An amateur fossil hunter has unearthed a new type of prehistoric “sea dragon” on a Dorset beach. The new two metre-long ichthyosaur has been called Thalassodraco etchesi, or Etches sea dragon, after fossil collector Dr Steve Etches who found it buried head-first in limestone.

Ichthyosaurs are called sea dragons because they tend to have very large teeth and eyes. Though they were reptiles that lived at the same time, ichthyosaurs were not dinosaurs.

Dr Etches thought the teeth were unusual, so he passed it on to experts at the University of Portsmouth to identify. There, master’s student Megan Jacobs, who has spent several years working on ichthyosaurs, identified it as a new genus and species which lived 150 million years ago.

Researchers say the discovery is the UK’s fifth known ichthyosaur from the Late Jurassic period and by far the smallest so far.

The fossil was found near Kimmeridge Bay – part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site – in a limestone known as the white stone band.

When the ichthyosaur died, the seafloor would have been a very soft ooze, allowing the front half of the animal to sink into the mud before scavengers came along and ate the tail end. As a result of being buried in this way, it was preserved in exceptional conditions and even some of its soft tissues were preserved.

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