One way to ‘collect’ a massive specimen: Simple photogrammetry in the field using a mobile phone

Nigel Larkin and Steven Dey (UK) Inspired by the excellent series of articles by Trevor Watts discussing the types of Mid-Jurassic dinosaur footprints to be found along the Whitby coast (see The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 1, for Part 1 – links to the other parts can be found at the end of that part), when recently working in the area I (NL) made sure that I would have the time to walk the beaches from Saltwick Bay to Whitby. I also timed my work to make sure I could make use of the low tides early in the morning at first light. As well as the usual ammonites, belemnites and plant fossils, I found a handful of single footprint casts (most too heavy to attempt to move) and some very nice fallen slabs of claw marks and partial trackways – also mostly too big to move. One slab in particular stood out among the others at the bottom of the Ironstone Ramp in Long Bight (Figs. 1 and 2) – a ‘double trackway’ from what look like two quite different beasts walking in parallel – although they were possibly formed at different times. In the form of raised footprint casts rather than actual indented footprints, the specimen included five good prints in the left track and four, possibly five prints, on the right track – so each track contained a ‘full set’. Although the tracks look superficially quite different from one another, both appear to be attributable to … Read More

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Pallasites: The meteorite jewels in the crown

David Bryant (UK) Perhaps unsurprisingly (as a professional dealer in space rocks), I find all meteorites equally fascinating and, in their own way, aesthetically appealing. However, I have to admit, the meteorites known as the Pallasites, with their beautiful structure of olivine fragments suspended in a nickel-iron matrix, are probably the most visually exciting, particularly to the non-specialist. In addition to their undoubted beauty and rarity, Pallasites offer us an intriguing glimpse into the interior of a planet that make them among the most scientifically important of all meteorite types. The name Pallasite is derived from that of the German naturalist, Simon Peter Pallas. Pallas was one of those amazingly observant and gifted polymaths, who seem to have been a lot more abundant during the eighteenth century, as well as lending his name to a whole class of meteorite, an eagle, a warbler, two species of bat, a wild cat and dozens of other plants and animals. In 1772, Pallas obtained a 680kg lump of metal that had been found near Kransnojarsk in Siberia. When it was examined in St Petersburg, it was identified as a new type of stony meteorite. In keeping with tradition, it was named after the location where it was found, but, uniquely, the whole class of meteorites was named for Pallas. There is still some debate about the actual origin of Pallasites. Although some meteorologists contend that the stony-iron structure resulted from a collision between a nickel-iron asteroidal core and a chunk of mantle material … Read More

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Urban micrometeorites: A myth?

Jon Larsen (Norway) Is it possible to find micrometeorites in populated areas? The question has been raised for nearly a century and, despite numerous attempts to find them, the answer up to this day has been a very short “no”. Meanwhile, our knowledge about these amazing stones has gradually increased. There is a continuous evolutionary line in the research on micrometeorites, from the early pioneers, John Murray and Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in the nineteenth century, to Lucien Rudaux and Harvey H Nininger. With Donald E Brownlee and Michel Maurette in the 1960s, micrometeoritics became real science. During the past two decades, this research has accelerated thanks to, among others, Susan Taylor, who extracted micrometeorites from the water well at the South Pole, Matthew Genge, who figured out the classification, and other splendid researchers, in addition to the space probes that have returned to Earth with dust samples from comets and asteroids. Today, there is a growing literature about micrometeorites, but still the answer to the initial question is “no” and urban micrometeorites have been considered an urban myth. Micrometeorites have been found in the Antarctic, but also, to some extent, in prehistoric sediments, remote deserts and in glaciers – places that are clear of the confusing anthropogenic influence. The wall of contamination has been considered insurmountable. It is therefore with pride and joy that I can report here about a project involving the systematic examination of all sorts of anthropogenic and naturally occurring spherules in an empirical search for micrometeorites … Read More

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Urban geology: The Worsley Park wall game, Manchester

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) Wall games are a very geological form of light entertainment and education. I certainly have amused myself by identifying rocks and their features in walls since my days as an undergraduate and before. I was introduced to the name for the wall game (obvious, I know) by Eric Robinson (1996, 1997). Eric’s examples inspired me to devise my own version of a wall game in far-flung Jamaica. At the time, I was a member of the teaching staff in geology at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Kingston. Each semester, we took the first year classes for three one-day field excursions. As cash was getting ever tighter. I hit upon the money-saving idea of running one of the first trips on campus where there were various ‘urban geological’ features worthy of note. One of these was the stone base of a ruined building that had survived from Mona’s days as a sugar plantation. The rocks in the base were a marvellous mixture of blocks and rounded boulders, presumably collected from the bed of the nearby Hope River, which drains the mountainous country to the east of the university. This trip worked well and, after a few years, the late Trevor Jackson and I published a field guide based on my excursion (Donovan and Jackson, 2000). The primary criterion for a geologically interesting and educational wall game is a good variety of rocks. The Mona wall game was most satisfactory in this respect, with … Read More

