Prehistoric reptile casts turn out to be copies of priceless fossil destroyed in WWII

Dr Lomax and Professor Massare have worked together for more than a decade and have made several important finds whilst studying historic collections. They even named a new species of ichthyosaur after Mary Anning in 2015, Ichthyosaurus anningae.

In 2016, whilst researching in the collections of the Peabody Museum, Yale University, USA, Lomax and Massare came across a very old cast of an ichthyosaur, which they identified as the first-known cast of Home’s specimen, the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton, discovered in 1818. Up until this point, there was no record that any casts existed.

Prior to Lomax and Massare’s recognition of the Yale specimen being a cast of Home’s ‘Proteosaurus’, “Peabody curatorial staff assumed that the specimen was a real ichthyosaur fossil and not a plaster cast painted to look like the original fossil from which it was moulded”, said Daniel Brinkman, the Museum Assistant in vertebrate palaeontology at the Yale Peabody Museum. All that is known about the Yale cast Brinkman explained: “Is that it was purchased by Yale Professor Charles Schuchert as part of a large collection of fossils from the estate of Frederick A. Braun, a professional collector and dealer, and later donated by Schuchert to the Peabody in 1930.” According to Brinkman: “We, unfortunately, don’t know who made the cast or when nor do we know when or from whom Braun acquired it for his collection, though it must have been before his death in November, 1918.”

In 2019, Dr Lomax visited the Natural History Museum, Berlin, Germany, to study the collections and was astonished to find a second cast of the ichthyosaur. This one, however, was in much better condition than the cast at Yale, which is ironic considering that the original was destroyed during WWII.

“When Dr Lomax visited our collections, he kept asking me for information about this cast and I couldn’t help him very much because of missing records and labelling of the specimen”, said Dr Daniela Schwarz, the scientific head of collection of fossil reptiles at the Natural History Museum, Berlin.

Dr Schwarz continued: “So when I learned about the outcome of his detective work and that this important specimen’s cast now rested in our collections for more than a century, I was really stunned! This discovery once more demonstrates the necessity to carefully preserve also undetermined and casted material in a natural history collection for centuries, because in the end, there will always be someone who discovers its scientific value!”

Studies of both casts have shown that they were made at two different times. The Yale cast might even be a very old cast made when the ichthyosaur was still in Birch’s possession.

Professor Massare said: “In Home’s 1819 article, he illustrated the original skeleton. This drawing by William Clift was the only visual evidence we had of the ichthyosaur. Now, having two casts, we can verify the reliability of the original illustration by comparison with the casts. We have identified a couple of bones that Home missed, and found a few discrepancies between the drawing and the casts.”

“When we discovered the casts, we felt compelled to submit our research to The Royal Society, especially because they had played a major role in publishing the first accounts of ichthyosaurs in the scientific literature over 200 years ago,” Lomax explained.

“We hope that our discovery of these two casts might encourage curators and researchers to take a closer look at old casts in museum collections,” added Professor Massare.

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