Elizabeth L. NichollsA giant task

Published in 2000icon-clockTime to read: 0min 47s

Palaeontologist Elizabeth Nicholls overcame numerous obstacles to extract the fossilized remains of a 220 million year-old, giant marine reptile in a remote region of Canada.


At more than 21 metres long, the ichthyosaur, whose remains were recovered by the late Elizabeth Nicholls and her colleagues, is the biggest prehistoric marine reptile found to date, similar in appearance to a dolphin, with a slender, elongated snout.

I was overwhelmed. It was the largest ichthyosaur I had ever seen.

Later named Shonisaurus sikanniensis by Nicholls, the reptile was discovered in 1991 in an isolated area of British Columbia, embedded in a bank of the Sikanni Chief River in densely wooded, uneven terrain infested with mosquitoes and visited by bears.

Frequently submerged by the river, the fossil was under serious threat of erosion, but its remote location prevented palaeontologists from reaching it for more than a few weeks every summer. It took Nicholls and her colleagues from the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta three gruelling excursions to the site between 1999 and 2001 to extract the huge fossil, whose skull alone weighs 1.5 tonnes.

Nicholls, a Canadian-American, died in October 2004. In 2008, the museum exhibited the fossil along with a tribute to Nicholls, focusing on her key role in recovering the giant sea creature. Her colleagues are continuing her research.

  • 220 million

    Age, in years, of the ichthyosaur fossil Nicholls extracted from a limestone bed

  • 1.5 tonnes

    Weight of the ichthyosaur fossil's skull

  • 4

    Years it took to remove the ichthyosaur from its limestone matrix

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