A discovery of colossal proportions: uncovering the ichthyosaur

Almost 30 years ago, paleontologist Elizabeth “Betsy” Nicholls discovered the ichthyosaur, a dolphin-like marine lizard that existed millions of years ago

  • Aug 11, 2022
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The massive ichthyosaur fossil is now housed at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta. (Photo courtesy Royal Tyrrell Museum)
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On a summer day in 1989, paleontologist Don Brinkman sat waiting for a helicopter pickup with the rest of his field crew in the Wapiti Lake area of British Columbia. It had been 10 days since they’d been dropped there, a known hotbed for fossils of early Triassic marine reptiles that lived up to 250 million years ago. After a week and a half of exploration, excavation and living in a tent, the rest of the team was tired and sat gathered around flight-ready piles of collected specimens and equipment. But not Elizabeth “Betsy” Nicholls.

“Rather than waiting, Betsy was out looking for more fossils, and actually found a pretty significant one in the last hour before our departure,” says Brinkman, chuckling. It was a fossil of the species Grippia longirostris, a type of dolphin-like marine lizard known as an ichthyosaur. (Nicholls would be the first to identify this species in Canada and was instrumental in showing connections between finds in North America and Greenland.) Brinkman credits Nicholls’ passion and tenacity for the discovery that day. A powerhouse in her field, she was on the verge of making one of the most important discoveries in the history of marine paleontology.

In 1992, Nicholls, then curator of marine reptiles at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta., was alerted to an unusual find. An archeologist had stumbled upon some bones while conducting a survey along a stretch of the Sikanni Chief River near Pink Mountain, B.C., and had thought Nicholls and her colleagues should take a look. When schedules aligned two years later, she, Brinkman and a small field crew ventured into the remote area to check it out. Those bones turned out to be a massive ichthyosaur that would blow previous size records for the giant reptiles out of the Triassic water. 

“We were overwhelmed at the size of it,” said Nicholls in a video celebrating her Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2000. She and Brinkman knew it was an ichthyosaur that was bigger than anything they’d seen. But at the time, the cost and logistics of removing the giant animal seemed insurmountable. There was no road access to the site, and the fossil was embedded in hard stone and submerged until water levels dropped in mid-summer, leaving a short excavation window. This meant it would take multiple years to get it out. “I didn’t forget it, because it was being washed away by the river, and I thought, gee, wouldn’t it be nice to salvage this — it’s being destroyed,” said Nicholls. “But I thought it was really out of the question.”

Shonisaurus sikanniensis (artistic impression, top) took more than four years to prepare. above: Nicholls (foreground) removes rock from the skull. (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)
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Fortunes changed in 1997. Nicholls received funding to study ichthyosaurs and spent a month on the banks of the Sikanni Chief to investigate further. After locating the behemoth’s skull, she decided the skeleton must be excavated to preserve its scientific value. She raised funds and partnered with paleontologist Makoto Manabe of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Japan to kick off three gruelling and logistics-heavy field seasons between 1999 and 2001. While on site, the team was isolated, plagued by mosquitoes and constantly vigilant for bears.

One of the biggest obstacles was the removal of the skull, says Brinkman. More than 5.8 metres long and encased in rock, its removal required heavy-duty equipment such as an air-compressor, jackhammers and power saws, all of which needed to be airlifted in. Then, the massive skull had to be cut into blocks that could be flown out. The largest piece, containing the braincase and eye socket, weighed 4.5 tonnes, which was thankfully just under the load limit for industrial helicopters working on the project.

After an arduous field effort, the colossal skeleton made it to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, where it is today. Years of meticulous cleaning and measurements revealed a 220-million-year-old ichthyosaur that was more than 21 metres long and 30 per cent larger than its nearest relative. Nicholls named it Shonisaurus sikanniensis, and though bits of possibly larger specimens have been found, Brinkman says it remains the largest ichthyosaur confirmed by a near complete skeleton.

Nicholls would not get the opportunity to see her work published in a scientific journal. “I am losing my battle with cancer,” she wrote in an email in September 2004. “Please see that the page proofs for my Shonisaurus manuscript are sent to my co-author, Dr. Makoto Manabe, in Tokyo.” She died in October of that year. The paper was officially published in December.

In recent years, paleontologists have debated the feeding habits of ichthyosaurs. While Nicholls thought Shonisaurus sikanniensis was a filter feeder, others suggest that ichthyosaurs may have been marine predators, sucking in smaller aquatic animals the way beaked whales inhale squid. Had she lived longer, Nicholls would have undoubtably been integral to the scientific charge toward the truth. Today’s discussion would not have been the same without Nicholls’ discovery, says Brinkman. “It was a benchmark we wouldn’t know about had she not done this work.”


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November/December 2021

This story is from the November/December 2021 Issue

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