Skip to content

Researchers find two copies of a fossil destroyed by the Nazis

In 1819, the complete fossil of an ichthyosaur dazzled scientists and the public. Thought to have been collected by pioneering English paleontologist Mary Anning, the fossil sparked interest in the massive creatures that roamed the Earth and swam the oceans millions of years ago.

But when a Nazi bomb wiped out the collections of a London museum during World War II, the fossil was lost to science.

Not anymore: Researchers recently discovered two previously unknown casts of the famous fossil more than 75 years after the original was destroyed.

They describe the rediscovery in the Royal Society Open Science. It’s a historical hide-and-seek story and a specimen with a serious scientific pedigree. In the early 19th century, ichthyosaur fever helped establish the field of paleontology and sparked public interest in fossils.

Anning, a fossil hunter and paleontologist who was excluded from full participation in the scientific community because of her gender, is said to have found the specimen in Lyme Regis, England, sometime before 1818. She loaned it to the British surgeon Everard Home, who included him in some of the earliest ichthyosaur research. The groundbreaking fossil – the first such complete skeleton ever recognized and documented by scientists – has finally made its way to the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

During the 1941 Blitz in London, the fossil was destroyed by a German bomb. No copies were known. But while researching other fossils at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in Connecticut, two paleontologists found a cast painted to look like a fossil. They recognized the print as a copy of the original ichthyosaur fossil and eventually found another in the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. Neither had been properly labeled.

Scientists are still studying ichthyosaurs, marine reptiles that swam the oceans around 250 to 90 million years ago. But more information may be hiding in plain sight in museum collections, the researchers suggest.

“This discovery demonstrates the need for careful preservation of indeterminate and cast materials in a natural history collection,” said Daniela Schwarz, scientific officer of the Department of Fossil Reptiles at the Museum of Natural History Berlin, in a statement. “There will always be someone who discovers its scientific value in the end.”