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 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.
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 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.
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.
On Sunday the 15th July UKAFH met at the world famous Smokejacks Pit – a large clay pit situated just outside Ockley in Surrey. The pit is famous for the near complete dinosaur specimens that have been discovered there including Iguanodonts and the first discovery of the spinosaurid Baryonyx in 1983.
The pit cuts through a section of the Wealden group, specifically the Weald Clay. The clay was deposited in a lake and floodplain environment during the Barremian stage of the Cretaceous period about 129-128 million years ago. At this time, the environment was warm and moist due to England’s then position in mid-latitudes but the climate was exceptionally seasonal with ground scorching dry seasons and intensely stormy wet seasons. Although this weather system may sound inhospitable, the cycle of organic deposition provided by the flood waters created a fertile ecosystem rich in both aquatic and terrestrial fauna and flora – perfect for giant dinosaurs! The diversity of fossils to be found here is quite extraordinary; some beds are extremely rich in plant material, others are ripe with insect remains. Fish, shark and shrimp are common too in the right layers and crocodile, pterosaur and of course dinosaur remains can be unearthed here with a good eye and a bit of luck.
Weald Clay expert Peter Austen provided us with a fantastic, in depth presentation on the Weald Clay and showed us examples of what could be found in the pit. Peter’s roadshow introduced us to the diversity of insects for which the pit is known (7 new orders of insects and numerous species). He covered in detail the discovery of Baryonyx and also a juvenile Iguanodont which was found together with Baryonyx teeth, suggesting predation or scavenging, which was later recognised as Mantellisaurus atherfiedensis. Smokejacks is also known for a very rare, early flowering plant called Bevhalstia Pebja. We also saw articulated fish death assemblages, an arthropod trackway, gastroliths (the stomach stones swallowed by dinosaurs to aid digestion) and plant remains and the well-known concostracans, small shrimp-like creatures which bear superficial similarity to bivalves. Peter provided a handout and a stratigraphical column to assist the group members in finding the various fossil beds. This was particularly beneficial in helping members determine where to look for certain fossils.
We entered the pit very excited and eager to see what we could found. We were lucky with the weather on this occasion; although rain threatened it remained dry – any downpour could soon turn the clay into mud – and we were grateful for it being overcast as the site is extremely exposed and will become uncomfortably hot in the sunshine very quickly, especially when traversing the steep quarry sides.
We began by walking the quarry slopes in search of any fossils visible on the surface. This proved fruitful for Chris Tait, who stumbled across several pieces of crocodile tooth enamel, and Mark Goble who found a broken block containing a large amount of fish material thought to be Lepidotes. Some then headed to the base of the quarry in search of rocks containing insect remains. Sam Caethoven struck lucky with a beautiful wing and wing case side by side in the same block. Some headed for the middle of the slope in search of fish remains: Dan Slidel, who is a geoscientist, took time to investigate the stratigraphy and found fish scales and an abundance of concostracans while Betsy Ooms found the most exquisitely preserved shark tooth.
By the end of the hunt many of us were digging in a bed high up the slope which is full of plant material and is known for an abundance of dinosaur remains. Notable finds include a large piece of bone found by Mary Bite, a beautifully detailed bone found by Seth Cook, an Iguanodont vertebra found by Katherine Combe and a huge crocodile tooth found by Mark Goble, as well as many other bone fragments. However; the prize of the hunt and possible of the year so far goes to Nicky Parslow who found a huge Theropod tooth about 5 cm in length. The tooth was rushed to the Natural History Museum for identification and was examined the very same day.
NHM staff advised: “Your find was of immediate interest, with the curator, Paul Barrett, coming down to identify it this afternoon. He has identified it as the tooth of a large theropod. He considers it an exceptional find as they are not commonly found. It is not from a Baryonyx but is from an indeterminate large theropod. Unfortunately, it can’t be identified any further as the teeth of these animals are all very similar and there are not enough identifying features to distinguish it from the various other species.”
Peter Austin has since confirmed that this is the only theropod tooth to have been found at Smokejacks apart from Baryonyx so it is a very significant find from the pit! We hope to seek further advice on the tooth in case more information can be found and we are all really excited to try and learn what large, ferocious beast this may have come from.
Smokejacks pit is not always as productive as this hunt assumed so I am really proud that everyone made some varied and exceptional finds on this occasion.