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Fossil fish from northern Scotland

 Bob Davidson (UK) The north of Scotland is famous to scientists and amateur collectors for its wealth of localities where fossil fish of Devonian age can be collected. From plate tectonics, we know that in Devonian times Scotland was situated just below the equator, as part of a continent that was largely arid desert and where land plants were only just emerging. Most life on earth was still aquatic and fishes were the most successful backboned animals. The fossil fish of the area are unique in many ways. They present a window on the development of vertebrates, in which many of the innovations necessary to pave the way for the next great evolutionary step (the invasion by tetrapods of the land) were already in place. The fauna contains the acanthodians, one of the first group of vertebrates to evolve jaws, and the lobe finned fishes, so called because of their fleshy lobes supporting their pectoral and pelvic fins. The lobe fins also include the lungfish. Their fleshy fin lobes played an important role in the development of the limbs of early four-legged animals (tetrapods) and ultimately to all terrestrial vertebrates today – including ourselves. The classic Middle Devonian (380 to 375Ma old) locality is Achanarras Quarry in Caithness, where exquisitely preserved fish can be collected in an old roof tile quarry. Many such quarries existed in the past and fish have been widely collected from several localities over the years. The fish are preserved in thinly laminated siltstones and limestones, … Read More

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Great Plains geology: A personal journey

Professor Emeritus Robert F Diffendal, Jr (USA) I grew up in the 1940s and 50s in the eastern US state of Maryland and went to cinemas on my own from the age of six, mostly to see what were then to me exciting western movies. In 1962, I was off to graduate school in the Great Plains state of Nebraska, a place that I pictured in my mind as it had been depicted in some of those films. Imagine my surprise when it looked nothing like the outdoor scenes in most of those films. Silly me, to have thought that films were made as closely as possible to the real subject area. From graduate school in 1962 to now, I achieved my goals and became a geologist and professor, travelling and doing research in the Great Plains and western Central Lowland physiographic provinces, and looking at geology in exotic places like the UK, China, Australia and New Zealand. Fast forward to 2013. I had enough experience and expertise on Great Plains geology by then that I was asked to write a short book of about 35,000 words on the geology of the Great Plains by the director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska, Dr Richard Edwards. After visiting and studying sites in Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada, and in south-western Texas that I had not previously studied, I started working on the book now titled Great Plains Geology that is reviewed in this issue … Read More

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Fake fossils by the hundred: Johann Beringer’s ‘lying-stones’

Paul D Taylor (UK) The sorry tale of Johann Beringer has been part of the folklore of palaeontology for almost 200 years. In 1726, Beringer published a book illustrating some extraordinary ‘fossils’ reputedly found in the rocks close to Würzburg in southern Germany. However, very soon after its publication, Beringer realised that he had been tricked and that the specimens were fakes. The truth about the deception – and its perpetrators – is still shrouded in mystery, and the story of Beringer’s Lügensteine (’lying-stones’) ranks with Piltdown Man as the greatest of all fossil frauds. Who was Beringer? No portrait exists of Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer (1667–1740) despite the fact that he was an important figure in Würzburg during the early eighteenth century. The son of an academic, Beringer became Chief Physician to the Prince Bishop of Würzburg and Duke of Franconia (Christoph Franz von Hutten) and to the Julian Hospital, and was also the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Würzburg University. Like other learned men of the time, Beringer kept a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ said to contain ammonites, belemnites and sharks’ teeth. He seems to have led a conventional life for someone of his high standing until May 1725, when an unfortunate train of events was set in motion. Three young men employed by Beringer to supply him with fossils delivered the first of a truly remarkable series of specimens purported to have been found at Mount Eibelstadt, a few kilometres south of Würzburg. These are the … Read More

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Agate: A mineral that develops with age, water and moganite

Terry Moxon (UK) Agate is banded or variegated chalcedony and this distinctive appearance allows a ready identification from any source. Many agate thick sections from basic igneous hosts are reminiscent of a series of distorted onion-like rings with the initial bands closely replicating the shape of the supporting gas cavity. However, the banding is frequently distorted and this general pattern is known under various names, for example, fortification or wall lining. A second type is less common and demonstrates apparently gravity-controlled horizontal bands. Agate host rocks are varied but the most abundant agate sources are the gas cavities of basic igneous rocks. This article limits discussion to agates from these basic hosts. However, agates can also be found in some igneous acidic hosts (for example, rhyolite), sedimentary rocks (for example, limestone) and in some fossils. Agate is greater than 97% silica (SiO2) and shows little variation between different samples. Under normal earth surface conditions, silica occurs in a number of forms. It is most commonly found as alpha-quartz and this is the major component in agate. A second silica constituent is moganite with a concentration at 2 to 25%. Moganite is found in agate that has not been heated by metamorphism or in the laboratory. Together with alpha-quartz, they are usually the only forms of silica identified in agate. However, other forms of silica such as cristobalite and tridymite have been occasionally identified in agate. In agates from basic igneous hosts, calcite is a rarity, as demonstrated by an examination … Read More

