Behind the scenes at secret Shropshire dinosaur centre hosting massive sea dragon discovery

For a dinosaur expert you’d think the discovery of one of Britain’s most important fossils would be their career defining moment – but for Nigel Larkin it is up against some pretty strong competition.

Palaeontologist Nigel Larkin will be working on the 'Sea Dragon' for the best part of two years
Palaeontologist Nigel Larkin will be working on the 'Sea Dragon' for the best part of two years

Mr Larkin, a specialist paleontological conservator, is currently tucked away in a secret Shropshire location, working on one of the most incredible discoveries in British natural history – a complete fossilised skeleton of an Ichthyosaur.

The Ichthyosaur, nicknamed a Sea Dragon, was discovered in Rutland and excavated last summer, and Mr Larkin will now spend the best part of the next two years cleaning and studying the beast in preparation for it to go on public display.

The creature has gone from swimming in a sea that no longer exists, to sitting on wooden frames inside what from the outside appears a very normal industrial unit.

Currently the pieces are still encased in the protective plaster used to transport them, but the most immediately striking thing about them is the size.

This was a truly massive creature.

Ichhthyosaurs, which were marine reptiles, first appeared about 250m years ago and went extinct 90m years ago.

They varied in size from one metre, to more than 25 metres in length, and looked largely like a dolphin in their general body shape.

Palaeontologist Nigel Larkin with a model of how an Ichthyosaur would have appeared

This particular Ichthyosaur was around 10 metres long – the same size as a double decker bus – and had a human come face-to-face with it there would have only been one winner.

Fortunately for us that would have been impossible. This particular sea dragon is around 150 million years old, while humans have only graced the planet for around 300,000 years in our homo-sapien form.

The timeline is a startling reminder of the significance of the find, as Mr Larkin explains.

He said: “Something this big and this complete had not been found in the UK before, and it is rare worldwide. It’s staggering.”

Mr Larkin’s own interest in Ichthyosaurs – his Twitter handle is ‘Mr Ichthyosaurus’ – was behind him and his friend Dean Lomax getting the call when Joe Davis of the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust noticed small bits of it poking out of the ground.

Arriving on a cold, icy February morning to investigate the find last year, Mr Larkin said he had no idea of what they would uncover.

By the end of the day they had confirmed the discovery of a complete fossilised Ichthyosaur skeleton – a truly remarkable discovery.

Palaeontologist Nigel Larkin will be working on the 'Sea Dragon' for the best part of two years

Mr Larkin said: “We thought ‘that looks like a partial skeleton’. Even if it’s 20 per cent, that’s great.

“We went out on a frozen morning, sliding all over the place. Everyone else turned up in a car and I turned up in the van because you never know. I had taken shovels, picks, ladders, everything we could have needed.

“We were cleaning it up and the mud had thawed slightly and we could move it with a trowel or whatever but by the end of the day we had exposed it top to tail.

“We were measuring it thinking ‘by god we think this is the biggest find in the country’. By the end of the day when we measured it we were looking at each other in disbelief thinking ‘this is incredible’.”

For Mr Larkin and Mr Lomax, it is a project that sits perfectly with their interests.

Mr Larkin said: “For the two of us to be working on this is absolutely fantastic. If we could sit down and design a really ideal project it would be finding this, excavating it, researching it and cleaning it up.”

The discovery has led to worldwide interest with Mr Larkin being visited by an Australian TV crew, and carrying out interviews with radio stations across the globe.

He explained how the work to clean the fossil would develop, and how the findings could help reveal more about the creature’s life.

Nigel Larkin with a fossilised ammonite

He said: “It will be removing all the plaster jackets, all the clay, cleaning the bones, studying them for disease, pathology, stomach contents, teeth marks on the bones, just seeing whatever the specimen can tell us about its life and times.”

While research is a huge part of the work Mr Larkin does, he also has a raft of other skills – ones that help bring history to life for those who are not experts.

From his base he cleans and ‘mounts’ all manner of skeletons and fossils for museums – ranging from whales to extinct Ostrich-type birds such at the Moa, from New Zealand.

When most people visit a museum with a dinosaur exhibit or a giant skeleton they wont give a moment’s thought to how it ended up stood there, posed for their entertainment. Well that’s the process of ‘mounting’.

To do so Mr Larkin uses blacksmithing and carpentry skills to build a frame whereby the spectacular exhibits can be displayed to the public, rather than sit there as a pile of bones.

While the Icthyosaur is obviously a career highlight, currently a version of the most famous dinosaur of all, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, is standing proud in Nottingham Museum thanks to his skills.

Mr Larkin spent a year of the pandemic working on ‘Titus’ the T-Rex, who was discovered in Montana in the US in 2018. The work involved piecing together the bones discovered with others which were 3D printed from previous T-Rex finds.

Nigel working on 'Titus' the T-Rex at Nottingham Museum. Photo: Nottingham City Council

The result is a spectacular exhibit of the most iconic dinosaur of all – four-metres (13ft) tall and 11-metres long.

The bones also tell a fascinating tale about the creature – something that could be repeated when the Ichthyosaur is studied.

Mr Larkin said: “With the T-Rex they found all sorts of trauma from bite marks but it had recovered and healed.

“And if you are a T-Rex what could you imagine could do that apart from another T-Rex?”

‘Titus’ is also not the only famous dinosaur to have been part of Mr Larkin’s career.

For five years he worked at the Natural History Museum – including time spent working on Dippy the famous Diplodocus who dominated the entrance to the building but has since been replaced with the skeleton of a blue whale.

The impact of ‘Titus’, who has attracted streams of people to the Nottingham Museum, is something Mr Larkin expects the Sea Dragon to repeat for Rutland.

He said: “It becomes an icon the museum can use to market itself, lots of museums do that where they have a specific piece of charismatic megafauna.

“All sorts of museums do it. They have large item of charismatic megafauna which will run their social media accounts with a voice and it works, it is a hook to engage people.

“Something like the Ichthyosaur, even if it was half the size it would be a real boon to put it on display, the fact it has had international attention really helps as well.”

For now Mr Larkin will be using his scalpel, compressor, and a host of other tools as he works on cleaning up the Icthyosaur ready for its date with the public.

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