If not for the tenacity of paleontologist Elizabeth “Betsy” Nicholls, the remains of the biggest prehistoric marine reptile ever found might still be embedded in the remote wilderness of British Columbia.
After its discovery by an archaeologist in the limestone banks of Sikanni Chief River, scientists initially decided that the nearly 75-foot-long ichthyosaur fossil was too big, too fragile, and too isolated to excavate. Moreover, the site, prime bear territory and mosquito-infested, was accessible for only a few summer weeks a year.
But Nicholls, curator of marine reptiles at Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum, was undeterred—particularly after she realized that the 18-foot-skull she had thought belonged a blue whale was actually a new species of ichthyosaur. She named the filter-feeding ocean dweller—which looks part dolphin, shark, and whale—Shonisaurus sikanniensis.
Before the Rolex Laureate’s death from breast cancer in October 2004, Nicholls began a multiyear fundraising and excavation effort to exhume the skeleton. Paleontologists regard …