On a scorching, sunny Sunday 5th August UKAFH members and guests headed to the south east corner of Kent to Betteshanger Country Park (near Deal) to hunt for Carboniferous plant fossils.
Betteshanger is a RIGS spoil heap at the old Betteshanger Colliery, which was the largest in Kent but was closed in 1989. Betteshanger Country Park was created by regeneration of the former Betteshanger colliery site and provides a large green parkland and recreation area ideal for walking, cycling and other outdoor activities. However as part of Geoconservation Kent (http://www.geoconservationkent.org.uk/), there is agreement to retain a fossil hunting area within the country park. The fossil collecting spoil heap, which is northeast of the original site, is set aside for the study of the fossils to be found in the coal measures formerly mined there and this was our destination for the day.
Our group of 25 assembled outside the visitor centre, which offers toilets, showers, information on the park and a small cafe alongside a childrens’ play area. From there it was quite a short walk to the fossil hunting area where Andy Temple of GeoConservation Kent awaited us as our special guest leader for the day. Andy regularly supports school and group trips and visits to Betteshanger and other Kent locations and is expert on the many, varied plant fossils to be found in the coal deposits. Sam Caethoven welcomed the group and introduced Andy who gave an overview on the site and what can be found.
Betteshanger is Upper Carboniferous (Silesian) in age, from the mid-Westphalian Stage (Asturian Substage of 323.2–315.2 Mya) to the Stephanian Stage (Stephanian B Substage of 315.2–307 Mya). The rocks are from between 316–311 Mya and mostly consist of the Kent 5 coal seam, with some Kent 7. Kent 5 is assigned to the Upper Coal Measures (Warwickshire Group) and Kent 7 to the (South Wales) Middle Coal Measures. Fossils show that there were areas of forest and river levees, with overbank deposition taking place.
Fossils at Betteshanger are found either lying on top of the spoil heap or by digging into the spoil. Remains of Arthropleura, a large arthropod, have been found at the site. However, unlike other coal measures sites in Europe, no insects have been found at Betteshanger.
When we arrived at the fossil area we were delighted to be informed by Andy that a digger had just been in to turn over the coal spoil and dig out fresh areas, removing the old spoil that had already been examined many times previously. As a result we were extremely fortunate to be able to find abundant, varied plant specimens!
Fossils were quickly being found, both in quantity and variety. Kath Kemsley found a smashing Neuropteris seed fern and Aiden Philpott found an exquisitely preserved Alethopteris seed fern. Jake Ashley found a very nice example of Lepidodendron (also known as a scale tree) which is an extinct lycopsid club moss. Kaitlin Asher found a fantastic selection of plant fossils and Nicky Parslow uncovered a beautifully detailed example of asterophyllites horsetail.
The swampy Carboniferous landscape was dominated by three types of plant: ferns (true ferns and seed ferns), lycopods and sphenopsids. Ferns were at their most abundant and diverse in the Carboniferous period but persist today. Giant lycopsids – clubmosses – such as Lepidodendron and Sigillaria grew to the height of trees and their fossilised bark is characterised by leaf scars. The fossils of the root systems of both these plants are called Stigmaria because they look so similar. These are examples of form taxa, where a collection of organisms is given a taxonomic name but is known to be a grouping based on similar morphological characteristics, rather than more extensive biological similarity. Finally the sphenopsids consist horsetails which were gigantic in the Palaeozoic but persist today in much smaller and less diverse forms. The leaves of horsetails, which form in whorls around the stem, are termed annularia but the root fossils are known as calamites.
Huge thanks to Andy Temple for bringing a fabulous display, expert advice, identification and preservation tips and plenty of very useful spare newspaper for wrapping finds!
On Saturday 28th July, we landed at Gilwern Quarry, Powys, for the annual UKAFH trilobite fest!
Gilwern quarry is privately-owned and is situated on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, in beautiful and isolated terrain. Gilwern is known for its trilobites, which are generally very well preserved, and can be found in abundance. Gilwern Hill is made of Lower to Middle Ordovician volcaniclastic rock, which form part of the Builth Inlier. The site has rocks from the Llanvirn series (approximately 460 million years old) and exhibits the following beds:
- Upper Didymographus murchisoni Shales.
- Pale flinty, tuffaceous beds.
- Main Rhyolitic tuffs, with Lower Didymographus murchisoni Shales.
- Rhyolitic tuffs and agglomerates.
- Upper Didymographus bifidus Beds.
