Fossil folklore: Some myths, monsters, swallows and butterflies

Paul D Taylor (UK) Myths are traditional stories embodying ancient yet false ideas. At the root of many myths lie unusual events, for example, extreme floods, or mysterious objects such as fossils. Numerous myths about different kinds of fossils can be found in the folklore of many countries around the world. Indeed, some ‘monsters’ or mythical creatures of legend – such as the Cyclops, griffins and dragons – may have their roots in findings of fossil bones. Angels’ Money and Slaves’ Lentils The Greek traveller and writer known as Strabo the Geographer (c. 63BC–21AD) visited the pyramids of Gizeh in Egypt, which were then some 2,500 years old (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. The pyramids of Gizeh, constructed of Eocene nummulitic limestone. The pyramids are constructed of Middle Eocene nummulitic limestone. Nummulites are a type of foraminifera. These single-celled protists lived on the seabed and secreted disc-like chambered shells up to 4cm in diameter (Fig. 2), the large size for animals having only one cell reflecting the presence of symbiotic algae in their tissues. Fig. 2. Eocene nummulites from Gizeh, Egypt. The block on the left contains both large and small specimens, ‘Angels’ Money’ and ‘Slaves’ Lentils, respectively. On the right are three specimens of ‘Angels’ Money’, weathered out of the limestone matrix. Fossil nummulites drop out of the limestone at Gizeh after weathering. Picking up examples of these fossils, Strabo was informed that they were the petrified remains of the food belonging to the workers who built the pyramids. Strabo … Read More

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Cryptic crab caves in Caenozoic corals

Adiël A Klompmaker (USA) Modern coral reefs harbour a large number of cryptic species: species that are either small and/or well hidden in the nooks and crannies of the reef framework. Examples include certain fish, stomatopods, shrimps and crabs. One such group consists of members of the Cryptochiridae family or cryptic crabs. These are small, usually much less than 10mm carapace length, and fragile, because much of their exoskeleton is poorly calcified. The phylogeny, systematics and ecology of these crabs have been an active field of research during the last few years, especially due to work of Sancia van der Meij (Naturalis Biodiversity Center, now at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History) and colleagues. The number of species known has increased notably from about about 45 in 2011 to 52 species in 2016. Along with the discovery of new taxa of these cryptic species, the placement in the Grapsoidea superfamily has been rejected and the Cryptochiridae are now firmly placed in the Cryptochiroidea superfamily. Domiciles in corals This group relies heavily on corals for protection, because all of the more than 50 species live in domiciles within the corals. Most of them can be found in circular to oval or crescent-shaped holes or pits (Fig. 1), whereas only two species make true galls in which the females reside. All species that live in holes are oriented face-forward. The holes are probably caused by a combination of the crabs’ ability to kill a polyp and plus subsequent removal of some … Read More

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Giant’s Causeway (Part 2): Other volcanic highlights

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) This is the second and final part of an article on the volcanic highlights of Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and surrounds. For the first part, see Giant’s Causeway (Part 1): An introduction.) We were in the area for several days and the weather was fairly mixed, but there were glorious skies between the showers, and the high winds brought the waves up beautifully. Of the six highlights discussed below, we visited the first three in one day, as all were a few kilometres to the west of The Giant’s Causeway. Those to the east, we visited on another day. Fig. 1. A map of some of the highlights. They are all supremely interesting and give an idea of the range of volcanic features to be seen. You cannot see an actual, traditional volcano in Antrim, with its classic shape. However, you can visit many scattered and varied elements of the area’s vulcanicity, and so gain an appreciation of the overall picture. Fig. 2. Fanciful cross section of highlights. 1. Deep lava flows forming the Causeway Basalts and their columnar basalt features. Found at The Giant’s Causeway and Ballintoy Harbour. 2. Beds of red ‘laterite’ rocks and soils buried by the later lava flows. Seen along the whole coast, especially east of the Giant’s Causeway. 3. Multiple relatively thin lava flows forming the Lower Basaltic Series. Seen at The Giant’s Causeway area and Dunluce Castle. 4. Dykes bringing magma towards the surface through fissures of cracks in … Read More

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Jamaica’s geodiversity (Part 2): Highlights from the Neogene

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) and Trevor A Jackson (Trinidad) This is the second and concluding part of our introduction to Jamaica’s geodiversity. Here, we are concerned with more Neogene ‘highlights’ dating from the Middle or Late Miocene, about 10mya, when the island became, once again, sub-aerially exposed. The glossary provided in Part 1, as well as the maps (Donovan & Jackson, 2012, figs 1 and 2), are also relevant to this article and first appearance of the relevant terms in the text are highlighted in bold italics. Highlights 1 to 5 were discussed in Part 1 and 6 to 12 are described below. Highlight 6. Wait-A-Bit Cave Jamaica is a land of caves and sinkholes (Fincham, 1977). About two thirds of the rocks exposed at the surface of the island are limestones, which are soluble in acidic groundwaters, that is, those that are more or less rich in dissolved CO2. The percolation of these waters ‘excavated’ extensive cave systems throughout Jamaica, mainly by dissolution, since the island was sub-aerially exposed about 10mya (Miller, 2004). Wait-a-Bit Cave, south of Green Town in the parish of Trelawny (Fig. 1), is unusual among these myriad caves for reasons apart from its euphonious name. Fig. 1. Cave survey and selected passage cross-sections (A-A’ to G-G’) of the Wait-a-Bit Cave, parish of Trelawny, Jamaica (after Miller & Donovan, 1996, text-fig. 2). The thick dashed line to the west of E’, and south of F’ and G’, marks the edge of the limestone overhang from … Read More

