Delving into the real world of dinosaurs with Telford's Nigel Larkin

A tub of popcorn or mustard-dressed hot dog in hand, many a film fan will have immersed themselves into the Jurassic World over the past week, taking in the latest movie in the iconic franchise.

Palaeontologist Nigel Larkin from North Shropshire with the recent discovery of The Rutland Sea Dragon fossil
Palaeontologist Nigel Larkin from North Shropshire with the recent discovery of The Rutland Sea Dragon fossil

And while the sight of a giant T-Rex on the giant screen continues to fascinate, in the real world, there's nothing quite like a new discovery to whet the appetite of dinosaur fanatics.

Take Shropshire paleontologist Nigel Larkin.

We've caught up with him before – he's leading the work on cleaning and conserving the remains of a 10m-long sea predator called an ichthyosaur which made global headlines earlier this year.

And, while that project is very much his focus, he keeps abreast of other developments within his sector.

So when the remains of Europe’s largest ever land-based hunter, which measured more than 10 metres long and lived 125 million years ago, were found on the Isle of Wight and details were released last week, he was naturally excited and intrigued by it.

How the best preserved bones would have been positioned on the spinosaurid's giant body.

Several prehistoric bones belonging to the two-legged, crocodile-faced spinosaurid dinosaur were discovered on the island off the south coast of England and have been analysed by scientists from the University of Southampton.

The spinosurid would have lived at the beginning of a period of rising sea levels and would have stalked lagoonal waters and sandflats in search of food.

And Nigel, like all 'dinosaur detectives' is fascinated to watch, from afar, how details develop with this latest discovery.

"They can't say it's a new species as yet as they don't have bones yet to make more definitive conclusions," he said.

An artist's impression issued by University of Southampton of a White Rock spinosaurid. The remains of Europe's largest ever land-based hunter which measured more than 10 metres long and lived 125 million years ago have been found on the Isle of Wight.

"So far, they have partial bones from around the hip, pelvis, upper leg area but it's enough to know this is something quite different.

"They don't have bones yet to be conclusive but there's enough, with what they have, to show it was an immense creature. It's a huge find literally and metaphorically and certainly inspires me to want to go back to the Isle of Wight to see colleagues who are working on this."

Nigel says that, unless very lucky, it could be years before we get a full picture of what has been discovered.

"The problem with this site is that it is very different to the discovery of the ichthyosaur in Rutland I am currently working on," he said.

"We could excavate the entire skeleton from above but, on the Isle of Wight, they have these skeletons coming out of the cliffs in pieces.

"If you like, you can imagine looking through the slice of the cake and you are trying to guess what's in the cake.

"You have bits coming out whereas, in Rutland, we were going from the top of the cake and could just take the top layer off and get what we wanted in the middle. The Rutland ichthyosaur was already exposed there horizontally.

"So they are different scenarios and even if this skeleton is complete, it could take decades and decades to come out of that cliff.

"You can't really hold an excavation on the cliff, not just because it's an unsafe thing to do but also because those cliffs are slumping over decades as well, moving and rotating around so you don't quite know where things are necessarily.

"When you are collecting dinosaurs on the Isle of Wight, it's a waiting game. You have to be there with exactly the right circumstances – the right time, the weather and all.

"If this is what they think it is, a 15m long dinosaur, which would be the largest Carnivorous dinosaur found in the UK, that's a large beast to be waiting for to come out of the cliffs, depending on which direction it's pointing as well, of course.

"It takes a lot of patience but it's great fun and it's that detective work that keeps people engaged, going out and looking.

"It's not about the dinosaur either. It's about finding out what the fragments of bones can actually tell you.

"You can delve into so much – how long ago did it live? Did it live in a river, lagoon, or upland environment?

" It's amazing what you can deduce. You can look into all the scavenging of the skeleton by other animals and find out what else was there at the time."

Palaeontologist Nigel Larkin from North Shropshire with the recent discovery of The Rutland Sea Dragon fossil

“And by analysing the clay that surrounds the bones, we get all the tiny little micro fossils and we can find out more about water depth and temperature. You can build up a big picture of the environment at the time. It’s like CSI.”

Nigel has been to a number of countries in the past few months working on projects which must remain secret.

But he continues to work on the Rutland ichthyosaur and gave an update on the current state of play.

"We are in the process of working out what to do with the specimen in detail and how long that work will take," he said.

"It needs to be cleaned, conserved and mounted."

Nigel Larkin at work

"I've been cleaning up smaller finds, the Belemnites, ammonites and the smaller bones of the ichthyosaur to get data which can enable me to cost up the project and work out a timescale.

"And then we will decide where to apply for funding.

"You have to apply to organisations and justify the money you think you need to get the work done and you give your ideas on where you want to put it on display.

"It's not just cleaning and conserving it at this end, where I work in Shropshire, it's about where it can fit. It's a 10m long specimen so you will need a big room for people to get round and see it, plus all the display boards and interaction that goes with it.

"There are decisions that need to be made at the Rutland end. But hopefully we will know within the next year so we can start the work properly."

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