Digging up the Rutland Sea Dragon

The remains of the ichthyosaur were initially discovered in February 2021, and fully excavated later that summer.

The ichthyosaur was discovered by Joe Davis, Conservation Team Leader at Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, which operates the nature reserve in partnership with Anglian Water, during the routine draining of a lagoon island for re-landscaping at Rutland Water in February 2021. 

After reporting the discovery to the local council and Dr Mark Evans of the British Antarctic Survey, a further team of expert palaeontologists was assembled from around the UK, and the fragile remains of the huge skeleton were carefully excavated in August and September 2021.


The excavation was led by world-leading ichthyosaur expert Dr Dean Lomax and specialist palaeontological conservator Nigel Larkin, alongside marine reptile specialist Dr Mark Evans, Dr Emma Nicholls from the Horniman Museum and a group of volunteers with experience of excavating fossilised marine reptiles.


After the fossil was carefully excavated by the team, it was wrapped in a plaster jacket, made of wooden splints encased in plaster of paris, because it was so fragile. This method of conservation offered additional protection for the remains, and allowed them to be lifted in sections from the ground and moved safely to a research facility for further analysis. Altogether the fossil weighs over two tonnes. 

 

Meet the team

The dig team, L-R: Dr Emma Nicholls, David Savory, Nigel Larkin, Dr Dean Lomax, Mick Beeson, Dr Mark Evans, Emily Swaby, and Darren Withers.

Dr Dean Lomax

Dr Dean Lomax is the ichthyosaur expert, author and presenter who led the Rutland Sea Dragon dig. He has had a lifelong passion for palaeontology, and at 18, sold lots of his belongings to hunt dinosaurs in America. Since that trip, Dean has had huge success as a palaeontologist, travelling the globe, discovering five new species of ichthyosaur, gaining his MPhil and PhD despite not having an undergraduate degree, and winning the prestigious G. J. Mendel Award for excellence in science communication at the Houses of Parliament. Dr Lomax is also the author of multiple books, host of primetime TV documentaries, and has presented a TED talk on his unorthodox career. 

Dr Mark Evans

Dr Mark Evans is a geologist, palaeontologist, and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Leicester where he is a member of the Centre for Palaeobiology Research. He spent more than twenty years as a museum curator in Leicester, working with fossils from Rutland and Leicestershire, and is now at the British Antarctic Survey where he curates the national collection of Antarctic rocks and fossils. Mark’s research expertise is focused on plesiosaurs, of which he has named six new species. These long-necked marine reptiles included early Jurassic contemporaries that swam alongside the Rutland Sea Dragon. 

Nigel Larkin

Nigel Larkin is a palaeontological conservator, looking after fossils, rocks and skeletons for museums to make sure they stay in the best condition possible. For more than thirty years, he has carried out conservation projects all over the UK and abroad, including working on the iconic dinosaur gallery at the Natural History Museum in London. Nigel works on a freelance basis through his company Natural History Conservation and always enjoys the challenge of excavating large, fragile, awkward skeletons. The Rutland Sea Dragon is currently in Nigel’s conservation workshop in Shropshire, where he will work his magic on it over the next couple of years, cleaning, conserving and mounting the skeleton ready for research and displayed. He has already co-authored several research papers on ichthyosaur skeletons with Dr Lomax. 

Joe Davis

Joe Davis is a career conservationist. His passion is wetland wildlife, especially ornithology. Having studied countryside management and forestry, he has worked for over 25 years in the environmental sector. After setting up a number of successful nature reserves and projects in Suffolk, he moved back to the internationally important Rutland Water Nature Reserve in 2011 with his family. He is now the Conservation Team Leader for Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust at Rutland, where he coordinates the management of this amazing 1,000-acre haven for wildlife and its visitors. It was Joe, alongside his team member Paul, who first stumbled upon the Rutland Sea Dragon during routine draining of a lagoon in the nature reserve in February 2021. 

Dr Emma Nicholls

Dr Emma Nicholls is the Senior Curator of Natural Sciences at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. She is responsible for the curation, documentation and research of the palaeontology, geology and osteology collections, and uses subject specialist expertise to support the many other departments within the Museum. Marine ecosystems and Mesozoic reptiles – such as ichthyosaurs –  are Emma’s primary research interests, making her skills incredibly valuable for the Rutland Sea Dragon dig. 

Emily Swaby

Emily Swaby is a second year PhD student at the Open University, where her current research is focused on exploring the effects of the early Jurassic extreme environmental change on insects. Emily’s MPhil research, which she undertook at the University of Manchester alongside Dr Lomax, focused on a large Temnodontosaurus crassimanus ichthyosaur – the same genus as the Rutland ichthyosaur – discovered in Whitby, Yorkshire. 

Steven Dey

Steven Dey, founder of ThinkSee3D Ltd, is a leading practitioner, innovator, speaker and researcher who applies 3D digital methods to a diverse range of disciplines in cultural and natural heritage and medical education. Steven provides 3D scanning, 3D printing and virtual 3D services for research and museum clients including the British Museum, the NHM, National Museums Scotland, the V&A and many globally renowned universities. During the dig, he took photographs of the Rutland Sea Dragon’s skeleton to produce a 3D model, which can be found here.

Darren Withers

Darren Withers is an experienced amateur palaeontologist and volunteer at the Peterborough Museum, where he helps to look after the fossil collections. He has volunteered on several large-scale palaeontology projects, involving much-needed conservation work for specimens of scientific importance at the Peterborough Museum. Darren is a key member of the Peterborough Geological and Palaeontological Group. 

David Savory

David Savory is Assistant General Manager at Flag Fen Archaeology Park and a member of Peterborough Geological and Palaeontological Group. He is passionate about geology and, over the years, has excavated a number of plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. One of his discoveries includes the remains of a plesiosaur which is now on display at Flag Fen. When not out looking for fossils, he is a keen mountaineer. 

Mick Beeson

Mick Beeson is an experienced amateur palaeontologist and member of the Peterborough Geological and Palaeontological Group. He has taken part in many excavations, including finding and collecting ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. 

Paul de la Salle

Paul de la Salle is a retired electronics design engineer and amateur palaeontologist who lives in Wiltshire. Paul has a keen interest in Mesozoic vertebrates, and in 2016, he found a jaw section from one of the world’s largest ichthyosaurs on the Somerset Coast. He co-authored a paper on this animal with Dr Dean Lomax. 

Philip Rye

Philip Rye is a freelance palaeontologist and archaeologist who has worked on many projects worldwide. He has a great deal of experience in the excavation, subsequent conservation and museum mounting of large specimens including a humpback whale in Abu Dhabi and the fin whale in the Cambridge Zoology Museum. 

Matthew Butler

Matthew Butler is a Year 10 student at The Becket School, West Bridgford, hoping to go into palaeontology. Matthew had found it difficult to find hands-on experience until he successfully applied to be a volunteer at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham, where he helps run the “Titus T. rex” exhibition, so participating in the Rutland dig was a really exciting opportunity for him. 

Dawn Butler

Dawn Butler, a former police officer turned award-winning cake decorator, is Matthew Butler’s mum. She was introduced to the world of palaeontology more than a decade ago through Matthew and now classes herself as a keen amateur palaeontologist too (particularly when asked to make them in cake form!).