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Resurrecting the Unfortunate Dragon

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The five metre-long holotype specimen of ‘Plesiosaurus’ megacephalus, from the Jurassic of Street-on-the-Fosse, Somerset, was one of several plesiosaurs once displayed in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. As one of the earliest plesiosaurs to evolve it is an important species for understanding the early history of the group. Sadly, the fossil skeleton was destroyed along with many other important specimens when the museum was struck by a bomb during the Second World War. This destroyed fossil material is sometimes referred to today as the ‘ghost collection’.

Atychodracon skeleton

Historical photograph of the holotype skeleton (BRSMG Cb 2335) of Atychodracon megacephalus (Stutchbury, 1846). Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery. Length of skeleton equals 4960 mm.

Thankfully, all was not lost. Moulds had been taken from some of the fossils before the war, and in the case of ‘Plesiosaurus’ megacephalus, multiple casts of its skull and forelimb were produced prior to its destruction. These were deposited in the collections of several museums, including the British Geological Survey (BGS), Keyworth; Natural History Museum, London; and Trinity College, Dublin.

The casts provide a valuable resource that I was able to use to describe ‘Plesiosaurus’ megacephalus in an article published this year in the open access journal Palaeontologia Electronica (18.1.20A p.1-19). The study focused on the casts held in the BGS, but was also facilitated by The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery who provided historical photographs of the ‘ghost collection’ from their archives. The photo (above) shows how the entire fossil skeleton appeared before it was destroyed. The BGS also produced three-dimensional digital laser scans of the casts as part of their JISC-funded ‘GB3D fossil types online’ project. The resulting virtual models are free to view or download (here) and can be rotated on screen or 3D-printed.

Atychodracon skeleton

Three dimensional scan with texture (colour) removed of plaster cast (BGS GSM 118410) of the holotype (BRSMG Cb 2335) skull of Atychodracon megacephalus (Stutchbury, 1846) in ventral (palatal) view. Scale bar equals 100 mm.

The skeleton of ‘Plesiosaurus’ megacephalus is distinct enough from all other plesiosaurs, including Rhomaleosaurus and Eurycleidus, to warrant a new genus name. I called it Atychodracon, meaning ’Unfortunate Dragon’, in reference to the unfortunate destruction of the original fossil material. This project also demonstrates that casts of fossils, and 3D laser scans, can provide valuable data for palaeontologists – they can be described, measured, and coded into analyses. When original fossil material has been lost, damaged or destroyed, the scientific value of casts increases even further. This study is the first publication to make use of the publicly available repository of 3D laser scans provided by the BGS. The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery is now investigating the possibility of using physical representations of their ‘ghost collection’ in future exhibitions, to bring long lost fossils such as Atychodracon ‘back to life’.

Find out more by checking out the article at Palaeontologia Electronica.

Atychodracon skeleton

Plaster cast (BGS GSM 118410) of the ventral surface of the right forelimb of the holotype of Atychodracon megacephalus (Stutchbury, 1846) (BRSMG Cb 2335). 1, three dimensional scan with texture (colour) removed, 2, photograph, 3, interpretation.

Written by Adam S. Smith

October 18th, 2015 at 12:01 am

A new domain for The Marine Reptiles Forum

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The marine reptiles forum, which was unfortunately hacked last year (2013) and has been offline for several months since, is now back up and running. Richard Forrest was able to salvage all the old posts and user information, and has restored the forum at a dedicated new domain: marinereptiles.org. The forum is home to an open community of fossil marine reptile researchers and enthusiasts, and is an  excellent place to discuss all manner of topics related to prehistoric marine reptiles. The site is run by Richard Forrest (plesiosaur.com), Mike Everhart (oceansofkansas.com), and myself, so we’ll do our best to minimise spam and approve genuine new members without too much delay. Registration is now open so see you there!

The marine reptiles forum

Written by Adam S. Smith

January 18th, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Monstertalk Podcast – The Plesiosaur Hypothesis

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Monstertalk is a new sceptical podcast focussing on all things cryptozoological. The most recent episode (episode 004) delves into the idea that plesiosaurs may still be alive today, lurking in lochs and lakes around the world – the so called Plesiosaur Hypothesis.  I was interviewed as a guest on this episode and took part in a long discussion about plesiosaur palaeobiology. I’ll admit that I was hesitant to be interviewed at first because I don’t want to get too bogged down or involved in the living plesiosaurs ‘debate’.

MonsterTalk logo

The word debate goes into inverted commas because very few cryptozoologists really take the plesiosaur hypothesis seriously, any discussion on the topic is less of a debate and more of a debunk. The plesiosaur hypothesis is really only pushed by 1. the occasional fundamentalist creationist under the (false) impression that a living plesiosaur would somehow discredit evolution (which it obviously wouldn’t), and 2. the media. The media’s fascination with Nessie is especially irksome, no plesiosaur-based science news story in the popular press is self explanatory or interesting enough, it seems, without the inevitable comparison with a fabled creature that doesn’t look like a plesiosaur anyway. This perpetuates the public’s only frame of reference for plesiosaurs as Nessie and does nothing for palaeontology and even less for science education.

Loch Ness Monster hoax

It was partly with this in mind that I decided to accept the invitation to be interviewed on Monstertalk, but moreover it was an excellent opportunity  to talk about plesiosaur palaeontology and the real mysteries surrounding these fascinating creatures. Far more interesting than those mythical lake monsters I think, and I hope that’s how the podcast came across. I enjoyed the experience although I still haven’t had the courage to listen to myself twittering on. This episode is available to download as a free MP3 here: http://traffic.libsyn.com/skeptic/004_Monstertalk.mp3 and the show notes are here: http://www.skeptic.com/podcasts/monstertalk/09/08/24/. I highly recommend listening to the other episodes too. Enjoy!

Written by Adam S. Smith

September 5th, 2009 at 9:00 pm

The ‘Plesiosaur Directory’ recommended in Science journal’s Netwatch

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I am honoured and not a little surprised to see this very site appear in leading science journal ‘Science’. Every issue of the journal contains a section called ‘Netwatch’, featuring a crop of recommended online resources – the “best of the Web in Science”. To see what ‘Science’ had to say about the ‘Plesiosaur Directory’ in the latest issue (1st September) (Vol 313, Issue 5791, P.1211), pop into any good newsagent or visit http://www.sciencemag.org/content/vol313/issue5791/netwatch.dtl

Thanks to everyone who has helped make the site a success. Adam

Written by Adam S. Smith

September 4th, 2006 at 12:50 pm