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Highlights from the Museum am Löwentor in Germany

Jack Wilkin (UK) The Museum am Löwentor in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, is one of the world’s greatest depositories of fossils. The museum was founded in 1985 and, since then, it has built up a vast collection of over 4.1 million fossils and has a 3,500m2 exhibition space, spilt over two levels. It is organised in chronological order. As you progress through the building, you can trace the evolution of life on Earth from the first cells all the way to the present, telling a more-or-less complete story of Germany’s geological history. This brief article will focus on just a few of the highlights at the museum. The amber collection The museum houses roughly 30,000 amber specimens from around the world, including samples from the Dominican Republic, the Baltics and the Lebanon, to name just a few places. The highlights of the collection include the largest piece of amber in the world from the Miocene of Borneo, as well as the world’s biggest damselfly and dragonfly inclusions. Triassic vertebrates There is an extensive collection of Triassic vertebrates from Baden-Württemberg, including, not just complete skeletal reconstructions, but also realistic life models. Fig. 1. Exhibits at the museum.One group that is featured in the exhibit were the placodonts – an enigmatic group of marine reptiles that superficially resemble turtles, although the two groups are unrelated. Many species, such as Placodus gigas, had large, flat teeth designed for crushing shells. The apex land predator of Central Europe at the time was the 5.6m, Batrachotomus. It … Read More

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Sub-fossils in copal: An under-valued resource

Dr David Penney and Dr David I Green (UK) Copal (derived from the Spanish copalli meaning incense), the precursor of amber, is subfossilised tree resin not old or polymerised enough to be classed as amber. Given that the transformation of resin into copal and then into amber is dependent on factors such as temperature and pressure, there is no set age at which one turns into the other and the nomenclature (with respect to age) of these different transitional stages is still being debated. Some authors have proposed an arbitrary age of 2Ma to demarcate the transition from copal to amber, whereas others have suggested classifying anything that can be carbon dated as copal and anything too old for radiocarbon dating as amber. The debate continues and it seems that the age at which copal becomes amber will remain controversial for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, reaching a consensus terminology has been hampered by both amber researchers and dealers complicating the issue with terms such as sub-fossil resin, young amber, copal amber and so on. Fig. 1. Orb-web spider (Araneae: Araneidae) in Colombian copal. (From the collection of S Shawcross.) Nonetheless, copal preserves insects and other arthropods in the same way as amber and, given the younger age, the inclusions are often preserved with stunning, life-like fidelity. Remarkably, and in contrast to amber, very little research has focused on inclusions in copal because of its young age relative to amber. Such specimens are not deemed old enough to be of any … Read More

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Jamaica’s geodiversity (Part 1): Introduction and some older highlights (Cretaceous to Miocene)

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) and Trevor A Jackson (Trinidad) With a length of only about 240km, Jamaica cannot be considered a large island. It is also relatively ‘young’ geologically, the oldest rocks being only about 140myrs old. This might sound old enough, but contrast it with, for example, rocks in the islands of the Scottish Outer Hebrides, which are about 2,000myrs old. But Jamaica is nevertheless noteworthy in having a rich diversity of rock types and geological features, and it is rightly known for its high biodiversity, both on land and in the surrounding seas. To give one example, the 500 or more species of extant land snails make Jamaica a biodiversity ‘hot spot’ for these familiar molluscs. However, Jamaica should similarly be recognised as a geodiversity hot spot, with a range of geological and physiographic features, strata and fossils that make it an unusually fruitful focus for earth sciences research. We could support our bold assertion by a detailed exposition with tabulation of principal features and comparison with similar-sized islands elsewhere, although such an approach would perhaps be better suited to a dry research journal. The potential for producing such a long, boring discursion is large and we intend to avoid the temptation to do so. Rather, we want to illustrate Jamaica’s geodiversity by reference to a dozen key features. These are available for inspection to anyone who is interested and which we will describe in two articles in Deposits. The choice of these features is personal – … Read More

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Invertebrate fossils from the Lower Muschelkalk (Triassic, Anisian) of Winterswijk, The Netherlands