- Lower Didymographus bifidus Beds
The site has been interpreted as a near-shore, shallow water environment used as a breeding ground for the Ogyginus trilobite (pictured above), due to the number and range of ages of Ogyginus found here. However, other trilobite species such as Meadowtownella and Bettonolithus can be found, as well as graptolites.
Emma, the lovely landowner, greeted us at the shepherd’s hut as we arrived with hot teas and coffees, which was a lovely surprise, and was very welcome after the long journey that many of us had made. First stop of the day was the “trilobite wall” – a stack of fossiliferous rocks lining the shepherd’s hut car park – you know it’ll be a good day when you find your first fossils in the car park!
Once we were suitably refreshed and kitted up, Sam and Aidan gave an introductory session on the quarry and showed the group some example fossils from previous hunts, including various species of trilobites, graptolites, orthocones and conulariids. We then moved up to the main quarry, where the good finds started rolling in!
The quarry is packed full of loose rock so there was plenty of material for us to chisel and hammer our way through.
Although the weather looked promising on arrival, after several hours it had clouded over and distant rumbles of thunder could be heard. Unfortunately, this then developed into torrential rain and hailstones (in July!), which felt like being stoned to death with frozen peas! A mad dash to the safety of our cars was in order and with it, an unfortunately abrupt end to the hunt!
We would like to thank all for attending – we hope you had a fantastic day! A special thank you goes to Emma for her fabulous hospitality and we look forward to the next hunt!
Access to the quarry and rental of the self-catering shepherd’s hut can be requested via https://www.uppergilwernquarryhut.co.uk.
For further information on Gilwern fossils, please refer to https://www.asoldasthehills.org/oath_homepage.html
On Saturday 23rd of June 2018, UKAFH visited Breakheart Quarry, which is situated to the north east of Bristol just above the village of Dursley. The quarry and surrounding woodland is owned and run by the Breakheart Community Project and is always accessible when parking outside the gates. The car park is open when volunteers are on site during weekdays and most weekends, when the visitor’s center is also open. For our hunt Ray, the owner, had set up signs for us at the entrance and allowed us to park outside the visitor’s center, which gave us quick access to both the quarry and facilities.
Breakheart Quarry lies on a 54-acre site amidst a semi-ancient woodland on a hill where many species of flora and fauna can be found. There are two quarries – upper and lower – however, the lower quarry is unfossiliferous. In complete contrast the upper quarry is full of fossil bivalves, brachiopods, echinoids and on rare occasions, ammonites and gastropods. The quarry site provides excellent facilities including conference room, toilets, tea and coffee station and shelter from wind, rain and scorching sun and is suitable for children of all ages.
The weather was glorious and sunny, we all met just outside the refreshments hut where Lizzie Hingley, Lee-anne Collins and Nicky Parslow welcomed everyone. It was particularly gratifying to meet so many families who lived locally. Once we had all checked in Ray Pekala led us to the conference room and gave us a very warm welcome and explained the history behind the quarry. Over the years Breakheart Quarry has had many uses including testing non-hazardous explosives, WWII activities and more recently by British Nuclear Fuels who used the stone as a base for the M5 motorway and to build parts of the nearby Berkeley nuclear facility. The quarry was left disused from 2008 when it was taken over by locals who formed the Breakheart Community Project charity with the aim of restoring the area to its former natural state for visitors to enjoy. The charity relies exclusively on donations.
We then moved to the undercover picnic tables so we could see some of the fossils that we might be able to find in the upper quarry. Nicky provided a “show and tell” of some of the fossils that could be found which included echinoids, bivalves, ammonites and brachiopods. Nicky explained that although bivalves and brachiopods look extremely similar (both have shells and look like molluscs), in fact brachiopods are not related to molluscs at all but belong in their own family. Nicky explained the easiest way to clean the fossils is by soaking in warm water for half an hour and then scrubbing with a toothbrush. Once dry, if there was any remaining matrix, this might be possible to remove using a dental pick.
In the quarry the land has been taken back to a layer of Trigonia grit, which is a lower layer of the upper Inferior Oolite. The Trigonia grit was named after the triangular shaped bivalve that is commonly found in the layer. This was laid down approximately 176 million years ago in the Jurassic period when the location would have been much nearer the equator and more tropical than today. The warm sea would have been relatively shallow which is shown both by the fossils we found and the rocks they came from. Ooliths (the round particles in the rock) were formed when grains of sand or shell fragments were rolled around on the sea floor gathering calcium carbonate. Over time they grew in size and once fossilized, becoming the rock we now know as oolite.
