Illustrations by Maria-Ines Gul

Joe Davis: “I rang up Rutland County Council and said: ‘who could I speak to if I think I found a dinosaur?’”

The conservation team leader at Rutland Water describes how he inadvertently discovered Britain’s only complete icthyosaur fossil
March 3, 2022

It is a bright day in February. I am picked up in a mud-spattered van from Oakham train station by Joe Davis, the conservation team leader at Rutland Water. As we rumble down the road towards the nature reserve, he tells me that this is the largest reservoir in England and hosts more than 250 species of birds. The chatter flows comfortably on the five-minute journey: he checks whether I have brought a packed lunch with me (I have). He describes himself as “blessed” multiple times during our conversation. 

The stars certainly aligned on a cold day in January 2021, when Davis inadvertently made one of the most significant paleontological discoveries in 200 years. While routinely draining one of the reservoir’s lagoons for re-landscaping, he stumbled upon Britain’s largest and only complete fossil of the prehistoric predator, the ichthyosaur. The ancient marine reptile—known as a “sea dragon”—resembled a modern porpoise or dolphin but was up to 25 metres long with large, sharp teeth. Emerging in the Triassic period, the ichthyosaur was a contemporary of the dinosaur.

Davis recounts this in his office in the Volunteer Training Centre as he flicks through images of the 10-metre-long fossil on a screen. A colleague remarks: “it was a beast, wasn’t it?” This is an understatement—in the photo, Dean Lomax, the paleontologist who led the efforts to excavate the creature, looks tiny lying next to it. The first ichthyosaur skeleton was found in the UK in 1811, by 12-year-old Mary Anning in Lyme Regis. The Rutland ichthyosaur skeleton is about twice as long. 

When Davis first saw the vertebrae poking out of the sand, his colleague thought they were old pipes. When he sent an image of them to his family WhatsApp group, one member replied: “don’t be silly, they’re pan tiles off a roof.” But Davis knew he had found something special. 

“I rang up Rutland County Council, and rather infamously said: ‘who could I speak to if I think I found a dinosaur?’” he tells me. Later he describes the surreal moment when host Greg James did an impression of this exchange on Radio 1. 

The find has been reported on by outlets ranging from BBC Nottingham to the New York Times. For Davis, this is exciting, if strange. “I thought maybe one day I might find a rare bird or a first [bird species] for the UK or something like that.” But he never imagined he would contribute to our planet’s paleontological history. “I feel really lucky,” he says.  

We walk to one of the bird-watching hides that overlook the lagoon. Davis is telling me that the ichthyosaur is suspected to be of the Temnodontosaurus trigonodon species when we are interrupted by two coots bickering. A childhood member of the Young Ornithologist Club, Davis can identify birds by the sound of their calls alone: “there’s a lapwing really distant in the background, just chattering away as well.”

If the fossil turns out to be of an entirely new species, Davis and the paleontologists will discuss naming it. Is he secretly hoping to name it after himself? He laughs and says: “I’m not too fussed about that… I’m pretty content with the find.” I believe him. In any case, his son has already coined the term “Joerassic.”

Rutland County Council and Anglian Water have secured more than £40,000 in funding to preserve the ichthyosaur and another find. But according to Davis, more money will be needed to preserve and display the fossil in Rutland. As we watch the water lapping over the site where it lay for 180m years, I’m confident that with Davis on the case—after the fossil has been cleaned and studied—it will find its way back home.

His luck hasn’t run out yet.The next Jurassic Park film comes out on 10th June. This is Davis’s birthday.