Henk Oosterink (The Netherlands) During the Muschelkalk part of the Ansian (240mya), the Central European area (Germany, Poland, Denmark, The Netherlands and north-eastern France) was covered by a shallow sea, referred to as the Muschelkalk Sea. While there were frequent regressions and transgressions (leading to both marine and terrestrial fossil being present in these regions), it is from this sea that the limestones from this quarry were deposited and in which most of the fossilised animals discussed in this article lived. The quarry in the Muschelkalk at Winterswijk, in the east of the Netherlands (Fig. 1), is especially well known for the skeletons, bones, footprints and tracks of Middle Triassic reptiles. I wrote about these in Issues 15 and 20 of Deposits. However, fossils of invertebrates, such as molluscs, brachiopods and arthropods can also be found. Included in the molluscs are bivalves, cephalopods and gastropods, and from the brachiopods, the Inarticulata are present. From the arthropods, there are Malacostraca, Merostomata and insects. Fig. 1. Lower Muschelkalk quarry near Winterswijk (Eastern Netherlands). Mollusca Bivalves Some strata contain a large number of moulds of bivalves. These are situated quite high in the profile and, if you find this level, it is important to split the rock along an irregular dark-grey line (Fig. 2). If you do this, you will find the moulds of the convex upper side of the separated shells on one slab, with the negative impression visible on the other. This makes clear that these are valves swept together by … Read More

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Giant’s Causeway (Part 1): An introduction

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) This is the first of two articles on the volcanicity of the Giant’s Causeway and the surrounding area. The Causeway itself is an area of basalt columns, about 100m or so across, jutting into the Irish Sea. A remnant of a vast ancient lava flow, it is located in a coastal strip that is lavishly scattered with other superb volcanic features. The whole area is both beautiful and fascinating, and neither spoilt in any way, nor over-crowded out of season. We (my wife Chris and I) went there because I had a few days’ work in Northern Ireland and it seemed like a good idea to combine this with a short break during an October, half-term school holiday. Fig. 1. The Giant’s Causeway, battered by curling waves, becomes a sunlit wonderland in the evening light of autumn. The geology of the Giant’s Causeway The long-held theory that the Causeway was created by an Irish giant called Finn MacCool in Middle Earth times has – sadly – been discredited. Around 60mya (in early Tertiary times), great masses of molten rock were rising from the depth of the earth’s mantle, probably centred beneath present-day Greenland. These nation-sized ‘lava-lamps’ are collectively considered to be a ‘hot spot’, now known as the ‘Iceland Plume’. They split the earth-wide continent of Pangaea apart in great cracks that were aligned roughly northwest to southeast. This was sufficient to split the land apart on a vast scale, beginning the opening of the Atlantic … Read More

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Geoscience highlights from the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Ruel A Macaraeg (USA) Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is among the world’s leading academic institutions and natural science is one of its most celebrated programs. Since its founding in the seventeenth century, the university has been a repository for specimens of scientific curiosity. Over time, these grew into three comprehensive reference collections – the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria and the Harvard Mineralogical Museum. Selections from these were eventually gathered into the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which, in 1998, opened to the public alongside the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology with which it shares a building. Though retaining separate names and administration, the HMNH and PMAE are physically connected, and visitors to either gain entry to both with a single ticket. As one of these more recent visitors, I will share some brief impressions of the major palaeo and geoscience exhibits below. Mineralogical and geological gallery Geology displays worldwide tend to look the same – rows of labelled rocks grouped into categories in ascending shelves. Harvard’s geological gallery follows this pattern, but is distinguished by the inclusion of several large and notable mounts. Chief among these are two very large rocks, a gypsum crystal (Fig. 1) and an amethyst (Fig. 2). Fig. 1. Gypsum. Fig. 2. Amethyst. There are also several, well-preserved meteorites from locations across North America, some of which are shown in Fig. 3. Fig. 3. Meteorites. Fossil mammals A narrow, winding hallway somehow manages to display quite a few large Cainozoic … Read More

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Other mass extinctions

Neal Monks (UK) The extinctions at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K/T) boundary make up what is probably the most famous geological event in popular culture. This is the point when the great reptiles that characterise the Mesozoic went extinct. Alongside the dinosaurs, the giant marine reptiles died out too, as did the pterosaurs, and a whole host of marine invertebrates, including the ammonites and belemnites. What happened? Some geologists argue the climate changed over a period of a million years or more, thanks to the massive volcanism that created the Deccan Traps in India. Others maintain that the K/T extinctions happened suddenly, pointing to evidence of a collision between the Earth and an asteroid. Perhaps there wasn’t a single cause, but rather a variety of factors: volcanism, climate change, asteroid impact, underlying changes in flora and fauna, and perhaps even variation in the output of the Sun and resulting weather patterns. That life on Earth can be wiped out this way is the stuff of disaster movies as much as TV documentaries. However, what comes as a surprise to many people is that there wasn’t just one mass extinction at the K/T boundary, but a whole series of them that can be observed throughout the fossil record. One of them, the Permo-Triassic extinctions, appear to have been even more catastrophic than the K/T extinctions, and at least three other extinction events are comparable in scale. In between these five big extinctions were lots of smaller extinctions that aren’t well studied, but had … Read More

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Giant trilobites and biotite nodules in Portugal

