Fossil Hunting

Fossil Hunt at Ramsholt – 10th June 2018

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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.

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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.

UKAFH visit Ramsholt, 2nd September 2017

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Fossil Hunt at Ringstead Bay, Dorset Sunday 9th July 2017

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Ringstead Bay

Ringstead Bay remains an almost forgotten gem along the Dorset Coast. Despite the obvious beauty of the location, the site has never been commercialised. Private ownership of much of the land has prevented companies, such as Pontins or Butlins, from exploiting the area in the past and Ringstead Bay remains much unaltered. The winding lane leading down to the bay is certainly not conducive to heavy traffic. Nowadays, the area is under the care and ownership of the National Trust and despite a fairly busy scene around the beach café and car park on Sunday, the rest of the large bay was characteristically mostly deserted, even on a blisteringly hot summer day, as we found out! A few hundred yards away from the slipway and the peace and tranquillity of Ringstead Bay becomes apparent. A brief talk, by Steve, set a backdrop to the location; the geology, the fossils and the Jurassic coast.

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The group gathers for an introductory session.
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The hunt begins
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Some of the group, with the Isle of Portland in the distance.

To the west of the bay, the harder rocks of the Corallian sequence form the headland of Bran Point, composed mostly of the Osmington Oolite Series and packed full of the large cockle Myophorella clavellata, which are also evident in the reefs and rock pools at low tide. To the east, the majestic Chalk cliffs of White Nothe form a prominent cliff. In between, the tall, slumped and badly weathered cliffs within the bay are entirely composed of Kimmeridge Clay, which is where our hunt began.

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Ringstead Bay, viewed towards the west
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View across the bay, looking west.

The Kimmeridge Clay here is 151 to 156 million years old and is composed of much degraded mudstone, formed on the Jurassic sea bottom when England once bathed in a sub-tropical climate. In fact, it was probably much the same as the day of our hunt, where the sun shone fiercely and the sky and sea were blue and mostly cloudless.

After an introductory chat, explaining the geology of this part of the Jurassic Coast, the party descended to beach level and the hunt was on. Ringstead Bay suffers much the same as other locations at the height of summer; poor erosion from tides and rain and from tourists. The tourists love fossil hunting in Dorset and consequently the more usual specimens found at Ringstead Bay were in short supply. Local collectors wait for the autumn and winter storms to help stir up the coast replenish supplies of fossils. However, the recent lack of good storms, even over the winter, has also meant fewer cliff falls and fresh material being exposed. The Kimmeridge Clay here was very dry and finding fossils within the hard clay body was not easy. However, the first fossil – a piece of the oyster, Deltoideum delta- was found by 6-year old Sophie de Candole. This was followed by several large complete oysters of the same being picked up by most members of the group.

Pieces of hard shale, which could be easily split by hand, exposed several ammonites and various shells. The largest ammonite remained in an immovable boulder on the beach but Aaron Roberts, aged 11, found a nice smaller specimen. The Sandsfoot Formation, which marks the junction between the older Corallian rocks with the overlying, younger Kimmeridge Clay was exposed in the cliff  and formerly known as the Ringstead Coral Bed. Broken ‘chunks’ on the beach revealed little in the way of fossils, although 12-year old Cem Izzet found a good-sized bivalve, named Ctenostreon proboscideum. whose large strongly-ribbed shell is unmistakable and easily recognised.

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Halfway along the bay, high in the cliffs, are the visible strata of the Portland Limestone Formation and capped by the basal part of the Cretaceous Purbeck Formation. The folded and faulted rocks, form a spectacular unconformity, with the Chalk dipping to the right and the Portland and Purbeck rocks dipping towards the right.

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The day was certainly a success. The majority of the group found various fossils and were very pleased with the outcomes. Coupled with the glorious weather, it was a wonderful day out and encouraged those who had never been to the location before, to return. Many thanks to everyone who came along and UKAFH look forward to seeing you on another hunt.

Steve Snowball

UKAFH interviews Dr. Adam Smith, curator of Dinosaurs of China.

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Dr Tom Hartman, Dr Wang Qi and Dr Adam Smith with the head of the Mamenchisaurus, the centrepiece of the Dinosaurs of China exhibition
Dr Tom Hartman, Dr Wang Qi and Dr. Adam Smith with Mamenchisaurus head outside Wollaton Hall

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.

 

Bob Nicholls liopleurodon
Palaeoartist Bob Nicholls adds the finishing touches to Liopleurodon, a model built around the tooth held in Nottingham Natural History Museum’s 40,000 object fossil collection

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.

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Chris Packham and Dr. Adam Smith welcome visitors with Mamenchisaurus towering above.

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.

Adam Smith and Wang Qi discuss the Sinosauropteryx
Dr. Wang Qi and Dr. Adam Smith discuss Sinosauropteryx

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.

Book your tickets online now! 

Adults: £7 Child: £5 Family Ticket: £20 All tickets subject to additional 10% booking fee. Under 5’s visit for free. Carers free.

http://www.dinosaursofchina.co.uk/

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. 

