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Friday, July 8, 2011

Dorset pliosaur: ‘Most fearsome predator’ unveiled
By Rebecca Morelle

Richard Edmonds on the scariest animal to have ever lived in our oceans
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* In pictures: The pliosaur skull

A skull belonging to one of the largest "sea monsters" ever unearthed is being unveiled to the public.

The beast, which is called a pliosaur, has been described as the most fearsome predator the Earth has seen.

The fossil was found in Dorset, but it has taken 18 months to remove the skull from its rocky casing, revealing the monster in remarkable detail.

Scientists suspect the creature, which is on show at the Dorset County Museum, may be a new species or even genus.
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“Start Quote

This is an iconic specimen - one of the most exciting we have seen in years”

End Quote Richard Forrest Palaeontologist

Richard Edmonds, Dorset County Council's earth science manager for the Jurassic Coast, said: "This is amazing. We saw this fossil initially as a pile of bones - and slowly, after a lot of hard work, it has come together.

"We are now told this skull is 95% complete, and probably one of the largest and certainly one of the most well-preserved and complete pliosaurs ever found anywhere in the world."

The 155-million-year-old fossil was discovered by local collector Kevan Sheehan between 2003 and 2008 as it gradually tumbled out of the cliffs near Weymouth.

He told BBC News: "It was sheer luck - I was sitting on the beach, and saw three pieces. I had no idea what they were, but I proceeded to drag them back. Then over several years, I'd go back every year and find a new piece. I'm a beach magpie."
Pliosaur (Mark Witton) Pliosaurs were the top predators of the oceans

At first it more closely resembled huge lumps of rock than a marine monster, but a lengthy preparation process that has been carried out by fossil expert Scott Moore-Faye has revealed the fine details of the fossil.

Looking somewhat like a crocodile on steroids, it is now easy to see the power of this "biting machine": pliosaurs, which lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods were the top predators of the oceans.

On show now are its eye sockets, perched upon the top of its head, revealing how it would have fixed its stare on any passing prey; the openings that held its it immensely powerful jaw muscles, allowing it to crunch down on anything that crossed its path; and the huge holes, running all the way down its snout, that contained its giant, razor-sharp teeth to help finish the meal off.
Pliosaur fossilised skull When the fossil was first found, it was covered in rocky debris

Palaeontologist Richard Forrest said: "This is an iconic specimen - one of the most exciting we have seen in years.

"It was probably the most fearsome predator that ever lived. Standing in front of the skull you can imagine this enormous beast staring straight back at you, fixing you with its binocular vision, and attacking. Just thinking about it raises the hairs on the back of your neck."

Its bulky body, which would have been powered through the water with four paddle-like limbs, has never been found - and may not even have fossilised.

But new estimates from scientists, based on the 2.4m-long skull, suggest that the predator would have measured between 15-18m from tip to tail.
Biggest beast?

Currently, the owner of the title of world's biggest sea monster is tricky to ascertain, as it is rare to find a complete fossil.
Model of Dorset pliosaur The pliosaur from Dorset is big - but perhaps not the biggest

But pieces of potentially larger specimens have been found in the brick pits of Oxfordshire, and the skull of a species of pliosaur called Kronosaurus, from Australia, could be up to 3m (10ft) long. Recent finds in Svalbard, such as the aptly named "Monster" and "Predator X", as well as the "Monster of Aramberri", found in Mexico are also contenders.

However, scientists say that having a skull that is only missing the tip of its snout and a small piece of its jaw, gives them a rare chance to get a glimpse into the life of this ancient animal.

CT scans carried out by a team at the School of Engineering Sciences University of Southampton, which probe the fossil using X-rays, are now being studied to assess whether this creature is new to science.

Richard Edmonds said: "I've looked at some of the papers of described animals, and it looks different: it is much more massive, much more robust.
Pliosaur fossil The fossil is now going on display at Dorset County Museum

"But to determine whether it is anything new is a whole study in its own right. We'll have to go away, carefully compared to the existing species.

"But I wouldn't be surprised if in a year's time, we are standing here and looking at something that is new to science."

