An unexpected journey: the fall and rise of Ichthyosaurus anningae, from fossil to plaster cast to holotype

Nigel R Larkin, Dean R Lomax

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    An ichthyosaur specimen (DONMG:1983.98) in the palaeontology collection of Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery, England, comprises a nearly complete skeleton. Although the museum deliberately purchased the fossil as genuine in 1983 it was later mistaken for a plaster cast and used as such before being re-identified as real. Furthermore, it was recently recognised as a specimen new to science and is now the holotype of Ichthyosaurus anningae Lomax and Massare, 2015. To enable the taxonomic study of the specimen, a diverse range of work was required. This included: tracking down its provenance and age (Lower Jurassic, Pliensbachian) which had not been known when it was bought; cleaning, conserving and partially re-preparing the specimen so that it could be determined exactly which of the forefin bones were in situ and which had been artificially placed before the specimen was sold to the museum; and comparing the skeleton to hundreds of other ichthyosaur fossils before its final determination as a new species. Local media and public interest in the specimen was a constant feature of the project but the subsequent publication of the new ichthyosaur species engaged media attention worldwide and highlights the importance of communicating palaeontological discoveries to what is clearly a receptive audience. In the process, whilst the news media unexpectedly concentrated on the fact that the specimen had lain in a museum collection 'unrecognised' for 30 years, the relevance of museum collections was highlighted and their profile collectively raised, which further highlights the importance of communicating scientific research. This story also demonstrates the need for specialist input in museums at a time when the role of the specialist curator is under increasing threat.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)107-119
    Number of pages13
    JournalGeological Curator
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


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