The BBC reports that a newly discovered species of ichthyosaur — an aquatic reptile resembling a toothy dolphin that lived at the same time as the dinosaurs — languished in a British museum for 30 years. And it wasn't mistaken for the fossil of another species, but for a plaster cast of one.
Paleontologist Dean Lomax, an honorary scientist at the University of Manchester in England, was studying the fossil collections of his hometown museum in Doncaster when the education director offered him the use of an ichthyosaur copy for a display he was putting together.
But it was no copy — and it wasn't a known species of ichthyosaur, either. Unusual features in the limb bones of the 189-million-year-old creature set it apart from other ichthyosaurs that Lomax had studied.
"When I looked at it, I realized this wasn't a cast at all. It was real," Lomax said in a video for the BBC. In fact, Lomax found that the fossil had preserved the ichthyosaur's final meal in its stomach. He thinks that the fossil shows bits of tentacle from a squid.
Since that first examination in 2008, Lomax and his colleague Judy Massare, a professor at Brockport College in New York, have compared the fossil with nearly 1,000 other specimens to make sure the discovery was unique. Last week, they published their official findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Lomax and Massare have named the new species Ichthyosaurus anningae in honor of Mary Anning, a 19th-century British fossil hunter who found the first confirmed ichthyosaur fossil.
"It is an honor to name a new species, but to name it after somebody who is intertwined with such an important role in helping to sculpt the science of palaeontology, especially in Britain, is something that I'm very proud of," Lomax said in a statement. "In fact, one of the specimens in our study was even found by Mary herself!"
It's shockingly common for new species to be discovered dusty and forgotten in museum collections, which is why it's so important that they receive enough funding to store and protect their extensive collections. Every time a researcher goes diving into these neglected archives, they're almost sure to surface with something new and exciting.