Prehistoric Mysteries Unlocked with a CT Scanner

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Ichthyosaur at the Urwelt-Museum Hauff in Holzmaden, 2009 (3669195531_393c858dd6_z). Photograph by Mike Haller. Image licensed under “CC BY 2.0”

In 1955, at the Fell Mill Farm in Warwickshire, England, a 200-million-year-old skull of an Early Jurassic Ichthyosaur was unearthed. Over the decades the skull received little attention and was never thoroughly studied until 2014 when paleontologists Dean Lomax (University of Manchester) and Nigel Larkin began a research project at Thinktank Science Museum, Birmingham (UK).

Upon closer examination, the team discovered this skull to be not only the most well-preserved ichthyosaur skull found to date, but also the largest known example of an even rarer species. The skull was originally believed to have belonged to a more common species, Ichthyosaurus communis. But with a closer look, Lomax (a leading expert on the ichthyosaur) identified the fossil remains as those of a Protoichthyosaurus prostaxalis, a species nearly twice as long as any other Protoichthyosaurus.

This rare specimen is even more unique for its almost fully intact braincase and 3D structure, Most ichthyosaur remains are unearthed as “pancaked” fossils (as seen in the image above), flattened under time and pressure, but the Fell Mill Farm skull had miraculously held its original form, preserving rarely seen details in the skull cavities.

In order to document this rare and important find, including never-before-seen elements, Lomax and his team used state-of-the-art computerized tomography (CT) scanning technology. The skull was first micro-CT scanned at Cambridge University by paleontologist Dr. Laura Porro of University College London. The entire skull was then scanned using a larger CT scanner at the Royal Veterinary College. These scans allowed the research team to reconstruct the entire skull digitally, which will make this new information easily available to other researchers and to the public. The CT scans also helped the researchers identify areas of old restoration, delicate blood vessels and nerve canals, and even allowed the researches to digitally recreate some of the missing elements.

For more information and to see a 3D video of the digitally reconstructed skull, visit:

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