(Photo: James McKay)

For 65 years, a museum in Leicester, England, was in possession of a bunch of unidentified dinosaur bones. They appeared to be a reptile of some sort, perhaps related to ichthyosaurs, dolphin-like creatures that were alive in the age of the dinosaurs. But no one had been able to say exactly what they were.

One academic, Robert Appleby, a former curator at the New Walk Museum, had even studied the fossil for years, but never published his findings.

So when Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester, saw the bones on a visit, he was intrigued. 

It turned out, Lomax discovered, that the partial skeleton was not related to ichthyosaurs, but was in fact a new species of ichthyosaur itself. 

New species are described regularly, but this one was particularly significant, since it’s one of just a handful of ichthyosaur fossils from 200 million years ago. 

Lomax published his findings Tuesday in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology. He named the specimen Wahlisaurus massarae after two prominent paleontologists.

One reason it might have taken so long for the fossil to be recognized as the remnants of a new creature is in part because its bones are scattered. Why? For some reason, Lomax thinks, the ichthyosaur nosedived into the sea floor before or after dying.

“When I first saw this specimen,” Lomax said, “I knew it was unusual.”