On 14 and 15 April 2018, UKAFH conducted its first weekend event of the year. UKAFH members from across the UK left the mainland behind and sailed across the Solent to the sunny and highly fossiliferous shores of the Isle of Wight.
On Saturday, 14 April, we descended onto Thorness Bay, which is on the north coast of the island. Access to the bay is through Parkdean Thorness Bay Holiday Park, where many of the group were staying in caravans or, the bravest amongst us in tents. The park has excellent facilities, such as toilets, and a bar and restaurant, as well as ample parking and a small supermarket, which made it a very comfortable start to the day.
The weather was glorious and sunny – the first really warm and sunny day of the year, which filled us with hope and anticipation. In fact, we couldn’t have hoped for better or more relaxing weather.
We began in the car park, where Chris Tait and Nicky Parslow displayed some of the fossils that we were likely to find from the Oligocene epoch, such as carapaces from Emys and Trionyx turtles, and scuta from Diplocynodon alligators. We also saw shiny fish bones and vertebrae, and the very rare mammal teeth of Elomeryx – a stout hippopotamus/pig like creature. In addition, we saw echinoids preserved in flint, which can be found derived from the much older Cretaceous sediments.
We walked as a group down the gentle slope from the carpark to the beginning of the bay, where Chris pointed out the Bembridge Insect Beds to the east and where, unfortunately, fossils are few and hard to find. So, we set off to the west, where we could see a gently sloping shingle beach, with some exposures of green/blue clay from the highly fossiliferous Hamstead Beds. Chris explained to us that the best collecting technique is to look carefully and move slowly, and that moving the gravel with a trowel would likely result in uncovering fossils. Chris also painted a picture of what Thorness Bay might have looked like during the Oligocene epoch, about 30 million years ago – a lagoonal area within an estuary, where alligators, turtles and fish would have swum and hunted. Elomeryx porcinus would have been seen grazing on the edge of the lagoon and also swimming out to eat the plants growing in the lagoon. It would have been much warmer during the Oligocene, averaging 20 to 25oC, as the location lay much further south, closer to the equator.
As we headed west, we found that the first part of the bay was less productive than further along, but most people found gastropods, bivalves and fragments of turtle and fish during the early part of the hunt. As we moved along the bay, the first major find was found by UKAFH leader, Elliot Mills, who found a rare E. porcinus tooth and a fish vertebra on the surface of the shingle, within a few centimetres of each other. The group continued to round the first two corners, where more and more fossils were found. Silas Shaul found a beautiful echinoid preserved in flint, high up on the tide line. As pointed out above, this would not have come from the Oligocene epoch, but from the much earlier Cretaceous period. Isabella Rice found part of a Diplocynodon alligator scute and Nicky Parslow found part of an alligator jaw.
As the afternoon drew late, we ambled back to the holiday park and got cleaned up before the evening’s entertainment. At 7pm, we met up in the bar area of Parkdean and, at 7.30pm, Aidan Philpott presented a quiz to four teams. This was quite challenging, but fun at the same time, and there were several prizes, which were distributed for achievements, such as the Best Team Name – “The Not Crocodiles” and the Best Wrong Answer – “Strawberry Daiquiri” in answer to the question “What Beverage is Sir Hans Sloane often credited with having introduced to the UK?” (The answer is actually hot chocolate.) The Yan family won the quiz with a fantastic score of 15 and claimed the golden hammer.
After the success and glorious weather of Saturday’s hunt at Thorness Bay, we met on a drizzly Sunday afternoon at Brook Bay on the west coast of the island.
The cliffs and foreshore at Brook Bay represent part of the Wessex Formation, which is a mixture of mudstone, sandstone and clay. This was deposited during the Barremian age of the Cretaceous period, about 127 million years ago, in what was a large river basin that drained the surrounding hills. At the time, the climate here was warm and intensely seasonal. This intense seasonality is key to understanding the type and abundance of fossils found here. The landscape would have had rivers and tributaries running throughout it, with ponds, lakes and boggy areas – notable in the fossil record by the abundance of fresh water bivalves and fish remains. The water source and warm climate meant the area was, for much of the time, densely vegetated – the abundance of plant fossils here is immediately noticeable in the form of black, shiny lignite that litters the beach.
The dense vegetation would have attracted herbivorous dinosaurs, such as huge iguanodonts, sauropods and the heavily armoured Polacanthus, and the presence of herbivores would have attracted carnivores, such as the enigmatic allosaurid, Neovenator salerii (the bones of which can be seen at the Dinosaur Isle museum at Sandown). These dinosaurs left their footprints in the mud surrounding the rivers, ponds and lakes. The dry season then came, rivers ran dry, ponds vanished and lakes became anoxic, with the footprints left in once soft muddy sediment becoming solidified among a parched landscape. Charcoal derived from brush fires found in the Wessex Formation, indicate just how intense the dry seasons would have been. The wet season then followed, which is key to understanding the abundance of fossils here. Intense storms would have caused massive flooding, rapidly depositing sediment in the area, burying plant remains, bivalves and bones, as well as filling the dinosaur footprints with coarse sediment, forming casts of the footprints. Brook bay is famous for its dinosaur foot casts, which, after scouring conditions, can number in the hundreds along the beach.
After a talk about the geology and examples of likely finds by Aidan Philpott, we headed north towards Hanover Point, looking amongst the shingle for ‘rolled’ dinosaur bone. Dinosaur bone is commonly found along this stretch of beach. However, it can be hard to spot amongst the abundance of similarly coloured lignite, but we were an eagle-eyed group and bone was soon being discovered. Dinosaur bone here is often described, as ‘rolled’, as it is most commonly found worn, weathered and rarely articulated – not only from being exposed to beach conditions, but also from the intense storms and flooding it experienced before becoming fossilised. This often makes it hard to identify what bone it is or what animal it came from. However, Silas Shaul made a cracking find of a clearly defined dinosaur toe bone. As well as dinosaur bone, other notable finds included a Sheenstia fish scale found by Emma Philpott and the impression of a pine or cycadean cone found by Elliot Mills.
As the tide fell, the group explored the exposed soft ledges for fossils lodged in the rock pools. Nicky Parslow found some beautiful small in situ footprints on these ledges, which we were able to admire and photograph before they are lost to tidal action.
Later in the afternoon, the drizzle stopped and the sun began shining. As the tide had now retreated, it was a perfect opportunity to show the group a dinosaur trackway exposed far out on the shelf, as well as the impressive Pine Raft. The Pine Raft helps to illustrate just how intense the flooding that occurred here was. Preserved amongst the clay and mudstone are the remains of huge tree trunks, which would have been transported by a flooding event and lodged within the river system, where plant debris continued to build up. It is fascinating to see these huge trees in situ, which really helps us to visualise the area 127 million years ago. The dinosaur trackway also helps to visualise the animals that would have lived here. Exposed far out on the ledge, almost directly opposite Hanover Point, is a series of five footprints from a relatively small herbivorous dinosaur. The strides appear short, so we could imagine perhaps a juvenile Iguanodon casually strolling past. Sadly, along this trackway, one of the footprints is notably absent, because it was recklessly removed some years ago with a rock saw. This gaping square hole served to remind us about the importance of responsible collecting and why we must always observe the fossil code and SSSI restrictions, to preserve specimens for all to enjoy and discover.
We would like to extend our warmest gratitude to everyone who attended the Isle of Wight weekender. It was a pleasure to spend the time with such an enthusiastic and dedicated group of fossil hunters. We hope you all enjoyed, learned and discovered. And congratulations again to the Yan family for winning the coveted Golden Hammer on the UKAFH quiz.
On 29th January UKAFH members were welcomed to London’s outstanding Natural History Museum (NHM). The grand, terracotta-faced Victorian museum houses one of the world’s greatest natural history collections, with outstanding specimens on public display and a programme of world-class special exhibitions. However, our visit was all about what is behind the scenes of this great museum.
Our fortunate group of fossil collectors assembled alongside “Sophie” – the most complete Stegosaurus fossil in the world – to meet our host for the day, Professor Adrian Lister, a specialist in mammals working in the Vertebrates and Anthropology section of the Earth Sciences Department. Following a brief introduction we were led into the museum (“follow the jazz hands!”) and through the door from the public areas to the true heart of the museum.
It would be easy to make the mistake of believing the only purpose of the NHM is to educate the public with its displays, interactive facilities, information boards, exhibits and exhibitions. However the NHM is in fact a vast repository of some 80 million specimens and functions as an incredibly important research facility. There is a great deal more behind the scenes of NHM than meets the eye; certainly there is an extraordinary amount of space hidden away from the public areas – a veritable labyrinth of storage facilities, laboratories and research offices. It would be impossible to see and absorb the true extent of this enormous hidden world in a day but our visit provided a brief glimpse into the real world of the NHM, it’s specimens and the people who study them.
We began in a special reception area laid on for backstage visitors which showcases some of the museum’s prized specimens. The small but exceptional display includes diverse examples of the world’s natural history, including fossils and minerals – a snapshot of time itself, if you will. Adrian provided an outline of the day’s programme and introduced us to colleagues Zerina Johanson and Paul Taylor who would lead our party round specimens showcasing their personal research areas.
The NHM repository has its own stratigraphy of a sort: the dinosaurs and marine reptiles fossils are at the bottom, then working up the floors you travel through laboratories, birds, mammals, fish, bryozoa, molluscs, ammonites and so on. Within those categories the arrangements can vary: mammals are arranged by geographical location; bryozoa by geological time; fishes by species. Aside from the many researchers working within the museum there is an army of volunteers who help identify, label and digitise the multitude of specimens held. The NHM is working on an extraordinary digital database which is publicly accessible and searchable and will provide an exceptional resource to professionals and amateurs alike, no matte their location. The digitisation process also facilitates metadata, empowering the indexing and cross-referencing of specimens to make the whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
Introductions over, we divided into three groups to visit portions of the British mammal, bryozoa and fishes collections. We had the great privilege of seeing some truly exceptional fossils and learning more about their recovery, preparation, conservation and use as specimens for scholars all over the world.
I came away from the mammal collection with a greater understanding of the abundance and relative diversity of “ice-age” mammals, learning about acquisition of collections from private collectors, whether by donation or purchase. I also learned that mammoths possessed 6 sets of teeth during their lifetime, each successively larger as the beast grew, and that when the final set was worn down the animal was no longer able to feed adequately so the teeth determine not only the age of the animal but also its lifespan. Paul Taylor (who also regularly writes in our own Deposits Magazine) began by expressing great disappointment that Sir David Attenborough has never mentioned the sadly overlooked bryozoa; by the end of our fascinating tour of the collection we shared his mildly offended incredulity! Bryozoa are extraordinary colonial creatures which thrive in a multitude of ways, show multiple examples of convergent evolution through the fossil record and, despite being almost entirely obliterated by the P-T extinction event (the coloured dots on the specimen drawers told a tragic tale of this wipeout) managed a resurgence which means they still thrive today. Microscopic photography revealed the mysteries of their feeding, breeding and defences. Finally, visiting the fishes with Zerina we saw examples of extraordinary conservation, with the most fragile of fossils being parted from or exposed within their rocky graves. Such extraction can come at the price of fragility and loss of context (the matrix can be as important as the specimen in understanding the living environment, preservation and age of a fossil). We saw exceptional casts and replicas of precious fossils and extraordinarily detailed 3D imaging of rare fossils, all enabling specimens to be handled, observed and studied across the world without the risk of loss or damage in transit of the original, precious fossil.