Peter Perkins (UK) The generally accepted reason for the fame of Arouca is Princess Mafalda, born 1195, who was responsible for the convent becoming Cistercian. Here is an interesting story – she was beatified in 1793. However, I won’t go into that now, but it is well worth investigating. For this article, there are other reasons for its fame, at least among geologists. Arouca is 38km to the south east of Oporto, in northern Portugal, and gives its name to one of two geoparks in Portugal. In Arouca Geopark (Fig. 1), which has an area of 330km2 (just a little smaller than the Isle of Wight), there are two quite remarkable geological features, one palaeontological and the other concerning igneous petrology. Fig. 1. Map of Arouca Geopark. A geopark is an area of significant size that has a particular geological heritage, with a certain number of sites of special importance – scientific quality, rarity, aesthetic appeal and educational value. It must also have a sustainable strategy for development to be accepted as a member of the worldwide network of geoparks. There are 42 in Europe, in 16 countries. The other Portuguese Geopark is Naturtejo, through which the River Tagus flows. There are nine geoparks in the British Isles, for example, NW Highlands (Scotland), Copper Coast (Ireland), Fforest Fawr (Wales) and the English Riviera. The website, http://www.europeangeoparks.org, gives website addresses for all. The geology of Portugal is very complex. There are no strata younger than Triassic, except for Holocene deposits in … Read More

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New museum in northern Greece: The Siatista Historical Paleontological Collection, the first record of a stegodon in Europe and the making of the straight-tusked elephant

Dick Mol (The Netherlands), Evangelia Tsoukala (Greece), Evangelos Vlachos (Greece), Anna Batsi (Greece), Hans Wildschut (The Netherlands), Dimitra Labretsa (Greece) and Wilrie van Logchem (The Netherlands) The Historical Palaeontological Collection of Siatista (HPCS), housed in a school building in Siatista, Kozani, Macedonia in Greece, was studied by the authors during the summer of 2009. The collection was assembled by local people from 1902 onwards, under the initiative of Nikolaos Diamantopoulos. Anastasios Danas, a high school teacher at the Trampantzeion Gymnasium in Siatista, was the main collector and he founded the Siatista’s palaeontological collection in 1906. The recovered records of the collection are minimal and it is not always clear from which locality the fossils were collected. However, the archived documents indicate that all the fossils were collected in the larger region of Siatista. Fig. 1. Replica of the Pleistocene straight-tusked elephant, Elephas antiquus, the eyecatcher of the Siatista Museum In 1972, Prof Ioannis Melentis, famous for his studies and publications on the fossil proboscideans of Greece, realised the importance of the collection and, in 1980, he became involved in the study and management of the collection, which was officially donated to the community of Siatista in 1994. The first exhibition was held in the Trampantzeion in 1982. In 2011, the collection was put on display in this beautiful building in Siatista, which was built in 1888. In a short time, it became one of the attractions of Siatista, telling the story of the large pachyderms that once roamed the northern … Read More

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New look for Utahraptor

Kenneth Carpenter (USA) One hundred and twenty eight million years ago, a killer stalked eastern Utah. Known as Utahraptor, this distant relative of Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame was also equipped with a sickle-claw on its hind feet. The name means “Utah’s raptor” with “raptor” being the informal name commonly (but incorrectly) used for the sickle-clawed dromaeosaurid theropods. Utahraptor was named in 1993 by Dr James Kirkland for bones from the Gaston Quarry (also known as Yellow Cat Quarry), north of Arches National Park. The Gaston Quarry occurs in the lower part of the Yellow Cat Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation. The presence of an ankylosaur related to Polacanthus at the Gaston Quarry suggests that the Yellow Cat Member is the same age as the Wealden Formation on the Isle of Wight, in other words, it lived 125 to 130mya. A radiometric date of 126 +2.5mya was obtained from the Yellow Cat Member which supports the dinosaur evidence for the age. Utahraptor has been found at several other sites in the Yellow Cat Member, so must have been relatively widespread in the region. Nevertheless, most of this material remains undescribed. Fig. 1. Some of the bones used in the original description of Utahraptor (scale is 10cm). Casts of these and other bones were used to make a new reconstruction. Until recently, what Utahraptor looked like relied a great deal on imagination. Several recent scientific studies have shown that Utahraptor is related to Achillobator, a dromaeosaurid from the middle of … Read More

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Fossil of hairy, squirrel-sized creature sheds light on evolution of earliest mammals

Kevin Jiany (USA) It appears that a 165myr-old omnivore may have had an armadillo-like gait. A newly discovered fossil has revealed the evolutionary adaptations of a 165myr-old proto-mammal, providing evidence that traits such as hair and fur originated well before the rise of the first true mammals. University of Chicago scientists have described the biological features of this ancient mammalian relative, named Megaconus mammaliaformis, in the August 2013 issue of Nature. As Zhe-Xi Luo, professor of organismal biology and anatomy told me We finally have a glimpse of what may be the ancestral condition of all mammals, by looking at what is preserved in Megaconus. It allows us to piece together poorly understood details of the critical transition of modern mammals from pre-mammalian ancestors,” . Fig. 1. A new Jurassic fossil, Megaconus mammaliaformis, was recovered in the Inner Mongolia region of China, at the famous Daohugou fossil site in the Tiaojishan Formation, which is dated to be 165myrs old. The site is northeast of Beijing. Megaconus comes from a group of primitive mammal relatives, predating modern mammal ancestors. Luo shared the details of this discovery with me during the summer of 2103 at a meeting in his third-floor office in the Anatomy Building on the UChicago campus. Discovered in Inner Mongolia, China, Megaconus is one of the best-preserved fossils of the mammaliaform groups, which are long-extinct relatives of modern mammals. Dated to be about 165myrs-old, Megaconus co-existed with feathered dinosaurs in the Jurassic, nearly 100myrs before Tyrannosaurus rex roamed the … Read More

