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Ichthyosaur Vertebra Fossil

Ichthyosaur Vertebra Fossil

Above: Front of the Specimen Card

Ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles with streamlined bodies, no neck, and smooth heads. They were air-breathing creatures with two nostrils situated far back on the top of the head, generally similar in shape to a modern porpoise. Ichthyosaurs likely fed on fish using their numerous sharp teeth and enormous eyes to locate prey in deep water. Most abundant and diverse during the Triassic and Jurassic Periods, their fossils have been uncovered around the world and were extant through the Early Cretaceous. 

Above: Ichthyosaur specimens photographed with the delightful book "Paleoart. Visions of the Prehistoric Past" by Zoë Lescaze.

This specimen is an Ichthyosaur vertebra recovered from Jurassic Period formations in the United Kingdom. Recorded discoveries of partial Ichthyosaur fossils in this region date back to the 18th century, though they were often mistaken for fish. It wasn't until 1811 when Joseph Anning, brother of the famous fossil-hunter Mary Anning, discovered the remains of an Ichthyosaur which was later unearthed in its entirety by Ms. Anning and studied by surgeon Everard Home, that a better understanding of Ichthyosaurs began to develop.

Ichthyosaur Sizing:

  • Fragment - A fragment of vertebra roughly 5mm is diameter. T he specimen is housed within a glass-topped riker display case. The case measures 4"x3"x1". A small information card is also included.
  • Whole - A complete vertebra. Typically ~3" (75mm) in diameter. This item ships in a sturdy carton for open display (i.e. no display case - too big!).

Color and shape varies widely with this specimen. The pictures provided on this page are meant to be representative of the average. Of course, they are all awesome!

More About Ichthyosaurs


"Although the mode of its progressive motion has induced me to place it in that class (fishes), I by no means consider it wholly a fish."

~ Sir Everard Home, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (June 23, 1814)

In the Triassic Period, they were long-bodied, undulating swimmers. Fossils from the Late Triassic in North America indicate Ichthyosaur could grow to 13m in length and were deep-bodied with long fins. However, the genus Shastasaurus, the largest species, could measure 21m in length. It differed from other ichthyosaurs as it was slender in profile and had a short toothless snout.

Above: Chaohusaurus brevifemoralis, a basal ichthyosauriform. Huang (2019)

By the Early Jurassic, some lineages had evolved a shape like modern tuna, as the earlier shape became extinct. The newer, more fishlike shape likely provided greater mobility and speed. Fossils from Early Jurassic deposits in England of the Ichthyosaurus genus represent a reptile about 3m in length where the limbs had fully modified into paddles and the body had a fishlike tail.

Among "Ancient Dragons of the Sea"

Early humans strode over exposed bedrock, looked down, and found exposed in the rocks underfoot, very hard bones. Bones of known animals would be readily recognized. But fossil bones of large unknown creatures would seem to be enormous monsters. The bones of reptiles such as ichthyosaurs and pliosaurs would have been found in sediments from the Mesozoic Era which are widely exposed throughout the world.

Above: Temnodontosaurus (originally Ichthyosaurus) skull discovered by Joseph Anning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. v. 104. 1814.

With no concept of deep time or the tectonic or eustatic movements of the earth and ocean, these fossils would appear to be old bones from enormous carnivorous land monsters. The concept of extinction would not have existed without a sense of deep time, so these giant "serpents" or "dragons" could exist somewhere on the land and would therefore instill great fear.

These fossil remains would suggest many forms for these monsters, but in general, they would have moved like huge undulating snakes and had enormous mouths and teeth. The bones from their paddles may have inspired the idea of wings. Dragons are a common mythical beast in many ancient cultures around the world, such as China. In Greek mythology, Jason and the Argonauts must kill a dragon that guards the Golden Fleece. The dragon in these stories is described as a giant serpent.

It was finally in the 19th century, following the writings on evolution by Charles Lyell and other scientists, that concepts of time began to deepen. Other new ideas were also taking hold; land moves and shifts, and that oceans transgress and regress from the land. Early paleontologists were able to recognize these fossils as extinct marine reptiles. By 1868, when T.H. Huxley gave his famous talk "On a Piece of Chalk" to a public assembly, concepts about how marine animals became fossils in sediment high above the ocean were now exciting ideas. New knowledge was replacing the ancient fear.


"Comparative anatomy not only brings to our knowledge races of animals very different from those with which we are acquainted, but supplies intermediate links in the gradation of structure, by means of which the different classes will probably be found so imperceptibly to run into one another, that they will no longer be accounted distinct, but only portions of one series, and show that the whole of animal creation forms a regular and connected chain."

~ Sir Everard Home, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (June 23, 1814)

Further Reading

Home, Everard. "XXVIII. Some account of the fossil remains of an animal more nearly allied to fishes than any of the other classes of animals." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 104 (1814): 571-577.

Deng, Tao, et al. "Implications of vertebrate fossils for paleo-elevations of the Tibetan Plateau." Global and Planetary Change (2019).

Lindgren, Johan, et al. "Soft-tissue evidence for homeothermy and crypsis in a Jurassic ichthyosaur." Nature 564.7736 (2018): 359.

Snelling, Roy. The Dragons of Somerset: And Their Relation to Dragons of the World. Spiritual Genesis Books, 2015.

Humphries, Stuart, and Graeme D. Ruxton. "Why did some ichthyosaurs have such large eyes?". Journal of Experimental Biology 205 (2002): 439-441.

Nicholls, Elizabeth L., and Jack M. Callaway. Ancient Marine Reptiles. San Diego: Academic Press. 1997. EBSCOhost. Web. 19 June 2019.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. "On A Piece Of Chalk." Macmillan's Magazine (1868).

Huang, Jian-dong, et al. "The new ichthyosauriform Chaohusaurus brevifemoralis (Reptilia, Ichthyosauromorpha) from Majiashan, Chaohu, Anhui Province, China." PeerJ 7 (2019): e7561.

Above: Back of the Specimen Card

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