Following our visit to the collections we visited the Angela Marmont Centre (AMC) for UK Biodiversity. Many of you may not be aware of this incredible free resource but we urge members to take the time to discover a little more by visiting in person or online! Located on the lower level of the Orange Zone of the museum by the Queen’s Gate entrance, the AMC provides a range of services and resources that benefits experts and amateurs alike. Services are as diverse as pest identification, which assists in detecting and preventing crop pestilence and monitoring the spread of pests around the globe; and CITES certification which identifies and prevents the trafficking of rare and endangered animals and the products of such trade. But more generally, they offer access to a large and diverse range of UK fossils which can be handled and studied and a vast array of UK biodiversity reference collection of such as insects, butterflies and bird eggs which can be examined.
The AMC has regular opening hours* for visitors to view the collections and also to make use of facilities such as the London Natural History Society’s library and also to bring in fossils and specimens for identification. Aside from the in-person identification service they offer an excellent free online identification forum at www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/community/identification. Further facilities include bookable resources such as microscopes, photo-stacking equipment, keys and field guides and workshop space suitable for meetings and training sessions. There are also handouts and information leaflets, including specimen labels, which can be taken away. This magnificent resource, which I have personally made use of on a number of occasions, is already benefiting a number of our members post-tour and we hope to welcome some of the AMC staff on future fossil hunts too!
Last but not least, of course we exited through the gift shops! NHM has a vast range of books and resources to purchase. You can even buy our own book, “A Guide to Fossil Collecting in England and Wales” in the British Geological Survey (BGS) shop inside the museum.
The passion and knowledge of our tour hosts was self-evident and we are most grateful to Adrian, Zerina and Paul and to Christina, Ben and Florin at AMC for their time. We also noted that our hosts had taken the time to understand our group and activities and had specifically shown us examples of specimens that we may have found ourselves, or been able to look for, on past and forthcoming UKAFH hunts. This thoughtful attention to detail did not go unnoticed! Thank you for giving up your time for us to create such a special day.
*The AMC’s opening hours are 10-12 and 2-4pm Monday to Friday, and the first Saturday of the month.
It was grey, cold and with weather forecasts that Captain Scott would have shuddered at the thought of! Undeterred, our group met in the Charmouth Road car park and descended to the beach, via the new sea wall next to Church Cliffs, with unsurpassed views of Lyme Bay and to Seatown and Golden Cap in the east. After a welcome to the delights of the Jurassic Coast location and an introductory talk, which took in the geology, Mary Anning, coprolites, public toilets, cliff falls, David Attenborough’s ‘Sea Dragon’, an introductions to UKAFH staff and our ‘guest helper’, Brandon Lennon, we all headed east.
The geology here at Lyme Regis is quite complex. The cliffs and foreshore between Lyme Regis and Charmouth represent three stages within the Early Jurassic (or Lias) period termed the Hettangian, Sinemurian and Pliensbachian, dating from approximately 199-189 million years ago.
Essentially the rocks at Church Cliffs are Jurassic-aged from the Sinemurian stage. The Hettangian stage rocks of the older Blue Lias slowly dips away eastwards beneath sea level and the Shales-with-Beef layer, capped by the Black Ven Marls (part of the Black Ven Mudstone Member) and in turn, part of thr Charmouth Mudstone Formation descend to the beach under Black Ven. The younger Pliensbachian rocks are best studied at Charmouth. During this time a shallow epicontinental sea (less than 100m deep), was present across much of Europe, including most of England, Wales and Ireland, and laid down alternating layers of clay and limestone. At that time, Lyme Regis (as it’s now known), lay closer to the equator, roughly at the latitude North Africa is today.
Armed with all the background, our intrepid explorers heading off. The best place to look for fossils is among the pebbles and rock pools on the foreshore, loose fossils including ammonites, belemnites and reptile bones can all be found with a little patience. Fossils can also be found protruding through the surface of the slumping clays along the top of the beach. At high tide the waves wash away the soft clay, leaving the more resistant fossils exposed and able to be collected by hand.
Our hunt took place on an exceptionally low tide and Lyme’s famous ledges soon began to appear. This is usually a great place to look, as fossils are washed out of Black Ven’s clays and are deposited in the rocks and boulders and in fissures on the ledges. But finds were remarkably thin on the ground and despite some of our party finding a few very small ammonites, along with fragments from larger specimens, not much else turned up. Andrew Baylis found an ichthyosaur vertebra, which is a common find at Lyme Regis. However, the rain, sleet and snow forecast did not materialise! How wrong can the forecasters get it?
As the tide extended further out into the bay, boulders with large ammonite impressions appeared, not dissimilar to those found on the ‘Ammonite Pavement’ on Monmouth Beach.
Finding fossils is never guaranteed and participants of this hunt were not disappointed with the few specimens that were found. The coastal scenery was dramatic and the forecast inclement weather held off! Many thanks o all who attended, many of whom went on to the Charmouth Heritage Centre, to see the newly displayed ichthyosaur skeleton, discovered recently at Lyme Regis and made famous by David Attenborough’s ‘Sea Dragon’ BBC documentary.
I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the room who isn’t accompanying children. The awaiting audience are chatty and excited. The child behind me already knows what most of the fossils on the table awaiting description are. “Baryonyx claw!” is exclaimed. “What is the word for fossil poo?” encourages dad. “Coprolite!” the excited boy declares loudly.
It is Friday 2nd February and palaeontologist and UKAFH patron Dean Lomax is about to take us on a journey back to the amazing British finds that sparked the original dinomania in the 1800s. From the ‘invention’ of dinosaurs to the great granddad of T. rex, he reveals British dinosaur and ichthyosaur discoveries, including recent identifications of new species and some incredibly rare finds.
The Royal Institution event, Jurassic Britain: Rediscovering dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs, welcomed all ages but was specifically aimed at ages 7+. These are children who know their dinosaurs and who, with encouragement for and enrichment of their passion, might become the next generation of palaeontologists.
Dean begins thus: Before Jurassic World and Jurassic Park was Jurassic Britain. This inspired him as a child to pursue palaeontology as a career. And it’s been quite a career so far, including authoring the outstanding book, Dinosaurs of the British Isles, along with Dr Nobumichi Tamura, on which this talk draws.
Dean captivates his audience with tales of Victorian gentlemen and scholars who strove to understand and describe the mysterious fossil bones that were being discovered, which were found to have some similarity to lizards and led to the term “dinosaur” being coined by Dr Richard Owen in 1842. Yes, dinosaurs are a British invention! Indeed, the first three dinosaurs ever described were British and because we were at the forefront of this new science as well as possessing a large number of dinosaur fossils, Britain had a good many “firsts’ in the record books of dinosaur discovery. Our unique geology means that around 60 dinosaur species are known in Britain from across the whole of the Mesozoic era, making up over 4% of all dinosaurs.
Dean talked us through the timeline of momentous discoveries, amply illustrated with images, artists’ reconstructions, video footage, genuine and replica specimens and visualiser displays. It has been quite a journey from Victorian times to today, as the poorly-understood fossils were imagined and brought to life as the Crystal Palace dinosaurs which are distinctly inaccurate by modern standards as the science of palaeontology has grown and drawn upon other disciplines to understand the fossils and many, many more specimens have been discovered and compared.
We then proceeded on a journey through the British Mesozoic, introducing many notable British dinosaurs, many of them ground-breaking discoveries at the time. From the Isle of Skye to the Isle of Wight we encounter British dinosaurs large and small, complete and fragmentary, early to late, carnivore, herbivore and pecscivore! We travel overseas too, finding examples of British dinosaur and marine reptile fossils in far-flung corners of the globe. Indeed, Australia’s first dinosaur, Agrosaurus, later transpired to be a Thecodontosaurus fossil from Bristol!
The topic of migrating fossils was prominent in Dean’s continuation into Ichthyosaurs, his personal specialism. Ichthyosaurs are not dinosaurs but marine reptiles, having a common ancestor which predates the emergence of the dinosauria. Dean’s own “evolution” as a palaeontologist is closely tied to marine reptiles through his early fieldwork in Wyoming to volunteering in his local museum and discovering an exceptional genuine fossil ichthyosaur in the collections which was thought to be a cast! Dean’s subsequent work describes a journey of hunting down “lost” British fossils hidden away in archives, small museums and overseas, re-examining them and, in two cases, recognising new species. It is a tale of caveats: many fossils are repaired, enhanced or even composites, giving the appearance of a complete specimen but being scientifically inaccurate.
Once Dean had completed our journey from ancient to modern times via the Victorian, questions were invited from the audience. I’m not sure if I was more impressed by the quality and diversity of the questions from the rapt young audience or the fact that Dean could answer them all! Could T-rex jump? Probably, but if he landed badly he might struggle to right himself and a bad fall resulting in a broken limb could prove fatal so he likely didn’t risk it. I’d never considered the question and I’m fascinated by the answer!
I’d like to thank Colin Tucker at the Royal Institution for sending me a ticket to the event.
If you’d like to read more from Dean about British dinosaurs Dean’s article for Deposits magazine is here:
Dean Lomax is an internationally recognised multi-award-winning palaeontologist, science communicator and author. He has travelled the globe and worked on many fascinating projects, from excavating dinosaurs in the American West to describing new species of extinct marine reptiles. Dean is passionate about communicating palaeontology with the public and regularly appears on television, including as series advisor and expert co-presenter for ITV’s Dinosaur Britain. He has written two books, numerous scientific papers, and many popular articles. Dean is a Visiting Scientist at The University of Manchester and patron of the UK Association of Fossil Hunters (UKAFH).
On 14 January, UKAFH commenced its packed 2018 schedule with a long-awaited return to Aust in Gloucestershire.
Aust is a small village preceding the Severn River Crossing into Wales. From here, you can access the River Severn foreshore, and the iconic red and grey cliffs visible to commuters travelling from the Principality. The slipway from which access is gained to the foreshore was under maintenance for much of 2016 and 2017, so UKAFH had not led a hunt here for over two years – it was good finally to be back. And, as if we were all sticking to our new year’s resolutions, the hunt was perfect – great finds, great weather and a great group of intrepid fossil hunters.
We began with an explanation of the geology and were shown examples of likely finds by hunt leader, Lee-Anne Collins, and support leader, Sam Caethoven.