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Pale white dot

Steven Wade Veatch (USA) and Vishwam Sankaran (India) “There’s nothing new under the sun” goes a famous saying and these words are very apt when trying to understand Earth’s climate trends. Thanks to numerous discoveries made about Earth’s ancient past, we now know that our climate has never been static. According to geological and palaeontological records, climate change has affected the Earth throughout geologic time. In this context, this is the second of a series of articles about climate change over geological time. The first is A warming medieval climate supports a revolution in agriculture by Steven Wade Veatch and Cheryl Bibeau. To understand climate change today, researchers study past climates and events that affect climates, such as volcanic activity, solar radiation, sunspot activity, astronomical changes and other factors that influence climate. Once we understand the dominoes that have fallen during the past climate change events, we can understand and predict – to some degree – the kind of patterns that may follow current trends. To do this, scientists piece together clues from past climates provided by rock formations. Scientists likewise examine fossil records that yield climate signals from the past. These fossils range from prehistoric pollen to dinosaurs. Putting both geological and fossil records together reconstructs ancient climates and environments. More recent climate change is studied through climate records held in polar ice caps and ice sheets, ice cores, glaciers, isotopes of elements (like oxygen, carbon and sulphurfur), soil sediments and tree rings. When we think of the term … Read More

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What’s so special about South Devon?

Professor John CW Cope (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff UK) Take a trip to the South Devon coast around Easter time and you are bound to come across student parties from universities engaged in fieldwork. What is it about this area that makes it so popular as a centre for this? The simple answer lies in a single word — variety. There is probably no other area in the UK where such a wide variety of rock types and ages is well-exposed in such a small geographical compass. Let’s have a look at some of the factors. The geological succession The oldest rocks exposed in South Devon are of Devonian age and, unlike many other areas of the UK, the Devonian rocks are in marine facies virtually throughout. Looking back over the history of geology, the age of these rocks had initially proved difficult to identify and it was only after Murchison had seen the marine successions in The Rhineland and Russia that he realised that these marine rocks were the equivalent of the Old Red Sandstone farther to the north. The Devonian rocks present a variety of marine facies, with the Middle Devonian limestones being of particular note. The limestones are a local development whose presence, in an otherwise deeper water succession, is due entirely to local shallowing of the water caused by thicknesses of volcanic rocks extruded along extensional fault lines as the local basins developed. This shallowing allowed reef-building organisms to flourish and the principal ones of … Read More

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Tongue-twisting horrors – or beauty – of the names of organisms: A Linnaean heritage

Mats E Eriksson (Sweden) Sometimes, your name is a tell-tale sign of who you are, or your heritage if you wish. Not too long ago, the surname Andersson logically enough meant “the son of Anders” in my native frozen northern country of Sweden. Albeit not necessarily the case any longer – and to be quite honest it very rarely is – if your family name is indeed Andersson, at least you probably come from, or have your roots in, Sweden. (In fact, Andersson is currently the most common family name in Sweden – it usually varies between that and Johansson as the alternative top competitor.) If your name is Li or Wang, you probably come from China and if you are a Smith, you are probably British or North American. Even your first name can reveal something about you – if you are a Gandalf, Frodo or a Leia (yes, they do exist as names even outside the book/movie screen characters), your parents (or you – if renamed) probably have seen too many movies. Finally, if I am allowed to express some prejudiced ideas only for the sake of this tale, if you answer to the name Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet or Diva, your folks are probably deeply involved in spiritualism or New Age culture (or your father was in fact the late, great Frank Zappa). Anyhow, along those lines, you can deduce the meaning of the scientific names of organisms, usually though with much higher precision. Depending on the … Read More

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Siri Scientific Press: A UK-based publisher specialising in palaeontology

David Penny (UK) I have written this article as a summary of how I established myself in the fossil publishing business because it might be of interest to a general readership. First, a little background about myself is in order. I have had a life-long interest in natural history, especially entomology and arachnology. After completing a BSc in Zoology (1994) I gained a PhD in fossils preserved in amber (1999). I did a one-and-a-half-year stint in a curatorial role at a university museum, followed by four and a half years of funded post-doctoral research. Following a short period of unemployment, I was offered a short-term post-doc in the USA. However, prior to taking up this position, I realised that there was much more to life than worrying about journal impact factors and where my next grant might come from. I also found some of the politics of academia particularly disagreeable and so decided to ‘give up’ science, although this was easier said than done. I disposed of all my worldly possessions, apart from (strangely enough) my amber books, research papers and my laptop, then moved to West Africa, where I found myself with a lot of free time. I kept myself busy wandering around the forests, photographing animals (mainly spiders and insects) and plants, in addition to recording field observations and collecting ecological data (I found it difficult not to do science). I also wrote a book on the topic I had been researching for more than a decade: Dominican … Read More

