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Prehistoric marine reptile discovered in Scotland

January 12, 2015

Scientists have identified a new species of marine reptile that roamed the waters near the Scottish coast 170 millions years ago. The ancient dolphin-like creature ate fish and squid and was 4.3 meters long.

Image: cc-by-Dmitry Bogdanov

A team led by Edinburgh University scientists announced the discovery of the creature called Dearchmara shawcrossi on Monday, based on fossil remains found on the Isle of Skye.

"During the time of dinosaurs, the waters of Scotland were prowled by big reptiles the size of motor boats," said Steve Brusatte of Edinburgh University's School of GeoSciences. "Their fossils are very rare and only now, for the first time, we've found a new species that was uniquely Scottish."

The discovery sheds light on a span of the Jurassic regarded as nearly a black hole, when it comes to the marine reptile fossil record, Brusatte said. Scotland is one of the few places with fossils from that time.

Loch Ness legend

The genus name Dearcmhara is pronounced "jark vara" in Scottish Gaelic, and means "marine lizard", while the species name shawcrossi honors the amateur fossil hunter Brian Shawcross who found the fossils in 1959 and later donated them to a museum.

Dearcmhara belongs to the group of ichthyosaurs, which also includes reptiles that could grow to the size of today's whales. This animal, however, was a medium-sized ichthyosaur who swam in warm and shallow seas during the Jurassic period, feeding on fish and squid.

Although its remains are incomplete, bones in its front flippers suggests it may have been an extremely strong or fast swimmer, the scientists said.

The fossil records indicate that Dearcmhara lived alongside another branch of large marine reptiles called plesiosaurs, who are known for long necks and paddle-like flippers. The mythical Loch Ness monster Nessie, also from Scotland, is commonly portrayed as a plesiosaur.

dj/bk (Reuters, AFP)