Scientists Discover Copies of ‘Sea Monster’ Fossil Destroyed in WWII Air Raid

by Caitlin Berard
(Photo by Daniel Eskridge via Getty Images)

During the course of WWII, London suffered heavy damage and tens of thousands of casualties at the hands of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe aerial division. The worst of these attacks stretched from September 1940 to May 1941, during which London fell victim to 71 separate air raids, amounting to 18,000 tonnes of high explosives being dropped on the city.

These air raids destroyed countless lives, homes, and businesses. The bombs fell without prejudice, decimating anything and everything in their path. And among the untold number of priceless items left in ruins was a precious “sea monster” fossil, the only one of its kind.

The fossilized marine reptile, known as the ichthyosaur, was housed in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where it had safely resided for over 100 years.

Then, in May 1941, at the tail end of the horrific German air raid, missiles rained on the college. To scientists’ horror, the attack reduced its many irreplaceable artifacts to ashes, including the sea monster fossil.

With the fossil gone, scientists were left with only a black-and-white illustration of the ichthyosaur – or so they thought. The loss of the once-treasured sea monster fossil will always haunt paleontologists. But a recent discovery is certainly a cause for celebration.

Scientist Recalls His Excitement in Discovery of Sea Monster Fossil Copy

Scientists uncovered not one but two plaster casts of the sea monster fossil long thought to be destroyed. One was found in the United States, the other in Germany. According to the study published in Royal Society Open Science, scientists discovered the casts by “pure chance.”

“Considering that the specimen was originally found in Britain, it would be safe to assume that if any casts were to be located, then in all likelihood, they would be in a museum in the U.K.,” study author Dean Lomax told Live Science. Because of this, the exciting discoveries in Germany and America “came as a huge surprise.”

Scientists found the first copy at Yale University’s Peabody Museum. Unfortunately, however, it was a little worse for wear. Many of the finer details were missing, suggesting that it was “either a cast of a cast or a very early cast made directly from the original early in its history,” the authors said.

They were overjoyed to have found a replica of the sea monster fossil. However, the Yale copy just couldn’t compare to the original. But then, to his disbelief, Dean Lomax stumbled upon the second cast in Berlin’s Natural History Museum.

The museum had no record of the cast; the stars aligned for Lomax and his fellow paleontologists that day. He was wandering the museum’s fossil storage facility when the cast caught his eye. “Having spent time studying the Yale cast, I immediately knew what it was,” Lomax recalled. “And I had a huge grin on my face.”

To make the discovery even better, this copy of the sea monster fossil was in much better condition. The Berlin copy was completely free of “damage or deterioration,” allowing scientists to resume their fascinating research of the ichthyosaur after more than 80 years.