As a new study reveals, a once forgotten fossil -- long lost to a mostly ignored collection of bones in the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery -- has been used to identify a new type of ichthyosaur, a now extinct group of aquatic reptiles.
The fossil sat in the museum for 30 years, misidentified as a plaster copy, until paleontologist Dean Lomax took an interest to it in 2008. Several of the fossilized specimen's bones didn't look like other ichthyosaurs, so Lomax, a researcher at Manchester University, noted the differences.
He then spent the next five years traveling around to other museum collections in an attempt to confirm his suspicions. Lomax's traveling research was aided by ichthyosaurs expert Judy Massare, a professor at Brockport College in New York.
"After examining the specimen extensively, both Professor Massare and I identified several unusual features of the limb bones (humerus and femur) that were completely different to any other ichthyosaur known," Lomax explained in a recent press release. "That became very exciting. After examining perhaps over a thousand specimens we found four others with the same features as the Doncaster fossil."
Lomax's and the four other fossils are now correctly identified as Ichthyosaurus anningae -- the first new Ichthyosaurus named in nearly 130 years.
Ichthyosaurs were the descendants of land reptiles that ventured into the waters and evolved the ability to swim. They evolved to look similar to dolphins and sharks and populated the oceans for millions of years during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The cause of their extinction during the Late Cretaceous period is unknown.
The fossil rediscovered by Lomax dates between 189 and 182 million years old, and is one of the most complete of its kind. It was originally discovered in the 1980s along East Dorset's Jurassic Coast, a fossil-rich World Heritage Site along the English Channel coast of southern England.
Lomax named the new species for famed female scientist Mary Anning, who began collecting ichthyosaur fossils in the early part of the 19th century.
"Mary worked tirelessly to bring the ichthyosaurs, among other fossils, to the attention of the scientific world," Lomax said. "Mary and her brother, Joseph, discovered the first ichthyosaur specimen to be scientifically recognised, collected at Lyme Regis around 1811."
Other scientists, excited by Lomax's discovery, pointed to museum collection as a nearly neverending source of paleontological research material -- fossils both un- and misidentified.
"Collections are treasures that show their value each time we're able to look at them with a different perspective, and by asking new scientific questions," Dr. Silvia Danise, a researcher at Plymouth University, told BBC News.