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Geology and fossil fauna of the South Ferriby foreshore

John P Green (UK) The large working quarry at South Ferriby, North Lincolnshire (SE991204) is a well known and productive source of Late Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils, exposing beds from the Upper Oxfordian stage, Upper Jurassic (Ampthill clay, Ringsteadia psuedocordata zone) to the Terebratulina lata zone of the Turonian stage (Welton Chalk Formation, Upper Cretaceous). Research on the stratigraphy and palaeontology of the site has been carried out by many authors, and a generalised section detailing the overall stratigraphy and macrofossil occurrences was published by the local amateur geologist, Dr Felix Whitham (1992). However, in recent years, access to the quarry for geologists has been relatively curtailed due to health and safety concerns. In light of this, my research at South Ferriby has shifted to the nearby geological exposures on the easily accessible foreshore, on the southern banks of the Humber Estuary. Fig. 1. South Ferriby foreshore, looking east. In general terms, the beds exposed on the South Ferriby foreshore tilt eastward, exposing the older (Jurassic) rocks to the west and the younger (Cretaceous) rocks to the east. The exposures are largely wave-cut platforms, accessible only at low tide, and are often covered with sand and estuarine sediments, as well as a large variety of erratic rocks and fossils. Especially prominent among the latter are carboniferous corals and limestones, Cretaceous flints, the Jurassic oyster, Gryphaea, and specimens of the Cretaceous (Late Campanian) belemnite, Belemnitella mucronata, most likely derived from chalk of this age that floors the North Sea. The low … Read More

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West Coast Fossil Park, Western Cape, South Africa

Margaret A Dale (UK) While planning a touring holiday, which encompassed part of the west coast of South Africa, I spotted the words “fossil park” on the map, about 150km north of Cape Town, some distance from a village called Langebaanweg. Intrigued to find out more, I searched the Internet to determine if it was accessible to the public and, if so, its opening times. I found nothing. Not to be deterred, my husband and I decided that, once we were in the country, the usual tourist literature would give us the required information. Unfortunately, once again, there was nothing. So, determined not to be defeated, we drove to the area in the hope we could find it and visit it. Fortunately, we managed both. The fossils in the park date back to the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras (Fig. 1). These are important periods in human evolution, since it is believed that the last common ancestor of humans and our closest living relatives – chimpanzees – lived during this period. Mio-Pliocene hominid fossils are extremely rare and have only ever been found in East Africa and not among the deposits found at the West Coast Fossil Park to date. Fig. 1. One of the many partly excavated fossil beds. With more than 200 different kinds of animals being identified, the park possibly represents: The greatest diversity of 5 to 5.2myr-old animal fossils found anywhere in the world; andThe richest fossil bird site older than 2myrs in the world.The … Read More

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First description of dinosaur fossils by Al-Andalusī in the twelfth century

Dr Ahmed K Al-Rawi (The Netherlands) Western sources refer to a few scholars who were the pioneers in describing huge fossilised animals that are now known to be the remains of the long extinct dinosaurs. Around 1677, the British scholar, Robert Plot, was widely believed to have written the first description of a dinosaur fossil, after finding a fossilised object, which looked like the bones of a giant creature (Haven, 2007, p. 67; Parsons, 2004, p.15; Fastovsky & Weishampel, 2009, p. 309; Martin, 2009, p. 57). However, Plot was not able to identify the fossil, assuming first that it belonged to an elephant; and he later suggested that it belonged to giant human beings: There happily came to Oxford while I was writing of this, a living Elephant to be shown publickly at the ACT, An. 1676, with whose Bones … I compared ours; and found those of the Elephant not only of a different Shape, but also incomparably different to ours, though the Beast were very young and not half grown. If then they are neither the Bones of Horses, Oxen, nor Elephants, as I am strongly persuaded they are not… It remains, that (notwithstanding their extravagant Magnitude) they must have been the bones of Men or Women: Nor doth any thing hinder but they may have been so, provided it be clearly made out, that there have been Men and Women of proportionable Stature in all Ages of the World, down even to our own Days” (Plot, 1677, … Read More

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On fossil beaked whales, phosphorites and ocean floors

Klaas Post (The Netherlands) In 2007, the vessel, Anita, was fishing with bottom gillnets in about 400m-deep waters northwest of the island of Mykines in the Faroe Islands (about 62˚05’N-09˚28’W). One day, fisherman Bjarni Jacobsen from the village of Sumba in the Faroe Islands, observed a strange object in the nets. At first sight he thought it was a peculiar stone (stones often get entangled in the nets). However, he soon realised that it had to be something different and put the object aside. He later believed it to be a bone or a head of a large animal or reptile and – acknowledging that fossils of large mammals or reptiles are unknown in the Faroe Islands – handed it over to a local museum. After time and much travel, the enigmatic object was identified as a rostrum – the anterior part of the skull – of the 10 to 8myr-old extinct beaked whale, Choneziphius planirostris (Post & Jensen, 2013). Fig. 1. The Anita rostrum; dorsal and lateral view.Beaked whales The shy, deep diving and squid-eating beaked whales (Ziphiidae) are, after the dolphins (Delphinidae), the most species-rich family of extant cetaceans (with 22 living species). Their obscure behaviour is the reason that some of the species were – until a few years ago – never seen and just known from skulls found on distant beaches. They range from medium sized (3m – the pygmy beaked whale, Mesoplodon peruvianus) to up to very large animals (12m – Baird’s beaked whale, Berardius … Read More

