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Scientists reconstruct an ancient fish lizard

Ichthyosaurs, also known as “fish lizards,” were porpoise-like reptiles that swam the Earth’s seas for about 160 million years. They lived during the time of dinosaurs, from the early Triassic to late Cretaceous.  

Ichthyosaurs have been the subject of paleontological research for a long time, and there are some exceedingly well-preserved fossils, such as one which seems to have a fetus preserved inside her. This is a lot of material for scientists to work with. 

“Since the initial discoveries of ichthyosaur remains, great strides have been made in understanding their biology and ecology, making them one of the better known fossil tetrapods,” wrote the study authors. “These scientific achievements have also inspired a chain of progressively evolving life style reconstructions, particularly during the 20th century, that mirror our constantly refined perception of these animals.”

“This research history spans 300 years. It is worth noting that the term ichthyosaur was coined in 1814, i.e. almost 30 years before the term dinosaur,” said Mats E. Eriksson, professor of paleontology at Lund University.

To consolidate 300 years of research into one visual project, Swedish paleontologists teamed up with Danish sculpting company 10tons to create a life-like sculpture. Ichthyosaur fossils, like most fossils, preserve mainly hard parts. Recent discoveries, however, have given new insights into the soft tissues and coloration of the animals, allowing the creation of a highly accurate sculpture.  

“Our reference point was a fish lizard that was found in Holzmaden, Germany. This fossil has previously been the subject of an extensive study on the biology and coloration of fish lizards, which I did together with Mats and several other colleagues, and was published in Nature”, explained Johan Lindgren, geology researcher at Lund University.

The sculpting was a painstaking and detailed enterprise, taking many methods to complete from 3D printing to clay sculpting to finish painting. The sculpture took about a year to create and is now on display in the Department of Geology in Lund. 

“Our reconstruction is the scientifically most modern, and hopefully correct, interpretation of what these animals looked like. It will be valuable for students and researchers who want to learn more about the iconic fish lizard,” concluded Mats E. Eriksson.

The research is published in the journal Earth-Science Reviews.

Image Credit: Johan Joelsson

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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