We walked as a group along the path to the far end of the upper quarry just before the it disappears into an escarpment and dispersed into small groups among the young trees. The upper quarry has many young birch trees and a network of paths and BMX tracks which help with break the rubbly ground and allows the fossils to emerge. As the temperatures started to soar we found ourselves looking amongst the broken stones under the trees and bushes.
Very quickly we started to get our fossil eyes and were able to pick out the fossils from amongst the creamy white floor. Jenna very quickly found a handful of bivalves and brachiopods. To make sure everyone in the group could find a fossil, Nicky ran a couple of games of “find the fossil” helping those who hadn’t found anything. Luckily most of the fossils we found were loose amongst the rubble on the floor and most of them had very little matrix left on them; this is one location where having a hammer is not an advantage!
Jenna was the first person to find a handful of fossils. Zac Kitson found a lovely Terebratula brachiopod (lamp shell), Sophie Bryant found a beautifully detailed Rhynchonelloidea brachiopod and miniature wild strawberries growing under the trees. Probably the best find of the day was an exquisite echinoid found by Lizzie Coyne, which was very detailed and perfectly preserved. Terry Newsome and Zac Broderick found huge lamp shells. Several of the group found small echinoids and Nicky Parslow found part of a Trigonia bivalve.
At just after midday we moved back to the refreshment hut for lunch and some time to cool down under the cover of the larger trees on picnic blankets whilst the children played on the swings and slides.
After lunch, we walked back to the upper quarry and went to the middle area of the quarry for fresh finds.
Here are some photos of the days finds.
Sadly, our day came to end and it was time to leave and say our goodbyes. As we made our way back home many of us would have driven along the M5 and maybe a few of us would be thinking about all the fossils that would be buried under the concrete.
Thank you to everyone who attended this fossil hunt! It really was a great and friendly group of people and we hope that everyone enjoyed the day as much as we did and we hope that you will be able to return to Breakheart Quarry and find more lovely fossils.
On Sunday June 10th UKAFH visited Ramsholt, located on the river Deben in Suffolk. We met near the Ramsholt Arms, a popular pub with tourists and boaters, then walked about 2 miles north through woodland and along the river bank before reaching a shingle beach where fossils are abundant.
UKAFH leader Sam Caethoven explained the geology and pre-history of the site and provided an example of likely finds.
There are three distinct deposits exposed at Ramsholt. The base of the small exposed cliffs and the foreshore consist of London Clay, a roughly 50 million year old marine deposit commonly exposed on the south east coast from which many bivalves, gastropods, crabs, lobsters, shark and ray teeth, fish, reptile and mammal remains can be found. Above the London Clay sits the Coralline Crag formation, a much younger (~ 5 million year old) sandy sediment containing numerous bivalve and gastropod remains. As the name suggests, the formation does contain corals however more common here are bryozoans, which can often be found with corals seeded within their chambers. The 5 million year old Coralline Crag comes to lay directly on top of the 50 million year old London clay as the underlying sediment was eroded before the Crag formed, this has resulted in a diversity of derived fossils in what is called the Basement Bed, directly above the Coralline Crag and forming the base of the roughly 2.5 million year old Red Crag above it. Derived fossils are those which, having become fossilised in one deposit have since been eroded out, often transported by rivers or tides, and become part of a much younger sediment. This means that, within the basement bed, fossils from the Eocene and Miocene can be found and even Cretaceous belemnites and crinoids have been found within the basement bed. The effects of “refossilisation” of shark teeth here are striking; the teeth are often polished and the colours derived from exposure to different elements are diverse and vivid. Marine mammal bone fragments, often attributed to whales, are also common from this bed and have become silicaceous in their preservation. The iron rich Red Crag above is also noted for well preserved and often complete bivalves and gastropods.
Finding fossils here is relatively easy as they can be found in abundance among the shingle of the foreshore – the site is SSSI protected and so digging in the cliffs or the exposed clay on the foreshore is prohibited. With fine, dry and warm weather it was not long before the group began making discoveries. Gastropods and bivalves from the Red Crag and Bryozoans from the Coralline Crag were the first fossils we noticed as we progressed north along the foreshore.
But it was not long before shark and ray teeth were being found, some fantastically preserved and some with vivid red, orange and even blue colours. Daniel Austin found a particularly rare and large Isurus tooth while Eliott Mills found an uncommon large Otodus tooth.
