A 180m-year-old fossil has quickly become one of the star exhibits at the UK’s newest museum, after it was identified as probably the oldest known example of a vertebrate embryo found in Britain.
The Yorkshire Natural History Museum in Sheffield opened on Saturday, the ribbon cut by the palaeontologist and ichthyosaur expert Dean Lomax using a baryonyx claw.
To add to the excitement of the day, Lomax was able to identify that one of the objects on display was far more interesting and important than it might first have seemed.
“He was very excited; he was like a kid in a candy shop,” said James Hogg, the 23-year-old driving force behind the new museum. “As far as we know it is the oldest example of a vertebrate embryo found in Britain. It was discovered by Dean on our opening day.
“We had just thought it might be a few vertebrae but Dean identified the whole embryo was there, he managed to identify the skull, the teeth and the whole body, including the flipper and the ribs and everything.”
Hogg said it was certainly the oldest complete ichthyosaur embryo ever found in Britain. It was found on the Yorkshire coast, north of Whitby.
The new museum, in the Edwardian former head office of a steelworks, is small but has big ambitions.
Hogg said the opening weekend had exceeded expectations, with people queueing down the street to get in.
Once inside, visitors would have seen about 1,000 objects on display, including minerals and fossils found in the region – such as a mammoth tusk, a domesticated dog, a crocodile skull and the lower jaw of a 12ft plesiosaur.
The museum stems from Hogg’s interest and passion for natural history, which he said had taken off in earnest over the past four years.
While an economics student at the London School of Economics he would regularly hop between the British Museum and the Natural History Museum to feed his fascination for all things archaeology and palaeontology. “The libraries were always busy on campus so I just used to prefer to study there.”
There are museums in the north of England that have natural history collections but, until now, there was no single northern museum dedicated to the subject.
That was Hogg’s motivation for a museum in his home city, plus a desire for it to be a bona fide and useful research institution. “We have more laboratory space than gallery space, and we do have ambitions to move to a larger site,” he said.
“It is such an interesting subject. It is such a fascinating concept – to actually understand life before human existence.”
The museum opening was given a boost by the TV naturalist Chris Packham, who tweeted his support, noting how cool it was that it was opened using a baryonyx claw.