How to find a Sea Dragon

How to find a Sea Dragon

'And so it turns out that on that dreary Wednesday in January we had stumbled upon one of the most significant finds of its kind ever in the UK' - Reserves officer Paul Trevor shares the details about the day he helped discover a 180 million-year-old Sea Dragon

As I was making myself some breakfast and drinking a coffee on that cold, damp Wednesday morning back in January 2021, I was blissfully unaware that later that day I would be stumbling across the remains of a huge sea dragon that lived 180 million years ago.

At that point in time we were working in fairly abnormal circumstances due to covid restrictions and the last year had been a bit of a blur, what with various lockdowns and the complete upheaval of anything resembling ordinary life. So to try and comprehend something that was 180 million years old was not something that my brain was ready for.

Rutland Water

Tony Clarke

But that day started fairly normally. I was looking forward to getting into work as we were undertaking some very large scale habitat improvement works on lagoon 4. One of the eight lagoons at Rutland Water Nature Reserve that combine with areas of the main reservoir to provide an internationally important habitat for a whole host of birds and other wildlife. This expansive habitat is managed by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust in partnership with Anglian Water

The work on lagoon 4 was focussing on re-profiling the islands which provide an important refuge for breeding waders in the summer months and feeding habitats for wintering ducks. In order to do this, we had lowered the water levels as far as they would go so that we could move machinery between the islands.

For the last couple of days, my manager Joe and I had been surveying and laser leveling the islands. After a full day of exposure to the wonderful January weather, we had finally managed to get the last island surveyed. At this point, I was ready for a nice brew and had started to daydream about what biscuit might accompany my cup of tea.

“What’s that? It looks like some vertebrae!” said Joe.

Sea Monster

I fleetingly glanced at where Joe was pointing and dismissed it as another remnant of the field drainage system from before the lagoon had been created.

The lagoon has many pieces of clay pipe and other evidence of its former land use as an agricultural field. But luckily, as a keen birder, Joe’s eyes are fine-tuned to pick up the smallest details, and, with his insistence that it wasn’t just a pipe, we took a closer look.

At this point, I had to agree that these large lumps of rock did look remarkably like the backbone of a large vertebrate, definitely more organic than a manufactured pipe. But why would such a huge bone be lying in the mud of lagoon 4? Then the grey matter started to work a little harder, what on earth would have a backbone of that size? It didn’t seem to make sense to me.

Luckily, that day Joe was a little more switched on than me and he’d clocked that this was a fossil of some kind and that its size was something to be investigated further. We took a couple of photos and looked around a bit more, at which point I noticed another shape within the mud that look out of place. It was another bone-like material, but this time appeared more like a jawbone.

Sea Dragon

With our photographic evidence, we returned to the office, at which point my mind wandered back to the subject of a nice warming cup of tea.

Joe, on the other hand, was compelled to investigate the find further and made inquiries. That sparked a chain of events that culminated in Dr. Dean Lomax gathering a team of paleontologists to extract the specimen.


Paul and Sea Dragon

And so it turns out that on that dreary Wednesday in January we had stumbled upon one of the most significant finds of its kind ever in the UK.

A 180 million-year-old fossil of a giant marine reptile, eyeballs as big as footballs, as long as a double-decker bus, that once upon a time was swimming around back when Rutland was under the sea. You never know what you may find on a Wednesday in January.