Box #20 in our count down is Attenborosaurus…
Attenborosaurus: “Attenborough’s Lizard”
Attenborosaurus was a plesiosaur from early Jurassic England. At the time of its discovery, 1881, it was thought to be a species of Plesiosaurus. It wasn’t a complete skeleton, but the bones were very well preserved and even had skin impressions. They showed smooth skin with no noticeable scales.
Unfortunately the original specimen was destroyed during bombing in World War II, but not all was lost. Plaster casts had been made of the bones, and can still be studied with just as much detail as the original fossil. Only the skin impressions were truly lost, and one must be content with the written description of them.
It was upon studying this cast years later that paleontologist Robert T. Bakker determined it was different enough from Plesiosaurus to be its own genus. He named it after Sir David Attenborough, who is well known for narrating many BBC nature documentaries, as well as writing books and other presentations about the wonders of the natural world.
Sometimes the story of the fossil’s discovery and history can be just as dramatic and interesting as the story of the animal it preserves. Luckily we seem to have partial remains of two other Attenborosaurus, but many creatures are not so lucky, and are only known from pieces of a single individual. Why have so few fossils of certain animals been found?
Perhaps these are the remains of visitors that traveled from another area? The formations that are known are only small pockets in time and space, and there are vast areas full of life that were never fossilized or will never be discovered. Less than 1/10th of 1% of all species that have ever lived become fossils. With such a small chance of an animal becoming a fossil, and the even smaller chance of human beings finding those fossils, it is a great tragedy when they are destroyed.
This is why it is so important to document each fossil carefully with detailed pictures and casts when possible. Attenborosaurus is only one example of specimens destroyed, but still available for study thanks to the foresight of those who documented it. Spinosaurus is another very famous example, with beautifully detailed drawings and photos of the original bones that were destroyed during World War II.
Attenborosaurus is also an example of how discoveries can be made even in the dusty drawers of museums. You never know when you might find something new when you dust it off and take a closer look!