By The Canadian Press
One of the oldest and most complete plesiosaur fossils recovered in North America was uncovered in a Syncrude Canada Ltd. mine near Fort McMurray in 1994. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Fourteen years after it was discovered deep within a northern Alberta oilsands mine, an ancient reptile that resembles the Loch Ness monster finally has a name.
Nichollsia borealis is a fossilized plesiosaur that swam in a warm sea that covered the province more than 100 million years ago. The ancient reptile hunted fish with its long neck and big mouth full of sharp, pointy teeth.
Researchers say it is one of the best preserved plesiosaurs ever found.
While not classified as a dinosaur, it lived at the same time those creatures roamed the earth.
“This fills in a lot of information about a poorly understood period in the history of these animals,” Anthony Russell, a professor of biology at the University of Calgary, said Thursday.
“It is extremely well preserved. It is not crushed. The skeleton is in exactly the same position it was when it died.”
The remains were discovered by miners working north of Fort McMurray in 1994. Syncrude Canada gave scientists 24 hours to remove the fossil, Russell said. Researchers have since worked with Syncrude to map the ancient sea floor that is now being mined for oilsands.
The plesiosaur’s bones were stored at the Royal Tyrrell dinosaur museum in Drumheller, Alta., for years until a team could begin the painstaking work of removing rock from the fossilized skeleton.
The fossil was first put on display at the Tyrrell in 2001-2002 before it was removed for further study.
Now, paleontologists from the University of Calgary have formally described the prehistoric aquatic predator in a paper published in a German research journal.
The 2.6-metre-long beast has been named Nichollsia borealis in memory of the late Elizabeth (Betsy) Nicholls, who was a renowned paleontologist studying ancient sea life.
She earned her degrees at the University of Calgary and was the curator of marine reptiles at the Tyrrell between 1990 and 2004. She died in 2004.
She is credited with transforming the understanding of prehistoric ocean life through her work involving the largest-ever prehistoric marine reptile — a 23-metre-long ichthysosaur discovered in northern British Columbia in 1999.
Nichollsia borealis is again on display at the Tyrrell.
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