The cliffs either side of the Severn Crossing’s huge concrete plinths are visually impressive and illustrate a period of coastal transition, some 221-201myrs ago during the late Triassic. The towering red mudstone of the Branscombe Mudstone Formation represents a 15myr period of seasonal lacustrine deposition in which the depth and salinity of an ephemeral lake fluctuated dramatically. This is evident in the streaks of white evaporite gypsum that stutter throughout this section of the cliff. The environment was hypersaline and inhospitable, that is, an environment not suited to macrofauna and, as such, is unfossiliferous.
Above the red mudstone sits the Blue Anchor Formation. Although this green-grey mudstone represents a time of better sustained water level in a lake or lagoonal environment – evidence of an advancing shoreline – it was still hypersaline and so devoid of macrofossils. It is above these strata, at the base of the Westbury formation, where the fossils we hoped to find exist. At the base of the shale and limestones of the Westbury Formation is the Rhaetic Bonebed – a green-grey calcareous siltstone conglomerate about 205myrs old, which, in contrast to the underlying strata, is incredibly fossiliferous. The Rhaetic Bonebed represents a marine environment, which was shallow, brackish and subject to strong tidal currents and/or storm events. This is evident in the conglomerate nature of the deposit and disarticulation of vertebrate fossils, which commonly include the teeth and bones of fish, sharks and marine reptiles, such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Although marine life was clearly profuse, the seafloor was anoxic (without oxygen), aiding the preservation of fossils, which is most notable in the accumulation of coprolites. The bonebed is about 15cm thick, so represents a relatively quick but dramatic coastal transition. Later in the Westbury Formation, the sediment becomes more homogenous, representing a less turbulent marine environment, while the seafloor becomes more hospitable, shown by the abundance of bivalves and the bioturbation of sediment dwelling organisms.
The bonebed is, however, inaccessibly high in the cliff and so we had to hope for recent rockfalls to have bought this highly fossiliferous layer to the foreshore. On this occasion, we were in luck. Some large boulders had recently fallen, while smaller pieces and isolated fossils from the bonebed were easily found amongst the shingle.
As we headed east along the foreshore, it was not long before finds were made. Mary Bite began proceedings by finding a remarkably large Severnichthys tooth – Severnichthys is a large, predatory fish named after the River Severn along which its teeth are often found. Soon, most attendees were finding examples of bonebed, which contained a plethora of fossils, including tiny fish and shark teeth, isolated bones and copious coprolites. As we approached the concrete plinth of the Severn Crossing, Mike Greaves found an Hybodus shark’s tooth, again, of remarkable size.
We carefully made our way around the concrete plinth to the east side of the bridge, where some large sections of bonebed had recently fallen. By breaking up these blocks, many
fantastic fossils were found, including several Hybodus fin spines and beautifully ornamented fish scales. It is possible to treat rocks from the bonebed with vinegar to extract the fossils they contain – placing the rock in a sealed jar containing white vinegar of 6-7% and replacing the vinegar every few days will dissolve the rock. Sieving the sediment at the bottom of the jar will yield dozens of isolated teeth and scales, which you can observe in detail under a microscope or magnifying lens. However, it is worth noting that coprolites and bone often become fragmentary during this process. As the hunt drew to a conclusion, Mike Greaves made a rare and exceptional find in the form of a large Severnichthys jaw section, which clearly contained a number of large teeth. Mike is in the process of very carefully prepping and preserving this fragile specimen, and we hope to keep you updated about his progress on our Facebook page.
Thank you to everyone who joined us for our first fossil hunt of 2018. It was a truly great start to the year and it was great to meet so many new fossil enthusiasts. We hope to see you all again soon on another fantastic fossil foray.
On Wednesday 13th December King’s College London, in association with the Popularizing Palaeontology Workshop II, hosted a pop-up palaeoart exhibition “The Art of Extinct Animals” featuring some of the UK’s leading palaeontological artists who showcased their artwork and talked about how they go about reconstructing extinct animals and lost environments.
The one-off event engaged with questions like: How can artists reconstruct and recreate the life of the past? What challenges, techniques and difficulties are there in this process? How does the history of palaeontological artwork affect current conventions in the field? And what does palaeontological artwork tell us about the relations between science and art? The palaeoartists featured were Bob Nicholls, Mark Witton, Beth Windle and John Conway.
The first talk, delivered by Bob Nicholls, was ‘No, we don’t make it up! Palaeo-reconstruction explained from the inside-out.’
Bob used his reconstruction of Psittacosaurus as a case study to describe his process of building a physical representation of a dinosaur from its fossil, beginning with taking many detailed photographs and measurements of the fossil, including 3D prints to help reconstruct the skeleton and whatever traces remain of details of skin and soft tissue. He then considers the soft parts such as musculature and skin, drawing on evidence on the fossil for them, and considers the creature’s respiratory, digestive, circulatory, nervous and other systems and how these might have been laid out in the creature’s body. We can draw on living creatures to help imagine this. Bob stressed that it is important to overcome preconceptions of what the animal may have looked like; in other words, let the science speak.)
Bob creates palaeoart both traditionally (paint and brushes), using software and also as sculpture. Psittacosaurus is a sculpture so the next steps were to create an armature and clay model which was then coated in silicone to preserve detail then in fibreglass to keep it stiff. The sculpture was then cast, after which it needs to be repaired and tidied up before the final stage of painting takes place.
When deciding which colours to use it can be difficult or impossible to know but scientific developments are progressing constantly and new techniques enable us to learn more from fossils than ever before. Melanin preserved in fossils indicate likely colours. A good deal can also be surmised by considering the environment inhabited by the creature, evidenced by the other fossils found alongside, trace fossils like coprolites and the geographical location of the creature at the time of death and likely climate. For example, countercolouration is determined by environment – the amount of light, affected by latitude and habitat, determines the degree, acuteness and position on the body of countercolouration. By placing the model in a similar environment to that it is thought to have inhabited you can assess and inform decisions on how to place countercolouration. Other considerations include carotenoids, porphyries, pterines and purines in fossils, which also inform colour, and patterns in nature.
Next to speak was Mark Witton, whose topic was ‘The science of extinct animal life appearance: why “what did it look like?” is not just a question for palaeoartists (or children).’
Mark observed that it is natural to look at a fossil and wonder “what did it look like?” – palaeoart is about answering that, not by making it up but through scientific research. Palaeoart is more than basic anatomy – lots of new science is constantly revealing more information. So is palaeoart only to inform the lay person/children (non-specialists)? Is it too unknowable/speculative/scientifically meaningless? Is it not relevant to other fields of science? Can palaeoart serve science? Yes. Mark took us through examples of how fossils lead to the artist considering what the remains tell us about the animal and therefore how to depict it. Considering Arsinoitherium (an extinct horned mammal from the Eocene), the horn bone is not dense so what covered it to make it strong? Nature tells us this was likely a keratin sheath. Keratin rarely fossilizes so we cannot see it in the fossil so this makes us ask “what did it look like?” and question how the horns were used. Different horn types exist in modern nature which can be compared to fossils for similarities and the type of headgear extrapolated.
Considering Triceratops, it is hard to predict shape of the horn from the bone fossil because it isn’t the complete story so you need to think beyond that and consider how horn grows. For triceratops the horn shape reconstruction tells us the shape changes with age as a result of how horn grows, adding layers within the horn and pushing the earlier layers out and up. Taking another example, Tanystropheus, the fossil might be interpreted as a marine reptile with a long neck or a shore-based angler. Studying the skeleton more closely, tong cervical ribs and a large scapular area for muscular attachment gives power to lift and support the neck. Since this musculature and skeleton would not be necessary in water because water alone would provide sufficient support to the neck we can predict that the creature was a land based fisher.
So, the inquiring mind of the palaeoartist informs the artist how to build the creature up from bone to flesh, which habitat to place it in and how it interacts with other creatures in battle, mating and feeding. At the same time this rigorous inquiry and the resultant art feeds back into science, providing new hypotheses and giving context to scientists to then inquire further too.
Finally, Mark drew audience attention to a forthcoming publication, “The palaeoartists handbook”. Which is out in 2018 and published by Crowood Press.
The next speaker was emerging palaeoartist Beth Windle, whose topic was ‘Illustrating Mammals from Specimens, Life & Location.’
Beth’s primary artistic focus is the Hyena, a creature known and rercognised by most people in its modern form but which would have looked dramatically different during the Pleistocene due to a far cooler climate. Although genetically the same species as modern Hyenas, those of the Pleistocene would have borne thick, fluffy coats and predated on different animals to today. Beth strives to understand intimately how this creature and its environment would have looked and portray this in her art.
Beth spoke with passion about how good palaeoart must be informed by drawing from real life observation rather than relying on past art or Google. As an example, when it snowed recently Beth went out and sketched to capture the English Pleistocene-like environment. She recommended artists visit museums and collections and handle and draw real specimens and visit zoos and wildlife parks and observe and draw from life and real animal movement. Whilst we might not know exactly what a creature looked like, if we can understand its build and it’s habitat, and we really know how to draw animals and landscapes which contain movement and life, we can create good palaeoart.
Finally the audience heard John Conway expound on ‘Paleoart is the Best Art.’
John is an artist who sometimes draws dinosaurs and sometimes doesn’t. John elected to argue that palaeoart has the potential to be a mainstream art movement. John provided a complete – and very entertaining – art history lesson taking us from the beginnings of fine art right up to the modern day, arguing that art has already done everything from realism to abstraction so what is left to be done? Can palaeoart be fine art? Is palaeoart impeded by being representational? Palaeontology provides a new subject for art. Yes, it is technical, but that’s not novel. Art has been technical, fantastical, realistic and everything palaeoart is. So why hasn’t palaeoart become mainstream? Is it because it’s never been pitched as art for its own sake? Palaeoart can inform and entertain. So what is stopping it from transitioning from the stuff of science at one extreme and of childrens’ playgrounds at the other? John didn’t answer the question but left it as food for thought. One thing was certain; the audience at tonight’s event would certainly be glad to see more palaeoart!
Following the presentations the audience was able to return to the art displays to appreciate with fresh eyes the palaeoart on display by the four artists, including items available for purchase. All the artists were open to questions about their art and about palaeontology and some very interesting discussions ensued, from the likely function of the hind paddles of a plesiosaur to which creature of highly limited fossil evidence would the artists most like to be able to understand and portray.
Thank you to the event hosts and organisers, King’s College London and Popularizing Palaeontology Workshop II, and the artists for putting on such an interesting and informative event.
On Sunday 12th November UKAFH met in Warden, a small town on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent for the last UKAFH fossil hunt of the year.
Along the East coast of Sheppey is the largest exposure of London clay in the UK stretching over 6km from Warden to Minster on Sea. The London clay is a marine deposit roughly 52 million years old at this location, of the Eocene epoch. The fine sediment was deposited in a fairly deep, warm and placid sea which was relatively close to land – evident in the abundance of wood and plant remains and occasional but rarely terrestrial birds, mammals and reptiles.
