the world of paleontology, and to a large extent, the world as we know it today. They found the remains - they found this gigantic skull over a meter long with a massive - what we call sclerotic ring, this giant ring of bone inside the eye socket of this animal, which we call an ichthyosaur.

ZOMORODI: Ichthyosaur - Greek for fish lizard.

LOMAX: Now, ichthyosaurs are a curious group of animals.

ZOMORODI: For one thing, they look somewhere between a dolphin and a shark, but kind of reptilian.

LOMAX: Some of them were the top-of-the-food-chain predators in the oceans. They had these giant jaws, massive teeth, easily some of them up to about 8 centimeters, 10 centimeters long. They're often misidentified as swimming dinosaurs. But they're not dinosaurs. They're an entirely different group. They lived entirely in the ocean whilst the dinosaurs were walking on land.

ZOMORODI: Prior to this discovery, people didn't know what ichthyosaurs were. There wasn't even an official name for them yet, which is what made Mary's findings so important. That skull, 4 feet long, was attached to a much, much longer skeleton that Mary discovered months later. It was the very first complete ichthyosaur skeleton ever unearthed.

LOMAX: This discovery was that important and that complete and so different to anything else that it caught the attention of the gentlemanly scientists of the day who were really eager to study this fossil.

ZOMORODI: Mary Anning spent the rest of her life uncovering fossils. She discovered the first-ever plesiosaur remains, the first pterosaur fossil found in England. She even pioneered the study of coprolites - basically fossilized poop.

LOMAX: You know, today she's considered the mother of paleontology. And, you know, it's quite amazing because in her lifetime, often many people, usually men, would never give her the credit, you know, for what she discovered and the science that she was doing at the time. You know, she really was a scientist. People traveled from far and wide to come and see her in her little - as one person put it, her little dirty shop in Lyme Regis filled with fossils.

ZOMORODI: Centuries later, there are still so many biological mysteries yet to be solved, from better understanding those ancient reptiles that swam in prehistoric seas to the anatomy of bugs living in our own backyards right now. So on this episode, Animal Enigmas - the chance findings, near-death experiences and long hours of observation that it takes to piece together nature's puzzles. For paleontologist Dean Lomax, Mary's discoveries had an especially significant impact.

LOMAX: So Mary Anning was my real childhood hero growing up. I remember quoting that she'd found the ichthyosaurs and the plesiosaurs and really sparked the imagination of so many people at the time. And that's really what it did for me.

ZOMORODI: Today, Dean is maybe the go-to ichthyosaur expert, sometimes studying the very fossils that Mary Anning first unearthed. And in 2021, Dean had his own big discovery, but it didn't happen in a museum or while walking on the beach. It started with an email.

All right, Dean. So what was so special about this email?

LOMAX: Yeah. So in 2021, I was sitting at my desk typing away. And I thought, oh, what could this be? Because, you know, I got to be honest, Manoush. I get lots of emails and messages on social media from people who say, hey, we found this dinosaur; we found this fossil. And often, it just turns out to be an odd-shaped rock. And so I was like, OK. I had a quick read of this email. I was like, OK, interesting, and then scrolled down, and then I was like, oh, OK; this changes things. So in the attachment was a couple of images of some fairly large sort of dinner-plate-sized vertebrae - so parts of the spine of what I immediately recognized as ichthyosaur vertebrae.

ZOMORODI: Dean Lomax continues his story from the TED stage.

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LOMAX: After speaking to fellow marine reptile expert, Dr. Mark Evans, we decided to visit the site in February, where the ground was literally frozen right beneath our feet. After spending so much time meticulously removing the Jurassic clay from around the skeleton, we were blown away because we revealed what appeared to be a gigantic skeleton unlike anything ever found in Britain before. Clearly, this was a big deal. But we have to be very quick to contain our excitement because due to the damp, wintery conditions and the fact that this was a super fragile skeleton, it meant it wasn't the right time to collect this ichthyosaur. So unfortunately - might seem a little bit counterintuitive, but we had to rebury the ichthyosaur and then waiting for what felt like millions of years. In six months, we were back on site, but this time with a superb team of paleontologists.