Sam Caethoven

 

Fossil Hunt at Monmouth, Dorset 25th June 2017

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On Sunday the 25th June, UKAFH attended a hunt at the ‘Mecca of palaeontology’; namely Lyme Regis in Dorset. Lyme Regis is where fossil collecting and palaeontology all began and where, in 1811, Joseph Anning, the older brother of Mary, dug up a skull of an ichthyosaur on the ledges on the beach. At the time, he thought it was a crocodile but the significant find was followed by Mary’s own discovery of the skeleton that accompanied the 4-foot long head and the rest is history, as they say! Mary Anning went on to become the world’s most famous fossil collector and the discoverer of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, fish and countless other fossils from this very location. She undoubtedly paved the way for this newly evolving science at the time.

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The hunt begins along Monmouth Beach.
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The ledges were revealed as the tide retreated.

Although nobody in the UKAFH party found anything as spectacular, the coastline at Lyme Regis certainly sets the scene for any fossil enthusiast. The constantly crumbling cliffs can reveal ammonites and other fossils on an almost daily basis. This, of course, has its drawbacks also because during the summer months, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the Jurassic Coast, especially to Lyme Regis and the neighbouring Charmouth, to chance their arm at finding a fossil. Consequently, with low erosion rates, particularly during the summer and with every man and his dog combing the beaches, it’s never an ideal time. Undaunted however, our party made the most of dry weather and great scenery.

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The party below Ware Cliffs on Monmouth Beach

As is usual, we began with a short explanation about the geology and what could be found there. To the west of the Cobb at Lyme Regis is Monmouth Beach and here the famous rocks of the Blue Lias Formation can be seen, extending west to Pinhay Bay. The distinctive cliffs of layered limestone and shale is present, particularly at Ware Cliffs. The rocks are the oldest in the sequence of rocks found along the Jurassic Coast and date from around 199 million years ago. These hard, pale layers of limestone and darker organic-rich shales, also occupy much of the foreshore around Lyme Regis, appearing as a series of ledges on the foreshore at low-tide. The rocks gently dip towards the east and the overlying Shales-with-Beef Member and the Black Ven Marl Member (both from the Charmouth Mudstone Formation) eventually reach beach level, beneath Black Ven and East Beach at Charmouth.

Looking for fossils in the cliffs at this location is both dangerous and pointless. The rocks are under constant attack by the sea and the fossils are washed out of the clays and shales and deposited on the foreshore, between the rocks and boulders on the beach and ledges. Searching in these places is far more productive and members of the party were encouraged to do just that and soon some finds were found. As explained, there is a low frequency of fossils during the peak season and specimens that were picked up were in no way spectacular but they, nonetheless, were representative of the myriad of life forms which were present in Jurassic seas; for this is where Lyme Regis was once located. Then, the current Dorset coast was enjoying a climate similar to the current coast of North Africa and the nearest land mass lie many miles away. Consequently, fossils are mostly of marine origin, despite them being from the time of the dinosaurs. Dinosaur remains and vegetation are rare as fossils at Lyme Regis and such fossils are invariably of those organisms that were swept into the sea, from the nearest land, only to sink into the muds and silts of the ocean floor. However, bones and teeth of marine reptiles, such as ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pliosaurs are common finds but not during our hunt, alas!

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Our partY reach the start of Pinhay Bay, where our hunt ended.
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Part of the spectacular ‘ammonite pavement’ at Monmouth Beach.

As with most hunts at coastal locations, the best time is to coincide with a falling tide, which is exactly what we did. The walk along Monmouth Beach, traversing rocks and boulders, searching for fossils can be quite arduous and we soon reached the spectacular ‘ammonite pavement, very near to our destination at Pinhay Bay, just as the tide retreated fully. This incredible stretch of foreshore accommodates dozens, perhaps even hundreds of large ammonites among the boulders and in situ on the exposed bedrock. These particular ammonites cannot be collected but their enormous size and abundance makes them worth seeing all the same.

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Lizzie Hingley’s cracked nodule with a very crushed, calcified ammonite within.

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On the way, members of the party found a number of ammonite fragments and in the case of Rebecca Walsh, a complete ammonite. UKAFH Leader Lizzie Hingley found a nodule, which looked quite promising until it was expertly cracked open, to reveal a highly an ammonite badly preserved in calcite within! However, she did find a nicely preserved Gryphaea (an oyster) and a large bivalve from the slumped Upper Greensand boulders found nearer to Pinhay Bay. Serpulids (worms), belemnite fragments, gastropods and various bivalves were also found by the party, so despite the finds being unspectacular and few everyone thoroughly enjoyed a sunny (yes, the sun finally came out!) and informative day, on the stunning Jurassic Coast of Dorset. Many thanks to all who attended and made this a very enjoyable event.

Please note that the site is given SSSI status, as part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, so the cliffs themselves are not to be hammered into.

Steve Snowball

UKAFH exclusive interview with Chris Packham, broadcaster and naturalist, at Dinosaurs of China exhibition.

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Chris Packham is supporting Dinosaurs of China
Chris Packham meets Hunter, Dinosaurs of China’s animatronic Sinraptor

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.

 

Sam Caethoven speaks to Chris Packham at the Dinosaurs of China Exhibition in Nottingham

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.

Microraptor gui type specimen
Microraptor gui – holotype fossil feathered dinosaur on display at Dinosaurs of China

 

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.

Microraptor gui
Microraptor gui palaeoart

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.

Book your tickets online now! 

Adults: £7 Child: £5 Family Ticket: £20 All tickets subject to additional 10% booking fee. Under 5’s visit for free. Carers free.

http://www.dinosaursofchina.co.uk/

Sam Caethoven and Aidan Philpott