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
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Quality Inspector

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Female Buddy & Team Leader / Buddy

£11 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To join a team working with a female in her ...

Recruitment Genius: Configuration and Logistics Team Member

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has over 30 years ...

Guru Careers: Creative Director / Head of Creative

£65K - £75K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Creative Director...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence