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Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology, by Annalisa Berta and Susan Turner

This is certainly a somewhat different sort of book from those I usually review. As it makes clear, women have always played key roles in the field of vertebrate palaeontology, going back centuries. However, other than perhaps the most best known historical female vertebrate palaeontologists comparatively little is known about these women scientists and their true contributions have probably been obscured. In this context, the book aims to reveal this hidden history, thereby celebrating the diversity and importance of women VPs.

Check those damaged ‘Megalodon’ teeth

Michael E Howgate (UK) Back in the days when I gave my ‘Doctor Dinosaur’ talks to museums, school groups and ‘gifted children’, I would take with me: a plaster cast of the Baryonyx claw; a beach rolled Iguanodon vertebra; and, star of the show, ‘a fossilised dinosaur poo’ (which, in reality, was an Ichthyosaurus coprolite from Lyme Regis). These were some of my collection of props, which helped engage the children through what might otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill slide presentation. Some of the bits-and-pieces I picked up to pass around among the children were a selection of broken and hence dirt cheap Carcharodon megalodon teeth (Fig. 1). (I use Carcharodon instead of the more correct Carcharocles as it is still in common use. The term ‘Megalodon tooth’ is often used by fossil dealers as a short-hand term.) These stood in for the teeth of every child’s favourite dinosaur, the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex. I would pass the teeth round and get the children to feel the serrated edge as a prelude to explaining how a serrated blade was better at cutting steak – or even a loaf of bread – than a sharper carving knife. “Only try this at home if you are supervised by both parents” was my health and safety rider at the end of this explanation. Fig. 1. Half of a C. megalodon tooth. A cheap and cheerful stand-in for a T. rex tooth. Carcharodon (now Carcharocles) megalodon, which used to be considered the ancestor of the … Read More

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India’s ‘Dinosaur Fossil Park’ – Raiyoli

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) Raiyoli is a village near Balasinor in the state of Gujarat, India, which has been attracting palaeontologists because of its dinosaur fossil park (Fig. 1). Curious to know more about the park, I visited Balasinor to meet Princess Aaliya Sultana Babi (Fig. 2), who is also known as the ‘Dinosaur Princess’. I had booked my stay at The Garden Palace, which is the private residence of the royal family of Balasinor. The property also offers guests’ accommodation and signature experiences. While relishing a sumptuous dinner and chatting with the warm and hospitable princess, I learnt about how she got involved with the site: “In the year 1997, Raiyoli was visited by leading palaeontologists from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan for excavation purposes. They came to our residence for tea and, during the conversation about the site, I realised that it was time to act on my calling. I say “act” because my mother, Begum Farhad Sultana, used to tell me that, as a child when I was learning the alphabet, when it came to the letter ‘D’, it was not D for ‘dog’. Instead I learnt D for ‘dinosaur’. Spellings like Brontosaurus fascinated me even then,” she mentioned nostalgically. Fig 1. The Dinosaur Fossil Park at Raiyoli. The timing to get involved with dino-tourism was right, as foreigners began to express an interest in visiting the site. So, who better than Aaliya to guide and show them around the site? Her passion and dedication … Read More

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Book review: Recreating an age of reptiles, by Mark P Witton

I like palaeoart. I recently went to the ‘Dinosaurs of China’ exhibition in Nottingham (reviewed in Issue 51 of this magazine) and bought myself a copy of the Chinese palaeoartist, Zhao Chuang’s ‘The Age of Dinosaurs’ – a veritable picture-fest of up-to-date reconstructions of ancient beasts and plants, complete with fuzzy raptors and other bird-like therapods.

Book review: Fossils of the Kimmeridge Clay Formation, edited by David M Martill and Steve Etches (pictures editor, Robert F Loveridge)

I always wait expectantly for the publication of a new Palaeontological Association guide to fossils and, when they turn up, I am never disappointed. This is undoubtedly another triumph. This guide attempts to bring the diversity of its flora and fauna together in a single work, for the first time.

Book review: Dinosaurs, Evolution and the Woman whose discoveries changed the World: the Fossil Hunter, by Shelley Emling

Mary Anning was clearly one of the most significant characters of eighteenth century science and possibly of all time, particularly in the realm of palaeontology. I am not sure that she is quite as unknown (certainly in the UK) as the American author this excellent little biography claims, but she certainly should be better known.

Prehistoric Pets, by Dr Dean Lomax and illustrated by Mike Love

This is a lovely little book and something of a departure for Dr Dean Lomax, who, these days is more often seen up to his elbows in ichthyosaur remains. However, this fun little book is rather different. Dean (and ably helped by the artwork of Mike Love) has created a full-colour popup book covering the ancestors of many of our favourite pets.

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Hard work breaks no bones: A bone from the Wealden facies gets revealed

Jens Lehmann (Germany) The recent find of a big slab of Early Cretaceous lumachelle limestone of the Wealden facies containing a bone (Figs. 1 and 2) made for a time-consuming and technically ambitious preparation process. (Lumachelle limestone is a compact limestone or marble containing fragments of shells, encrinites and other fossils, which are sometimes iridescent, and display a variety of brilliant colours.) The specimen looked disappointing at first sight, but the end result made the hard work worthwhile, as I discuss below. Indeed, the following is intended as an example of the technical aspects of palaeontology, which are too often forgotten or ignored. The specimen was discovered in a loose, but very heavy slab on the beach. Therefore, efforts were made to reduce the size of the rock in the field to make it easier to carry, but, unfortunately, it broke into two pieces (Figs. 1 and 2). Fig. 1. A bone in a limestone from the Early Cretaceous (Barremian, Wealden facies), broken while preparing the slab in the field. Fig. 2. Reverse side of the limestone slab, with masses of freshwater bivalves making up most of the boulder. The original surface of the bone was completely worn – with no details preserved (Fig. 3A) and therefore a transfer preparation had to be planned. On the other side, the cross section (Fig. 3B) gave me a pretty good idea of the shape of the bone before preparation and the exact thickness of the rock that would have to be removed … Read More

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The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 4 – the locations close to Whitby where they can be found

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) In the first part of this article, I discussed the Middle Jurassic environment in the region of Whitby, on the northeast coast of England at the time when dinosaurs roamed there. In Part 2 (see The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 2 – problems matching footprints to dinosaurs), I looked at how the footprints were formed and preserved, and at the problems in identifying and classifying them. And in Part 3 (see The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 3 – a brief look at the six footprint groupings), I discussed the six major forms of footprints to be found in the area. In this fourth and final part, I will describe each of the four locations close to Whitby, and hope to give an idea of what footprints are there to be searched for. Fig. 1. Reproduced from the first part of this article – the four sites around Whitby where dinosaur footprints are commonly found. 1. East Cliff Beach Fig. 2. East Cliff Beach, with four minor headlands and five bights. Even on a much-visited beach such as East Cliff in Whitby, dinosaur footprints can be found without a lot of difficulty. This is a variable beach with ever-changing areas of rock platform, masses of sand and boulder fields, punctuated by frequent cliff falls and slumps. Every summer weekend, it is home to hundreds of curious fossil-searching families. It is very easily accessible down a slippery concrete ramp during the lower half of the tide … Read More

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The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 3 – a brief look at the six footprint groupings

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) In my previous articles in the series, I looked at the environments that allowed dinosaurs to flourish in the Whitby area during the Middle Jurassic and to leave their footprints. Then I considered the factors and problems in trying to match the footprints to particular species of dinosaurs. In this part, I will look at the six different forms that dinosaur footprints mostly take in the region. 1. Theropods Fig. 1. A Squabble of Theropods. The toes of theropods tend to be quite slender, they are longer than the heel and the foot is longer than it is wide. Theropods, meaning “beast-footed”, include well-known dinosaurs such as Megalosaurus, Velociraptor, Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus, Tarbosaurus, Troodont, Deinonychus, Coelophysis and a great host of turkey-sized raptors. Most of these species were not around at this specific time and place (although Megalosaurus may well have been). However, they were principally fast-moving carnivores that hunted or scavenged. They all had sharp, serrated, meat-ripping teeth; and were mainly bipedal – that is, they ran on two strong rear legs, with much shorter and weaker forelimbs. Figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5. Examples of small and large theropods, and their feet. Their footprints are said to be “tridactyl” – a word somewhat pretentiously created in the early nineteenth century from the ancient Greek for three fingers. It loaned scientific credence and academic gravitas to this new field of study. Most of the early footprints found in the UK and along the Connecticut Valley in … Read More

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The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 2 – problems matching footprints to dinosaurs

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) In the first part of this article (The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 1), I considered the immediate surroundings of Whitby as a seemingly unlikely place to find many dinosaur footprints; and I looked at the environments that existed here in mid-Jurassic times; and finally discussed how the footprints came to be shaped as I find them. In this part, I look at the problems that are encountered in trying to match the footprints to particular dinosaur species, and at the idea of ‘ichno-species’. I also suggest a simple compromise in classifying the footprints. Matching a footprint to a particular species of dinosaur isn’t easy, for several reasons. 1. Relatively few dinosaur species have been identified as living at this time or in this region In many parts of the world, the relevant rocks have been eroded away, or are deeply buried under later beds, or no beds were laid down, or the environment was marine. On a worldwide scale, there are remarkably few places where footprints coincide with skeletal remains that might be matched with them. The Middle Jurassic is a time about which very little is known with regard to the variety, numbers and development of dinosaurs, anywhere in the world. In fact, it is the least understood part of the Jurassic. Fig. 1. Replica foot and footprint photographed at both Dinosaur Valley State Park, Texas and Springfield Science Museum, Connecticut. In this particular area, it is extremely rare to find any skeletal remains … Read More

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The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 1

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) Introduction I recall reading a sentence in a book some time ago that went something like, ‘Occasionally a dinosaur footprint may be found along the coast.’ In fact, dinosaur footprints are superabundant along the Yorkshire Coast. On a day’s visit to any of 15 or 20 beaches, we (my wife, Chris, and I) would consider finding less than a dozen footprints to be a little disappointing, unless they were especially clear, part of a track or an unusual type. More commonly, we would expect to find two dozen or so recognisable prints. Fig. 1. Map of the UK showing the position of Whitby on the coast of Yorkshire. The outline map of the UK is reproduced by courtesy of d-maps at http://d-maps.com/carte.php?num_car=2557&lang=en. This article is intended to give an impression of how common they are, what to look for, what might have made them and where exactly they can easily be found. It is not meant to be a technical, profoundly scientific paper: it’s a discussion. I hope it will provide an idea of what they might look like when you’re out on a beach (that is, the sort of things to be looking for on the rock surfaces, so you can recognise a footprint – they aren’t always clear at first sight). It is largely a case of seeing the ridges and bumps – the curves and angles, and the grooves and depressions on a rock surface – for what they are. This is a … Read More

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Walk that Changed History: New evidence about the discovery of the Iguanodon

Martin Simpson (UK) Newly unearthed documentary evidence substantiates the classic story that Mary Ann Mantell found some worn down Iguanodon teeth in Cuckfield, Sussex, before 1822 in some rocks by the roadside, while her husband Gideon was elsewhere. She was accompanied by a friend and purchased the specimens from a workman. We now have the who, what, where and why in this discovery, but the precise when remains unclear. It is suggested in this article that the event took place on 21 May 1821 and the fossils were passed to Gideon the following day. Subsequently, the ‘later to be’ dinosaur was formally named in 1825. Introduction One of the benefits of the government’s 2020 social lockdown policy, introduced to combat the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, has been the increase in reading, researching and publishing amongst many scientific academics. There will no doubt be a corresponding increase in productivity for the individual scientists themselves and a forthcoming ‘paper boom’. In my own case, I have spent proportionately more of my time preparing, cataloguing and researching fossils, and less on actual field collecting due to the travel restrictions, resulting in a significant catch-up of jobs that needed doing, but were otherwise confined to the back burner. In particular, with precious little television worth watching, I have been trawling the internet in search of obscure references to check the synonymies of umpteen species of interest, and to add to their historical background. Whilst googling a topic somewhat off at a tangent from … Read More

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Hell and high water: The digs of Dinosaur Cove

Robyn Molan (Australia) Fig. 1. The location of the excavations. In an article in the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Journal (Issue 6, 2008) I dubbed the period between 1984 and 1994 ‘a decade of dedication’, thanks to the persistence of an American-Australian team headed by palaeontologists Tom Rich and his wife, Pat Vickers-Rich. (Tom wrote an article for Issue 16 of Deposits, entitled Tunnelling for dinosaurs in the High Arctic.) This was the decade that brought to the world the fascinating polar dinosaurs of south-eastern Australia and the eventual naming of three new dinosaur species – with a few other surprises along the way. Two hundred and twenty kilometres west of Melbourne, on the Otway Coast of Victoria, Australia, is a remote and little-known inlet. Set in a stretch of steep, rugged shoreline, this isolated cove is pounded by the Southern Ocean and blasted by Antarctic winds. Nearby, the world-renowned rocky sentinels, ‘The Twelve Apostles’ (see the cover of Issue 20 of Deposits), stand testament to the power of wave and wind, as they beckon tourists who travel the Great Ocean Road. Fig. 2. The rugged beauty of Dinosaur Cove. (Photo Ros Poole.) The excavation at Dinosaur Cove, as the inlet later became known, was the first major dinosaur dig conducted in Victoria. For several weeks each summer, the Rich family, and a crew of hardy volunteers, battled untold obstacles to wrestle fossils from the base of the cliff. It was gruelling, dirty and dangerous work, but subsequent scientific research … Read More