Thank you so much to everyone who came and made the day incredible. A huge and special thank you goes to Peter Austen and Joyce for sharing their expertise and organising access at such short notice.
We will, of course, keep everyone posted on the theropod tooth.
Dr. Adam Smith is curator of Dinosaurs of China and of the Nottingham Natural History Museum at Wollaton Hall, which hosts the Dinosaurs of China exhibition alongside its extensive collection of over 750,000 exhibits and 40,000 fossils.
Anyone interested in palaeontology and modern understanding of dinosaur and bird evolution and really needs to get to the groundbreaking Dinosaurs of China exhibition. The specimens on display are incredibly important, many seen for the first time outside of China. The curation is superb, blending the extraordinary fossils with Wollaton Hall’s permanent natural history collection and enlivened by fresh new palaeoart which imagines the creatures in life based on our most up-to-date research and scientific knowledge.
With a lifelong interest in fossils, Adam established his own fossil collection as a child before embarking on undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Palaeobiology. Outside of the day job Adam is a keen palaeoartist, a subject which is highly integral to the Dinosaurs of China exhibition. He also advises toy company Safari Ltd. on their dinosaur figures as well as running the Dinosaur Toy Blog and Forum and the Animal Toy Forum. His personal research focus is Plesiosaur and he was consultant to the BBC on Planet Dinosaur.
We invited Adam to tell us more about his love of fossils and asked for his pearls of wisdom for budding palaeontologists, young and old.
UKAFH: What attracted you to fossil collecting?
AS: I suppose I was attracted to fossil hunting because fossils connect us to prehistoric worlds. Fossils are real and tactile so it made sense to collect some for myself. There’s also that hope that one day you might discover a new species of dinosaur, but I never found anything of importance! Even if I had, I would’ve donated any significant discoveries to my local museum.
UKAFH: Which finds were your favourites and why?
AS: Ammonites were always my favourite discoveries because they are so iconic and beautiful. The shiny pyritic ones at Lyme Regis are extremely common but always a joy to discover.
UKAFH: How did fossil hunting inspire you?
AS: There’s something special about being the first person to see the remains of a creature that died millions of years ago. Fossil hunting also gets you out in the field and helps you to understand the objects in their geological context.
UKAFH: What advice would you give to amateur fossil hunters whose passion inspires them to progress into palaeontology?
AS: Collecting fossils is sometimes an end to itself for many amateurs. However, I would advise amateur fossil hunters with a serious interest in palaeontology to take up a hammer in one hand and a scientific paper in the other and learn as much as they can about the fossils they discover. Amateurs can attend academic conferences, such as the annual SVPCA and PalAss meetings, which are open to all and provide an opportunity to learn about current palaeontology directly from those conducting the work. This can also open doors.
UKAFH: Is it ever too late to attempt a career in palaeontology?
AS: So long as the passion is there, it is never too late to attempt a career in palaeontology. However, you have to be realistic – it can take years of hard work to get to the stage where you can make new contributions to the field, and even then paid jobs are few and far between. For example, conducting research isn’t part of my job remit as a curator at Wollaton Hall; I research and write papers about plesiosaurs in my personal time out of passion.
UKAFH: What routes and opportunities are there for amateurs?
AS: Every professional palaeontologist began as an amateur. The traditional route is through university and that’s the one I took. However, I know several self-taught palaeontologists who have made significant research contributions. Especially now in the information age it is possible to gain knowledge by seeking out academic papers online and attending academic conferences. Most palaeontologists are more than happy to send PDFs of their papers to anyone who asks – they’re just an email away. Volunteering can also help get good working knowledge and hands on experience working in a museum.
Featuring fossils and specimens never before seen outside of Asia, Dinosaurs of China will bring to life the story of how dinosaurs evolved into the birds that live alongside us today.
Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, will host the main exhibition, with a complementary exhibition at Lakeside Arts, running from 1 July – 29 October 2017.
Adults: £7 Child: £5 Family Ticket: £20 All tickets subject to additional 10% booking fee. Under 5’s visit for free. Carers free.
Look out too for the museum’s forthcoming new permanent Jurassic exhibition which will showcase fossils from the museum’s 40,000 strong collection, including locally found specimens like a dinosaur footprint from Mapperley, a Liopleurodon tooth complete with palaeoart model to show the creature it came from and the very important Nottingham ichthyosaur which can be seen at Lakeside Arts as part of the Dinosaurs of China exhibition and has been researched by UKAFH patron Dean Lomax.