After a fantastic explanation of the local geology and palaeontology by Sam Caethoven and a show and tell of some exceptional specimens by Eliott Mills, we were off in search of fossils!
We were bombarded by a strong, bitterly cold arctic wind but fortunately it was not long before we made some great finds. Lucy was first off the mark with a beautiful shark vertebra, found just a few hundred yards from the carpark. Gastropods, bivalves, nipa fruit and shark teeth were all found within a short time on the beach. We soon headed further north along the beach, staying clear of the tall clay cliffs which are particularly dangerous at the moment as large clay blocks are falling frequently – The site is prone to extreme erosion, most evident by the world war two pill boxes which once sat atop the cliffs but are now haphazardly strewn on the beach in front of us. Beyond the pill boxes, the great finds just kept coming. Numerous crab specimens in phosphatic nodules were collected, some of which were exquisitely well preserved. Shark teeth, ray teeth and fish vertebra were also abundant. Eliott Mills made the exceptionally rare discovery of a leaf preserved in clay.
The relentless biting winds made hunting tough, but we endured and were rewarded for our hardy nature. Thank you to everyone who attended, it was a great day and I hope you all thoroughly enjoyed yourselves!
See you all again in the New Year!!
UKAFH fossil hunt at Warden Point, Isle of Sheppey, 12th November 2017 – a preview of some of our group’s finds
On Saturday 14th October UKAFH took a group out to the Warren, Folkestone for day one of the Kent weekender. We were blessed with unseasonably warm weather as our group of 30 descended the (pleasantly dry) mud footpath down to the beach to begin our hunt through the Cretaceous period! Once on the beach, UKAFH leader Chris Tait briefed the group on the geology of the location and what we might expect to find.
The rocks at Folkestone represent the Albian stage of the lower Cretaceous, 110-105 mya. Lower Greensand is found at the base of the cliff with Lower and Upper Gault clay resting conformably atop, however the clay slumps over the Lower Greensand and is eroded at sea level to release large volumes of fossils onto the beach in this highly productive locality for fossil hunting. During the time these sediments were laid down the UK was at a more southerly latitude in the area of the modern day Mediterranean and a warm sea teeming with life covered the UK. During this time sea levels were transgressing, with the Lower Greensand being deposited as and continued to erode, to be replaced with fine clay sediments once nearby land was completely submerged.
The Lower Greensand is less fossiliferous as the near-shore environment it represents was less suitable as a habitat but still contains excellent fossils such as ammonites; the Gault Clay, however, is packed with diverse fossils, some with exceptional preservation. Ammonites, belemnites and molluscs are common; nautilus, crabs, crinoids, fish remains, shark teeth and scaphopods can be found, along with rare finds of reptilia. Examples of all of these were found by members of our hunt group!
Phosphatised preservation is typical but quality is variable, with examples often fragmented or in nodules. However many examples are preserved in superb detail in pyrite and those which are newly emerged from the clay can retain some or all of their nacrous shell. Bivalves and molluscs which are newly exposed are often extremely fragile and are rarely collectable unless carefully removed along with the surrounding clay, but ammonites are more durable and make marvellous specimens to add to a collection.
Soon after we reached the beach heading towards Copt Point the finds were already plentiful. Partial regular and heteromorph (partially uncoiled) ammonites and bivalves were quite common and finds increased as people “got their eye in”. Some of the group progressed quite quickly along the beach to inspect the slips of clay for freshly washed out fossils and check out the shingle between the large rocks and boulders on the foreshore. Others remained nearer the start of the beach, working methodically through the shingle by hand, with a trowel, or dry sieving, in search of smaller finds like shark teeth.
Several members of the group found shark teeth, with Isabelle finding the largest example. At the other end of the scale, Sam found a small but scarce Acrodus shark tooth while sieving using a 3mm mesh. Sieving is a good technique to remove sand and search for small fossils which wash out higher up the beach because they are lighter. Sieving and shingle-searching up the beach yielded crabs, solitary corals, urchin spines, shark teeth and vertebrae as well as fish teeth, a turtle bone and the day’s star find, a swordfish tooth!
By the end of the day we had a really great selection of finds amongst the group!
The following day we were greeted with yet another gloriously sunny autumn day, enhanced by the towering white cliffs of Dover above our meeting point as Samphire Hoe Country Park. We had another full house of attendees and headed west along the beach to hunt for fossils amongst the chalk boulders on the foreshore. Aidan Philpott, UKAFH Leader, explained the geology and identified local fossils to look for to the group. The lower chalk (also known as the grey chalk) at Samphire Hoe is from the Cenomanian stage of the Upper Cretaceous so yields fossils aged 100.5 – 93.9 Mya.
Common finds are brachiopods, bivalves and echinoids. Sponges, shark teeth, worm tubes, gastropods and fish can also be found and, rarely, ammonites. As well as beautifully preserved fossils within the chalk, some echinoids and shells and many sponges form flint casts which can be washed out of the chalk and found in the shingle. Attractive pyrite crystals can also be found in the chalk.
Our first find of the lay was an eroded echinoid inside a flint block. UKAFH leader Chris Tait then found a large section of clam. These giant molluscs are mostly found broken into small pieces so this was a really nice find. As the day progressed a good variety of finds were made including echinoids, shark teeth and brachipods.
Samphire Hoe isn’t the easiest location for fossil hunting as you need to scrutinise the loose chalk boulders on the foreshore carefully for signs of fossils and then extract them very carefully with a chisel to ensure they are not damaged. You can also hammer the boulders to break the chalk up in search of fossils so work, tools and care are needed to have a good chance of finding fossils here. Once extracted, however, preservation is usually excellent, with fine details clearly visible.
Cleaning chalk fossils is easy, requiring little more than dry brushing the remaining chalk matrix with a soft brush (a children’s toothbrush is ideal) to remove any chalk remaining on the fossil surface. As chalk is very soft, you can easily remove larger amounts of remaining chalk with a blunt knife or craft knife until you approach the surface of the fossil and switch to brushing.
Finds were pleasing but not abundant, however everyone enjoyed the hunt and the sunshine day.
Chris, Aidan and Sam, your UKAFH leaders, would like to thank all of our members and attendees for joining us on our weekend fossil extravaganza and we look forward to seeing you all soon!
Click here for our UKAFH news and to see out upcoming events (we update the list regularly so check back often!)
On Sunday 1st October, UKAFH ventured along the coastline of Seaford in East Sussex – a small town about 10 miles east of Brighton with towering white cliffs.
After a very fortunate summer meteorologically speaking, we had spent the week with a close eye on the remanence of hurricane Marie which crossed the Atlantic and now threatened our fossil hunt.
Fortune persisted however, as although a bit windy and the sea choppy, we began the day dry and mild.
We began with an in depth talk about the geology by UKAFH leader Daniel Slidel. Exposed in the towering white cliffs of Seaford is the Upper Chalk, a Cretaceous deposit (Santonian-Campanian) about 86-83 million years old. Formed from the tiny platelets of coccolithophores – phytoplankton that was abundant in the deep, warm sea that existed here. This striking sediment helped preserve the creatures dwelling on the sea floor, which included bivalves, sponges, corals, bryozoan and the echinoids (sea urchins) this stretch of coastline is famous for. Within the cliffs are horizontal bands of flints which are visible as far as the horizon allows.
After a short walk from the car park we descended some concrete steps onto the beach. The abundance of fossil echinoids was immediately noted as within the exposed bedrock on the foreshore were the tell-tale circular marks of weathered echinoids in situ. We could not extract these as the bedrock here is protected, however this gave us ambition as we traveled west towards loose boulders from which we could extract specimens. It was not long before beautiful echinoids were being found loose or extracted from boulders. There were two genre found, Echinocorys and Micraster. These were found in chalk boulders preserved with delicately thin calcite test – however the flints on the foreshore should not be overlooked either as more robust and often sea rolled specimens for found here too. Other finds on the day included small bivalves, shapely sponges, coral and bryozoan.
As the afternoon drew late the atmosphere became heavy with the approaching storm and the first rain fell as we ascended the concrete steps back to the car park. Looks like we did it again and avoided the worst of the weather!
Thank you to everyone who attended this fossil hunt. It really was a great and friendly group of people, it was a pleasure to guide you through the Cretaceous geological history of Seaford.
Hampton, M.J., H.W. Bailey, L.T. Gallagher, R.N. Mortimore and C.J. Wood 2007. The biostratigraphy of Seaford Head, Sussex, southern England; an international reference section for the basal boundaries for the Santonian and Campanian Stages in chalk facies. Cretaceous Research, v. 28, no. 1, p. 46-60.
On September the 10th, (which was a very blustery day) UKAFH set off on a hunt towards Golden Cap from Seatown.
In the right scouring conditions when the ledges are uncovered from the shingle, Seatown beach can be incredibly productive with the Belemnite Marls exposed – bringing out countless iron pyrite ammonites, crinoid stems and belemnites. Unfortunately, despite the gale that was blowing, the ledges remained covered.
We worked along the landslips on route to Golden Cap. The slips can produce green nodules (named because of the green calcite that makes up the preservation of the ammonites within). which contain many different ammonites, occasionally bivalves and very occasionally marine reptile remains. Within these nodule beds it is also possible to find parts of ammonites which have not been preserved within a nodule have been partially preserved. Many partially crushed Androgynoceras ammonites were found by members of the group, along with plenty of belemnites.
Once the group reached Golden Cap, we explored a little around the exposed Belemnite Marls and the landslips on the Seatown side (any further round, the wind became far too strong!). More belemnites and Androgynoceras ammonites were found. Despite the weather some great fossils were found!
Thanks to all who came along to Seatown and we hope you enjoyed the experience of
We are pleased to announce we have changed the full title name of UKAFH. The new name “UK Association of Fossil Hunters’ works much better for the group than amateurs. We are always a family friendly group aimed at all levels, not just amateurs. We welcome beginners, and professionals too and of course amateurs will always remain closest to our group.
After much thought, we feel Association goes much better with who we are, and also retains our UKAFH abbreviated name!
So we welcome you to the UK Association of Fossil Hunters
On 13th August UKAFH revisited King’s Dyke Nature Reserve, near Peterborough. We were originally due to visit Hampton Vale lakes but a recent site visit by leaders revealed the site to be overgrown and unsuitable. We put our members’ safety and enjoyment first so relocated to the popular and highly productive King’s Dyke location. The quarry owners kindly replenished the spoil heaps for us so we were certain to have the best opportunity to have some great finds. The places on this popular hunt quickly filled up so we had a full house with leaders Aidan, Chris and Sam.
We seem to have been extraordinarily fortunate with the weather on pretty much every hunt this year and this was no exception – glorious sunshine all day! After everyone was kitted up and sun-creamed we headed down to the dedicated fossil-hunting area and Aidan gave the group an introduction to the fossils that can be found in the middle Jurassic Oxford clay extracted for brick-making from the adjacent quarry. The commonest finds are ammonites (especially Kosmoceras), belemnites (especially Hibolithes) and gryphaea, an oyster often called “Devil’s toenail” because of their curled, scaly appearance.
