Watch your back, Loch Ness Monster, because there's a new Scottish aquatic predator in town, and this one has the crucial advantage of actually having existed.
On Monday morning, Scotland-based paleontologists unveiled the fossilized remains of the "Storr Lochs Monster," an extinct ocean hunter named for the region in the Isle of Skye where it was found.
Measuring about four meters (13 feet) long, the Storr Lochs Monster belongs to the ichthyosaur family of marine reptiles that thrived in Earth's oceans at the same time dinosaurs reigned on land. With its long, pointed snout and large, streamlined body, this animal occupied a similar niche to modern dolphins, and would have preyed on smaller fish and squid to survive.
The Storr Lochs specimen dates back 170 million years to the Middle Jurassic period, and represents the most complete fossilized skeleton of a Mesozoic seafaring reptile ever found in Scotland.
It was first discovered in 1966 by Norrie Gillies, manager of the nearby hydroelectric power station, and was extracted along with the surrounding rock. The extinct predator's remains were then tucked away in the backrooms of the then Royal Scottish Museum (now National Museums Scotland) for 50 years.
According to paleontologist Steve Brusatte, who helped lead the effort to unveil the fossil to the public, this extended period in storage was "not out of neglect" but because "the rock was so hard and there wasn't the technical know-how yet for how to remove it."
"There weren't really any paleontologists in Scotland who studied fossil reptiles," Brusatte told me. "Recently, those things have changed! So we arranged for a top preparator, Nigel Larkin, to clean up the fossil and remove it from the dastardly hard rock."
The project was a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, National Museums Scotland, and the energy company SSE, which operates the power station that Gillies managed. Though Gillies passed away in 2011 at the age of 93, his children helped to coordinate the preparation of the fossil for public display, even enlisting SSE to help fund the extraction and research process.
"Dad's not around to see it himself, but I know he'd be very, very pleased to know that it's finally being displayed, and he'd also be very pleased to know that it's the company he worked for that helped to make it happen," said Allan Gillies, who was six when his father discovered the Storr Lochs Monster, according to National Geographic. "It's sort of completing the story."
The ichthyosaur is the latest of many interesting paleontological finds from Scotland, which is one of the best places in the world to look for Middle Jurassic creatures.
"There's no need to come up with tall tales about fake sea monsters that live today," Brusatte told me last year. "There were sea monsters that used to live hundreds of millions of years ago, and they lived right here in Scotland."
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