UKAFH exclusive interview with Chris Packham, broadcaster and naturalist, at Dinosaurs of China exhibition.
UKAFH reporters Aidan Philpott, Nicky Parslow and Sam Caethoven visited the press preview of Dinosaurs of China and gained an exclusive interview with BBC’s Chris Packham. Here he gives us his views on the exhibition and tells us about his own interest in fossils as an amateur collector. Chris has been a fossil enthusiast since childhood and still recalls modelling his first plasticine T-rex as a child, complete with teeth and claws but with a dragging tail (to stop it falling over) and keeps a diary of his fossil finds.
UKAFH: How did you start fossil collecting?
CP: I grew up in Southampton so as a child I used to regularly go to nearby Bracklesham Bay where I collected bivalves, shark teeth and turritella gastropods. I recall when they built the power station they dug a tunnel under the Solent which went through the Bracklesham beds. The spoil from the tunnel works was deposited at Warsash and I found my best shark tooth there. I still have it.
We used to have family holidays in Lyme Regis too and I was always begging my parents – unsuccessfully – to get up early to beat the crowds to the beach and Black Ven. I remember other fossil hunters being kind and I still have a good ammonite that a local collector gave to me when hunting there as a kid. Oddly, even though we lived in Southampton, we never went to the Isle of Wight. But now my partner owns a zoo next to Dinosaur Isle so I look out for fossils when walking the dogs at Yaverland and have found a few bits.
UKAFH: What do you think responsible amateur fossil hunters contribute to science?
CP: When I am on the Isle of Wight I see the enormous conflict between scientists and amateurs. But amateur collectors have found a lot of fossils. Fossil collecting should primarily be about science (an enquiring mind and a wish to preserve and study) rather than money (purely commercial collecting). Amateurs contribute a lot by being out there in numbers and finding fossils.
UKAFH: What fossils do you have on display?
CP: I have a collection of axe heads – human ichnofossils – on display. I also have a museum quality T-rex skull that was given to me once as payment in kind! Aside from that I have 1/3 scale casts of T-rex and Triceratops and a really great Ichthyosaur coprolite (fossil poo) from Lyme Regis. I also have a Carcharocles megalodon tooth which sits on top of my microwave. It isn’t huge but it’s really good quality and cost around £40. If investing in fossils I consider quality is a better investment than size. My dream is to own a banana sized T-rex tooth.
UKAFH: What next?
CP: Next week I’m off to the Black Hills, South Dakota, on a T-rex dig. I’m wildly excited as the Tyrannosaurus rex is an iconic dinosaur known to everyone and was the dinosaur I modelled from plasticine as a child. I’m making a show about the T-rex which is due to air at Christmas as a 1 hour special which will look at how our understanding and depiction of the dinosaur has evolved over the years. The programme is inspired by David Hone’s Tyrannosaur Chronicles. The programme will see what a wide range of contemporary scientific research and techniques is revealing to us about T-rex physiology, biology, behaviour, diet and environment. Best of all, by the time the programme airs it will already be out of date because our understanding of dinosaurs is constantly changing and growing so there is always more to know.
UKAFH: Tell us your thoughts on the Dinosaurs of China exhibition here at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham.
CP: What this amazing exhibition really demonstrates is how our understanding of dinosaurs has transformed as scientific examination has improved and developed and more specimens have been discovered, including these extraordinary fossils from China which have remarkable soft tissue and feather preservation. The emergence of more specimens and our ever-changing understanding reminds us that we never have all the answers and that our curiosity of dinosaurs can endure and inspire future generations to constantly pursue better understanding. This exhibition principally serves to remind us that dinosaurs are not extinct and that they surround us every day in the form of modern day birds. In fact, the curation of the displays carefully blends the fossil specimens with birds from Wollaton Hall’s natural history collection, which is one of the most extensive natural history collections in the UK. WE don’t know if dinosaurs evolved feathers for warmth or display but can examine the clues And study the fossils and continue to learn.
UKAFH: The exhibition also focusses strongly on palaeoart. What are your views on this?