The location has an enormous quantity of fossils available and they are very easy to find, making it equally perfect for beginners who want to take home a treasure or two and for old hands who want to find something special, be it a bone, fish remains or a particularly large, complete or well-preserved specimen. No-one was disappointed! The sunshine made it easy to scrutinise finds and the clay was crumbly and quite easy to work through.Soon we had some good finds turning up including a reptile tooth found by Aidan Philpott and a coprolite found by Nicky Parslow.
Chris Bite found some really nice ammonite blocks and belemnites and Aidan struck gold with a fish head and fins which had previously been dismissed as an odd-looking belemnite by a group member.
Most people hoped to find bone and we were hopeful, however only one member, Xiang Yan, got lucky – but what great luck! A really superbly preserved plesiosaur vertebra was a prize find of the day.
As events drew to a close we received many kind remarks from attendees who commented on how they had enjoyed their day and were pleased with their finds. We always love to hear your comments and see pictures of your finds, whether from one of our hunts or your own forays so please do share your news on our website and facebook pages!
Many thanks to Aidan and Chris for leading a great hunt. Next outing is Ramsholt on 2nd September, which is fully booked, but we still have places available on our hunts at Seatown, Dorset on 10th September, Folkestone and Samphire Hoe on our 14th and 15th October weekender, Staithes, North Yorkshire on 22nd October and Warden Point, Sheppey on 12th November.
On Sunday 6th August, we returned to Wren’s Nest to collect ourselves a small slice of the Silurian. The site is a former Victorian limestone quarry that closed in the 1920s and is now a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to the fossils that can be found here.
Wren’s Nest is home of the “Dudley bug”, the trilobite Calymene blumenbachii, but is also home to over 700 different fossils, 80 of which have only been found at this site. Because of its designation as a SSSI, we weren’t allowed to take any tools on site, and had to get permission to visit from the warden at Dudley Council. When we arrived, there was a police helicopter circling overhead that we thought might be the warden keeping tabs on us!
The day started sunny and bright with a great talk by leader Aidan on the history of the site and the fossils that could be found here. We began our hunt on and around the reef mounds and after a few hours, moved to the fossil trench, from where we had a great view of the ripple beds.
We found a great selection of fossils; many brachiopods, sponges, corals and some gastropods. Although not particularly easy to find, partial trilobites were popping out all over the place, with some great finds by Vita Murray, George Vidler and leader Sam Caethoven. In fact, Sam was the only member of the group to find a trilobite hypostome – the hard mouth part found on the underside of the head. This was an excellent find!
We hope everyone enjoyed the day and we hope to see you soon at another hunt!
Further information on the geology and fossils that can be found at this site can be found on the Dudley Council website:
Dinosaurs of China – Ground Shakers to Feathered Fliers is an internationally significant exhibition featuring 26 spectacular specimens from China, including some of the best-preserved dinosaur and bird fossils from anywhere in the world. The exhibition takes place from 1st July – 29th October at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, and Nottingham Lakeside Arts.
UKAFH and Deposits magazine were fortunate to attend the press preview and get a really good look at these incredible fossils. We also heard from the Chinese specialists who have researched and presented these extraordinary specimens, were given a tour of the exhibition by curator Dr. Adam S. Smith and heard the views of broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham who is spokesperson for the exhibition. UKAFH patron Dean Lomax was also at the preview and gives us his opinion of the exhibition.
We arrived to find raptor footsteps climbing the stairs up to the entrance lobby. Hunter, the exhibition’s animatronic Sinraptor who has promoted the show along with Diana Saurus over recent months, had clearly arrived before us! We had time to see the large “ground-shakers”, headlined by the towering Mamenchisaurus, before the welcome introductions began.
Introducing the exhibition, Dr. Adam S Smith described his favourite exhibit, Microraptor gui as the “smoking gun” of the fossil record, showing the unquestionable links between dinosaurs and birds. The fossil on display is the holotype specimen, fully articulated and with signs of feathers on all four limbs. Speaking next, Chris Packham went on to acknowledge how our understanding of dinosaurs has transformed as scientific examination has improved and developed and more specimens have been discovered, including the extraordinary fossils from China which have remarkable soft tissue and feather preservation. The emergence of more specimens and our ever-changing understanding reminds us that we never have all the answers and that our curiosity of dinosaurs can therefore endure and inspire future generations to constantly pursue better understanding.
He went on to remind us that the exhibition principally serves to remind us that dinosaurs are not extinct and that they surround us every day in the form of modern day birds. Indeed, the curation of the displays carefully blends the fossil specimens with birds from Wollaton Hall’s natural history collection, which is one of the most extensive natural history collections in the UK.
Dr. Smith gave us a private tour of the exhibition explaining the importance of the specimens but also the curatorial intention. Beginning with the dinosaur ground shakers and culminating with true birds, he advised that the galleries are a journey through time, evolution and discovery. These three threads, explained further are:
Time – the oldest fossils, the ground-shakers in the first room, date from around 160 million years ago during the Jurassic period. Progressing through the following rooms the visitor journeys forwards in time to the Cretaceous period where the fossils represented are 135-120 million years old.
Evolution – the early fossils have few bird-like characteristics, although we are encouraged to look for them (Guanlong, a theropod ancestor of Tyrannosaurus rex is displayed alongside the skeleton of an ostrich and visitors are encouraged to seek out how the skeletons have shared characteristics; features which resemble each other).
Discovery – the advent of dinosaur excavation in China was initially led by teams of Western palaeontologists, meaning the earliest discoveries were given traditional latin-based names. Later discoveries came from Chinese and Western paleontologists working together but as the number of important fossil locations and discoveries increased and the science grew in importance to China, so did the number of scientists specialising in this field in China. The vast majority of recent finds are specimens which have been given Chinese-based names which speak of the discoverer, location or morphology of the specimen.
Beginning in the great hall, the ground shakers are overwhemingly dominated by the gigantic Mamenchisaurus. Mounted in an improbable, but not impossible, rearing posture, the relative of the Western Diplodocus stretches to the height of the gallery – the only way the skeleton could be fitted inside the building! Although the skeleton is a cast, alongside it stands a genuine femur together with a height scale to allow visitors to both touch the bone and compare its enormity to their own height.
In the shadow of Mamenchisaurus are the diminutive Protoceratops and Pinacosaurus – relatives of Triceratops and Ankylosaurus respectively. Protoceratops is a delicate beast similar in size to a sheep. Pinacosaurus remains in his protective plaster jacket, almost as if in a nest. The jacket shows us the field techniques used by scientists to protect and support the fossil during extraction and transportation and the Chinese labelling reminds us of the origin of the fossil as well as the importance of recording all details of the specimen from discovery onwards. Something the exhibition conveys well is the sense that these fossils have travelled – from the field to the laboratory to the museum and ultimately to this one-of-a-kind exhibition. Many of the specimens are displayed on their packing cases as plinths and meticulous Chinese specimen labelling is evident in abundance.
Continuing around the ground-shakers we see the terrifying carnivore, Sinraptor. The specimen is a juvenile and would have been much meaner as a full adult, even able to predate on Mamenchisaurus. Finally we encounter Lufengosaurus, the first dinosaur discovered, studied and displayed by Chinese scientists. As such this specimen encapsulates the essence of this exhibition. Alongside the ground-shakers, displays remind us that each of these Chinese fossils are closely related to the more familiar North American cousins like Allosaurus, Triceratops and Ankylosaurus and also draw our attention to the bird-like characteristics already present in the skeletons of early dinosaurs.
Moving on, we begin our voyage through time towards the emergence of true birds by passing through a kink in time – dinosaur fossils displayed in the midst of Wollaton Hall’s fine collection of bird exhibits. In amongst the feathers, beaks and claws of modern birds of extraordinary diversity we meet Oviraptor, named “egg thief” because it was found with eggs and mistaken to be feeding on them. we now know it incubated its eggs in a nest, just as do modern birds. The backdrop to the skeleton is a beautiful work of palaeoart depicting Oviraptor with its eggs. Alongside is a fossil dinosaur egg which has become preserved with an exquisite mineralised centre. Next to the egg is a dinosaur footprint discovered in nearby Mapperley, reminding us that dinosaurs really did once dominate Nottinghamshire and that Wollaton Hall has a very fine collection of fossils of its own. Finally we encounter Mei Long, a tiny troodontid dinosaur small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, which was fossilised curled up, tail wrapped around its body and head tucked under its arm, a posture familiar in modern birds when they rest or sleep. The accompanying palaeoart reminds us of a small duck resting on a riverbank. Although only its bones are known, it would most likely have possessed feathers like other troodontids.
Climbing the stairs, we feel as if we are elevating ourselves like the dinosaurs growing feathers and ultimately adapting them to flight. Immediately we encounter Sinosauropteryx, the first feathered dinosaur ever described. The stunning, fully articulated fossil preserves the finest detail of feathers and soft tissue. The downy feathers are filamentous and unsuited to flight. We cannot know with certainty what they looked like or their purpose but speculation is that they may have served as camouflage, display or possibly thermo-regulation. Alongside is Dilong, a fuzzy-feathered tyrannosaurid, and a cast of Linheraptor, a beautiful specimen but also a reminder that casts are extremely important: casts preserve how the fossil was found and how the bones and other remains were articulated; important information which is lost once bones are extracted, cleaned and mounted.
As we move through the room each specimen outdoes the previous one. It is truly impossible to describe how remarkable these fossils are for the exceptional preservation of soft tissue and feathers. Next we see the actual holotype fossil of Caudipteryx, whose stomach contains a multitude of tiny gastroliths, swallowed to aid the grinding and digestion of food, a practice still employed by modern birds today. It has long feathers preserved on its arms but its long legs and short arms suggest it was flightless so the feathers (which are also present on the tail of other Caudipteryx fossils) were likely for display. Alongside is Epidexypteryx, a dinosaur with long, ribbon-like tail feathers. Nearby we find Sinornithosaurus, a close relative of Velociraptor, clearly displaying a covering of fuzzy feathers. Towering in the centre of the room is Gigantoraptor, the largest bird-like dinosaur yet discovered anywhere. From the same family as Caudipteryx, this titan surely had feathers too!
The fossils seen so far are truly astounding. Incredibly, the best is yet to come! At the end of the room we see three extraordinary fossils side by side. Microraptor gui, the actual holotype specimen, is a flying dinosaur. The fossil displays the indisputable dinosaur characteristics of teeth, hands with claws, a long bony tail and yet it visibly has bird-like feathers which clearly prove it had the ability to fly. Alongside is Yanornis – a true bird but with residual dinosaur characteristics of clawed fingers. This is the point where the viewer has to stop and pause and allow the moment to sink in of just how profoundly important these fossils are to our understanding of the evolution of dinosaurs. To emphasise their importance, and telling a cautionary tale, the central fossil of the display is a replica of Archaeoraptor. This “new fossil discovery” was heralded with great fanfare in 1999 in National Geographic as the missing link between birds and dinosaurs. In fact, it is a fake. Part Microraptor, part Yanornis, with legs from an as-yet unidentified third fossil, this fake reminds us of the importance of careful scientific study, re-examination of fossils as new techniques are developed and that rarity and value can come hand-in-hand with greed and deception.
