Attenborough and the Sea Dragon


Recently, I’ve been involved in a documentary with the BBC: Attenborough and the Sea Dragon will be broadcast tomorrow evening (Sunday, 7 January 2018) at 8pm on BBC1. Here’s the trailer for the programme:

This documentary follows the story of a newly discovered ichthyosaur found near Lyme Regis in Dorset, UK. The collector, Chris Moore, is one of those lucky people who can spend much time on the beach, so has found many important fossils over many years. This includes the ichthyosaurs Leptonectes moorei, which is named after him. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen him not smiling.

I’ll post a bit about how I became involved in the programme, and some of the story alongside it, after A&tSD airs. I’ve only seen an earlier cut of the programme itself – at that point the producers, editors, animators, and many more had done a great job – and am looking forward to experiencing the final version. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it too.

As a bit of a spoiler, you can see write-ups of two parts that Fiann Smithwick and Emily Rayfield at the University of Bristol – and myself – contributed to the programme. These cover Fiann’s discovery of preserved skin on the ichthyosaur fossil and determining its colour patterning. And Emily’s and my calculating how powerful the bite was of another, larger ichthyosaur that was swimming around at the same time. The programme website is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09m2kgl

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2 thoughts on “Attenborough and the Sea Dragon

  1. Whilst watching the programme last night I thought I heard at one point that an Ichthy was in the process of giving birth and amazingly both baby & mother died and were preserved in that state. Was I correct in what I thought i heard? If so, the bigger question is, what could have caused that situation. It must have been something amazing. Whatever it was, would be instant. Any ideas to get me thinking?

    1. Yes! That was one of the things mentioned in the programme. Fiann and I talk a bit about ichthyosaurs giving birth to live young in the recent Palaeocast episode here: http://www.palaeocast.com/ichthyosaurs/

      We have many fossils showing ichthyosaurs with unborn young preserved inside them. Many of these come from the rocks around Stuttgart in Sw Germany. It’s seems that this may have been a hotbed for pregnant ichthyosaurs to visit. Because of the effort of developing young inside the body, there were many stresses placed on the mother: getting enough food for herself and the young, keeping out of the way of predators when the body has become much heavier, even things like breathing and blood flow would be affected. Therefore it’s not entirely surprising that we do get many pregnant ichthyosaur fossils if there were once lots of ichthyosaurs there.

      One specimen that features in the programme appears to show an ichthyosaur in the act of being born. At the time of birth just about the mother’s exertion is going into expelling the young. Sometimes this just can’t be done, and eventually the mother becomes exhausted and may not be able to swim to the surface to breathe. Ichthyosaurs are air breathers. In this case the mother and young both die and sink to the sea floor to be fossilised.

      I have heard the suggestion that with this specimen, the young ichthyosaur may not have been in the process of being born, but may have been pushed out by gases as the carcass rots. This is a compelling argument, but given that the bones of mother and infants have not been disrupted or scattered, it suggests that the infant may well have been in the birth canal at death and probably being born.

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