Utah paleontologists discover rare ancient fish-lizard in Vernal

Local News

(Courtesy of the Utah Field House of Natural History)

VERNAL, Utah (ABC4) – Paleontologists are rejoicing over a rare “fish-lizard” discovered in northeastern Utah.

A team of Utah State Parks paleontologists is studying a fossilized marine reptile found along the shores of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir. The ancient creature is called an ichthyosaur (ick-thee-oh-sore, meaning “fish-lizard”).

The fossil consists of a forefin, vertebrae, and ribs. The average size of an ichthyosaur can range from a dolphin to a whale. Experts believe the Utah ichthyosaur discovered lived in an inland seaway during the late Jurassic epoch. Experts say it’s about the size of a dolphin and has similar features including a long snout, streamlined body, compact fins, and a tail built for speed.

Most ichthyosaurs that have been discovered in Utah consisted mostly of vertebrae and never painted a fully-formed picture of the creature. This newest discovery includes a complete and articulated forefin, 10 ribs, and 19 articulated vertebrae, making it one of the most complete examples of the species in the state.

How ichthyosaurs looked during their heyday. (Courtesy of the Utah Field House of Natural History)

“The ichthyosaur was found in sandstone that also preserved fossils of oysters and squid-like belemnoids (extinct creatures related to modern-day squids) that lived in the seaway at the same time,” said Museum Curator John Foster, of the Utah Field House of Natural History. “It is not often you see an entire fin laid out in the rock-like that — so it is fun to be able to imagine a fast-swimming ichthyosaur chasing prey through the warm seawater in our region so long ago.”

It’s important to note, ichthyosaurs are not dinosaurs, but a marine reptile that was found in the seas throughout the Mesozoic era. Experts say the species existed for almost 130 million years alongside dinosaurs.

The fossil was first discovered by a Hooper man named Alan Dailey while boating. Hooper contacted Utah state paleontologists with pictures of the discovery. Due to this report, “An important, partially articulated ichthyosaur will now be available for marine reptile specialists to study,” said Steve Sroka, Park Manager of the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum.

It took a lot of hands-on-deck to transport the 400-lb sandstone block containing the fossil onto a boat. The specimen required a forklift to place it into the back of a truck before making its way to the museum.

Team volunteers included paleontologists and volunteers from the Utah Field House of Natural History, two U.S. Forest Service representatives, a Utah State Parks ranger, and Dailey, the man who discovered the fossil.

Lab workers are now working to clear rock covering around the bones to better expose the skeleton, allowing paleontologists to study the specimen. When the Utah ichthyosaur is fully finished prepping, it’ll be on full display for generations to enjoy at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum.

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