Entering the final room, we meet some of the earliest known true birds and feathered flyers; Protopteryx, Confuciusornis, Yi qi and Wukongopterus. Protopteryx and Confuciusornis retain some dinosaur-like characteristics like clawed hands and, in the former’s case, teeth but are clearly accomplished flyers. The long tail feathers on Confuciusornis are thought to be for display and demonstrate sexual dimorphism between males and females of the species. Meanwhile Yi qi , the most recently discovered fossil of the exhibition, breaks the mould. It is a dinosaur and has a feathered body but instead has evolved bat-like webbed wings to achieve flight, demonstrating convergent evolution towards an optimal solution to a problem (much as bats have done). Wukongopterus found the same solution to flight, evolving a long flight finger and membrane wing. Wukongopterus is, of course, a pterosaur. So why did so many creatures find a way to evolve flight, time and again, across deep time? Flight provides niche access to food, a means of escape from predators and an ability to spread and colonise new environments as old ones become overcrowded or unsuitable. Given its advantages, any creature who could evolve and adapt to the air had a good chance of a long lineage.
Although this culminated the Dinosaurs of China exhibition at Wollaton Hall, there is still a great deal to see at this exceptional natural history museum and as we enjoyed the permanent exhibits we were able to see preparations underway to create a permanent exhibit of the best of the museum’s own considerable fossil collection. As we looked on, acclaimed palaeoartist Bob Nicholls applied the finishing touches to a representation of the marine reptile Liopleurodon, a model built around the exceptional tooth held by the museum to demonstrate the size and power of the creature which possessed the tooth.
Whilst the fossils are truly exeptional and incredibly important and worthy of careful study by academics and amateurs alike, the exhibition does not overlook our palaeontologists of the future. Whilst Hunter and Diana Saurus have tirelessly promoted the event publicly, the exhibition itself is very accessible to children including beautiful palaeoart which depicts all the fossils on display in life, imagined by artists who are equally palaeontologists and whose careful study of the most recent scientific knowledge informs their depictions. We don’t see the scaly lizards of Jurassic Park but renderings which attempt to bring the mind to see these creatures as we know them to have been based on the most modern science available. The debate moves on as scientific techniques improve and new and better discoveries are made and our minds must move with them. And if that’s not enough, there are quizzes, trails and even photo opportunities!
The exhibition has a sister show which is free to visit at the nearby Nottingham Lakeside Arts, which focusses on palaeoart as a means of bringing dinosaurs to life. Some dinosaur specimens are also on display including Dilophosaurus sinensis, Alxasaurus and specimens from Wollaton Hall’s collection including the Nottingham Ichthyosaur (a very important specimen which UKAFH patron Dean Lomax has studied). The exhibition at Lakeside Arts also provides lots of hands-on activities for children including drawing and colouring, models and pictures and microscopy. The cafeteria offers dinosaur lunch boxes and there is an excellent and well-priced giftshop
Finally, a word from UKAFH patron, Dean Lomax, MPhil Palaeontologist (Visiting Scientist) School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Manchester:
“It was truly a delight to see the Dinosaurs of China exhibition. I had been in the shadows of the exhibit for several years, having been in discussion with Dr Adam Smith (of Wollaton Hall) about it. Personally, I think what Adam and co. have achieved is beyond words. The exhibition, at both Wollaton Hall and Lakeside Arts (University of Nottingham), is exceptional.”
“Over the past 20-30 years, there have been some major new dinosaur discoveries in China. In fact, almost every other month a new dinosaur from China is announced. Some of the latest discoveries have provided incredible new insights into the world of dinosaurs, from the largest feathered dinosaur on record, Gigantoraptor, to the four winged-wonder, Microraptor; some of the highlight dinosaurs that feature in the exhibition at Wollaton Hall. On a personal level, Microraptor is one of my favourite fossils, although I’d never seen the real specimen until this exhibition. It is truly one of the most incredible dinosaur fossils ever discovered. One of my favourite parts of the exhibition was not necessarily the brilliant dinosaurs, but the accompanying information and artwork. It is very clear that Adam and co. have taken a considerable amount of time to strike a fine balance between academia and the general public. One of my personal favourite lines is simply, ‘Birds are Dinosaurs’. A fact that still remains outside of the public realms. I think this new exhibition will help to change the public perception of dinosaurs.”
“In short, anybody interested in dinosaurs, fossils, or the natural world must see this exhibition!”
This exhibition is truly unique and its like may not be seen again outside of China. It is the result of extraordinary hard work and collaboration between the Chinese institutions who have discovered, studied and displayed these fossils, IVPP and Nottingham City Council and the University of Nottingham, who extended themselves many years ago to be the first university to site a campus in China. This very special relationship has borne extraordinary fruits that we can partake in for the briefest of moments. And we should.
To find out more visit http://www.dinosaursofchina.co.uk/
To see the full programme of events see http://www.dinosaursofchina.co.uk/events/
Tickets cost £7.70 adult, £5.50 child (under 5’s go free) or £22 for a family of 4 (includes booking fee). Tickets are available here: http://www.dinosaursofchina.co.uk/tickets/
The exhibition runs until Sunday 29th October.
Sunday 16th July saw a UKAFH hunt to Salthill Quarry Local Nature Reserve, Clitheroe, Lancashire. Salthill is a former limestone quarry and is known not only for its important geological formations but also the rare wildlife that can be found here. It has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and because of this no hammers were allowed on site, but fossils here could be found loose in the spoil, so all that was needed a was a keen eye!
The rocks at Salthill formed during the Carboniferous period in a shallow, warm tropical sea, like today’s Caribbean, and are packed with crinoid fossils. The site even includes a bench made with panels of carved crinoids.
The day started with a great animated talk from UKAFH leader, Andrew Eaves, on the types of fossils that could be found at the site, before everyone got stuck in and it was all eyes to the ground! It wasn’t difficult – crinoids were abundant and crunched underfoot in places. No members went home empty-handed! Many crinoid columnals were found, along with isolated ossicles and less-commonly, crinoid thecae. Andrew pointed out the rarer blastoids in situ.
Despite mother nature threatening us with a potential downpour, the day turned out sunny and fine. The exposure of interest was contained in a small area on a gentle grassy slope, so there was plenty of opportunity to sit back and enjoy the warm sunshine.
Thanks to everyone who joined us on the day. We hope you enjoyed it!
The 2nd July was a momentous day in UKAFH history being the last hunt that founder Craig Chapman would lead before stepping down from leadership duties and we were very hopeful it would be a good hunt. We weren’t disappointed!
I had only been to King’s Dyke once before on a blisteringly hot day and got quite pink in the sun! So I was relieved that there was some cloud cover and we didn’t have to worry about people getting sunburnt.
The hunt was very well attended with about 30 or so people eager to pick through the clay in search of ancient treasure. I must thank the quarry owners for having refilled the area the day before giving us 2 large areas of fresh clay to pick through. After a brief introduction at the identification board we headed up to the smaller heap just up the hill and the hunt was on!
One of the best features of this locality is that is suitable for all the family and is productive enough that hunters are guaranteed to go home with something, and everyone who wanted one of the plentiful (and beautiful) flat ammonites found at least one. Belemnites are also very common and range in size from a few centimetres to several inches (sorry about mixing metric and imperial!) The largest complete ones are not to be found everywhere and are quite the prize and I was lucky enough to find a couple of beauties. James found the biggest most complete one and was justifiably delighted with it!
After about an hour or so at the secondary heap we headed down into the main larger fossil hunting area where we were hoping to find some of the other things that can be found from this section of the Jurassic. Fish, crocodiles, ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs are all known from here but are not common and are a major highlight if you are lucky enough to spot them. Between us we found 5 Lepidotes fish scales and even a couple of fish coprolites.
I am deliberately leaving the best till last, and chronologically they were found last, all within the last 30 minutes of our time hunting. It wouldn’t have been a proper UKAFH hunt in the Jurassic without Craig finding a vertebra and he duly obliged with a lovely ichthyosaur vertebra. I chipped in with 20 minutes to go with my most spectacular UK find – a plesiosaur vert which truly made my day. Then just as we were packing up, a random family who weren’t even part of our group arrived and the young man hunting with his Mum and sisters found a “weird belemnite” that we were not at all jealous to identify as a plesiosaur tooth! They were on their first ever fossil hunt so I shamelessly plugged UKAFH as a great group to join!! Maybe we’ll see them again on a hunt another time, who knows.
Either way it was a great day and the feedback was very positive. Thanks again to the quarry owners for the fresh clay to hunt through and I look forward to hunting there again next month with a new group.
On the 1st July, UKAFH members met at Caistor Quarry in Caistor st Edmund, a village just south of Norwich in Norfolk.
The quarry produces over 19,000 tonnes of ground chalk, lump chalk and flint per annum. Sand derived from the Norwich Crag and Pleistocene gravels are also commercially extracted from the surface before the extraction of chalk begins. However, our interest here was firmly in the chalk. The chalk forms part of the Beeston Chalk Member, some of the earliest chalk exposed in the UK of Late Campanian age about 80 million years old. Importantly, this chalk member is not exposed on the UK coastline and so access to it can only be achieved via inland sites such as Caistor Quarry. The chalk formed at the bottom of a warm, relatively deep sea that was inhabited by great numbers of microscopic coccolithophores – tiny phytoplankton whose tiny calcite platelets, called coccoliths, formed the striking white calcium carbonate sediment. Fortunately for us the Beeston Chalk Member is particularly fossiliferous with belemnites, brachiopods, echinoids and fish remains being frequently found.
We began with a geological explanation and description of likely finds provided by Sam Caethoven before heading into the quarry. The quarry was in operation during our visit so it was vital we kept away from the large machinery and remained as a group throughout the hunt, however there was a huge expanse of quarry walls and scree piles to explore and the quarry had kindly provided a large amount of fresh material for us to search through.
We were in many ways lucky with the weather, a beautiful warm and Sunday Norfolk day, however within the quarry we were very exposed so plenty of water and sunscreen was essential and the bright sunshine reflecting off the bright white chalk was glaring, making it harder to spot fossils than would otherwise be the case. That said, there was no shortage of great finds.
The finds began with a lovely partial echinoid found by Adam Taylor before many superb Echinocorys echinoid specimens were found by David Clark, Sam Caethoven, Susan Harley, Mary Bite and James Hewitt. Other interesting finds included fish remains found by Martin Beever who also found some very lovely crinoid stems; Poppy Hewitt discovered a lovely Ventriculites sponge preserved in flint; Aidan Philpott found a partial shark tooth and plenty of belemnites and brachiopods were also found among the group.