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LOMAX: We spent 14 1/2 days, altogether, and this was also working very long hours from sunrise to sunset to remove the skeleton out of the ground.

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ZOMORODI: Oh, my gosh. Waiting for six months, then digging for two weeks. After all that, what did you and your team uncover? What did this ichthyosaur look like?

LOMAX: Well, what we managed to do at this point was reveal the entire thing. We have pretty much 90 - probably 98, 99%, maybe even 100% when we can analyze it fully of the entire skeleton. And this animal is - you're talking 10 meters long, so over 30 foot.

ZOMORODI: Oh, wow.

LOMAX: It represents the largest, most complete skeleton of any prehistoric reptile ever found here in the U.K.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LOMAX: Of course, now fully uncovered, it's time to literally get this Jurassic giant out of the ground; much easier said than done when you're dealing with such a complete and very heavy fossil weighing several tons. The first port of call was to create a trench all the way around the skeleton. And the reason for that is that we needed to get right on underneath the skeleton so that we could begin the process of plaster jacketing. We use these protective plaster jackets that essentially care for and secure the bones and the surrounding matrix so that we can take them out of the field and into the lab so that we can analyze the fossil and the matrix and work out what's going on. After various challenges on site, we finally managed to remove the entire skeleton after dissecting it into several more manageable blocks. And this was an interesting moment for the team because it's quite emotional moment because we'd spent and invested so much time and energy into this ichthyosaur excavation that this moment captured that final piece where we're removing this from its final resting place 180 million years ago.

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ZOMORODI: So what happens next? What do you do with a fossil like this?

LOMAX: Well, once you got it out of the ground, the next thing then was for the entire skeleton to go to our colleague, Nigel Larkin, to his lab. He'll be the person who will be cleaning the entire skeleton now. So - but what he'll have to do is flip the entire thing over, and then we'll see the underside, because the underside should be, in theory, the best-preserved side because that's what was laying down...

ZOMORODI: Oh.

LOMAX: ...In the seabed. So no animals could scavenge that, you know? And I really hope we're going to have an impressive, beautiful set of teeth with maybe a big eye sitting there staring back at us.

ZOMORODI: Ah.

LOMAX: I can't wait for that moment.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. When is that going to happen?

LOMAX: We're hoping that the cleaning phase should be completed in somewhere between 18 to 24 months. So once it's fully cleaned, it'll allow me and my team to do all the - if you like, the CSI of this animal. Why did it die? How old was it? You know, do we have something in there in the stomach contents? Is there its last meal? Is there any embryos in there? And, you know, things like that is what we're trying to work out. But above all, once it's fully cleaned, it's all been agreed that it will return to Rutland.

ZOMORODI: And we should say Rutland is nowhere near the coast. It is in the middle of England.

LOMAX: Right, exactly. We know 100% not only because of our giant Rutland Sea Dragon, but we also have the remains of shellfish-like animals called ammonites and bits of corals and sea creatures called crinoids, all these types of animals we know that were living in a marine environment. And so this indicates that roughly 180 million years ago, this area was deep underwater.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: What do you think Mary Anning would've made of this incredible find?

LOMAX: I think Mary would have been quite thrilled to have seen that a discovery of these creatures that she'd been collecting for so long had been made in somewhere quite unusual for Jurassic fossils like this, in landlocked Rutland. For Mary, knowing full well that her kind of legacy that's so intertwined with ichthyosaurs continues right to this day and we still can make such remarkable discoveries, she would be overwhelmed with that.

ZOMORODI: That's Dean Lomax. He's a paleontologist and visiting scientist at the University of Manchester. You can see his full talk at ted.com. On the show today, Animal Enigmas. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

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