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Miocene, mud and more: Miste 2013

Bram Langeveld (The Netherlands), Colin van Elderen (The Netherlands) and Stef Mermuys (The Netherlands) ‘Miste’… This word has an almost magical meaning for many fossil collectors in The Netherlands and neighbouring countries. That is because the extremely fossiliferous Miste Bed lies close to the surface around the municipality of Winterswijk-Miste, which, in turn, lies close to the Dutch-German border in the Eastern Netherlands (Fig. 1). The Miste Bed (Aalten Member, part of the Breda Formation) was deposited about 15Ma (during the Middle Miocene), in a shallow subtropical sea. The fossils preserved in the sandy sediments are extremely diverse: over 600 species of molluscs (Janssen, 1984; Parren, 2005) and dozens of species of sharks, rays (Bor et al, 2012) and bony fish (Hoedemakers and Van Hinsbergh, 2013) have been found, but also marine mammals (Schneider & Hessig, 2005), sea stars (Jagt, 1991), sea urchins, bryozoans and corals. Fig. 1: Overview of the Miste dig, with many enthusiastic collectors (photo by Ronald Pouwer). Inset: map of The Netherlands (drawing by Jerry Streutker) showing the location of Miste (red dot). However, this fossil wealth is not easily accessible. To be able to assemble a decent collection, you need to dig a rather large exposure. Establishing a large hole reaching into the Miste Bed is a lot of work, because you need to excavate approximately 4m on private property. A number of digs have previously been organised at Miste, of which at least three were by the Dutch ‘Werkgroep voor Tertiaire en Kwartaire Geologie’ … Read More

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Dinosaur track investigation

Jack Shimon (USA) My “Fossil Grandpa” took me to visit this neat site when I was in Texas last summer (2013). We drove to a small rural community, where it seemed there wasn’t anything to find. However, my Grandpa pointed out me to a small trail, full of flowers that Jane (my sister) had stopped to admire, which eventually led down a steep trail into the riverbed. This was definitely not a popular hiking trail and I doubt many people (except geologists) have been to this spot. The site is an ‘Earthcache’, which, in the USA, is a type of geological site that teaches you about a unique geoscience feature. I have been to several Earthcaches in Texas and to at least four in other states (Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina and Florida); and have learned some interesting lessons. Here, our job was to study the dinosaur tracks and answer some questions. Fig. 1. Jane and me at the dinosaur tracks. We are each standing by a footprint. (Photo by Julie Shimon.) What type of dinosaur made these tracks? A theropod like Velociraptor or T-rex, or maybe even the recently discovered Lythronax argestes? It must have been some type of carnivorous predator; and to think I was standing right where it walked so long ago. It was a little frightening to imagine one coming along and what that would be like in real life. Fig. 2. Dinosaur track. (Photo by Julie Shimon.) The first task was to measure the stride. The … Read More

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Encountering desert deposits in Oman

Clarissa Wright (UK) Oman is a geologically fascinating country, where the bedrock beautifully exposes a one-billion-year history. I had the opportunity to explore this country in a group expedition, during which we pursued our own scientific studies from January to March 2014. My geological observations during the expedition were opportunistic and involved a variety of sights, having traversed from east to west from Muscat, across the dusty plains of the Empty Quarter (Rub’ Al Khali) desert to the Dhofar Mountains of Qamar. Rub’ Al Khali: The Empty Quarter desert The Empty Quarter desert is the largest sand desert expanse in the world (Peter Vincent, 2008) and is considered to have great oil prosperity under the dunes. The desert may lack bedrock exposure, but it is home to some unexpected sedimentary deposits. We found the light golden sand to be littered with brown bubbly balls – geodes (Fig. 1). When broken open, the insides are glazed with white calcite crystals sparkling in the desert sun. These had formed when rock cavities filled with crystallised calcite. In time, these balls of calcite weathered out from the host rock, before being transported by water and deposited here on the desert plains. Fig. 1. Geode in the Empty Quarter desert. These were not the only interesting deposits found. Strangely shaped pebbles of flint and dark metallic-like forms also lay here (in an area previously documented to have archaeological interest). One can see how these appear to have been hand carved by humans thousands of … Read More

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Warming medieval climate supports a revolution in agriculture

