Written by Alex Peaker, Assistant Community Learning Officer, Dinosaur Isle
News has just broken (13th August 2020) of the discovery of Vectaerovenator inopinatus, a brand new genus of theropod dinosaur discovered on the Isle of Wight.
I posted recently about how reliant we are on ‘amateur’ collectors (I really hate that phrase, I feel it quite derogatory and ignores the skill and passion people have) and this new dinosaur is a great testament to how amazing they are.
Initially found in March 2019, James Lockyer brought us several different finds he had found including what we at first thought to be two crocodile cervical vertebrae. Vertebrate remains are generally quite rare in the Ferruginous Sands (the unit this find was derived from at Shanklin), particularly of this quality of preservation so it immediately caught our attention.
The vast majority of dinosaur finds on the Island come from the Barremian Wessex Formation, with the occasional bone in the slightly younger Vectis Formation. Due to the Aptian marine transgression, dinosaur remains become much rarer in younger units. Some fluctuation in relative sea levels causes deposition in estuarine units but the vast majority of the Aptian through to the Late Cretaceous deposits of the Island were formed in shallow to deep marine environments.
The Ferruginous Sands Formation is interpreted as being formed during one of the deepening stages and has been shown to represent shallow shores. The abundance of fossil drift wood and eroded Devonian quartzite pebbles shows the coastline was not too far away, but none the less the deposits are still marine in their formation and not something typically associated with dinosaurs. The last significant dinosaur finds from Shanklin come from a sauropod sacrum and pelvis found at Luccombe Chine in 1945.
At the end of May 2019, two months after James Lockyer’s visit, Robin Ward and his family visited the Museum with further finds for identification. They had also been to Shanklin and had more vertebrae, this time a cervical/dorsal and a caudal, but these vertebrae had far less matrix and appeared much more distinctive – these were not crocodile; they were of a theropod dinosaur.
At this point we knew something really special was being found. After James’ initial find staff from the Museum frequented the site but visits died off after a while as after a month of regular visits we had found no more. After Robin and his family found two more vertebrae again we started visiting the beach but had no success (I found a large piece of dinosaur femur, but no more of the theropod). The matrix the vertebrae were preserved in is quite distinctive, we had a good idea of which bed the bones were coming from but all of the finds were made loose on the foreshore in a larger area and we could find nothing in situ or on the beach. The sand levels on the beach were fluctuating a lot and they seemed to be at their highest every time we visited.
Robin and his family kindly donated their finds to the Museum, as did James, which allowed us to begin getting a proper idea of what these bones belong to.
We persisted at the site, visiting on a regular basis over the coming months but still found nothing. In September a further find came in, this time a dorsal vertebra. Another gentleman (Paul Farrell) had been walking in the same area and recognised what he thought to be a dinosaur bone (as I understand it, he was not intentionally looking at the time but I stand to be corrected), and like the others before him Paul kindly donated his find to the Museum.
For the last few years we have had a working agreement with the University of Southampton – none of us at Dinosaur Isle are theropod specialists so the opportunity to work with the specimens was passed onto their researchers. The University has access to many things that we don’t (including SEM’s, an incredibly powerful CT unit, etc.) and so having this partnership has worked well for both us and the University; providing the University with research projects and enhancing the status of our collection.
The vertebrae of Vectaerovenator are highly pneumatised with large pleurocoels and cavities on the inside of the bone. Unfortunately there are not enough characters in the vertebrae to fully resolve the affinities of the dinosaur but there are enough to show it is a new genus.
Given the discovery of cervical, dorsal and caudal vertebrae it is highly likely that there are further remains of this animal yet to be discovered. Whilst we are still visiting the site on a regular basis there is a good chance that more of it will be or has already been found and we would encourage anyone that believes they may have further bones to contact us. Since the press release, we at Dinosaur Isle and the University of Southampton have been shown further finds likely to be of Vectaerovenator, so hopefully there will be more to come.
The description of Vectaerovenator will soon be published in Papers in Palaeontology and will be open access.
Thanks are given to James Lockyer, Robin Ward and his family, and Paul Farrell for finding and donating their specimens to Dinosaur Isle, Neil Gostling and Chris Barker for their work publishing the specimen, and to Trudie Wilson for her depiction of Vectaerovenator.