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Anthropocene: Should we designate a new epoch? A geologist’s perspective

David Wharton-Street (UK) Whatever your views, this is a subject that will not go away, and the concept of the Anthropocene is gaining more impetus and consideration as time goes by. In a nutshell, the Anthropocene has been proposed as a new third epoch of the Quaternary Period that directly relates to anthropogenic environmental impact on the Earth’s climate, land, oceans and biosphere, on a globally-recognisable scale. The Anthropocene would begin directly after the termination of the Holocene Epoch, but much debate and controversy currently relates to when exactly that date should be – should it begin thousands of years ago, perhaps relating to when our ancestors began widespread agricultural clearances? Should it begin with the Industrial Revolution or during the Second World War? In fact, some scientists even consider that it should begin as recently as the 1960s. Interestingly, the term ‘Anthropocene’ only came into being very recently, in 2000, when a Dutch Nobel Prize-winning chemist named Paul Crutzen made an off-the cuff comment at a press conference and, just a few years later, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) Working Group on the Anthropocene was formed. Paul Crutzen rightly drew attention to mankind’s influence on the planet and the need to guide society through man’s impact (mostly deleterious). The designation of ‘Anthropocene’ as the epoch of ‘mankind’s influence’ is used to enhance the gravity of the way that man is destabilising earth’s natural systems. However academically satisfying it is to promote a concept, it is quite a different … Read More

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Discovering dinosaurs in Britain: The significance of the British dinosaur record

Dean R Lomax (UK) Palaeontology and Britain In its simplest form, palaeontology is the study of prehistoric life, through examination of fossils. Palaeontology is, however, not just dinosaurs. Dinosaurs constitute a miniscule portion of what palaeontology is. After all, a myriad of different, and often down-right bizarre, organisms lived long before the dinosaurs and ended up as fossils under their feet. Regardless, the imagination and wonderment that dinosaurs create are why they are considered a symbol for palaeontology – they are a gateway into this most incredible of sciences. The geology and palaeontology in Britain is incredibly diverse. Rocks of almost every geological period are exposed and have been studied for hundreds of years. This provided a platform for geology and palaeontology to flourish and evolve. Some rather notable individuals include the geologist, William Smith – the ‘Father of Geology’. In 1815, Smith created the very first geological map of England, Wales and part of Scotland, a ground-breaking achievement. Incredible fossil discoveries found along the beach at Lyme Regis, by the greatest fossil hunter ever, Mary Anning, paved the way for the first scientific descriptions of large, extinct reptiles – the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. The Rev William Buckland provided the very first scientific description of a dinosaur – this would change the world. Fig. 1. The author pictured with dinosaur footprints at Hanover Point, Brook, Isle of Wight (2014). Our fascination and intrigue in studying and examining the rocks and fossils within has unlocked an ancient, alien world. If you … Read More

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Jurassic Coast (or is it?) with the Geologists’ Association

Mervyn Jones (UK) Since 2012, the Geologists’ Association (GA) has put on annual field trips to the Dorset coast led by Prof John CW Cope (of the National Museum Wales), who is author of the definitive Field Guide No 22. The second edition was published in April 2016 (Geology of the Dorset Coast (2nd ed)). In fact, the trips were started to celebrate the publication of the first edition of the guide. The Dorset Coast is often equated with the ‘Jurassic Coast’ when, in fact, the geology stretches from the topmost Triassic, near the Devon border, through Jurassic and Cretaceous successions, to Eocene deposits at Studland. For this and other reasons, it attracts amateur geologists in large numbers. John’s guide provides essential information including descriptions of the succession and practical guidance about access. What’s missing are the entertaining stories that John Cope can provide and the context provided by exploring inland a bit. Day 1 – Saturday (1 October) For our fifth field meeting, we met up in Lyme Regis (in the car park next to the newly-restored house originally owned by John Fowles – see below) – a town to stir the heart of any geologist. Our mission for the weekend was to look at the unconformity below the Cretaceous, as it oversteps the older Jurassic and Triassic strata progressively in a westerly direction. En route, we observed the instability of the cliffs and suffered the same ourselves, as we scrambled over the boulders and shingle. On this occasion, … Read More

