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).
The 2nd July was a momentous day in UKAFH history being the last hunt that founder Craig Chapman would lead before stepping down from leadership duties and we were very hopeful it would be a good hunt. We weren’t disappointed!
I had only been to King’s Dyke once before on a blisteringly hot day and got quite pink in the sun! So I was relieved that there was some cloud cover and we didn’t have to worry about people getting sunburnt.
The hunt was very well attended with about 30 or so people eager to pick through the clay in search of ancient treasure. I must thank the quarry owners for having refilled the area the day before giving us 2 large areas of fresh clay to pick through. After a brief introduction at the identification board we headed up to the smaller heap just up the hill and the hunt was on!
One of the best features of this locality is that is suitable for all the family and is productive enough that hunters are guaranteed to go home with something, and everyone who wanted one of the plentiful (and beautiful) flat ammonites found at least one. Belemnites are also very common and range in size from a few centimetres to several inches (sorry about mixing metric and imperial!) The largest complete ones are not to be found everywhere and are quite the prize and I was lucky enough to find a couple of beauties. James found the biggest most complete one and was justifiably delighted with it!
After about an hour or so at the secondary heap we headed down into the main larger fossil hunting area where we were hoping to find some of the other things that can be found from this section of the Jurassic. Fish, crocodiles, ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs are all known from here but are not common and are a major highlight if you are lucky enough to spot them. Between us we found 5 Lepidotes fish scales and even a couple of fish coprolites.
I am deliberately leaving the best till last, and chronologically they were found last, all within the last 30 minutes of our time hunting. It wouldn’t have been a proper UKAFH hunt in the Jurassic without Craig finding a vertebra and he duly obliged with a lovely ichthyosaur vertebra. I chipped in with 20 minutes to go with my most spectacular UK find – a plesiosaur vert which truly made my day. Then just as we were packing up, a random family who weren’t even part of our group arrived and the young man hunting with his Mum and sisters found a “weird belemnite” that we were not at all jealous to identify as a plesiosaur tooth! They were on their first ever fossil hunt so I shamelessly plugged UKAFH as a great group to join!! Maybe we’ll see them again on a hunt another time, who knows.
Either way it was a great day and the feedback was very positive. Thanks again to the quarry owners for the fresh clay to hunt through and I look forward to hunting there again next month with a new group.