Plesiosaurus is a genus of extinct, large marine sauropterygian reptile that lived during the early part of the Jurassic Period, and is known by nearly complete skeletons from the Lias of England. It is distinguishable by its small head, long and slender neck, broad turtle-like body, a short tail, and two pairs of large, elongated paddles. It lends its name to the order Plesiosauria, of which it is an early, but fairly typical member. It contains only one species, the type, Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus. Other species once assigned to this genus, including P. brachypterygius, P. guilielmiiperatoris, and P. tournemirensis have been reassigned to new genera, such as Hydrorion, Seeleyosaurus and Occitanosaurus.
The first complete skeleton of Plesiosaurus was discovered by early paleontologist and fossil hunter Mary Anning in Sinemurian (Early Jurassic)-age rocks of the lower Lias Group in December 1823. Additional fossils of Plesiosaurus were found in rocks of the Lias Group of Dorset for many years, "until the cessation of quarrying activities in the Lias Group, early in this [20th] century." Plesiosaurus was one of the first of the "antediluvian reptiles" to be discovered and excited great interest in Victorian England. It was so-named ("near lizard") by William Conybeare and Henry De la Beche, to indicate that it was more like a normal reptile than Ichthyosaurus, which had been found in the same rock strata just a few years earlier. Plesiosaurus is the archetypical genus of Plesiosauria and the first to be described, hence lending its name to the order. Conybeare and De la Beche coined the name for scattered finds from the Bristol region, Dorset, and Lyme Regis in 1821. The type species of Plesiosaurus, P. dolichodeirus, was named and described by Conybeare in 1824 on the basis of Anning's original finds.