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Armboth Dyke, Lake District

Mark Wilkinson (UK) The Armboth Dyke makes a good half day geology excursion in a scenic but quiet part of the UK Lake District. Parking is on the west shore of Thirlmere, in a pay-and-display car park accessed by the narrow road that winds around that side of the lake (Grid reference NY 305 172). The car park is in an excellent setting, with direct access to the wooded lake shore, and would be a great place for the non-geologically minded to wait while you venture onto the adjacent hill. It is probably worth noting at this point that the dyke itself is mostly exposed on rather featureless rolling moorland at around 400m above sea level (Fig. 1), and might not be a good place to visit in thick mist, unless you are very confident with a map and compass. If you happen to be in the business of teaching students to make geological maps, this site makes a great practise day, without too many problems of recognising weathered rocks in the field. Fig 1. Moorland with the dyke just visible as a slightly lighter patch of rock below the red arrow, where the edge of the dyke is exposed. University of Edinburgh students for scale. So, assuming you have decent weather, leave the car park and take the path uphill from the west side of the minor road, a few metres to the north of the car park. The path is steep-ish, and can be slippery if wet, so … Read More

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Seeing into the ‘Stone Age’: The stone tools of early man

Bob Markham (UK) In the early part of his evolution, man made great use of rock and stone to assist him in his activities. The term ‘Stone Age’ has been given to the period of time during which stone was the main material used for the manufacture of functional tools for daily life. It is generally thought to have commenced about 3.3Ma and was the time when man firmly established his position on earth as a ‘tool-using’ mammal. However, it should be remembered that stone was not the only material used for this purpose. More perishable materials, such as wood, reeds, bone and antler, were also used, but very few of these materials have survived to be found today (but see the box: Non-stone tools). Non-stone toolsA notable exception to the general rule that non-stone tools have not been preserved is the Palaeolithic wooden spear shaft that was recovered in 1911 from a site in Clacton in Essex. At 400,000 years old, the yew-wood spear is the oldest, wooden artefact that is known to have been found in the UK (see http://piclib.nhm.ac.uk/results.asp?image=001066).A number of wooden spears dating from 380,000 to 400,000 years ago were also recovered between 1994 and 1998 from an open-cast coal mine in Germany (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schoningen_Spears). Other items are found from time to time from peat-bog conditions, which offer the most favourable medium for the preservation of such material.The stones used to make tools Being a non-perishable material, stone has survived the ravages of time and is … Read More

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Fulgurites: With the look and shape of lightning bolts

Deborah Painter (USA) If the characteristics referred to in the title were their only quality, fulgurites would be fascinating. However, they have other unusual qualities that make them even more amazing. For example, some hold ancient air within that can offer a window into palaeo-environments. Fulgurites are natural tubes or, in the case of rock fulgurites, crusts of glass formed by the fusion of silica (quartz) from a lightning strike. They are categorised in four main types: clay, sand, caliche and rock fulgurites. In the case of the sand or clay fulgurites, the shape mimics the path of the lightning bolt as it enters the ground. All lightning strikes hitting the ground are capable of forming fulgurites, but not all lightning strikes will do so. A temperature of 1,800oC is required to melt sand and form a fulgurite, but this is not usually an impediment, since most lightning strikes have a temperature of 2,500oC. Fig. 1. North Carolina’s sand dunes are a popular place to find sand fulgurites. (Photo by D M Maxos.) In addition to the four main types mentioned above, there are the droplet fulgurites, which obviously resemble droplets, but, in composition, are similar to the clay and caliche fulgurites. Sand fulgurites tend to have rather fragile glass walls. Rock fulgurites are found not as discrete structures, but as veins or branching channels on a rock surface, or as a lining of fractures, which existed before the lightning strike. Fig. 2. A large (9cm) specimen. (Photo by Mark … Read More

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Fossil folklore: Fish

Paul D Taylor and Mike Smith (UK) Fish are the most diverse animals with backbones – that is, vertebrates – living today. Bone and teeth of fishes abound in the fossil record, from the armour-plated, primitive fishes of the Devonian, through the cartilaginous sharks with their shiny dagger-like teeth, to the bones of advanced ray-finned teleosts related to modern carp and cod. Along with other marine fossils, fossil fishes were once used as ‘proof’ of the biblical deluge, for example, the fabulous Cretaceous fossil fish deposits of Lebanon. Gayet et al. (2012) recorded that, in the third century, the Bishop of Palestine wrote: “That Noah’s Flood covered the highest mountains is for me the truth, and I say that the witness of my eyes confirms it: for I have seen certain fishes, which were found in my lifetime on the highest peaks in Lebanon. They took stones from there for construction, and discovered many kinds of sea fishes which were held together in the quarry with mud, and as if pickled in brine were preserved until our times, so that the mere sight of them should testify to the truth of Noah’s Flood”. Petrified nails Hugh Miller, in his book Foot-prints of the Creator (Miller, 1849), mentioned that amateur geologists of Caithness and Orkney would refer to one particular fossil in the Old Red Sandstone, presumably relatively common, as ‘petrified nails’ (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. A so-called ‘petrified nail’, about 150mm long, as depicted by Hugh Miller. These fossils represent … Read More