It was a glorious day to be out fossiling even though it was a bit glaring at times. Thank you to the awesome group who attended and a huge thank you goes to Needham Chalks Ltd who let us investigate their quarry.
On Sunday the 15th July UKAFH met at the world famous Smokejacks Pit – a large clay pit situated just outside Ockley in Surrey. The pit is famous for the near complete dinosaur specimens that have been discovered there including Iguanodonts and the first discovery of the spinosaurid Baryonyx in 1983.
The pit cuts through a section of the Wealden group, specifically the Weald Clay. The clay was deposited in a lake and floodplain environment during the Barremian stage of the Cretaceous period about 129-128 million years ago. At this time, the environment was warm and moist due to England’s then position in mid-latitudes but the climate was exceptionally seasonal with ground scorching dry seasons and intensely stormy wet seasons. Although this weather system may sound inhospitable, the cycle of organic deposition provided by the flood waters created a fertile ecosystem rich in both aquatic and terrestrial fauna and flora – perfect for giant dinosaurs! The diversity of fossils to be found here is quite extraordinary; some beds are extremely rich in plant material, others are ripe with insect remains. Fish, shark and shrimp are common too in the right layers and crocodile, pterosaur and of course dinosaur remains can be unearthed here with a good eye and a bit of luck.
Weald Clay expert Peter Austen provided us with a fantastic, in depth presentation on the Weald Clay and showed us examples of what could be found in the pit. Peter’s roadshow introduced us to the diversity of insects for which the pit is known (7 new orders of insects and numerous species). He covered in detail the discovery of Baryonyx and also a juvenile Iguanodont which was found together with Baryonyx teeth, suggesting predation or scavenging, which was later recognised as Mantellisaurus atherfiedensis. Smokejacks is also known for a very rare, early flowering plant called Bevhalstia Pebja. We also saw articulated fish death assemblages, an arthropod trackway, gastroliths (the stomach stones swallowed by dinosaurs to aid digestion) and plant remains and the well-known concostracans, small shrimp-like creatures which bear superficial similarity to bivalves. Peter provided a handout and a stratigraphical column to assist the group members in finding the various fossil beds. This was particularly beneficial in helping members determine where to look for certain fossils.
We entered the pit very excited and eager to see what we could found. We were lucky with the weather on this occasion; although rain threatened it remained dry – any downpour could soon turn the clay into mud – and we were grateful for it being overcast as the site is extremely exposed and will become uncomfortably hot in the sunshine very quickly, especially when traversing the steep quarry sides.
We began by walking the quarry slopes in search of any fossils visible on the surface. This proved fruitful for Chris Tait, who stumbled across several pieces of crocodile tooth enamel, and Mark Goble who found a broken block containing a large amount of fish material thought to be Lepidotes. Some then headed to the base of the quarry in search of rocks containing insect remains. Sam Caethoven struck lucky with a beautiful wing and wing case side by side in the same block. Some headed for the middle of the slope in search of fish remains: Dan Slidel, who is a geoscientist, took time to investigate the stratigraphy and found fish scales and an abundance of concostracans while Betsy Ooms found the most exquisitely preserved shark tooth.
By the end of the hunt many of us were digging in a bed high up the slope which is full of plant material and is known for an abundance of dinosaur remains. Notable finds include a large piece of bone found by Mary Bite, a beautifully detailed bone found by Seth Cook, an Iguanodont vertebra found by Katherine Combe and a huge crocodile tooth found by Mark Goble, as well as many other bone fragments. However; the prize of the hunt and possible of the year so far goes to Nicky Parslow who found a huge Theropod tooth about 5 cm in length. The tooth was rushed to the Natural History Museum for identification and was examined the very same day.
NHM staff advised: “Your find was of immediate interest, with the curator, Paul Barrett, coming down to identify it this afternoon. He has identified it as the tooth of a large theropod. He considers it an exceptional find as they are not commonly found. It is not from a Baryonyx but is from an indeterminate large theropod. Unfortunately, it can’t be identified any further as the teeth of these animals are all very similar and there are not enough identifying features to distinguish it from the various other species.”
Peter Austin has since confirmed that this is the only theropod tooth to have been found at Smokejacks apart from Baryonyx so it is a very significant find from the pit! We hope to seek further advice on the tooth in case more information can be found and we are all really excited to try and learn what large, ferocious beast this may have come from.
Smokejacks pit is not always as productive as this hunt assumed so I am really proud that everyone made some varied and exceptional finds on this occasion.
Thank you so much to everyone who came and made the day incredible. A huge and special thank you goes to Peter Austen and Joyce for sharing their expertise and organising access at such short notice.
We will, of course, keep everyone posted on the theropod tooth.
Ringstead Bay remains an almost forgotten gem along the Dorset Coast. Despite the obvious beauty of the location, the site has never been commercialised. Private ownership of much of the land has prevented companies, such as Pontins or Butlins, from exploiting the area in the past and Ringstead Bay remains much unaltered. The winding lane leading down to the bay is certainly not conducive to heavy traffic. Nowadays, the area is under the care and ownership of the National Trust and despite a fairly busy scene around the beach café and car park on Sunday, the rest of the large bay was characteristically mostly deserted, even on a blisteringly hot summer day, as we found out! A few hundred yards away from the slipway and the peace and tranquillity of Ringstead Bay becomes apparent. A brief talk, by Steve, set a backdrop to the location; the geology, the fossils and the Jurassic coast.
To the west of the bay, the harder rocks of the Corallian sequence form the headland of Bran Point, composed mostly of the Osmington Oolite Series and packed full of the large cockle Myophorella clavellata, which are also evident in the reefs and rock pools at low tide. To the east, the majestic Chalk cliffs of White Nothe form a prominent cliff. In between, the tall, slumped and badly weathered cliffs within the bay are entirely composed of Kimmeridge Clay, which is where our hunt began.
The Kimmeridge Clay here is 151 to 156 million years old and is composed of much degraded mudstone, formed on the Jurassic sea bottom when England once bathed in a sub-tropical climate. In fact, it was probably much the same as the day of our hunt, where the sun shone fiercely and the sky and sea were blue and mostly cloudless.
After an introductory chat, explaining the geology of this part of the Jurassic Coast, the party descended to beach level and the hunt was on. Ringstead Bay suffers much the same as other locations at the height of summer; poor erosion from tides and rain and from tourists. The tourists love fossil hunting in Dorset and consequently the more usual specimens found at Ringstead Bay were in short supply. Local collectors wait for the autumn and winter storms to help stir up the coast replenish supplies of fossils. However, the recent lack of good storms, even over the winter, has also meant fewer cliff falls and fresh material being exposed. The Kimmeridge Clay here was very dry and finding fossils within the hard clay body was not easy. However, the first fossil – a piece of the oyster, Deltoideum delta- was found by 6-year old Sophie de Candole. This was followed by several large complete oysters of the same being picked up by most members of the group.
Pieces of hard shale, which could be easily split by hand, exposed several ammonites and various shells. The largest ammonite remained in an immovable boulder on the beach but Aaron Roberts, aged 11, found a nice smaller specimen. The Sandsfoot Formation, which marks the junction between the older Corallian rocks with the overlying, younger Kimmeridge Clay was exposed in the cliff and formerly known as the Ringstead Coral Bed. Broken ‘chunks’ on the beach revealed little in the way of fossils, although 12-year old Cem Izzet found a good-sized bivalve, named Ctenostreon proboscideum. whose large strongly-ribbed shell is unmistakable and easily recognised.
Halfway along the bay, high in the cliffs, are the visible strata of the Portland Limestone Formation and capped by the basal part of the Cretaceous Purbeck Formation. The folded and faulted rocks, form a spectacular unconformity, with the Chalk dipping to the right and the Portland and Purbeck rocks dipping towards the right.
The day was certainly a success. The majority of the group found various fossils and were very pleased with the outcomes. Coupled with the glorious weather, it was a wonderful day out and encouraged those who had never been to the location before, to return. Many thanks to everyone who came along and UKAFH look forward to seeing you on another hunt.
Dr. Adam Smith is curator of Dinosaurs of China and of the Nottingham Natural History Museum at Wollaton Hall, which hosts the Dinosaurs of China exhibition alongside its extensive collection of over 750,000 exhibits and 40,000 fossils.
Anyone interested in palaeontology and modern understanding of dinosaur and bird evolution and really needs to get to the groundbreaking Dinosaurs of China exhibition. The specimens on display are incredibly important, many seen for the first time outside of China. The curation is superb, blending the extraordinary fossils with Wollaton Hall’s permanent natural history collection and enlivened by fresh new palaeoart which imagines the creatures in life based on our most up-to-date research and scientific knowledge.
With a lifelong interest in fossils, Adam established his own fossil collection as a child before embarking on undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Palaeobiology. Outside of the day job Adam is a keen palaeoartist, a subject which is highly integral to the Dinosaurs of China exhibition. He also advises toy company Safari Ltd. on their dinosaur figures as well as running the Dinosaur Toy Blog and Forum and the Animal Toy Forum. His personal research focus is Plesiosaur and he was consultant to the BBC on Planet Dinosaur.
We invited Adam to tell us more about his love of fossils and asked for his pearls of wisdom for budding palaeontologists, young and old.
UKAFH: What attracted you to fossil collecting?
AS: I suppose I was attracted to fossil hunting because fossils connect us to prehistoric worlds. Fossils are real and tactile so it made sense to collect some for myself. There’s also that hope that one day you might discover a new species of dinosaur, but I never found anything of importance! Even if I had, I would’ve donated any significant discoveries to my local museum.
UKAFH: Which finds were your favourites and why?
AS: Ammonites were always my favourite discoveries because they are so iconic and beautiful. The shiny pyritic ones at Lyme Regis are extremely common but always a joy to discover.
UKAFH: How did fossil hunting inspire you?
AS: There’s something special about being the first person to see the remains of a creature that died millions of years ago. Fossil hunting also gets you out in the field and helps you to understand the objects in their geological context.
UKAFH: What advice would you give to amateur fossil hunters whose passion inspires them to progress into palaeontology?
AS: Collecting fossils is sometimes an end to itself for many amateurs. However, I would advise amateur fossil hunters with a serious interest in palaeontology to take up a hammer in one hand and a scientific paper in the other and learn as much as they can about the fossils they discover. Amateurs can attend academic conferences, such as the annual SVPCA and PalAss meetings, which are open to all and provide an opportunity to learn about current palaeontology directly from those conducting the work. This can also open doors.
UKAFH: Is it ever too late to attempt a career in palaeontology?
AS: So long as the passion is there, it is never too late to attempt a career in palaeontology. However, you have to be realistic – it can take years of hard work to get to the stage where you can make new contributions to the field, and even then paid jobs are few and far between. For example, conducting research isn’t part of my job remit as a curator at Wollaton Hall; I research and write papers about plesiosaurs in my personal time out of passion.