CP: Palaeoart is hugely important as the public face of palaeontology. People see dinosaurs depicted in books, pictures and films and it profoundly influences how we think of dinosaurs. I recall desperately wanting to see 1 Million Years BC as a child because I wanted to see moving, living dinosaurs portrayed on screen. I was hugely disappointed. Even at a young age I could see through the prosthetic horns on iguanas, enlarged tortoises and badly animated dinosaurs. Seeing specimens in the bone or, as with Dinosaurs of China, in the feathers and flesh, is hugely important to our understanding. Palaeoart can represent truth and beauty and reflect and portray animals according to the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, directly contributing to public perception. It is always disappointing when opportunities to achieve this are missed, such as Jurassic World persisting with the scaly, mis-sized beasts of the earlier and less informed original Jurassic Park.
Featuring fossils and specimens never before seen outside of Asia, Dinosaurs of China will bring to life the story of how dinosaurs evolved into the birds that live alongside us today.
Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, will host the main exhibition, with a complementary exhibition at Lakeside Arts, running from 1 July – 29 October 2017.
Adults: £7 Child: £5 Family Ticket: £20 All tickets subject to additional 10% booking fee. Under 5’s visit for free. Carers free.
Sam Caethoven and Aidan Philpott
On Sunday the 4th June UKAFH descended in number upon the Sussex shoreline for a fossil hunt from Pett Level towards Fairlight – a stretch of coastline famous for its dinosaur foot prints, foot casts and dinosaur bone.
We began with a short explanation about the geology and what could be found. Exposed in the cliff here is the lower part of the Wealden group of formations, a deposit of sandstone, siltstone, clay and conglomerates dating to the Lower Cretaceous, about 140 million years ago. It was deposited in a vast river system and flood plain at a time of exceptionally warm global temperatures and an area of extremely seasonal weather. The seasonal nature of the palaeoclimate helps explain why this deposit came to be so fossiliferous and preserve the famous foot prints and casts. We can imagine the area as a warm, wet, densely vegetated environment, indicated by the great number of plant remains found here. The numerous rivers and lakes were abundant with life, made apparent by the dense assemblages of bivalve fossils, abundance of fish bone, scales and teeth and most notably by the huge slabs of bioturbation found on the shoreline – the trace fossils of creatures moving through the fluvial mud. This mud was also deposited on the river banks where huge (and sometimes small) dinosaurs such as Iguanodons or Baryonyx would stop for a drink, leaving their distinctive foot prints. Then came the dry season, which was extreme enough to cause bush fires – indicated by the presence of charcoal in the formation – the rivers dried up and the lakes became anoxic, aiding preservation. This was followed by the wet season, with intense storms and flooding, depositing larger grained sediment across the floodplain, burying the foot prints to form foot casts and preserving the remains of plants and animals to be found here 140 million years later.
We didn’t have to worry about such seasonal extremes on this fossil hunt however, as the sun was shining while we enjoyed the summer warmth with a refreshing sea breeze. There was a lot to see as he headed west towards Fairlight. We saw large blocks of bioturbation and ripple marks preserved in claystone, the black remains of plant material were also abundant. The foot casts and prints were unfortunately sparse compared to previous UKAFH visits however a spectacular and rare theropod print was found. We also found huge slabs of Cliff End Bone Bed, a conglomerate which as the name suggests contains a lot of a bone fossils. These slabs contained clearly defined fish scales and teeth – those members lucky enough to find small pieces of bone bed took them home to treat with a mild acid such as vinegar to extract the fossils within. Other finds included bivalves, the odd rolled dinosaur bone, fish bones and of course Nicky Parslow found an echinoid preserved in flint, something that’s become a trademark of hers. Another unusual find was the barrel of a gun found by Chris Avis. It was debated as to whether it was an Air rifle, a pressure washer, or even a WW2 American paratrooper rifle! I hope Chris has it looked at and lets us know the conclusion.
Although the finds were few and far between on this occasion I hope everyone enjoyed a sunny and informative day on the beautiful Sussex coastline and I hope to see you all again soon on another UKAFH hunt.
Please note. This stretch of coastline is a SSSI. Do not dig into or hammer the bedrock or cliffs – only loose fossils along the foreshore should be collected and any significant finds should be registered with Bexhill Museum. The often abundant foot prints and casts must not be collected – instead take a photograph and leave them for everyone to enjoy.