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Musée-Parc des Dinosaures (Dinosaur Museum-Park) in Mèze, France

Fred Clouter (UK) Just a few kilometres inland from the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France, and not too far from Montpellier, is an extraordinary theme park. Driving along the D613 from Mèze towards Pezenas, a life size model of a Spinosaurus comes into view perched high on an embankment. Apart from some other very small signs, this is the main indication that the park is nearby. Fig. 1. Spinosaurus seen from the road from Meze. The Musée-Parc des Dinosaures (Dinosaur Museum and Park near the town of Mèze in the department of Hérault and is the largest site museum in Europe to feature dinosaur eggs and bones. Children can embark upon an amazing scientific adventure with the help of simple words displayed on large explanatory notice boards that are both fun and educational. All along the pathway that winds through the shady pine trees, children and adults can go back in time as they follow the trail punctuated with skeletons and life-size reconstructions. Fig. 2. Entrance to the park with children’s area. Fig. 3. Carnivore skull display. Fig. 4. Triceratops skeletal reconstruction. Fig. 5. Triceratops diorama. The other museum park within the Mèze site features the origins and evolution of man – from man’s earliest fossil skulls from Africa and his evolutionary journey out of Africa towards Homo sapiens. As you walk around the park, there are various exhibits reconstructing scenes of life from the famous fossil skeleton named Lucy and the australopithecines from Africa, to the Neanderthals. … Read More

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Worm monstrosity: A giant extinct worm

Mats E Eriksson (Sweden) In a new study published in Scientific Reports (Earth’s oldest ‘Bobbit worm’ – gigantism in a Devonian eunicidan polychaete) by Luke A Parry of Bristol University in the UK, David M Rudkin of the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada and me (Mats E Eriksson of Lund University in Sweden), an extraordinary new species of polychaetes (that is, bristle worms – the marine relatives of earthworms and leeches) is described. The new species, Websteroprion armstrongi, is unique among fossil worms and possessed the largest jaws recorded from all of earth history, reaching over one centimetre in length and thus easily visible to the naked eye. Typically, such fossil jaws are only a few millimetres in size and must be studied using microscopes. Despite being only knows from the jaws, comparison of Websteroprion armstrongi with living species suggests that this animal achieved a body length in excess of a metre. This is comparable to that of ‘giant eunicid’ species, colloquially referred to as ‘Bobbit worms’, a name that is bizarrely enough derived from the infamous story of eye-watering amateur surgery involving Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt. Living ‘Bobbit worms’ are fearsome and opportunistic ambush predators, using their powerful jaws to capture prey, such as fish and cephalopods (squids and octopuses), and drag them into their burrows. Fig. 1. A photograph showing the holotype of Websteroprion armstrongi. (Photo by Luke Parry.) Gigantism in animals is an alluring and ecologically important trait, usually associated with advantages and competitive dominance. It … Read More

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Urban geology: A rostroconch in Hoofddorp

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) Part of my job is to provide service teaching for the University of Leiden. The university lacks a geology department, but my colleagues and I provide tuition in stratigraphy and palaeontology for life science students at the undergraduate and masters degree level. One of my favourite practical classes is a building stones tour of a part of Leiden that is rich in Mississippian (Lower Carboniferous) limestones, which are packed with fossils. These have been used for facing stones, external stairs and paving slabs. Many have been in place for some hundreds of years and many have been etched by slow solution by rainwater as a result. Common fossils include crinoid columnals, tabulate and rugose corals, brachiopods, and molluscs (Donovan, 2016; van Ruiten and Donovan, in review). These are most commonly seen in two dimensions and random sections, a different view of life to what the life scientists are usually accustomed. One group of fossils in these rocks were a mystery until recently, but we now know they are sections through rostroconchs (Donovan and Madern, 2016, p. 349), an extinct group of Palaeozoic molluscs. Rostroconchs were formerly considered to be an ancient group of bivalves and they are certainly bivalve-like in appearance, but lack an articulation of interlocking teeth and a ligament. That is, the shell is a univalve, a one-piece structure. I had only seen the sections of rostroconchs in building stones in Leiden. It was therefore gratifying, shortly after publication of these fossils, to … Read More

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Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): Using geology to fight climate change

Mark Wilkinson (UK) Practically everyone has an opinion on climate change by now, although for the vast majority of scientists, the weight of evidence is overwhelming – emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are causing climate change, sometimes referred to as global warming. One possible technology for fighting climate change is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in which geology plays an important role. In fact, future generations of geologists may be employed searching for CO2 storage sites in the subsurface, rather than for the more traditional search for oil and gas. The aim of CCS is simple – to allow the continuing use of fossil fuels while reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the long term, the burning of fossil fuels will probably cease, but until we can rely on renewable sources of energy, we are stuck with these fuels as a cheap and reliable energy source. CO2 is emitted during many activities, including driving cars and heating homes, but the largest single sources are fossil fuel power plants, which generate electricity, followed by industries, such as steel works and cement plants. It is these that most research has been focussed on. And, in principle, the technology is simple – capture the CO2 from a source (such as a power plant; Fig. 1) before it gets into the atmosphere, then transport it to a suitable storage site and inject it into the ground where it will remain for tens of thousands of years. Fig. … Read More