The fossil, which was purchased for £20,000 by the Dorset County Museum using Heritage Lottery Funds, with half of the money going to the collector and half to the landowner, is now going on public display. Sir David Attenborough is carrying out the opening ceremony.

David Tucker, Dorset County Museums Adviser said: "Our initial expectations have been more than met and the creature looks absolutely fabulous and we doubt whether there is a more complete pliosaur skull anywhere in the world.

"It is amazing to have the largest, most complete skull of the most powerful predator to live on Earth on display on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, the home of the science of palaeontology"



Space shuttle Atlantis in historic final lift-off
Jonathan Amos By Jonathan Amos BBC science correspondent, Kennedy Space Center
The 135th and final space shuttle mission has lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Space shuttle Atlantis was launched into history at 1129 local time (1529 GMT; 1629 BST) on Friday.

The 12-day mission will ferry 3.5 tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station.

Upon its return, the 30-year space shuttle programme will come to a close, with Atlantis and the other two shuttles retired to museums.

For much of the week, a launch had been thought highly unlikely.

The weather on Thursday had thrown torrential rain at the orbiter, and forecasters had been talking grimly of similar conditions developing on Friday.
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and controllers in the "firing room" gave the "go" for the ascent after a positive poll from their ground teams.

Launch director Mike Leinbach told the Atlantis crew - Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim - to "have a little fun up there" with "a true American icon".

Leinbach's call prompted a huge cheer from the thousands of guests inside the Kennedy Space Center and a rush to grab the best viewing positions.

Many lined the tops of buildings around KSC; others went down by the famous countdown clock on the lawn in front of the press complex.

For a few moments, it seemed there might be a cruel disappointment when the count was suddenly stopped at 31 seconds to check equipment on the launch pad would not obstruct a clean get away by the orbiter. But once a safe situation was established, the count picked up again and Atlantis soon raced skyward.

The spectators inside KSC, and the hundreds of thousands more people outside the centre, did not see the orbiter's climb for long.

Within a minute she had disappeared through a bank of cloud for the chase out over the Atlantic and a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday.

The ship and her crew will spend seven days docked at the orbiting platform.
Food truck

Mission goals include the delivery of a huge load of food for the ISS residents and a robotics facility that will test strategies for re-fuelling satellites high above the planet.

There has been much talk here in the past few days about the end of an era and the consequences it will have for the Kennedy workforce, many of whom will lose their jobs.

Nasa has attempted to shift the debate to what comes next and the strategy it has adopted to replace the expensive orbiter programme.

"The future of human spaceflight is bright," Administrator Charles Bolden insisted to reporters. "You'll hear me say that over and over and over again, so you need to print it."

His agency believes a more affordable approach to getting astronauts to the ISS can be achieved by contracting out their transport to private companies.

One of those prospective commercial concerns, Boeing, has been displaying a model at KSC of a capsule it says could lift up to seven individuals to the station.

Another, the Sierra Nevada Corporation, signed an agreement with Nasa on Thursday to use Kennedy's facilities.
Astronauts The four astronauts will help take supplies to the International Space Station

SNC is producing a mini-shuttle it calls the Dream Chaser, which, again, could carry up to seven astronauts into low-Earth orbit.

But none of the commercial replacements for shuttle are likely to be ready for service for at least three years.

Nasa itself hopes to invest in a new spaceship and rocket that can take humans beyond the space station to destinations such as the Moon, asteroids and Mars.

The conical ship, known as Orion, has already been defined and is in an advanced stage of development. The rocket, on the other hand, is still an unknown quantity.

The US Congress has told the agency what its minimum capabilities should be. However, the agency is currently struggling to put those specifications into a concept it says can be built to the timeline and budget specified by the politicians. It promises to detail the rocket's baseline design before the summer is out.

Critics have bemoaned the lack of speed in moving to new systems, a delay that means America must rely on Russian rockets to launch its astronauts for the foreseeable future.

Asked here why he thought Nasa did not have a ready-made replacement for the shuttle, Bill Nelson, a US Senator and leading figure in the space debate on Capitol Hill, said: "Because Nasa has been starved of funds these past six to eight years."

US President Barack Obama has proposed the agency's budget be frozen right through to the Fiscal Year 2016. The House of Representatives appropriations panel has suggested it be cut.

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