Finding complete fossils of dinosaurs and amphibians is a difficult task, with museums and universities spending millions of dollars to reconstruct and acquire these ancient specimens.
One of the more interesting fossil discoveries in the past few decades — Eric the Pliosaur — features a a number of unique qualities. During the fossilization process, opalisation occurred, leaving the fossil with a semi-precious sheen. This is not the most interesting aspect of the fossil, however, as that may very well be the tale of the its discovery, reconstruction, and ownership changes that rescued the fossil from being made into jewelry and found it a permanent home within an Australian museum.
Discovering an Opal-Covered Fossil
In 1987, a miner working in the opal-rich town of Coober Pedy, Australia, stumbled across the opal-covered fossil of a pliosaur within a mine. The lucky miner attempted to excavate the seven-foot, opalised fossil himself, destroying several fragile pieces in the process.
The opal miner had discovered a pliosaur, a relative of the much better known plesiosaur. Pliosaurs have shorter necks and larger skuls than a plesiosaur, which makes the ocean dweller, like plesiosaurs, Jurassic nightmare fuel. The fossil pliosaur found by the miner is later named "Eric" by one of its caretakers, and remains an amazing example of what can occur during the fossilization process.
Fossilization is a rare event, one brought about by the happenstance encasing of an animal and the subsequent introduction of mineral into bones to create a fossil. Even rarer is the introduction of semi-precious opal into a fossil, which can lead to an almost iridescent sheen. The Cooper Pedy area of Australia is known for massive opal deposits, with a unique set of conditions, location, and millions of years combining to create Eric the Pliosaur.
Reconstructing a Pliosaur
For an opal miner living in Coober Pedy, there is not a lot to do with a fossilized dinosaur. The opal content within the fossil is worth an estimated $25,000, but the disorganized, yet nearly complete fossil of the pliosaur is worth considerably more. Shortly after pulling it from the ground in Coober Pedy, the miner sold the fossil to Australian businessman Sid Londonish for the sum of 125,0000 Australian dollars (roughly $230,000 US when adjusted for inflation).
Londonish sought to properly reconstruct the pliosaur, and acquired the services of archaeologist Paul Willis to solve the haphazard fossil puzzle. Paul gave the fossil the name "Eric", borrowing the name from the Monty Python song "Eric the Half-a-Bee." During the reconstruction, Paul uncovered an opalised fish inside of Eric's stomach, and keeping in step with the comedy theme, named the fish Wanda.
In the years following purchase of the fossil, Sid Londonish came under financial duress. Who would ever think a guy running around purchasing fossils would have money problems? Londonish spoke openly of auctioning off the reconstructed fossil to the highest bidder. An open auction would bring in a cadre of private collectors, international museums, and jewelers who might seek to break the fossil up and sell Eric as trinkets. This is when the people of Australia stepped in to keep Eric at home.
To prevent pieces of Eric from becoming parts of charm bracelets across the world, Quantum, a beloved weekly science television series in Australia, championed the plight of Eric. Quantum launched the "Save Eric" campaign, with donations from corporate sponsors and fundraising efforts led by Australian schoolchildren amounting to over $450,000. With the enormous donation, the Australian Museum successfully purchased the pliosaur from Londonish in 1993. The unique specimen is on display indefinitely at the Australian Museum, so if you are ever Down Under, make a visit to see one of the most interesting fossils ever uncovered.
Top image displays the reconstructed version of Eric via the Australian Museum. Additional image of the completed Eric the Pliosaur and image of opalised fossil pieces are from the Australian Museum. Sources linked within.