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Australia’s Polar Cretaceous mammals

Dr Thomas H Rich (Australia) The Cenozoic Era is commonly referred to as the ‘Age of Mammals’. That is certainly the time in the history of life when their fossils are most abundant and diverse. However, two-thirds of mammalian history was during the Mesozoic Era – and they appeared about the same time as the dinosaurs. All continents except Antarctica have some record of the early, Mesozoic mammals. Of those that do, Australia has the most meagre record of all. Despite this, with this landmass that today has the most distinctive terrestrial mammals on the planet, their Mesozoic origins are so enigmatic that it has motivated a major effort since 1984 to search for fossils of those mammals that lived alongside the dinosaurs on this now isolated continent. Fig. 1. A map of Australia showing the location of the four sites where Cretaceous mammals have been found on the continent. During the Cretaceous, Australia was much further south than at present. Shown here are the lines of latitude at that time on the continent: 50o south, 60o south and 70o south. The famous Lightning Ridge opal field has provided some of the answers – two different early Late Cretaceous egg-laying mammals (the monotremes), as well as a third mammal that may be a monotreme, have been discovered there. One thousand, three hundred kilometres to the south-southwest along shore platforms pounded by the waves of the Southern Ocean, which expose those rocks on south coast of the continent, are three sites … Read More

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All change at Selsey, West Sussex, UK

David Bone (UK) Issue 26 of Deposits magazine in the Spring of 2011 included my article on fossil collecting at Bracklesham Bay in West Sussex, following in the footsteps of my guide book on Fossil hunting at Bracklesham & Selsey, published in 2009. This area has been well known for the foreshore exposures of Palaeogene and Quaternary geology since the mid-nineteenth century and is still very much an area for popular fossil collecting, as well as research. Many readers will have been to Bracklesham or Selsey to collect sharks’ teeth and may have even been lucky enough to find a piece of mammoth bone or tooth. The scientific value of the area is recognised by much of the coastline being designated as a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest (or SSSI). However, this has been impacted by two major coastal defence schemes at Selsey that were completed in 2013, significantly changing access to the foreshore and any exposures of the geology, as well as rendering my guide book in need of a major update. In medieval times, Selsey was effectively an island, although this is no longer the case due to the construction of sea defences and land reclamation. However, Selsey remains a localised area of higher land surrounded by low-lying land prone to flooding (Fig. 1). It has also been an area of coastal erosion and loss of land to the sea throughout recorded history. The relatively unconsolidated Palaeogene and Quaternary sediments exposed in the low cliffs of the … Read More

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Hans Sloane’s fossil collection at the Natural History Museum, London

Dr Consuelo Sendino (UK) Sir Hans Sloane, the Founder of the British Museum, accumulated a large number of fossilised remains of animals and plants throughout his life. His collection, including curiosities from all around the known world, was acquired by the British Government in 1753 as part of Sloane’s bequest to the nation. It formed the core of the fossil collection of the Department of Natural History in the British Museum, and is now conserved in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum in London. Fig. 1. The statue of Sir Hans Sloane at Chelsea Physic Garden, London. This was unveiled on 30 April 2014 by a descendant of Sloane, Earl Cadogan. Hans Sloane (16 April 1660 – 11 January 1753) Hans Sloane was born on 16 April 1660 at 49 Frederick Street in Killyleagh, County Down in Ireland, although he was of Scottish ancestry. From a young age, Sloane showed an inclination for the study of natural history and medicine, collecting specimens from nearby Strangford Lough and as far afield as the Copeland Islands. He began studying medicine in 1679 in London, and finished his training in Paris and Montpellier in France, receiving his doctor of medicine degree at the University of Orange in France, on 28 July 1683. During this time, he was a frequent visitor to the Chelsea Physic Garden, established in 1673 by the Company of Apothecaries, as botany was considered to be fundamental to the medical curriculum. On his return to London, … Read More

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Erzberg Mine in Austria: An iron ore reserve with a long tradition

