Scotland's Prehistoric Marine Reptile
In Photo: The newly identified prehistoric marine reptile Dearcmhara shawcrossi, a member of a group called ichthyosaurs that swam the world's oceans at the same time that dinosaurs ruled the land. REUTERS

Fossils of a marine reptile resembling a dolphin was discovered by Brian Shawcross, an amateur fossil hunter on the Isle of Skye in Scotland fifty-six years ago. The 14-feet long sea creature is said to have lived during the Mesozoic Era and has been classified by scientists as a new species of prehistoric marine reptile called Dearcmhara shawcrossi. Sea creatures that existed during the Jurassic period with dinosaurs are called ichthyosaurs.

One of the study's authors, Stephen Brusatte, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh states that the fossil is a unique discovery. There have not been any documented studies on prehistoric marine reptiles in Scotland and this would be the first. The palaeontologist adds that a lot of fossil remains of marine creatures found in the past have been sold or kept for personal collection. Fortunately, the ones found by Shawcross on the northern coast of Skye Islet in 1959 were given to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow in the 1990s. The genus name was derived from the Celtic term, Dearcmhara, which refers to 'marine lizard' while the species was named in honour of the discoverer. The study on this new species of marine reptile was published on January 11 in the Scottish Journal of Geology.

According to the researchers' description, the Dearcmhara is a medium-sized ichthyosaur that swam in shallow waters 170 million years ago and fed on smaller marine creatures. Though the fossils gathered are not complete, bone structure in the front flippers indicate swiftness and strength in swimming. Teeth that belonged to another ichthyosaur species were also found in the collection. Steve Brusatte believes that in order to broaden studies on the presence of prehistoric marine reptiles in the area, private collectors and existing fossils in other museums must be located.

Ichthyosaurs were huge marine vertebrates that swam the oceans with other reptiles like the plesiosaurs. Fossil evidence show that they first appeared and continued to diversify 250 million years ago but became extinct before the dinosaurs died out. The first complete skeletal remains of the ichthyosaurs were found in England in 1834 and there are more than fifty other genera discovered in other continents all over the world thereafter.