Steven Wade Veatch and Cheryl Bibeau (USA) In the light of our current worries about climate change and global warming, this is the first a series of articles for Deposits that covers significant climate changes that have occurred in the geological past and times when the earth’s climate was hugely different from what we know today. However, this first one covers a slightly more recent event – the Medieval Warm period. The twenty-first century has had some of the hottest temperatures on record, but there was another period that was just as warm or warmer. The Medieval Warm Period (approximately 900–1300 AD), refers to the time when temperatures in Europe and nearby regions of the North Atlantic are thought to have been similar to, or in some places exceeded, temperatures of the late twentieth century. Researchers believe changes in the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean brought warmer waters to the North Atlantic and neighbouring regions, causing warming temperatures. The Medieval Warm Period was followed by the Little Ice Age (approximately 1300-1850 AD), a period of cooling that brought colder winters and advancing glaciers to parts of Europe and North America that lasted well into the nineteenth century. Scientists have evidence of this unusual warming period through indirect estimates of temperatures based on climate indicators that include tree rings, Greenland ice cores, ocean sediments and, in certain regions, written evidence of crop yields. There are even recorded dates when leaves come out and when flowers bloom in the spring. Records show … Read More

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Sand for arenophiles

 Dawn Walker (UK) As long as I can remember, I have collected interesting bits of rock, looking at their shapes and colours, and wondering what they were. This was fine as long as I had a garden shed of my own to keep them all in. I read some geology as a hobby and began to recognise a few of them, but then age caught up with me and I had to move to a smaller flat and there is simply no room for more rocks. In fact, I had to dispose of many of my old ones. Eventually, it dawned on me that sand is also rock, although made up of rather small pieces, and would not take up too much room, so why not collect that? After all, I was living at the seaside. Fig. 1. These translucent green grains from South Point, Hawaii, are olivine. The pounding surf erodes a forty-nine-thousandyear- old volcanic cinder cone made of olivine. As the cone erodes, the olivine crystals become beach sand. Very few beaches consist of pure olivine; however, if there is olivine in a sand, that indicates it is a volcanic region. Magnified 250 times. I really thought I had invented this hobby and was amazed to discover on the Internet that I was an arenologist or possibly an arenophile (from the Latin arena, meaning sand). There is an International Sand Collectors Society in America, which I joined, and now have email friends all over the place, with whom … Read More

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Emeralds from the Hohe Tauern (Austria): A precious stone with a long history

Dr Robert Sturm (Australia) The mineral, emerald, represents the green variety of the hexagonal silicate mineral beryl, which has the chemical formula Be3Al2Si6O18. Its colour may be interpreted as the result of the addition of vanadium and chromium ions into the crystal lattice. In fact, the etymology of the word “emerald” is derived from Vulgar Latin, where esmeralda (f.) or esmeraldus (m.) represented a commonly spoken variant of Latin smaragdus, which itself originates from the Greek smaragdos for “green gem”. From a historical point of view, the beginnings of emerald mining are in Ancient Egypt, where gem stones were already being unearthed in the fifthteenth century BC. The famous emerald mines located in Sikait and Sabara supplied Europe with precious minerals for more than thousand years. The gemstone was also highly sought after by the monarchs of India, Persia and the Ottoman Empire, such that it became an important merchandise. When South America fell under the domination of the Spanish crown, the European conquerors were confronted with a vivid emerald trade that ranged from Columbia to Chile and Mexico. In 1573, the Columbian Muzo mine was captured by the Spanish army and thereafter represented the most important production site in the world for emerald of gem quality. Nowadays, emerald is a highly esteemed gemstone achieving similar prices as equally sized diamonds. Due to the high demand, it is also produced synthetically. The process was developed by IG Farben in 1935, but satisfactory results were only achieved by Johann Lechleitner in … Read More

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Geology of islands

 Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) Islands are attractive places to visit, not just for geologists. Nonetheless, for us, they provide three advantages that favour collecting and research in the Earth Sciences. One of the attractions of an island is its small size in comparison with continents. The corollary of this small size is its relatively long coastline. Assuming that our island is not the mound of sand with a palm tree so loved by cartoonists, a long coastline indicates abundant exposures of rock, commonly well-exposed and accessible. Second, because of their relatively small size, islands offer a limited possible area of outcrop. The island may be volcanic in origin, so you may have one (or a few) volcanoes and its deposits to map, log and sample, producing a self-contained study. A particular sedimentary deposit may be (probably will be) limited to a single island. If you want to determine the palaeontology or palaeoenvironments of this deposit, the only place it can be studied is on one island. To give one example (among many), the Middle Miocene Grand Bay Formation, exposed on the east coast of Carriacou in the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles, includes the only crinoid-rich deposits in the Caribbean Islands. I had been studying the few Antillean fossil crinoids for ten years until I went to Carriacou and the sum total of specimens I had collected until then could have rested, comfortably, in the palm of one hand. From Carriacou, I collected bags of crinoid-rich bulk sediment samples (Donovan and … Read More

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Ghost shrimps: An abundant yet understudied fossil record

