Jurassic World – Come and see the World’s Biggest Bite!

Jurassic-WorldJurassic World has been released this weekend – and if you’ve enjoyed the film, now come and see the enormous 150million year old skull of the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur at Dorset County Museum!

The fossil bones of this pliosaur skull were recovered by amateur fossil collector Kevan Sheehan between 2003 and 2008, as they were washed out of a landslide on the coast in Weymouth Bay. The largest piece weighed over 80 kg, and the skull itself is a massive 2.4 metres long. Featured recently as one of National Geographic’s Top 10 Biggest Beasts, the pliosaur was the ‘T Rex of the ocean’, an 18metre long ferocious predator of the seas. Known as ‘The World’s Biggest Bite’, the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur would have been capable of biting the biggest great white shark alive today clean in half.

The Dorset specimen is one of the most complete and best preserved skulls ever found, and as a result it has provided new insights into our understanding of how these enormous animals evolved.

Richard Edmonds and Kevan Sheehan with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

Richard Edmonds and Kevan Sheehan with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

Since its discovery, hundreds of hours have been spent carrying out a detailed analysis and cleaning away the rock to expose the detail of the fossil underneath. Alongside this conservation work an intensive programme involved the Jurassic Coast team and Dorset County Museum working together to produce an exciting, interactive display showcasing the fossil with the theme ‘The World’s Biggest Bite’. Mounted dramatically on a specially constructed plinth that shows the jaws in an awe-inspiring open-mouthed position, the story of the fossil is interpreted through a series of film presentations accompanied by a life-size model of the pliosaur’s head.

Dr. Jon Murden, Director said “It’s amazing to see this skull up close in the Museum – standing next to it you can really appreciate its enormous size, and get a feel for the terrifying predator it once was.”

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Monster fossils from Dorset and Wiltshire declared as new species

Weymouth  Bay Pliosaur Skull © DCM

Weymouth Bay Pliosaur Skull © DCM

An enormous skull from a giant marine reptile recovered from the Dorset coast near Weymouth, has been declared as a species new to science and named in honour of its finder Kevan Sheehan. The new name, Pliosaurus kevani, is published in the on-line journal PLOS ONE this week.

Mr Sheehan said; ‘This is a great day for Kevans around the world!’

Pliosaurus was a giant oceanic predator with a skull 2 metres long and body perhaps 12 metres in length. It was in fact the most powerful, scariest marine monster of all time, capable of biting the biggest great white shark alive today, clean in half (although they never existed at the same time). Despite their giant size, the oldest Pliosaurus species had many teeth, suggesting a diet of fish but over time they developed fewer, stronger teeth suggesting they evolved to hunt large prey such as big fish and other marine reptiles; plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. Indeed, there are spectacular examples of bones, particularly limbs with massive bite marks; just like many of today’s predators, pliosaurs probably disabled their prey and allowed them to weaken through blood loss before going in for the kill.

Richard Edmonds and Kevan Sheehan with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

Richard Edmonds and Kevan Sheehan with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

The Dorset specimen, known as the and ‘the World’s Biggest Bite’, is one of the most complete and best preserved skulls ever found and as a result it has provided new insights into our understanding of how these enormous animals evolved. Giant pliosaurs were first found in the UK in the early 1800s, but most fossils were fragmentary, so their species diversity has been uncertain. The scientific paper has taken a new look at both the Dorset specimen and two other skulls discovered near Westbury over the last 30 years (the Westbury pliosaurs are on display at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery). That study has led to a revision of the group and the naming of both those specimens as new species as well; Pliosaurus carpenteri after the collector, Simon Carpenter and Pliosaurus westburyensis.

One of the most significant conclusions from the paper is that the genus Pliosaurus appears to have developed a highly effective body plan that remained little changed for millions of years in the Late Jurassic sea. During that time just a handful of species evolved and this is unlike most top predators in the fossil record which reach dominance but were then typically swiftly replaced by different forms. The research has been undertaken by a team of vertebrate palaeontologists from Oxford, Bristol and Cambridge universities and with Leicester, Nottingham and the Sedgwick (Cambridge) museums together with independent researchers.

Mark Evans, Curator of Natural Sciences at Leicester Museum said:

“We have so few diagnostic specimens and the extraordinary thing is that whenever a specimen is diagnostic, it often turns out to be something new. We’ve effectively doubled the number of British Pliosaurus species in the paper.”

PliosaurPliosaurus dominated the seas around 150 million years ago in the Late Jurassic and similar forms appeared again in the Cretaceous. They have been found in northern Norway on the island of Svalbard (the famous Predator X of television fame), Canada, Mexico, Colombia and Australia. Despite the huge size of pliosaurs, identifiable specimens are rare in the fossil record; there is about 1 million years between the Weymouth Bay and Westbury specimens, more than 100,000 generations, yet they are only known from three described specimens. That is because most animals do not become fossilised while, as a top predator, there are far fewer individuals than their prey source. This is the nature of the science; trying to untangle the history of life from just a handful of specimens, but that also makes it exciting as new finds, providing new insights, will always come to light so long as collectors are out there rescuing the fossils when they become exposed.