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) The Erzberg Mine is situated in the Austrian county of Styria. From a geological point of view, it belongs to the so-called greywacke zone, which represents a band of Palaeozoic metamorphosed sedimentary rocks intercalated between the Northern Limestone Alps and the Central Alps. The Erzberg Mine is the world’s largest deposit of the iron mineral siderite (FeCO3), which is mixed with ankerite (CaFe[CO3]2) and dolomite (CaMg[CO3]2). Due to this mixture of different mineral phases, the concentration of iron ranges from 22% to 40% and adopts an average value of 33%. The annual output amounts to about two million tons of iron ore, which is transported to blast furnaces in Linz and Leoben-Donawitz. According to current estimations, the ore reserves will allow mining activity for another 30 to 40 years. History of the Erzberg Mine There are lots of myths regarding the founding date of the iron mine on the Erzberg. According to the opinion of several scholars and a few written documents of dubious veracity, the mine was already established in the year 712, which would imply a use of the deposit by Slavic peoples. However, there exists better evidence that foundation of the mine took place in 1512, which was also the inauguration year of the Oswald church in the village Eisenerz. Fig. 1. The Erzberg Mine with its characteristic appearance, photographed from the north (Pfaffenstein). First documentary mention of the Erzberg Mine is from 1171. In the fourteenth century, the Reigning Prince of Styria … Read More

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Fossil crustaceans as parasites and hosts

Adiël Klompmaker (USA) Who would like to carry a parasite? I bet not many people would like to have one or more. They are nevertheless very common in humans and in other organisms, and can affect entire food webs including keystone species. They tend to be small compared to the host and the vast majority of them are soft-bodied. Despite their small size and soft appearance, they can affect the host substantially, for example, leading to a reduced growth rate and less offspring. Much of the same holds true for crustaceans – they are affected by parasites and can act as parasites themselves. For example, parasitic crustaceans are found among the isopods and copepods. Given the widespread occurrence of parasitism in and by crustaceans today, a fossil record of such parasitism may be expected. Swellings in fossil crabs and squat lobsters So what does the fossil record look like? I have been fortunate to have worked on this under-studied field of research. During my PhD research, I found various swellings in fossil crabs and squat lobsters (decapods from the superfamily Galatheoidea) during and after field work in northern Spain in reef carbonates from the mid-Cretaceous (upper Albian). They appeared to occur regularly in the back part of the carapaces of these crustaceans. Fig. 1. Bopyrid isopods from the species Orthione griffenis (large female and small male), removed from the right gill chamber of a modern mud shrimp (Upogebia pugettensis). (Photo by Stephen Ausmus, USDA Agricultural Research Service, http://www.bugwood.org.) This swelling … Read More

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Hutton’s unconformity and the birth of ‘Deep Time’

Dr Mark Wilkinson (UK) I sometimes ask a question to students in an introductory class about geology: “What is the most famous geological site in the world?” For students from the western hemisphere, the Grand Canyon in the USA is a popular choice. However, if you were to ask the same question to a group of geologists, you might get a different answer, and one option is Siccar Point on the coast some 65km southeast of Edinburgh in Scotland. Although the site itself is relatively modest, a gently sloping platform of rock partly washed by the sea at high tide, and it lacks the spectacular grandeur of the Grand Canyon, the historical significance easily outweighs the lack of scenic drama. I’ve taken several groups of visiting geologists to the site, and so far only one of them has knelt and kissed the ground, but the site could be considered to be one of the ‘holy’ sites of our science. It is difficult for most modern geologists to imagine the world when any interpretation of the geological record had to be constrained by the literal interpretation of the Bible. A particular problem is the short timescale of the account of the creation of the Earth in Genesis, and the age of the Earth as calculated by Bishop Ussher, who allowed only some 6,000 years for the whole of geological time. The person who is frequently credited with expanding geological time to the ‘deep time’ we know of today is James Hutton. … Read More

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Humble flint sea urchins and the stories they tell

Joe Shimmin (UK) Flint is a very hard-wearing rock from the chalk of the Upper Cretaceous. Whole beaches made of flint pebbles can be found many miles away from the chalk strata that the nodules originated in, owing to the rock’s ability to withstand the processes that destroy other rocks quickly. Flint sea urchins are especially hard-wearing, as their rounded shapes require a lot of force to damage, while less-rounded flints tend to break up over time if subjected to high-energy environments, such as beaches and fast-flowing rivers. Because of this robustness, it is possible to find flint urchins, which have undergone some very interesting journeys before being collected, adding to their interest for fossil hunters. Fig. 1. The hardness of flint and the rounded shape of flint urchins make them extremely robust fossils. All flints start off within chalk strata. Where these strata are exposed at the coast or in quarries and cuttings, it is possible to collect flint sea urchins, which, at first, look very much as if they are preserved like every other urchin found in chalk. They have a white calcite-replaced test and all that can be seen of the flint within is a slight blueish tint or maybe a glimpse of the nodule through the anal or oral apertures. Of course, flints can also be found that partially or fully envelop an urchin and, in these cases, highly aesthetic display pieces can sometimes occur. Fig. 2. Two of these pristine fossil urchins, extracted straight from … Read More

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