Matúš Hyžný (Slovakia) and Adiël A Klompmaker (USA) The term “ghost shrimp” usually refers to decapod crustacean species from the family Callianassidae and Ctenochelidae, although sometimes the term is also used for other crustacean groups, such as caprelloid amphipods or, mostly in aquarium trading, for palaemonid shrimps. Here, we use the first definition. In that respect, ghost shrimps are soft-bodied, fossorial (burrowing) decapods with a tail (or pleon) distinctly longer than the main body (or carapace; Fig. 1). They inhabit a variety of marine environments or environments under marine influence, for example, estuaries, marshes and mangroves. Although most species living today have been described from the intertidal environment, there are numerous species dwelling in deeper waters as well. Fig.1. Ghost shrimp body plan. Glypturus acanthochirus: (A) view from above; (B) side-view; and (C) major cheliped. All scale bars 5.0mm wide. (Photos by Matúš Hyžný.) Ghost shrimps exhibit a sophisticated behaviour involving digging complex permanent or semi-permanent burrow systems, and they are important bioturbators. Because they live in high densities (in some cases up to 120/m2 of burrow openings are known), they rework huge amounts of substrate and are considered true ecosystem engineers. Bioturbation enhances organic decomposition, nutrient cycling, redistribution of organic material and oxygenation of sediment (similar to earthworms on land). Numerous organisms benefit from these changes, including bivalves, worms and other crustaceans. Additionally, many animal species live directly within the ghost shrimp burrows as their associates. Not every fossil ghost shrimp is Callianassa Fossil hunters specialising in decapod crustaceans … Read More

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Nebraska, USA: Wonderful fossils, natural history museums and public art depicting fossils

Robert F Diffendal, Jr (USA) Nebraska is known by vertebrate palaeontologists as the place in North America where there is a very complete Cenozoic geologic record of mammalian evolution over the last thirty-five million years or so. All you have to do is visit any of the many major natural history museums in the USA and in many countries around the world, including the UK, to see fossil skulls, articulated skeletons and large slabs of rock containing bones of fossil mammals from Nebraska to verify this assertion. Nebraska is also the site of Cretaceous rocks containing the oldest known Cretaceous fossil flower and many other parts from fossil plants. It also contains dinosaur footprints and trackways, and skeletons of marine plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and large marine fish, as well as terrestrial and marine invertebrate fossils and marine microfossils. Upper Carboniferous rocks exposed at the surface in parts of south-eastern Nebraska have yielded fossil terrestrial plant fossils, marine stromatolites and other marine plant fossils, marine invertebrates, fish and even some fossil bones of amphibians and early reptiles. All in all, Nebraska is a vast storehouse of wonderful fossils that continues today to yield them up to collectors, both professional and amateur. These fossils can be found on both private and public lands, and in state and federal parks and museums. To match this geological heritage, Nebraska (a large state in area with a small population) has a wonderful natural history museum – the University of Nebraska State Museum (UNSM) – on the … Read More

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Erratic rocks in fields and beaches of the Isle of Wight

 Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) The Isle of Wight is a marvellous place for the geologist on holiday, but there must be a suspicion that it has all been done before. When I first visited the island in 1999, my late wife Trina said that, of course, I would want to geologise at some point. She was surprised at my immediate and emphatic reply of ‘no’, until I explained that every square inch of the island was already ‘claimed’ by so many geologists and groups of geologists that I could not possibly get involved without starting a priority war. I was there to relax, not fight. Fig. 1. Outline map of the Isle of Wight, showing the positions of the principal settlements and villages mentioned in the text, and Sites 1-3. Key: CP = Chessell Pottery; EC = East Cowes; OH = Osborne House; 1-3 = collecting sites mentioned in the text. Today, I have a different approach. The family Donovan goes to the Isle for their summer holidays most years and I still go to the island to relax, not fight. But I am now working on a range of projects on the Island that are unlikely to impinge on other peoples’ research, while informing my own interests. These have included identifying borings in fossil wood from the Cretaceous greensands that have been misnamed since the nineteenth century (Donovan and Isted, 2014) and exploring closed railway lines using a geological field guide published a hundred years ago (Donovan, 2015). … Read More

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Khajuraho stone temples of India

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) Khajuraho, in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, was the cultural capital of the Chandela rulers of the tenth century and, even today, is a place that pays homage to artistic talent. There was no mechanisation involved in the labour intensive process, where artists hand sculpted slabs of stone into medieval sculptures depicting gods, demigods, nymphs, other celestial beings, humans and animals. Several thousand statues and iconographic carvings can be seen in the temples of Khajuraho. The stone temples are known for their mature temple architecture steeped in eroticism. Of the 85 richly carved temples built more than a thousand years ago, 22 have survived the test of time. Dr Devangana Desai, a well known art historian, has commented: The Khajuraho temples represent a creative moment in Indian art when artistic talent combined with religious aspirations to produce a meaningful form. Aesthetically they express a superb harmony of architecture and sculpture.” The name ‘Khajuraho’ is derived from the Sanskrit word Kharjuravahaka, where Kharjura refers to the date palm and Vahaka means the carrier. It is believed that two imposing date palm trees formed the gate to the temple complex. Kharjur also refers to scorpion in the local language of Bundelkhandi. Another derivation comes from the scorpions in the garland of Lord Shiva, while yet another philosophy states that it represented women who bore the scorpion shape on their thigh. However, there is no debate on the aesthetics, beauty and finesse of the sculptures of Khajuraho. The … Read More

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