Sir David Attenborough with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

Sir David Attenborough with the Pliosaur skull – 8th July 2011 © DCM

Further studies are ongoing with Pliosaurus kevani. All the bones have been through an industrial CT scanner at the University of Southampton, Faculty of Engineering (the muVIS X-ray Imaging Centre) and the data is being analysed by students from Bristol University where they are particularly focused on the biomechanics of the skull, including the biting force of the jaws. Analysis of the scans has also resolved detailed internal structures such as blood and sensory canals and this work should be published in the near future.

The skull of Pliosaurus kevani is on permanent display at the Dorset County Museum thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Collecting Cultures’ program with match funding from Dorset and Devon County Councils.

For further information contact the Museum on 01305 262735 or check the website on www.dorsetcountymuseum.org

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From Mud and Bones to a Museum Specimen

Richard Edmonds and Kevan Sheehan with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

Richard Edmonds and Kevan Sheehan with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

The fossil bones of this pliosaur skull were recovered by amateur fossil collector Kevan Sheehan between 2003 and 2008, as they were washed out of a landslide on the coast in Weymouth Bay. The largest piece weighed over 80 kg. Kevan missed only four pieces, three of which were recovered by two other collectors.

In 2003, Kevan found three massive sections of the jaw lying at the base of the cliff, freshly washed out by the sea. Over the next five years he returned to the site after rough weather and rain, patiently recovering the pieces as they became exposed. This is an incredible achievement for an individual collector, and a sign of his dedication to the recovery of something that would otherwise have been lost to the sea. The three smaller pieces were found by other local collectors, Patrick Clarke and Shirley Swaine. One small piece at the back of one jaw is lost, while the front of the jaw was probably uncovered many years ago. It could have been washed away or it could be lying in a collection somewhere not yet linked to this find.

Funding

The specimen was purchased by Dorset County Council’s Museums Service, half its initial cost going to the collector and the other half to the landowner. Preparation (cleaning) and piecing the bones back together took 18 months of skilled, professional work. Funding has been provided by the Heritage Lottery Collecting Cultures programme, with match funding from Dorset and Devon County Councils. The restored specimen was formally unveiled here by Sir David Attenborough, on 8th July 2011.

About the specimen

As yet, the skull has not been allocated a formal name. It is currently being studied by research groups at several UK Universities, and it is thought probable that the pliosaur will receive a species name new to science (probably crediting its finder)

The skull is 95% complete, but there was no sign of the body at the find site. Entire skeletons are rare as they tended to be broken up before burial. The massive skull probably fell off the decaying body as it rolled about in the Jurassic sea, being ripped apart by scavenging creatures, possibly even other pliosaurs. The complete animal would have measured between 15 and 18 m in length.

Its skull is 2.4 m long, and is believed to have possessed the biggest bite of all time – powerful enough to sever a small car in two! Although they never lived at the same time, it could have torn the biggest great white shark alive today clean in half.

Pliosaurs lived during the ‘Mesozoic Era’, the age where reptiles dominated the animal kingdom. Dinosaurs patrolled the land, pterosaurs soared the skies, and a variety of large aquatic reptiles (such as plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ichthyosaurs and mozasaurs), ruled the seas. Both the dinosaurs and the marine reptiles died out at the end of the Mesozoic Era, 65 million years ago, when a massive extinction event wiped out two thirds of life on Earth. The bones of this pliosaur were found in Kimmeridge Clay sediments (deposited during the Upper Jurassic Period), and are about 155 million years old.

Pliosaur

The Sea Dragon – Pliosaur

Scientists have been able to build a picture of how a complete pliosaur would have looked from various fragmentary remains. Living pliosaurs were air-breathing marine reptiles. They are considered to be a subfamily of the plesiosaurs. Unlike some plesiosaurs, they had short necks with just a few vertebrae. Pliosaurs’ barrel-shaped bodies were equipped with a powerful tail and often a huge skull. The creatures swam by means of two pairs of paddle-shaped limbs (for example the forepaddle on the eastern wall of this gallery). The main identifiable differences between skull specimens are the jaws and dentition, which probably reflect different types of prey favoured by each species. They were able to catch and dismember large prey as they had powerful jaws capable of opening wide, and strong, deeply rooted, conical teeth. There is a model of the head as it perhaps looked when alive, hanging in the window of this gallery.

Ongoing research

Scientific study is underway to discover how the animal lived and died, and how its bones became a living reef for encrusting animals. The specimen has already been scanned at the University of Southampton using its high-energy, micro-focus CT scanner – one of the most powerful of its kind in the UK.

The results have been used to reconstruct a three dimensional digital model of the entire skull, revealing fine details of the creature’s internal structure that would otherwise remain a mystery. The University of Bristol are using this CT scan data to understand just how powerful the bite may have been. Experts from the University of Portsmouth will study the fossilisation process, while mud associated with the bones has been sent to the University of Plymouth, to see if any fossil plankton were preserved. Sediment removed from the bones will be studied by experts in the Natural History Museum in search of bones and teeth of animals that may have hunted around the dead skeleton.

Other examples

The Weymouth Bay Pliosaur skull is exceptional because it is 95% complete, but it is not the biggest in the world. Fragments of larger specimens have been found in the brick pits of Oxfordshire. The skull of Kronosaurus, from Australia, was possibly up to 3 m long. Specimens of comparable size have been found in northern Norway, on the island of Svalbard, and in Colombia, South America.

Other pliosaur specimens are on display around the world at

  • Queensland Museum – an example Kronosaurus found in Queensland, Northeast Australia.

Plesiosaur and ichthyosaur specimens are on display in the UK at