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THE WORLD'S BIGGEST BITE - THE WEYMOUTH BAY PLIOSAUR

The giant jaws of a huge marine reptile are now on permanent display at the Dorset County Museum following its formal unveiling by Sir David Attenborough

Dating back around 155 million years, the pliosaur skull was discovered on the nearby Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, and is one of the largest and best preserved fossils of its kind ever found.

Belonging to a creature up to 18m in length, the skull is a staggering 2.4 m long and is believed to have possessed the biggest bite of all time – powerful enough to break a small car in half.

Discovery

The fossil bones were recovered by amateur collector Kevan Sheehan between 2003 and 2008 as they were washed out of a landslide on the coast in Weymouth Bay. The largest piece weighed over 80 kilos. Kevan missed only four pieces, three of which were recovered by two other collectors. In total, the skull is 95 per cent complete.

The specimen was purchased for Dorset County Museum by Dorset County Council's museums service, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund Collecting Cultures programme and significant funding from Dorset and Devon County Councils. The pliosaur is the most remarkable in a series of new fossil displays in Jurassic Coast museums, stretching from Budleigh Salterton in Devon to Wareham in Dorset.

Image copyright Dorset County Council Jurassic Coast Team

Richard Edmonds, Earth Science Manager for the Jurassic Coast Team said:

“It is an amazing achievement to have recovered this fossil from an eroding cliff over such a long period of time and without losing any important pieces. Fossil collectors have always played an essential role in the recovery of specimens important to science, and the emergence of this specimen clearly demonstrates that the approach of responsible collecting adopted on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site is proving effective.”

The find was originally publicised in October 2009. Since then hundreds of hours have been spent carrying out a detailed analysis and cleaning away the rock to expose the detail of the fossil underneath.

Along side this conservation work an intensive programme involved the Jurassic Coast team and Dorset County Museum working together to produce an exciting, interactive display showcasing the fossil with the theme ‘The World’s Biggest Bite’. Mounted dramatically on a specially constructed plinth that shows the jaws in an awe-inspiring open-mouthed position, the story of the fossil is interpreted through a series of film presentations accompanied by a life-size model of the pliosaur’s head.

Pliosaur model

Image copyright Dorset County Council Jurassic Coast Team

Jon Murden, Director of Dorset County Museum, said:

“We are delighted to house such a world-class discovery at Dorset County Museum and the Weymouth Bay pliosaur is now a fitting centrepiece in our ever-popular Jurassic Coast gallery.”

Hilary Cox, Dorset County Council Cabinet member for community services, added:

“This project is a fantastic example of agencies working together to bring external funding into Dorset and deliver something really special. The pliosaur skull is a wonderful geological treasure, which can now be enjoyed not only by local people but also visitors to the county – boosting tourism trade into the bargain.”

Scientific study

And the story is still far from finished, with further scientific study of the amazing find now underway to discover how the animal lived and died, and how its bones became a living reef for encrusting animals.

The specimen has already been scanned at the University of Southampton using its high-energy, micro-focus CT scanner – one of the most powerful of its kind in the UK. The results have been used to reconstruct a digital model of the entire skull, revealing details of the creature’s internal structure that would otherwise have remained a mystery. The University of Bristol will now be using the CT scan data in a bid to understand just how powerful the bite may have been.

Experts from the University of Portsmouth will also study the fossilisation process, while mud associated with the bones has been sent to the University of Plymouth to see if any fossil plankton have been preserved. Rock removed from the bones will be studied by experts in the Natural History Museum in search of bones and teeth of animals that may have hunted around the dead skeleton.

For more information about the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, visit http://www.jurassiccoast.com