UKAFH: What routes and opportunities are there for amateurs?
AS: Every professional palaeontologist began as an amateur. The traditional route is through university and that’s the one I took. However, I know several self-taught palaeontologists who have made significant research contributions. Especially now in the information age it is possible to gain knowledge by seeking out academic papers online and attending academic conferences. Most palaeontologists are more than happy to send PDFs of their papers to anyone who asks – they’re just an email away. Volunteering can also help get good working knowledge and hands on experience working in a museum.
Featuring fossils and specimens never before seen outside of Asia, Dinosaurs of China will bring to life the story of how dinosaurs evolved into the birds that live alongside us today.
Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, will host the main exhibition, with a complementary exhibition at Lakeside Arts, running from 1 July – 29 October 2017.
Adults: £7 Child: £5 Family Ticket: £20 All tickets subject to additional 10% booking fee. Under 5’s visit for free. Carers free.
Look out too for the museum’s forthcoming new permanent Jurassic exhibition which will showcase fossils from the museum’s 40,000 strong collection, including locally found specimens like a dinosaur footprint from Mapperley, a Liopleurodon tooth complete with palaeoart model to show the creature it came from and the very important Nottingham ichthyosaur which can be seen at Lakeside Arts as part of the Dinosaurs of China exhibition and has been researched by UKAFH patron Dean Lomax.
On Sunday the 25th June, UKAFH attended a hunt at the ‘Mecca of palaeontology’; namely Lyme Regis in Dorset. Lyme Regis is where fossil collecting and palaeontology all began and where, in 1811, Joseph Anning, the older brother of Mary, dug up a skull of an ichthyosaur on the ledges on the beach. At the time, he thought it was a crocodile but the significant find was followed by Mary’s own discovery of the skeleton that accompanied the 4-foot long head and the rest is history, as they say! Mary Anning went on to become the world’s most famous fossil collector and the discoverer of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, fish and countless other fossils from this very location. She undoubtedly paved the way for this newly evolving science at the time.
Although nobody in the UKAFH party found anything as spectacular, the coastline at Lyme Regis certainly sets the scene for any fossil enthusiast. The constantly crumbling cliffs can reveal ammonites and other fossils on an almost daily basis. This, of course, has its drawbacks also because during the summer months, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the Jurassic Coast, especially to Lyme Regis and the neighbouring Charmouth, to chance their arm at finding a fossil. Consequently, with low erosion rates, particularly during the summer and with every man and his dog combing the beaches, it’s never an ideal time. Undaunted however, our party made the most of dry weather and great scenery.
As is usual, we began with a short explanation about the geology and what could be found there. To the west of the Cobb at Lyme Regis is Monmouth Beach and here the famous rocks of the Blue Lias Formation can be seen, extending west to Pinhay Bay. The distinctive cliffs of layered limestone and shale is present, particularly at Ware Cliffs. The rocks are the oldest in the sequence of rocks found along the Jurassic Coast and date from around 199 million years ago. These hard, pale layers of limestone and darker organic-rich shales, also occupy much of the foreshore around Lyme Regis, appearing as a series of ledges on the foreshore at low-tide. The rocks gently dip towards the east and the overlying Shales-with-Beef Member and the Black Ven Marl Member (both from the Charmouth Mudstone Formation) eventually reach beach level, beneath Black Ven and East Beach at Charmouth.
Looking for fossils in the cliffs at this location is both dangerous and pointless. The rocks are under constant attack by the sea and the fossils are washed out of the clays and shales and deposited on the foreshore, between the rocks and boulders on the beach and ledges. Searching in these places is far more productive and members of the party were encouraged to do just that and soon some finds were found. As explained, there is a low frequency of fossils during the peak season and specimens that were picked up were in no way spectacular but they, nonetheless, were representative of the myriad of life forms which were present in Jurassic seas; for this is where Lyme Regis was once located. Then, the current Dorset coast was enjoying a climate similar to the current coast of North Africa and the nearest land mass lie many miles away. Consequently, fossils are mostly of marine origin, despite them being from the time of the dinosaurs. Dinosaur remains and vegetation are rare as fossils at Lyme Regis and such fossils are invariably of those organisms that were swept into the sea, from the nearest land, only to sink into the muds and silts of the ocean floor. However, bones and teeth of marine reptiles, such as ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pliosaurs are common finds but not during our hunt, alas!
As with most hunts at coastal locations, the best time is to coincide with a falling tide, which is exactly what we did. The walk along Monmouth Beach, traversing rocks and boulders, searching for fossils can be quite arduous and we soon reached the spectacular ‘ammonite pavement, very near to our destination at Pinhay Bay, just as the tide retreated fully. This incredible stretch of foreshore accommodates dozens, perhaps even hundreds of large ammonites among the boulders and in situ on the exposed bedrock. These particular ammonites cannot be collected but their enormous size and abundance makes them worth seeing all the same.
On the way, members of the party found a number of ammonite fragments and in the case of Rebecca Walsh, a complete ammonite. UKAFH Leader Lizzie Hingley found a nodule, which looked quite promising until it was expertly cracked open, to reveal a highly an ammonite badly preserved in calcite within! However, she did find a nicely preserved Gryphaea (an oyster) and a large bivalve from the slumped Upper Greensand boulders found nearer to Pinhay Bay. Serpulids (worms), belemnite fragments, gastropods and various bivalves were also found by the party, so despite the finds being unspectacular and few everyone thoroughly enjoyed a sunny (yes, the sun finally came out!) and informative day, on the stunning Jurassic Coast of Dorset. Many thanks to all who attended and made this a very enjoyable event.
Please note that the site is given SSSI status, as part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, so the cliffs themselves are not to be hammered into.
UKAFH exclusive interview with Chris Packham, broadcaster and naturalist, at Dinosaurs of China exhibition.
UKAFH reporters Aidan Philpott, Nicky Parslow and Sam Caethoven visited the press preview of Dinosaurs of China and gained an exclusive interview with BBC’s Chris Packham. Here he gives us his views on the exhibition and tells us about his own interest in fossils as an amateur collector. Chris has been a fossil enthusiast since childhood and still recalls modelling his first plasticine T-rex as a child, complete with teeth and claws but with a dragging tail (to stop it falling over) and keeps a diary of his fossil finds.
UKAFH: How did you start fossil collecting?
CP: I grew up in Southampton so as a child I used to regularly go to nearby Bracklesham Bay where I collected bivalves, shark teeth and turritella gastropods. I recall when they built the power station they dug a tunnel under the Solent which went through the Bracklesham beds. The spoil from the tunnel works was deposited at Warsash and I found my best shark tooth there. I still have it.
We used to have family holidays in Lyme Regis too and I was always begging my parents – unsuccessfully – to get up early to beat the crowds to the beach and Black Ven. I remember other fossil hunters being kind and I still have a good ammonite that a local collector gave to me when hunting there as a kid. Oddly, even though we lived in Southampton, we never went to the Isle of Wight. But now my partner owns a zoo next to Dinosaur Isle so I look out for fossils when walking the dogs at Yaverland and have found a few bits.
UKAFH: What do you think responsible amateur fossil hunters contribute to science?
CP: When I am on the Isle of Wight I see the enormous conflict between scientists and amateurs. But amateur collectors have found a lot of fossils. Fossil collecting should primarily be about science (an enquiring mind and a wish to preserve and study) rather than money (purely commercial collecting). Amateurs contribute a lot by being out there in numbers and finding fossils.
UKAFH: What fossils do you have on display?
CP: I have a collection of axe heads – human ichnofossils – on display. I also have a museum quality T-rex skull that was given to me once as payment in kind! Aside from that I have 1/3 scale casts of T-rex and Triceratops and a really great Ichthyosaur coprolite (fossil poo) from Lyme Regis. I also have a Carcharocles megalodon tooth which sits on top of my microwave. It isn’t huge but it’s really good quality and cost around £40. If investing in fossils I consider quality is a better investment than size. My dream is to own a banana sized T-rex tooth.
UKAFH: What next?
CP: Next week I’m off to the Black Hills, South Dakota, on a T-rex dig. I’m wildly excited as the Tyrannosaurus rex is an iconic dinosaur known to everyone and was the dinosaur I modelled from plasticine as a child. I’m making a show about the T-rex which is due to air at Christmas as a 1 hour special which will look at how our understanding and depiction of the dinosaur has evolved over the years. The programme is inspired by David Hone’s Tyrannosaur Chronicles. The programme will see what a wide range of contemporary scientific research and techniques is revealing to us about T-rex physiology, biology, behaviour, diet and environment. Best of all, by the time the programme airs it will already be out of date because our understanding of dinosaurs is constantly changing and growing so there is always more to know.
UKAFH: Tell us your thoughts on the Dinosaurs of China exhibition here at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham.
CP: What this amazing exhibition really demonstrates is how our understanding of dinosaurs has transformed as scientific examination has improved and developed and more specimens have been discovered, including these extraordinary fossils from China which have remarkable soft tissue and feather preservation. The emergence of more specimens and our ever-changing understanding reminds us that we never have all the answers and that our curiosity of dinosaurs can endure and inspire future generations to constantly pursue better understanding. This exhibition principally serves to remind us that dinosaurs are not extinct and that they surround us every day in the form of modern day birds. In fact, the curation of the displays carefully blends the fossil specimens with birds from Wollaton Hall’s natural history collection, which is one of the most extensive natural history collections in the UK. WE don’t know if dinosaurs evolved feathers for warmth or display but can examine the clues And study the fossils and continue to learn.
UKAFH: The exhibition also focusses strongly on palaeoart. What are your views on this?
CP: Palaeoart is hugely important as the public face of palaeontology. People see dinosaurs depicted in books, pictures and films and it profoundly influences how we think of dinosaurs. I recall desperately wanting to see 1 Million Years BC as a child because I wanted to see moving, living dinosaurs portrayed on screen. I was hugely disappointed. Even at a young age I could see through the prosthetic horns on iguanas, enlarged tortoises and badly animated dinosaurs. Seeing specimens in the bone or, as with Dinosaurs of China, in the feathers and flesh, is hugely important to our understanding. Palaeoart can represent truth and beauty and reflect and portray animals according to the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, directly contributing to public perception. It is always disappointing when opportunities to achieve this are missed, such as Jurassic World persisting with the scaly, mis-sized beasts of the earlier and less informed original Jurassic Park.
Featuring fossils and specimens never before seen outside of Asia, Dinosaurs of China will bring to life the story of how dinosaurs evolved into the birds that live alongside us today.
Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, will host the main exhibition, with a complementary exhibition at Lakeside Arts, running from 1 July – 29 October 2017.
Adults: £7 Child: £5 Family Ticket: £20 All tickets subject to additional 10% booking fee. Under 5’s visit for free. Carers free.
Sam Caethoven and Aidan Philpott