Other notable finds included some large pieces of marine mammal bone and a delightful although heavily worn crab carapace found by Aidan Philpott.
The day was fruitful with many excellent finds including some of the rarer shark teeth from this location. Big thanks to everyone who attended and made the day so enjoyable and special thanks to Sam Caethoven, Eliott Mills and Salma Khaliq for doing a sterling job leading the hunt. Hope to see you all again soon.
Please remember when visiting Ramsholt that the site is SSSI protected and so digging in the cliffs or the exposed clay on the foreshore is prohibited.
We had the pleasure of returning to a very pleasant and dry Wrens’ Nest in Dudley on the 12th May 2018 to hunt for the elusive “Dudley bug”.
Wren’s Nest is composed of limestone from the Silurian Wenlock Group and is famous for the Phacopid trilobite Calymene blumenbachii, which featured on the Dudley County Borough Council Coat of Arms until 1974.
A former Victorian Quarry, which ceased operation in the 1920s, Wren’s Nest is now a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the fossils that can be found here. And what a site it is!
It is a fantastic site for fossil hunting as so many fossils can be found loose on the ground. Over 700 different species of fossils can be found here, over 80 of which can be found nowhere else on earth.
Wren’s Nest contains the most diverse and abundant fossil fauna found in the British Isles and the fossils are among the most perfectly preserved Silurian fossils in the world.
Many attendees were young, first time fossil hunters and looked fabulous in their new hi-vis! We had lots of families and newcomers, which was great.
We started the day with a potted history of the site and a “show and tell” of the types of fossil that could be found at the site. The first few hours of hunting were spent at the reef mounds, before moving onto the fossil trench, from where we had a lovely view of the ripple beds.
The group found some marvellous partial trilobites (heads and tails – shown above and below), gastropods, brachiopods, bryozoans, corals and sponges – a fabulous slice of a Silurian reef ecosystem.
To all that attended, we hope that you enjoyed your day, and to the first-time hunters, we hope that we have inspired you to begin a wonderful new hobby!
On a scorchingly hot Sunday 6th May UKAFH was privileged to gain access to internationally renowned Smokejacks Pit – a large clay pit operated by Weinerberger located close to 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 by amateur fossil hunter Bill Walker. Baryonyx and many other specimens from Smokejacks can be seen in the dinosaur hall of the Natural History Museum in London.
The pit cuts through a section of the Weald Clay member of the Wealden group, dating from the Barremian stage of the Cretaceous period about 130-125 million years ago. During this period England was located in the mid-latitudes and experienced a highly variable climate of alternating searingly hot dry seasons with forest fires and baked ground and stormy wet seasons with flash floods which created lakes in a floodplain environment. The resultant ecosystem was highly diverse, supporting a vast number of aquatic and land-dwelling organisms from tiny creatures like concostracods and multitudinous insects to large herbivores and predators like Baryonyx and Iguanodonts.
A great attraction of Smokejacks pit is the enormous diversity of fossils to be found here. Whether specialist or generalist, there are spectacular fossils to be found if you have the patience, work ethic and eye to locate them. There are beautifully preserved insects and the plant Bevhalstia in fine siltstones, concostracods – shrimp-like shelled creatures, abundant plant material, fish scales, teeth and death assemblages, as well as crocodile, pterosaur and of course dinosaur remains can be unearthed here with a good eye and a bit of luck.
Our guides for the day were Weald Clay expert Peter Austen and his wife Joyce and local Smokejacks regular Mike Webster, who has discovered a number of previously unknown insects at Smokejacks. Peter provided us with a fantastic, in depth presentation on the Weald Clay and showed us some fine examples of what could be found in the pit, as well as supplying a number of handouts describing the pit and the fossil discoveries made, illustrating the pit’s stratigraphy and providing drawn examples of some of the insect types commonly found. 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), plant remains and the well-known concostracans, small shrimp-like creatures which bear superficial similarity to bivalves.
We set off into the pit under a blazing sun, aptly reminding us of the type of conditions which might have been experienced during the early Cretaceous when the animals and plants whose fossils we sought would have populated the area. The pit is like a large, pale grey cauldron with a lake at the bottom so the reflected sun was intense and without respite due to the absence of shade. Our group had been briefed to bring sun cream and plenty of water so although conditions were somewhat arduous everyone was well prepared.
