Move Over, Yorick: Gargantuan Pliosaur Skull Discovered in England

Dec 15, 2023

Hamlet would’ve had trouble hefting this skull.

A pair of fossil-hunting buffs on a seaside stroll unearthed a monster along the coastal cliffs of Dorset, England, earlier this year. What'd they find? The superbly preserved skull of a massive, prehistoric pliosaur.

"It's one of the best fossils I've ever worked on,” paleontologist Steve Etches told the BBC. “What makes it unique is it's complete. The lower jaw and the upper skull are meshed together, as they would be in life.”

“Worldwide, there's hardly any specimens ever found to that level of detail. And if they are, a lot of the bits are missing, whereas this, although it's slightly (deformed) — it's got every bone present,” added Etches. He unearthed the fossil with friend Phil Jacobs.

In life, the giant predator resembled a mix between a crocodile and a whale. It has been called the “Nightmare of the Sea” by paleontologists. The largely intact pliosaur skull that Etches and Jacobs found retains all 130 teeth. It also measures 2 meters (6.56 feet) long. That's more than big enough to produce a bite to rival earth’s most fearsome carnivores.

"The animal would have been so massive that I think it would have been able to prey effectively on anything that was unfortunate enough to be in its space," Dr. Andre Rowe of Bristol University told the BBC. "I have no doubt that this was sort of like an underwater T. rex."

The skull took months of careful excavation to retrieve. It'll be featured in an upcoming TV special. And next year, Etches hopes to return to the cliffs.

"I stake my life the rest of the animal is there," he said.

Photo from X courtesy of Jonathan Amos @BBCAmos.

Reflect: If you could discover any fossil from the past, what kind of prehistoric creature or ancient artifact would you hope to find, and why?

Which of the following ideas is highlighted by the author throughout the story? (Common Core RI.5.3; RI.6.3)
a. The challenges faced by paleontologists in excavating fossils from coastal cliffs.
b. The comparison between prehistoric creatures and modern-day predators.
c. The collaboration between fossil-hunting enthusiasts and professional paleontologists.
d. The excitement and significance of discovering a well-preserved prehistoric fossil.
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