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Tunnelling for dinosaurs in the High Arctic

Dr Thomas H Rich (Australia) Fig. 1. Location of the Liscomb Bonebed. (© Thomas Rich.) I have no idea what made me look up at that moment. But, when I did, I saw a flash of light reminiscent of the sun glinting off the wings of a flock of birds abruptly and simultaneously changing direction. However, the light was not from a flock of birds. Rather, it was from thousands of individual, fist-sized lumps of rock, together with lumps of half-frozen mud on the steep slope above me. They were glistening due to a film of meltwater covering them and they were simultaneously starting to roll because the tonnes of rock on which they lay had suddenly started to collapse and plummet down towards me on a journey that would end in the frigid waters just below my feet. At that moment, I was digging into permafrost at the base of the steep slope forming the left bank of the Colville River that flows across the North Slope of Alaska and terminates in the Arctic Ocean about 40km further downstream. (The North Slope is the tundra covered coastal plain in northernmost Alaska bordered on the north by the Arctic Ocean and 250km to the south by the east-west Brooks Range.) Like my companions, my efforts were directed towards recovering ‘polar dinosaurs’, at a locality named the Liscomb Bonebed in honour of the geologist who found it in 1961. Fortunately, the tonnes of mud and claystone that cascaded down the bank … Read More

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Lost Dorset dinosaur footprint site

Paul Cox (UK) The year was 1991, we were on holiday in Dorset and we had gone to the beach for the day. The children were engrossed in a game of make believe, my wife was reading a book and I, as I often do, had started to walk down the beach observing the local geology. After ten minutes or so, I noticed someone walking in my direction, stopping every now and then to observe a rock or pick up a pebble. A fellow fossil collector? As he drew nearer, I hailed him. “Hello, have you found anything interesting?” He was looking for a particularly exquisite ammonite, which could only be found locally. He then asked, “What did you think of the open day at the quarry yesterday?” I had to admit to him that, as a holidaymaker, I had not heard of the quarry. “You must visit it before you go home. It’s well worth it,” I was assured. The next day found us travelling on a narrow road, parallel to the sea. Rolling green fields stretched into the distance. In the near treeless terrain, small farms stood at about two mile intervals. Many of these farms appeared to supplement their income with small limestone quarries. Eventually, we arrived at our destination – a large, whitewashed farmhouse, standing on its own on the seaward side of the road. Leaving the family in the car, I went to speak to the farmer. At first, he was not very pleased to … Read More

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Golden Dinosaur from the depths of the London Mine: Mystery of Genevieve

Steven Wade Veatch and Teresa L Stoiber (USA) The legend of “Genevieve”, a fossilised dinosaur not only made of stone — but also of gold — began on 3 July 1932. That was the day WK Jewett, owner of the London Mine near Alma in Colorado, stopped at the Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs and made the official announcement of its unearthing. The story was picked up by the news services and word of the fantastic find spread through the scientific world like a prairie fire. The golden dinosaur was discovered by William White, 700 feet (213m) underground — deep in the London Mine (WK Jewett, 1932). Curiously, the miners had been using the creature’s nose as a lamp holder, not realising there was a ‘dinosaur’ (if that is what it was) there. White, a hard rock miner, believed at first he was looking at two stumps. In reality, it was a dinosaur lying on its back with its limbs at an angle of 75 degrees. Eager to retrieve it from its rocky tomb, miners blasted it out of rock at the 700-foot level of the London Mine with dynamite. The blast shattered the specimen. Bits and pieces of the dinosaur were hoisted to the surface, where curious crowds gathered to see the prehistoric monster. As the story goes, a geology professor at Colorado College, Robert Landon, travelled to Alma so he could examine Genevieve – an extraordinary record of a former world. The measurements he made revealed that the … Read More

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Prominent figures of the 1800s who gave rise to vertebrate palaeontology

Megan Jacobs (UK) For centuries, the creatures of the past, from the terrifying theropod dinosaurs to the tiny early mammals, have captured the imaginations of millions. However, the people who put those beasts into the limelight are rarely acknowledged for their work and, in many cases, remain unknown. So here is a short account of some of the first prominent names in the world of vertebrate palaeontology, their contributions to the field, and an insight into the often eccentric behaviour that came with it. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) Fig. 1. Georges Cuvier.Georges Cuvier was a French naturalist and zoologist, and is regarded as the ‘’father of palaeontology’’. He was one of the finest minds in history, founding vertebrate palaeontology as a scientific discipline. For example, in 1800, he identified Pterodactylus as the first known pterosaur from a print published by Alessandro Collini. Shortly after, he described the first mosasaur, a giant marine reptile that was brought to France by Napoleon after he conquered the Netherlands. Going against his old Christian (Catholic) upbringing, Cuvier believed the Earth was immensely old and, during its history, underwent abrupt changes that Cuvier called ‘revolutions’, in which large numbers of species were wiped out. This was the first recognition that extinctions were facts. Cuvier also rightly speculated that there had been a time where reptiles had been the dominant animals on the planet. Indeed, the decades after his death yielded spectacular finds that confirmed his theory. After a study comparing modern elephant species, he worked on … Read More

