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Surrey dinosaur: Look back 33 years when plumber unearthed new species of dinosaur in Ockley

September 22, 2016:

by Matt Strudwick

Amateur fossil hunter William Walker stumbled across a rugby ball sized rock in 1983 - which turned out to be a 125 million-year-old fossil

When amateur fossil hunter William Walker found an odd ball of rock in a Surrey clay pit, little did he know he had just uncovered one of the most exciting dinosaur discoveries ever made in Britain.

The plumber was looking for fossils in Smokejacks Pit near Ockley in January 1983 when he stumbled upon the rugby ball sized clump.

Eager to see what was inside, he shattered the rock open with a hammer and out fell an "enormous" foot-long claw bone belonging to a then undiscovered group of fish-eating (piscivorous) dinosaurs.

Proclaimed by London’s Natural History Museum as "probably the most important find in Britain this century", palaeontologists Dr Alan Charig and Dr Angela Milner, and a team of experts from the museum in South Kensington, had to wait four months for the pit to dry out before excavating the site.

The three-week dig saw two tonnes of rock being unearthed and three van-loads of bones, some crushed and broken, being transported back to the museum.

Palaeontologists reconstructed it and dated the remains at 125 million years old from the early Cretaceous period.

Speaking in a video interview with the museum about the find, Dr Milner said: “What we found was probably one of the most complete dinosaur that has ever been found in Britain.

“And it was actually quite unique, there was no other meat-eating dinosaur that looked anything like it.”

Equivalent to the length of one London bus, 8ft tall, and weighing 2,000kg, what separated the species from other dinosaurs was the shape of its mouth.

Named by Dr Milner and Dr Charig in 1986 as Baryonyx (bah-ree-ON-icks), meaning "heavy claw", and walkeri, after its founder, most meat-eating dinosaurs had tall, round snouts.

But the Baryonx’s snout and lower jaw were instead long and spoon-shaped.

“And these two jaws together suggested that this looked rather like a fish-eating crocodile,” said Dr Milner.

Its sharp, pointed, rounded teeth were also an unusual feature, which were suited to gripping and holding slippery prey.

“The really clinching evidence that Baryonyx was a fish-eater was when we found some semi-digested fish scales actually inside where the stomach would have been in life,” said Dr Milner.

“Baryonx was a really significant discovery because it was the first time we realised that there was a particular group of specialised fish-eating dinosaurs, which we now call Spinosaurs. And because the skeleton of the Baryonx was so complete it has been the key to interpreting much more fragmentary remains of other Spinosaurs that have turned up in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in South America, and also now in Australia.

“So the whole of the big research area now on fish-eating dinosaurs across the world all began because of a chance find of a claw bone in a quarry in Surrey.”



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