Found in Dorset, the giant sea monster that was armed to the teeth

Collector spent years finding and assembling bones

A prehistoric sea monster with gigantic jaws that could swallow a man whole and snap a car in half has been unearthed by an amateur fossil hunter at the foot of a cliff on the Jurassic Coast of southern England.

The creature's skull was nearly 8ft long and was armed with a fearsome array of massive teeth. It was a member of the pliosaurs, an extinct group of marine reptiles which lived about 150 million years ago as top predators in the sea, at a time when dinosaurs dominated the land.

It took several years for the collector, 62-year-old Kevan Sheehan, to carefully amass portions of the fossilised jawbones and skull as they emerged from the cliff-face after a succession of rock falls. His patience has been rewarded by selling the fossil to Dorset County Council for £20,000, using money from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

"In 40 years of collecting, I have often been green with envy at some of the finds other people have made. But now, when someone shows me a find, I can say: 'That's not a fossil – this pliosaur, that's a fossil'," Mr Sheehan said.

Richard Edmonds, the council's earth science manager for the Jurassic Coast, said: "This part of the coastline is eroding really rapidly, and that means the fossils that are trapped and buried are constantly tumbling out on to the beach.

"The collector was lucky enough to come along on the day a large piece fell out of the cliff, and that gave him the clue to keep on looking. He spent the next four years coming back day after day, and as a result he has uncovered this absolutely incredible fossil. It was an amazing effort."

The rest of the beast's massive body is probably still buried in the cliff. "The ground is dipping very steeply, and as it is such a huge specimen it will be buried beneath layer upon layer of rock, so we will have to patiently wait for the next big landslide," Dr Edmonds said.

Pliosaur fossils were known about in Victorian times, and often came from the same region of Dorset and east Devon. The latest find, probably the most complete set of jaws and skull to date, suggests that this particular specimen grew up to 50ft long.

"This new skull is the biggest complete skull of a pliosaur discovered so far, but there are some tantalising fragments suggesting even larger animals," said Dr David Martill, a paleontologist and pliosaur expert at the University of Portsmouth.

Pliosaurs had relatively short necks and swam using their four paddle-like limbs. Their long snouts had sharp teeth on the end for gripping prey, which would have been swallowed quickly into the back of the mouth where sets of ratchet-shaped teeth ensured there was no escape for the creature.

"Pliosaurs had big muscles on their necks, and you would have imagined that they would bite into the animal and get a good grip, and then with these massive neck muscles they probably would have thrashed the animal around and torn chunks off – it would have been a bit of a blood bath," Dr Martill said.

One specimen, known as "Predator X", was discovered last year in the permafrost on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Scientists estimated that its teeth could have been clamped together with a pressure of 33,000lbs per square inch, compared to Tyrannosaurus rex's bite strength of 3,000lb per square inch, and the 2,500lb square inch "death grip" of today's alligators.

Richard Forrest, a paleontologist and pliosaur expert who has analysed the specimen, said it made T-rex look harmless. "If we look at the lower jaw, this is the point at which the muscles attach, and then you've got the great beam coming forward – that bone is roughly the strength of steel, so think of the strength of a steel girder that size," Dr Forrest said. "These things were powerful enough to bite a small car in half. It would take a human in one gulp. It would take T-rex in one gulp. Compared to this beast, T-rex was a kitten," he said.

There were many kinds of pliosaurs in the seas during the Jurassic period. They fed on a range of prey, including fish, dolphin-like ichthyosaurs and smaller species of pliosaurs. The specimen unearthed on the Dorset coast is exceptional in that it has not been crushed flat like so many other pliosaur fossils.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms