A beautifully preserved ichthyosaur specimen dominates the entrance lobby of the museum. This ichthyosaur lived during the Jurassic period (around 200-150 million years ago), when a warm sea covered Somerset. The area around the town of Street, not far from Wells, has been an important source of ichthyosaur skeletons.
The ichthyosaurs existed as a group for almost 100 million years. They evolved in the early Triassic (about 245 million years ago), thriving through the Jurassic and into the late Cretaceous (about 90 million years ago). They were air breathing, fast swimming sea reptiles, giving rise to the name Jurassic Sea Dragon.
The museum’s skeleton shows a streamlined body, a powerful tail for swimming, and a narrow snout to catch prey. Although ichthyosaurs swam in deep seas, like all reptiles they had to return to the surface to breathe. They probably hunted in near-surface waters where the visibility was good, and identified their prey by their large eyes. A fossilised example of an eye is on display next to the main specimen.
Ichthyosaurs probably ate a variety of fish and other animals, including an extinct form of squid or cuttlefish called phragmoteuthis. The small hooks of the squids’ arms that were this ichthyosaur’s last meal are still visible in its stomach. You can view these in the museum with the aid of a magnifying glass.
Discovery of the Ichthyosaur
The fossil owes its discovery to Thomas Hawkins (1810-1889), a 19th century collector of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. He was the son of a Glastonbury farmer and lived at Sharpham Park, Glastonbury. Joseph Clark III, one of the Quaker Clarks of Glastonbury, described him as a “genius, mountebank and rascal” and “very near the borderline between eccentricity and criminal insanity.” Hawkins published two large books on his fossil collection and the second, in 1840, was called The Book of the Great Sea Dragons. The book’s frontispiece was a work commissioned from the well-known apocalyptic Romantic painter John Martin (1789-1854).
Hawkins acquired a large collection by paying the quarrymen at Street to keep a look out for ichthyosaur fossils. In 1834 and 1840, he sold two collections of these fossils to what is now the Natural History Museum in London, where many are still on display. It appears that Hawkins sold our specimen to his fellow collector J. Chaning Pearce, part of whose collection found its way to the Bristol Museum. In 1932 Bristol Museum kindly donated this Jurassic Sea Dragon to mark the move of Wells & Mendip Museum to its current building.
J. Chaning Pearce (1811-47) was born in Bradford-on-Avon, near Bath, and in the course of his short life built up one of the largest collections of fossils in the country in the early 19th century. After being apprenticed to his father, he went on to Guy’s Hospital in London to study and qualify as a surgeon. Returning to Bradford he practiced as a surgeon, and built up his collection with the help of an international network of like-minded people.
Pearce was the first to recognise (from one of his own specimens, now in the Natural History Museum) that ichthyosaurs must have borne live young. In 1845 he retired and his family moved to a large house at Lambridge, Bath, which he named Montague House, after the original British Museum building. Sadly, he did not live much longer, dying of a lung problem in 1847. After his death, the collection was jointly bought by members of the Stancomb and Wills families and Bristol City Council in 1915. Much of it was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, but what is left is preserved in Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery.
In 2013 the museum’s ichthyosaur was cleaned and conserved, and its display updated. The project was carried out with the assistance of The Curry Fund of the Geologists Association.