Half a century after it was first discovered, the fossil of an ancient Scottish ichthyosaur – a creature that ruled the seas some 170 million years ago – is finally being studied. On Monday, the specimen dubbed the Storr Lochs Monster was unveiled to the public by National Museums Scotland, but only after sitting on a shelf for 50 years waiting for her day in the spotlight.
Just don't say she was gathering dust.
"Look, a lot of specimens are in museums for a long time before they're studied, so it's easy to go back to that trope," said Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh. And sometimes fossils really are forgotten on some neglected shelf – tucked away in an unmarked box, stored under a mud sink or even masquerading as dinky plaster models of other species.
But that's not what happened to the Storr Lochs Monster. Researchers have been well aware of her existence since she was discovered by the lone power station worker for the Isle of Skye in 1966, and her bones have been lovingly preserved and cared for. Researchers just didn't have the means to study her – until now.
Back then, the fossil – though clearly remarkable, her vertebrae found jutting from the shore like a line of dominoes and forming the most complete marine reptile skeleton of her age ever found in Scotland – was too tightly encapsulated in hard stone for scientists to safely free her. Instead, she was brought to the museum rock and all.
And Scotland was a small country, one lacking in a large community of vertebrate paleontologists. "I don't think there were any here at the time, actually," Brusatte mused. He himself only recently moved there, driven by the country's lack of historical work on fossils.
"One of the reasons I came here is that I thought it was really under-studied," he said.
It took half a century for the right confluence of circumstances – new techniques for extracting tricky fossils and a critical mass of interested researchers, Brusatte included – to free the Storr Lochs Monster from her rocky tomb.
Brusatte and his colleagues haven't studied the ichthyosaur in detail yet, so they can't say for sure that she represents an unknown species. His initial impression is that the real-life sea monster was pretty similar to marine reptiles that have been found elsewhere: The creature would have looked a lot like a dolphin, clocking in around the size of a small boat, and, with a mouth full of conical teeth used to chow down on fish, residing at the top of the marine food chain. But Brusatte still suspects they'll soon be adding a new species to the books.
"There’s a good chance it’s a new species just because it’s from a part of the world and a place in time where very few fossils are known," he explained. Very few fossils have been hunted down and studied in Scotland, and in the rest of the world fossils from the Middle Jurassic Period, when this creature lived, are exceedingly rare.
"We know that quite a lot was happening then. On land, the tyrannosaurs were getting their start, and it's probably when the first birds were flying around, and in the ocean you had this big turnover event when smaller marine animals were replaced by bigger ones," Brusatte said. "So it’s frustrating because it seems like an active period in evolution but one with very few fossils."
His hope is that a surge in Scottish paleontology could help fill in some of those gaps.
"So few people have ever looked for fossils here," he said. "Scotland isn’t what you think of when you think of fossils. But there are a lot out there waiting to be found."