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Daily lives of fossil reptiles

Robert Coram (UK) The Mesozoic and Cenozoic deposits of Southern England have long been a rich source of fossil reptiles. Past finds of great historical importance include some of the earliest known examples of dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs and pterosaurs. Fossil material, including new species, continues to be revealed, mainly at rapidly eroding coastal sites. All these reptiles would have been active participants in their local ecosystems, whether on land or in the sea. Much information about the roles they played and their interactions with other organisms can be gleaned from their skeletal anatomy and from comparison with living relatives such as crocodiles. What this article is concerned with, however, is evidence of specific incidents in the lives, and deaths, of individual reptiles; tiny snapshots of opportunities, mishaps and the daily drudge of staying alive. These add more detail and colour to our knowledge of the lifestyles of these long-vanished animals. This evidence will be provided by four selected terrestrial and marine deposits from southern England, spanning the last quarter of a billion years of Earth history (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. Geological map showing locations of deposits discussed in the text. (1) Triassic Otter Sandstone of South Devon; (2) Jurassic Lower Lias of the Somerset (a) and Dorset (b) coasts; (3) Cretaceous Wealden beds of the Isle of Wight (IOW on map); and (4) Paleogene Hamstead beds of the Isle of Wight. Trace fossils in a desert world – the Triassic Otter Sandstone Rocks dating from the Triassic period, laid down between … Read More

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Saltwick Bay, North Yorkshire

Emily Swaby (UK) Saltwick Bay is located along the Yorkshire Coast, between Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay, and can be accessed from the Cleveland Way, which passes the spectacular Whitby Abbey. The geology of the area is predominantly Jurassic in age, with the site often being described as a ‘fossil treasure trove’. The bay yields a wide variety of specimens, including common ammonites and belemnites to rarer finds such as marine reptiles, Whitby Jet and even dinosaur footprints. Even though Saltwick Bay is close to Whitby, it is still a very productive locality and you never leave empty handed. In fact, it is a good location for families and beginners. The walk to Saltwick Bay from Whitby itself is approximately 2.4km and provides many picturesque views of the abbey, the harbour entrance and the remarkable coastline. The steps leading down to the beach are located just past Whitby Holiday Park, but can sometimes be slippery during winter months. It is also recommended that you check tide times for the area before arriving, as high tide can limit the extent of accessibility and could potentially cut you off. Fig. 1. The steps descending down the cliff to the bay. Once you have made your way down the steps, fossils can be found immediately among the scree or in the shingle. However, it is advisable stay away from the base of the cliffs, as rock falls are common, with loose fragments of shale constantly falling down. Fig. 2. The Nab is a … Read More

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Finders, keepers: The lost world of some Isle of Wight geological heroes

Martin Simpson (UK) There is a growing misconception that most of the earliest important fossil discoveries were made by a select few famous geologists – established names, who were supposed to have ‘found’ everything in their collections. In reality, however, the true ‘discoverers’ of the original specimens were an often unknown or forgotten assortment of amateurs, labourers, beach-combers, longshoremen or quarrymen: opportunists, who were finding ‘new’ material with surprising regularity. These people not only had local knowledge, but also had the distinct advantage of being in the right place at the right time, thanks to the hours they devoted to searching. On the other hand, the early geological pioneers were fervently adding to their private museum cabinets by whatever means possible. As news of major finds of unusual fossils came to their attention, perhaps by way of the reports in some of the provincial broadsheets mentioned later, the more diligent and successful collectors (the acquirers) put their money where their mouths were and purchased directly from the sources (the finders). Eventually some of this material found its way to the academics and their institutional museums (the keepers). In the case of the Isle of Wight – that classic locality for Cretaceous and Palaeogene fossils – the earliest and most important historical discoveries have been attributed to a small group of generalised geologists. These include William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, William Fitton, Edward Forbes and the surgeon, Gideon Mantell between the 1820s and the 1850s; and later to a whole host of … Read More

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

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

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Pale white dot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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