Many attendees began by walking the slopes in search of any fossils which had been brought to the surface by recent erosion. This is often fruitful and has yielded dinosaur bones and fish teeth on previous occasions. Others chose to work the “dinosaur” layer towards the top of the quarry; a rich seam of carbon and lignite where plants have been fossilised and which has been found to often also contain dinosaur remains. Those in pursuit of insect remains headed towards the bottom of the quarry to find and split the finely grained stones in which their remains are preserved.
Soon after our arrival; finds began to appear. Steve Lloyd was amongst those who found round, button-like crushing fish teeth from Lepidotes. Lower down, Mike Webster had begun to find some insect specimens.
After around an hour the first major discovery was made by Adam Ward, who found a beautiful small Baryonyx tooth in the upper carbon layer.
Shorty afterwards, Dave Clark found a bivalve in the upper layer and Aidan Philpott discovered some examples of the amber that can be found at Smokejacks in the fossilised wood beds.
Further down the quarry, Harry Rousham was receiving an education from Mike Webster on which blocks contain insects and shortly discovered a beautiful, large example of an insect wing which was provisionally identified as scorpionfly. This was a fantastic find as it was proving hard to find much insect-bearing material on this occasion. Sam Caethoven found an example of Bevhalstia, although rather indistinct, and some fish death beds which were found very close to the insect layer.
By this time some members were finding the heat a little too much and began to trickle away. However those who were determined to come away with a prize plugged on, digging into the carbon rich layer in pursuit of bone material. Mark Goble, who despite several visits to Smokejacks had so far failed to find any dinosaur bone, finally hit paydirt close to the end of the day when he found a large bone section, although fragmented, which was identified as an Mantellisaurus ischium. Congratulations Mark!
My own personal favourite find of the day, however, was the discovery at the very end of the session of a gastrolith by Mike Webster. I badly want to find one myself and Smokejacks is the perfect place to do so, because the stone can be determined as a gastrolith with near certainty when found in situ in an inland site. A gastrolith is a smoothly polished stone which resided in a dinosaur’s intestine and is often not local to where it is found. The stomach acid and the action of grinding against other stones polishes the pebble. Science is inconclusive whether gastroliths formed a gastric mill to help break up tough foodstuffs and aid digestion or were merely swallowed unintentionally. The stone found by Mike Webster is a stunner- the stone is unusually large and also rather beautiful! It was a great end to a successful day.
UKAFH would like to thank Peter and Joyce Austin, Mike Webster and Weinerberger for allowing us to visit and making the outing successful, enjoyable and informative!
On Sunday 13th May UKAFH met at Barton on Sea in Hampshire, a coastal village a few miles east of Bournemouth.
Before heading onto the beach, Chris Tait provided examples of likely finds and explained the area’s geology and paleoenvironment. The cliffs and slippages here comprise the Barton Beds, a series of clay and sandy clay that was deposited about 36 million years ago during the Eocene epoch in what was a warm shallow sea. The sea would have been further south during the Eocene epoch, similar in latitude to modern day Spain and so the climate considerably warmer. We were very fortunate to be provided an example of warm weather as the day was bathed in sunshine and temperatures pleasantly mild. The warm, shallow Eocene sea was a rich ecosystem and the clay provided a great medium to preserve the remains of creatures that lived there which means the area is incredibly fossiliferous. The area is noted for having over 600 named species of bivalve and gastropod and is also particularly abundant in shark teeth and fish remains.
We ventured down from the carpark to the beach which, in such fine weather, is very popular with tourists. We began by investigating the base of the clay slippages. Although ill advised to dig into the slippages, on the surface of the clay are many fossils already washed out. These include a whole variety of shells, especially bivalves which can be particularly ornate. Everyone found a variety of different species of gastropod. The shells here can be quite fragile, so it is important to bring a box, preferably with some padding to protect the specimens.
Later in the afternoon, many of us stopped for lunch which was an ideal opportunity to sit on the shingle and rootle through the flint pebbles in search of shark teeth. Once we got our eye in, many great examples of shark teeth were found, predominantly of the Striatolamia genus and Sam Caethoven found the dental palate of a fish, one which would have had shell crushing teeth, ideal for feeding on the abundant gastropods an bivalves here.
Later in the day, Chris Tait led a small group up onto the slippages to get a better look at the geology. It is extremely important that care is taken when on the slippages and it is not advised this is attempted without a guide as it can be easy to become stuck in mud. Evidence of this danger was provided by a number of abandoned wellington boots!
Thank you to everyone who attended and a big thank you to Chris Tait and Sam Caethoven for leading the hunt. I hope you all had a great time!
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!