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.

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam