DINOSAUR experts are anxious to track down a Dorset fossil hunter who unknowingly discovered a new species of ancient marine reptile 30 years ago.

A fossil stored in a Doncaster museum, which was originally thought to be just a plaster copy, surfaced in 2008.

Further studies on the ancient fossil have since revealed it is the 189-million-year-old remains of a previously unknown species of ichthyosaur.

This new species has been named Ichthyosaurus anningae in honour of Mary Anning, the British fossil-hunter who discovered the first ichthyosaur on the Dorset coast in about 1811.

Scientists now hope news of this find might help trace the fossil hunter who first found it on Dorset's Jurassic Coast in the early 1980s.

Dean Lomax, the 25-year-old palaeontologist who studied the specimen, said it was well enough preserved to determine the last thing it ate was squid.

Dorset Echo:

Dean first examined the fossil in 2008 when he noticed several abnormalities in the bone structure which made him think he had something previously unidentified. 

Ichthyosaurs, swam the seas during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, before being wiped out. The Doncaster fossil is between 189 and 182 million years old, from a time in the early Jurassic period called the Pliensbachian. It is the world’s most complete ichthyosaur of this age.

Working with an American, Professor Judy Massare, he spent five years travelling the world to check his findings.

Dean said: “After examining the specimen extensively, both Professor Massare and I identified several unusual features of the limb bones (humerus and femur) that were completely different to any other ichthyosaur known. That became very exciting. After examining perhaps over a thousand specimens we found four others with the same features as the Doncaster fossil.”

“The recognition of this new species is very important for our understanding of ichthyosaur species diversity during the early Jurassic, especially from this time interval,” Dean added.

It is the first new Ichthyosaurus identified for almost 130 years.

Explaining why he'd chosen to name the species in honour of Mary Anning, Dean said: “Mary worked tirelessly to bring the ichthyosaurs, among other fossils, to the attention of the scientific world. Mary and her brother, Joseph, discovered the first ichthyosaur specimen to be scientifically recognised, collected at Lyme Regis around 1811.”

“It is an honour to name a new species, but to name it after somebody who is intertwined with such an important role in helping to sculpt the science of palaeontology, especially in Britain, is something that I’m very proud of. In fact, one of the specimens in our study was even found by Mary herself! Science is awesome.”

“This discovery shows that new species, and not only ichthyosaurs, are awaiting discovery in museum collections. Not all new discoveries are made in the field.”

Meanwhile, Dr Blanca Huertas, from London's Natural History Museum, said: “Sometimes we discover things in the field, but the collections are an incredible source of opportunities, since visiting them, people can study specimens and collections from hundreds of places across the entire planet and travel in time.”

The fossil had been stored for the past three decades at Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery.