Mineral collecting ‘Down Under’

Tony Forsyth (Australia) I got the collecting bug at about eight years of age, collecting (or ‘fossicking’ as it is called in Australia) fossilised sharks’ teeth and ancient whalebones eroding out of beach cliffs in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Some forty plus years later, I’ve still got the bug. However, nowadays, I tend to be more interested in collecting crystallised mineral treasures (although, my sharks’ teeth still hold pride of place in my showcase) and it is the mineral wealth of Australia that I will discuss in this article. Fig. 1. Map of Australia showing locations mentioned and an inset map comparing relative size of Australia and continental USA. In 1996, I started a website called The Australian Mineral Collector (www.mineral.org.au). After dabbling in web design, I saw the Internet as a great way to convey information about my hobby. Since that time, I have had countless thousands of visitors to the site, as well as countless emails from fellow collectors, many asking the same sort of question, for example, ‘Where can I go to find minerals in Australia? I’ve got three days to kill in Sydney and two days in Melbourne, and I want to find some nice specimens.’ Unfortunately, in many cases, I have had to tell them that it’s not at all easy. Fig. 2. The author and an old Cornish boiler at the Atlunga Gold Field, Central Australia.Firstly, let me draw you a picture of Australia. It is a very big country and, for those … Read More

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Arthropleura: A prehistoric bug hunt

Joe Shimmin and Stephen Day (UK) Picture yourself strolling through lush, green woodland, on an Earth unspoiled by man and yet to witness the rise of the dinosaurs. You’d be forgiven for feeling at peace with the world, even slightly euphoric – that is until you stumbled across the giant Arthropleura, a millipede relation as long as a park bench. This encounter might make even the most enthusiastic creepy-crawly hater think twice before squashing the bug in front of them under foot! I (JS) had a slightly less dramatic (but still very exciting) experience involving the creature while on a recent fossil hunting trip to Crail in Fife. On investigating some sandstone ledges that ran across the shore to the south-west of this pretty little fishing village in western Scotland, my eyes were drawn to what could only be a huge set of fossil tracks in the rock. The stratum in which they had been preserved also contained plant remains such as Stigmaria roots, as well as sections of tree trunks and branches. Fig. 1. The pretty fishing village of Crail, Fife as seen from the Arthropleura track find site. I took numerous photographs of the track, which measured about 3m long by 30cm wide and also of other, similar tracks nearby, in the hope that someone might be able to identify what kind of creature had created them. My guess was that it was some sort of amphibian, but I wasn’t sure. All I knew was the thing that … Read More

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Exceptional mammoth discovery from the North Sea

Dick Mol (The Netherlands) If we consider the huge number of fossil remains of ice age mammals dredged up from the floor of the North Sea, we can only conclude that the Pleistocene era must have resembled a paradise between what is now the UK and the Netherlands. The majority of the remains date from the late Pleistocene (somewhere between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago), and we are speaking of TONS of bones, mammoth molars, tusks, hooves, teeth, and so on. These are the remains of large grazers, especially the mammoths. It appears that the area between the UK and Holland was not the North Sea we know today. Rather, it was a huge, mostly treeless, dry steppe, where the Thames from the West and the Rhine, Meuse and Schelde from the East meandered into river deltas before entering the Atlantic Ocean way to the North. This was the typical landscape at that time, the megafauna steppe, found stretching across the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere in which the mammoths, rhinos, steppe bison and their associated, large predators were thriving. Mammoths The enormous amounts of mammoth remains in the North Sea suggest that large herds of these pachyderms roamed the area: in terms of a larger time frame, think of hundreds of thousands of animals. The most abundant remains are molars, due to their hardness and durability. The abundance of the last molars, the M3/m3, also reveals that animals were attaining advanced ages, suggesting good health and, therefore, suggests … Read More

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Amber: Frozen moments in time

Gary Platt (UK) Amber has a deep fascination for people, both as a gem and as a chance to look back into the past with a remarkable clarity. Its warm, lustrous touch beguiles us and the remarkable inclusions sometimes found within it capture our imagination. Fig. 1. Ant in Baltic amber – Hymenoptera sp. Amber is found all over the world including, nearer to home, the Isle of Wight. This article looks at some aspects of amber that might interest both the casual and the informed reader. Formation of amber Amber begins as resin exuded from trees millions of years ago. Most known deposits of amber come from various tree species that are now extinct. Baltic amber was produced by a tree called Pinites succinifer, a tree sharing many characteristics of the modern genus Pseudolarix. In appearance, it would have looked similar to a pine or spruce tree. Fig. 2. Fly in Baltic amber – Diptera sp. The resin may have originally been used as a defensive mechanism against insect infestation or fungal attack. Once released from the tree, the resin begins to go through a number of stages to become amber. The first stage involves the evaporation of volatile oils. The oils, called “turpenes”, slowly permeate out of the amber. This may take many thousands of years before the process turns the resin into something approaching the structure of amber. Turpenes give resin its distinctive and powerful odour. Fig. 3. Gnat in Baltic amber – Dipteria cecidomyiidae. Following the … Read More

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Dinosaur mines of the Kem Kem

M’Hammed Segaoui and Dr Charlie Underwood (UK) The great transgressions that occurred in the mid part of the Cretaceous have had a profound influence on the geology of many parts of the world. In North America, the seas flooded the central part of the continent to produce the Western Interior Seaway, while, in northern Europe, the incoming of the Chalk seas saw much of the continent disappearing below the waves. Across the northern part of Africa, the transgression was more gradual, but on a scale as large as that seen anywhere else. In the period preceding the great marine flooding, huge coastal plains developed across a vast tract of land that extends from what is now Niger to Egypt. These coastal plains were criss-crossed by great braided river systems and provided the perfect habitat for a huge range of fresh water and terrestrial animals. Vertebrate fossils have been known from the coastal plain, fluvial rocks of the African Cretaceous for a long time; excavations in Egypt in 1912 recovered the remains of several species, including the unusual theropod, Spinosaurus. Subsequent expeditions to other areas of north and northwest Africa have yielded many additional species of dinosaurs, as well as a host of other fossils. In the early 1990s, the southeastern part of Morocco was just starting to open up to tourism and, with it, the great geological wealth of the region was becoming better known. In addition to the rich and diverse fossil faunas from the sandstones and limestones of … Read More

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Secret life of starfish

Dr Liam Herringshaw (Canada) In every sea, in every ocean,Beasts of freakish locomotionProwl the substrate, seeking preyTo feast on in a monstrous way. Dinner is served. On a plate before you, there is a delicious roast chicken. However, the bird is larger than your head and you have no hands or teeth you can break it up with, let alone a knife and fork to use. How are you going to eat it? Are you going to push one half of your stomach out through your mouth, smothering the chicken in digestive juices to dissolve it, then haul your stomach back into place, slurping up the nutritious broth as you go? No? Well you are obviously not a starfish! Members of the class Asteroidea, to give them their proper name, are among the most familiar of all sea creatures, the five-fingered favourites of many a seaside publicity brochure. Yet, even a cursory investigation of their biology, ecology and evolutionary history reveals the familiarity to be a deception. These icons of the intertidal are about as strange as life on Earth gets. If their feeding habits weren’t weird enough, asteroids have a skeleton made of crystals, possess extraordinary powers of regeneration and move around on a system of tiny hydraulic tentacles. And they don’t even have a brain. What they do have is membership of an exclusive club: the Echinodermata or ‘hedgehog-skins’. If you have ever seen footage of crown-of-thorns sea stars chomping their way across the Great Barrier Reef, you … Read More

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Who did it? Bite marks in Jurassic and Cretaceous ammonites

Adiël A Klompmaker (USA) Ammonites are among some of the best fossils to collect. They are relatively easy to find, for example, in the Lower Jurassic Posidonia Shale in Germany and the Jurassic sediments of Dorset in the south of England. The larger, well-preserved ones will always be sought after and, if of sufficiently high quality, may even be displayed in museum exhibitions. However, while these nicely-preserved, complete ammonites are ideal for identifying species, they often do not say much about the life history and, more specifically, the death of the ammonite itself. On the other hand, studying the sub-lethal or lethal damage to the fossil shell certainly does. This article is about a relatively newly discovered type of bite mark. It is found on Jurassic and Cretaceous ammonites, might have occurred worldwide, is easy to recognise and is also fairly common. Ventral damage When I was browsing through the ammonite collections of several Dutch museums (including, Naturalis and Oertijdmuseum De Groene Poort) and the Geologisch-Paläontologisch Institut der Universität Münster in Germany, it became apparent to me that there were many specimens with damage to the outer whorl, on the back side of an ammonite (the ventral side) in its living position. This damage was not only visible on the ventral side, but could also be seen on both lateral sides, if preservation permitted. Fig. 1. Measurements relative to the aperture (A) and relative to the last septum (B). After Klompmaker et al. (2009). When viewed from the lateral side, … Read More

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Rock art: The Bradshaw Foundation

Peter Robinson (UK) For one of the oldest forms of human expression, there is still much uncertainty regarding rock art. What is it? Where is it? How old is it? And what purpose did it serve? The last question is phrased in the past tense, because, with a very few exceptions, as a form of human expression, rock art is no longer practised. This means it is irreplaceable. The Bradshaw Foundation is dedicated to discovering, documenting, deciphering and preserving ancient rock art around the world. This brief article will raise more questions than it answers and, as such, will represent only an introduction to our common artistic legacy. Let us begin by defining rock art. The British archaeologist, Christopher Chippindale (best known for his work on Stonehenge), correctly addresses this in his publication, Stonehenge Complete (Thames and Hudson, London, 3rd edition, 2004), by analysing the two words. ‘Rock’ is straightforward enough – the geological surfaces of the exposed earth, generally hard but also including soft surfaces like sand, clay and the distinctive muds of some deep-cave walls. Mechanical hardness, chemical durability and protection from weathering are most important when it comes to survival of the art; distribution reflects survival as well as the creating. Fig. 1. The journey of mankind. Copyright Stephen Oppenheimer and the Bradshaw Foundation, 2003. ‘Art’ is a harder concept, since art has a special and misleading place in our western culture. In the twentieth century, it has strengthened its romantic definition, so that ‘art’ is not … Read More

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Sands of the Gobi Desert yield new species of nut-cracking dinosaur

Steve Koppes (USA) Plants or meat – that’s about all that fossils ever tell palaeontologists about a dinosaur’s diet. However, the skull characteristics of a new species of parrot-beaked dinosaur and its associated gizzard stones indicate that the animal fed on nuts and/or seeds. These characteristics present the first solid evidence of nut-eating in any dinosaur. Fig. 2. Artistic rendering of a newly discovered species of parrot-beaked dinosaur, Psittacosaurus gobiensis. Scientists first discovered psittacosaurs in the Gobi Desert in 1922, calling them “parrot-beaked” for their resemblance to parrots. Psittacosaurs evolved their strong-jawed, nut-eating habits 60 million years before the earliest parrot. Art Credit: Todd Marshall “The parallels in the skull to that in parrots, the descendants of dinosaurs most famous for their nut-cracking habits, are remarkable,” said Paul Sereno, a palaeontologist at the University of Chicago and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. Sereno, and two colleagues from the People’s Republic of China, announced their discovery on 17 June 2008 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The palaeontologists discovered the new dinosaur, which they have named Psittacosaurus gobiensis, in the Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia in 2001, and spent years preparing and studying the specimen. The dinosaur is approximately 110 million years old, dating from the mid-Cretaceous. The quantity and size of gizzard stones in birds correlates with dietary preference. Larger, more numerous gizzard stones point to a diet of harder food, such as nuts and seeds. “The psittacosaur at hand has a huge pile of stomach stones, more than 50, … Read More

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Fossil sea urchins from the Middle Eocene of the Bartonian of Christchurch Bay, UK

David N Lewis (UK) The spectacular fossil gastropods and the teeth of sharks – found at the type locality of the Middle Eocene Bartonian in Christchurch Bay (Hampshire and Dorset) – overshadow the other fauna and flora found there. However, among the ‘Cinderella’ groups are the echinoids (sea urchins). Several kinds, both ‘irregular’ and ‘regular’, can be found, some preserved with superb detail. Fig. 1. Sketch maps to show the location of Barton-on-Sea (modified after Lewis & Donovan, 2008).The coastal holiday resorts of Christchurch Bay, near the New Forest, include Highcliffe to the west, Milford-on-Sea to the east, and the well-known Barton Cliffs of Barton-on-Sea between the two (Fig. 1). All lie within the Hampshire Basin of southern England. This coastal stretch is famous for its extensive range of well-preserved Eocene fossils found in the sea cliffs and on the foreshore. The most fossiliferous area is sometimes referred to simply as ‘Barton’, and the clays and sands in which the fossils are found as the ‘Barton Beds’. Of particular interest to fossil collectors, students and holiday-makers alike are the abundant fossil molluscs and the teeth of sharks. However, there are other fossils too, including plants, microfossils, a wide variety of other invertebrates such as bryozoans, brachiopods, corals, crabs, echinoderms (brittle-stars, starfish and sea urchins) and worms, and vertebrates including fishes, reptiles and rare mammals (see Hooker, 1986). Trace fossils can also be seen in the clay sequences. In fact, some of the clays allow considerable fine detail of the fossils … Read More

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Pliocene bryozoans in the Suffolk Coralline Crag

Paul D Taylor and Rory Milne (UK) Britain is not richly endowed with fossiliferous Pliocene localities. However, the Red and Coralline Crags of East Anglia make up for this deficiency in the sheer abundance and quality of their fossils. Whereas the Red Crag, famous for its gastropods and bivalves, takes its name from the colour of the sediment, the Coralline Crag is named for its ‘corallines’. But what exactly are these? Despite the name, which suggests corals or perhaps coralline algae, the corallines of the Crag are actually bryozoans, popularly known as ‘moss animals’ or ‘sea-mats’ (see Issue 12 of Deposits: Bryozoans: more than meets the eye). In fact, the Coralline Crag is a bryozoan limestone and represents a rare example of a non-tropical limestone in the British geological record. The main outcrop of the Coralline Crag runs between Gedgrave near Orford in the south, to Aldeburgh in the north, forming a low ridge almost parallel to the Suffolk coast (Fig. 1). There are also small outliers further south at Sutton and Tattingstone, but the latter is now submerged beneath a reservoir. Lateral equivalents of the Coralline Crag can be found in Belgium and Holland (for example, see Bishop & Hayward 1989). Fig. 1. Outcrops of the Coralline Crag in Suffolk (shown as yellow).Deposition occurred in shallow water, about 4Ma, along the margins of the ancient North Sea. Giant submarine dunes – sandwaves – swept the fragmented remains of bryozoans and other shells along the seabed, leaving behind the spectacular, … Read More

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Book reviews: Fossils on the floor in the Nebraska State Capitol

Nebraska has an excellent geology record, which is celebrated by some fine mosaics at the Nebraska State Capitol. When the building was being constructed, and at the request of Prof Hartley Burr Alexander of the University of Nebraska Philosophy Department and from drawings by his colleague Dr Erwin H Barbour (former director of the University of Nebraska State Museum), the artist, Hildreth Meière, was asked to create a series of mosaics.

Book review: William Boyd Dawkins, the Victorian Science of Cave Hunting: Three Men in a Cavern, by Mark Wright

William Boyd Dawkins is an immensely fascinating character, who dominated British geology during his time, and yet is mostly forgotten today. He received a professorship and a knighthood, along with many top awards, and yet Mark Wright, in this excellent biography, describes him as “a liar and probably a cheat”.

Pico Partido: Volcanic perfection in the Canaries

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) Lanzarote is the easternmost island of the Canaries, less than 100 miles (about 150km) off the coast of Morocco. It is part of Spain, but not officially in the European Union and Pico Partido is a sharp, prominent peak near the centre of the island, between the small town of Mancha Blanca and the volcano of Timanfaya. The name means “divided mountain”, so called because the high peak is split by a deep fissure that seems to chop it in two. And it is enthralling. It is a basket of volcanic jewels to be treasured, particularly after the disappointment of the lack of access to Timanfaya itself (of which, more later). And Pico Partido is accessible, unlike much of the island where too many roads have no lay-bys or even a patch of cinder where you can pull in and explore. The geology of Lanzarote Lanzarote, with its volcanoes, is sitting on the tectonic plate that forms most of Africa. It is not near the edge, so it is not formed by one plate sinking under the other. Nor is it above a rising mass of magma, a hot spot. A little surprisingly, it is on a line of fractured rocks that stretches to the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, and further over to the European Alps. Fig. 1. The “Devil” sign that marks the start of the National Park, and the site of a parking space. The fractures formed, and are still moving, as a … Read More

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World earthquakes

RMW Musson (UK) For millions of people in the western part of Sichuan province in China, the morning of 12 May 2008 started out as a day like any other. People left their homes for work as usual, saying goodbye to family members without any thought that they would never see them again. Children packed into their school classrooms, their minds on lessons and games. It seemed like just another busy day. Fig. 1. Damage from the 2008 Wenchuan, China, earthquake. Photo by Raymond Koo, courtesy of EEFIT, UK. At 28 minutes past two in the afternoon, catastrophe struck. There was no warning – just a sudden terrific roaring sound, as buildings bucked violently, sending down clouds of plaster dust, and then giving way completely, as the heavy ceilings came crashing down. People outside were the lucky ones. For them, the ground itself rocked violently like the deck of a boat in a storm. All around, clouds of dust arose from collapsing buildings, amid the sounds of roaring, of crashing masonry and of screaming people fleeing into the streets. These scenes were repeated in the same instant across a huge area, nearly 300km long, at the edge of the Sichuan plain where the mountains of Longmen Shan rise up abruptly from the flat farmland. In the narrow mountain valleys, steep, rocky slopes came tumbling down, as massive rockslides added to the devastation and blocked the roads. In a matter of a couple of minutes, over 70,000 people were killed and … Read More

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Thrihnukagigur: An icelandic volcano

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) In 2012, my wife Chris and I booked a volcano tour around the north of Iceland. At the time, it was our third visit to the country, so we knew of extra things we wanted to do. Before joining the group with Volcanic Experiences of Bromsgrove, in the UK (www.volcanicexperiences.co.uk), we decided to have three extra days on our own. An hour on the Internet allowed me to book three unforgettable events. That really is all it took – and, incredibly, every company sent an email confirmation of my booking before the afternoon was finished. Fig. 1. The high point of Eyjafyallajokull’s rim – still steaming and too hot to sit down for long. The first was a 4 x 4 ride and then a three and a bit kilometre hike to the top of the now-famous Eyjafjallajokull volcano – still so hot underfoot that a dog with another group fled howling from the top of the ridge (Iceland Rovers: icelandrovers.is or http://www.2iceland.is).The second was a two-hour ‘Ice and Fire’ flight over the central part of the island, especially over the multi-coloured landscape of Landmannalaugar, with the campsite right at the edge of a lava flow (Eagle Airline, booked using Nordic Visitor: iceland.nordicvisitor.com).And the third was a trip down inside the emptied-out magma chamber of a volcano – Thrihnukagigur (insidethevolcano.com). And this is the subject matter of this article.Fig. 2. A view in the central highlands of Landmannalaugar, with multi-coloured hillsides, steaming vents, glaciers and a … Read More

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Urban geology: New Red Sandstone at Amsterdam Airport

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) In a country with a limited resource of pre-Quaternary geology in outcrop, the Netherlands nevertheless has a wealth of rock types in building stones (Donovan, 2015a; Donovan and Madern, in press), street furniture (Donovan, 2015b) and artificial ‘outcrops’ (Donovan, 2014). Perhaps the commonest rock type seen in Dutch cities is limestone, particularly imported Mississippian (Lower Carboniferous) limestones (van Roekel, 2007; Donovan and Madern, in press), but also Upper Cretaceous limestones from the province of Limburg in the south of the country (van Staalduinen et al., 1979, p. 47). Less common are massive sandstones, both used as building stones and occurring as boulders (Donovan, 2015b) – most of these that I have seen are, presumably, Pennsylvanian (Upper Carboniferous). The area of outcrop of Carboniferous rocks in the Netherlands, again in the province of Limburg, is limited. Carboniferous rocks used for buildings or street furniture are assumed to come largely, probably entirely, from the more extensive outcrops that are quarried elsewhere. One rock type that is not commonly encountered is red siliciclastic rocks such as siltstones, sandstones and conglomerates. This is despite the broad distribution of the Permo-Triassic New Red Sandstone (NRS) in northern Europe (Hounslow and Ruffell, 2006, fig. 13.2). In my pursuit of river-rounded boulders in the human environment of the Netherlands, I have only seen one NRS specimen of note – a coarse-grained sandstone with abundant gravel-sized fragments truncated by a scoured, erosive contact with an overlying conglomerate (Fig. 1). This is at the … Read More

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Henry VIII’s lost ruby: The ‘Regale’ of France

Steven Wade Veatch (USA) Glittering jewels, precious metals and religious relics – ranging from a spine from the Crown of Thorns to a twig from the Burning Bush, and sundry relics of saints – were important to all medieval monarchs as physical symbols of power, pomp and religious expression. King Henry VIII (1491-1547) of England was no different and had one of these venerable objects – a ruby. Fig. 1. Henry VIII, The king can be seen sporting several jewels in this 1531 painting. Henry prized the French Regale, a ruby fashioned into a cabochon. It remained in Henry’s private collection until he died at the age of 55 in 1547. Image public domain. A ruby (Al2O3) is a gemstone and a variety of the mineral corundum (aluminium oxide). It is one of the hardest minerals on Earth (9.0 on the Mohs mineral hardness scale of 10) and ranges in colour from pink to blood-red. Traces of the element chromium cause the red colour to bloom in rubies. The Latin word for red, ruber, is the basis for its name. The other variety of gem-quality corundum is sapphire. The ruby is extremely rare and considered the king of the gemstones, with its magnificent colour and exceptional brilliance. Louis VII (1120-1180) became the first King of France to visit England when he made a pilgrimage in 1179 to St Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. He spent the night there, and made several offerings, including the ‘Regale’, considered the finest gem in … Read More

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Fossil hunter’s guide to the Yorkshire coast

Samuel McKie, with Tilly Dalglish (UK) The stretch of coast from Speeton to Holderness is often forgotten by tourists and fossil collectors alike; certainly compared with places such as Whitby or destinations along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. However, the shore of the East Riding has many beautiful sights and a rich history. From Viking settlements to eighteenth century sea battles, and Neolithic standing stones to Victorian seabird hunting, there is evidence here of humans fighting, farming, hunting and praying spanning many thousands of years. Fig. 1. Flamborough sponge bed at Sewerby Cliffs. But the stones of the shore tell a far older story. The coast starts chronologically at Speeton sands, where the Jurassic sandstones found at Whitby, Ravenscar, Scarborough and Filey end with a small Kimmeridge Clay exposure, before giving way to the Cretaceous strata of Flamborough Head. This small peninsular confronts the North Sea around 30km north of the Humber’s Spurn Point. Following the coast southward, exposures from almost the entire Cretaceous period are present (120 to 70Ma old). After this, the glaciation till (or boulder clay) smothers the land from Bridlington southwards. Fig. 2. Map of Flamborough Head and geological features. Flamborough has a rich variety of wildlife: orchids flower and seabirds nest on the chalky cliffs in summer, while seals and porpoises shelter in the bay in the winter months. This is recognised at an international level by the site of special scientific interest (SSSI) designation, which prohibits damage to the habitats. The RSPB and The … Read More

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On the trail of Shetland’s volcano

Allen Fraser (UK) For a land area of just 1,468km2, yet within a staggering 2,731km of coastline, Shetland has probably the most complex and diverse geology and geomorphology to be found anywhere in the World. Part of Shetland’s Geopark plan was a suggestion from the community of Northmavine that a geological gateway be established to their area at Mavis Grind, and a volcano trail be set up around the dramatically beautiful Eshaness. Fig. 1. Map of Eshaness. Although it is hard to imagine today, some 350Ma ago, the peninsula of Eshaness was a fire and lava-belching volcano. In fact, the name “Esha Ness” comes from the Old Norse language and means the “Headland of Volcanic Ashes”. The beaches and cliffs of Eshaness show many fine examples of the rocks that formed in this ancient volcano and tell us something of the environment in which the volcano grew. Fig. 2. The Eshaness peninsula. Setting the scene Eshaness’ story begins some 400Ma (in the Devonian period) when three of the Earth’s tectonic plates converged and eventually formed a huge continent now referred to as Pangaea. This collision threw up the Caledonian Mountain chain that was originally of Himalayan proportions but which rapidly began to erode. Rivers carried the erosion products (sediments) into lakes that formed in valleys between the mountains and on the plains below the foothills of the mountain chain. At this time ‘Britain’ lay in equatorial latitudes so the rocks we see exposed today were often laid down in environments … Read More

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Geopark Shetland: A journey through the 35th European Geopark

Allen Fraser (UK) In September 2009, the Shetland Islands were awarded the accolade of becoming the thirty-fifth European Geopark. This is fantastic news for the isles. It acknowledges the importance of Shetland’s incredible geology and creates opportunities to promote it to an international market and develop partnerships with other members. When visiting, the best place to start your journey into Shetland’s ancient past is at Shetland Museum, in Lerwick. Here, displays take you back into the mists of time, revealing vanished landscapes and the amazing events behind them. All across Shetland, the rocks and landscapes tell an endless story – of oceans opening and closing, of mountain building and erosion, of ice ages and tropical seas, volcanoes, deserts and ancient rivers, of land use, climate change and sea level rise, and of minerals and miners. Around 360mya, a walk through where Lerwick is now, would have meant a wade across fast-flowing rivers, in a climate like that in Death Valley, California. How do we know? Well, if you take a stroll around Lerwick, and walk from the Knabb to the Sletts and out to the Sands of Sound, you can see for yourself. Here, flat-lying beds of thick, buff-coloured sandstone begin to acquire rounded pebbles and cobbles of pink and white quartz. These sandstone beds tell us that fast flowing rivers once deposited their loads in the area and that flash floods occasionally scoured the riverbed, leaving trains of far-travelled cobbles and pebbles embedded in the sandy layers. These rivers … Read More

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Geology of the Falkland Islands

Phil Stone (UK) Plate tectonics have produced some surprising juxtapositions, as the earth’s continental fragments have drifted and jostled over the eons. Microplates seem to have enjoyed most freedom of movement and none more so than that supporting the Falkland Islands. Though this archipelago is situated in the south-west corner of the South Atlantic Ocean, about 650km east from Tierra del Fuego and the Strait of Magellan, its geology tells of an African heritage. Charles Darwin provided the first evidence for that – although he didn’t appreciate it at the time. Fig. 1. A reconstruction of the Gondwana supercontinent at about 300mya. (© BGS/NERC.) HMS Beagle visited the Falkland Islands twice, in 1833 and 1834, and during the first visit Darwin discovered fossil shells, mostly brachiopods. His first impression had been unfavourable, but, after that discovery, he noted in his diary: The whole aspect of the Falkland Islands were however changed to my eyes … for I found a rock abounding with shells; and these of the most interesting age.” Darwin published his account of Falklands’ geology in 1846. The “interesting age” proved to be Devonian and, as more data were acquired, a close and surprising similarity was established with the fauna of equivalent age in South Africa. This similarity was soon extended to other aspects of the Falklands rock succession, while the geology of neighbouring Patagonia proved to be quite different. These relationships were not readily explicable without recourse to continental drift, so were largely ignored for many years, … Read More

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Diadematoid echinoids: A cryptic part of the tropical fossil record

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) The writers of holiday brochures invariably fail to mention, let alone emphasise, the bad points of a location. For example, I’ve lived in both Jamaica and the Netherlands, and, for me, the thing that unites these two countries is the number of mosquitoes. However, as mosquitoes aren’t a good sales point with tourists, they are carefully ignored in holiday brochures and advertisements. Another Caribbean critter that doesn’t get mentioned until you actually arrive and want to go for a dip in the sea is the sea urchin, known in Jamaica as a sea egg. In truth, any danger to the unwary swimmer comes from the few species of regular echinoid that have long, pointed spines. These are found in many shallow water habitats, but are best concealed (and, therefore, most dangerous to the swimmer) in seagrass beds. The best protection from these echinoids is to wear an old pair of training shoes that you’d be happy to dispose of at the end of the vacation. However, without prior knowledge, who would take such a thing on holiday with them? Among these echinoids, the one most likely to ruin your holiday is the black, long-spined urchin, Diadema antillarum (Phillipi) in the Caribbean; which is broadly similar in morphology to the figured specimen, Diadema setosum (Leske) from Indonesia (Fig. 1). These echinoids have relatively small bodies, but numerous long, needle-like spines. These are, essentially, single calcite crystals. The unsuspecting swimmer treading on such an urchin will have … Read More

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Thomas Jefferson’s mammoth problem

James Smith (USA) Author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of the University of Virginia, a Founding Father and third president of the USA, Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer. Of this, you are undoubtedly aware. And, like most pioneers, Jefferson fostered an interest in virtually every aspect of science. This appetite for knowledge propelled him to organise the Lewis and Clark Expedition into the then-uncharted western area of the continent, brought under American governance by the Louisiana Purchase, which took place during his presidency. Considered an expert in civil engineering, anatomy, architecture, anthropology, physics, mechanics, meteorology, navigation, ethnology, botany and geography, it is not surprising that Jefferson was also a pioneer in our own field – palaeontology. “Science is my passion,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “politics is my duty”. It could almost be said that he was as much of a pioneer in science as in law and politics – indeed, although we may remember his political pursuits as his most historically-resonant, his scientific achievements were pretty admirable. “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science,” he wrote, “rendering them my supreme delight.” Christopher Hitchens thought that, were Jefferson born a decade later, he would have been one of the finest palaeontologists in history. However, as it was, Jefferson was still looking at mountains and asking how shells got so high up on the mountaintop. The side project of many an eighteenth century American scientist was the study of mysterious teeth, bones and seven-foot tusks yielded by swamps and riverbeds. … Read More

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Jamaican fossil crabs

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) and Joe SH Collins (UK) Decapod crustaceans (crabs) are among the most attractive of fossils. Yet, the beautifully preserved specimens seen in museum displays and dealers’ catalogues are in stark contrast with the usual haul of the collector, that is, scraps, commonly claws or (more rarely) bits of carapace, which we all find in (mainly) Cretaceous and Cenozoic sedimentary rocks. However, these bits and pieces represent most of the fossil record of crabs and, as such, are of importance to the systematist and anyone with an interest in aspects such as taphonomy and palaeoecology. Just as it is possible to identify a shark from a tooth or a cidaroid echinoid from a spine, so a crab claw can commonly provide data that permits its identification to the level of genus or species (Collins, 1999). The present authors, in collaboration with Roger Portell of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville, have been collecting and studying the fossil crabs of Jamaica (and the wider Antilles) for over 20 years. Until the 1990s, reports of fossil crabs from the island were limited to a few fragmented specimens and rare, well-preserved carapaces (some retaining claws) or the isolated claws of mud shrimps (=Callianassa sensu lato), which were collected mainly from the Upper Cretaceous and Eocene by visiting geologists as an aside to their own research. They were sent to the British Museum (Natural History) for description. These early records were reviewed and … Read More

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Fossil insects from the Lower Cretaceous of southern England

Dr James E Jepson (UK) It was over 150 years ago that the first major work began on the fossil insects of the Lower Cretaceous of England. The pioneers were Victorian naturalists, including the Rev Osmond Fisher, John O Westwood and, in particular, the Rev Peter Bellinger Brodie. 1845 saw the publication of Brodie’s A History of the Fossil Insects in the Secondary Rocks of England, the earliest English language book on fossil insects and the first major study of the fossil insects of England. The Victorians collected and described many species from Wiltshire, Dorset and the Weald, and started the ball rolling for British palaeoentomology. The twentieth century saw little activity in British Cretaceous palaeoentomology. At this time, there was a shift towards the Palaeozoic insects from the Carboniferous, with Herbert Bolton leading the way – Bolton’s major work was published in a monograph on British Carboniferous insects in 1921–1922. A few descriptions were made on British Cretaceous insects in the early twentieth century, most notably Anton Handlirsch’s monograph of fossil insects (1906–1908) included some British Cretaceous insects; but there was no major studies completed. However, in the late twentieth century, interest in the Cretaceous insects of Britain was reawakened by Edmund A Jarzembowski, with his studies on Wealden insects and later the Purbeck insects with Robert A Coram. Into the twenty-first century, Jarzembowski and Coram have remained a driving force for the study of Lower Cretaceous insects of southern England and, through their work and their collaborations with … Read More

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Shedding light on an isolated skull: A new elasmosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Morocco

Dean Lomax (UK) The bodiless plesiosaur In 2011, a plesiosaur specimen, consisting of an isolated and crushed skull, was described. The collected skull sadly lacked any postcranial remains, but was identified as an elasmosaurid plesiosaur and considered to be something new. Therefore, it was given the name Zarafasaura oceanis. The skull was collected in the Sidi Daoui area, near the city of Oued Zem, situated within the Khouribga Province of the northeast Oulad Abdoun Basin in Morocco. There, the phosphates date to the Maastrichtian Stage of the Cretaceous, the last stage of the Mesozoic Era, famous for many fossils, such as Tyrannosaurus rex from the USA. The study suggested that Zarafasaura shared close connections with other elasmosaurids from the Late Cretaceous of North America and Japan. The elasmosaurs had the longest necks of any plesiosaurs and flourished during the Maastrichtian. It was hoped that future discoveries of more complete remains would shed light on the general appearance and understanding of Zarafasaura. Fig. 1. Mounted skeleton of Zarafasaura oceanis (WDC CMC-01) at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. (Photograph by Dean Lomax.) ‘The body that fits the head’ In April 2004, seven years before the description of Z. oceanis, an almost complete plesiosaur skeleton was discovered in the Sidi Daoui area in Morocco, at the same location as the skull discussed previously. The specimen (museum number WDC CMC-01) was excavated by a small team and covered by five large plaster jackets (to protect the fragile bones). It was largely articulated, consisting of a … Read More

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Project Emerging: Zoophycos

Rob Hope and Dr Davide Olivero (France) “ … And yet we cannot hope to describe all of the natural happenings of our world; and thus impossible it seems to be to explain all of these unexplainable things …” JL Alléon-Dulac, 1765, French naturalist (Opening Image). An ‘ammon horn’ sketch by Alleon-Dulac from 1765. Most probably an ammonite, Lytoceras sp, deriving from the Lyonnais quarries of France. Fig. 1. An ‘ammon horn’ sketch by Alleon-Dulac, from 1765. Most probably the ammonite, Lytoceras sp, derving from the Lyonnais quarries of France. Our understanding of the Natural World will never be truly complete, yet seemingly, each day, we add another tiny fragment of knowledge, as some fresh academic paper adds to the long list of scientific bibliography. With just a few tiny pages, our understanding of the complexities of nature is focused ever clearer – Project Emerging is today’s paradigm, but by tomorrow, will be a fraction outdated. Yet, hard facts never alter; it is simply our conception of them which does. If nature’s ‘big picture’ is observed through the prism of the great age of life on Earth, major patterns come to the fore. Simply speed up the sequences to see those differing, lively shapes adapt toward survival. Evolution, by whatever means, is the star factor, as remarkably, a harmony is found between both inert geologies and thriving ecosystems. Together, they all share ‘biosphere’. Fig. 2. Zoophycos from Bathonian limestones, Chasteuil, southern France. At first, human intelligence desired to see a Creator. … Read More

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