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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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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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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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Histology of a sauropod rib bone from the Wessex Formation, Hanover point, Isle of Wight

Megan Jacobs (Isle of Wight) In September 2015, I went to Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight to hunt for dinosaur bones. It was equinox tides all week, so an ideal time to get out on the furthest rocks of the Wessex formation, dating from the Barremian stage of the early Cretaceous (about 130Ma) also famous for the bone debris beds, which are highly fossiliferous. Time passed and I hadn’t had a great amount of luck. So, deciding today was not my day, I decided to head home. As I turned, I glanced down to see a beautiful piece of rib bone with the most amazing internal structure I’ve ever seen (Fig. 1). But also nothing like I’ve ever seen before. Fig. 1. The bone when found at Hanover Point, Isle of Wight, September 2015. I took it show my tutor, David Martill, at the University of Portsmouth. He was quick to identify it as being from a sauropod, due to the large air cavities now filled in with a clear mineral banded by pyrite. He then followed the identification by: “how’d you fancy cutting it in half for a thin section?” I was dubious about the idea at first: I’d never looked at a bone and thought ‘you know what, that would be better cut in half’. But I went along with it and handed over my prize. What is a thin section? A thin section is an approximately 30µm thick slice of rock, or in this case, … Read More

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Ute arrow straightener made of Jurassic dinosaur bone

Gavin Noller (USA) I am currently studying an arrow straightening tool left behind by the Ute Indians of the Northern Colorado Plateau long ago. The artefact is made of an unusual material – a Jurassic dinosaur bone. As I work with this object (which is more than 13 decades old), I imagine a scene when it was used: A group of Ute braves are sitting on a forested mountain slope that overlooks the plains where the braves and their families have camped. They are manufacturing arrowheads and straightening the shafts of their arrows for hunting. The day is quite peaceful. The sun is shining – showering the landscape with its blissful, gratifying warmth and light. In the distance, the dark silhouette of a herd of grazing bison is visible. One brave – Leaf Who Rides on the Wind – has a tool for straightening the shafts of arrows. It is made of a peculiar material that is like bone, but is as hard as rock, and all the other braves believe it contains great medicine. The arrow straightener that Leaf Who Rides on the Wind uses is part of a large dinosaur bone. The bone was smoothed, so it could fit into his hand. A single long groove was put in to the bone to straighten the shafts of arrows, so they would hit their intended target, straight and true. Fig. 1. View of arrow shaft straightener made of dinosaur bone from a Jurassic bone bed. (From the G Noller … Read More

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Dinosaurs footprints on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Mark Wilkinson (UK) If you think of dinosaur hunting, you probably imagine trekking through a parched landscape, reaching the crest of a low hill and catching the first glimpse of a complete skeleton lying half exposed in the next depression. While this might just be true in some parts of the world, the reality of hunting for dinosaurs in Scotland could not be much more different. Hence, a cold and damp day in April 2015 found a small group of geologists from the University of Edinburgh on a slippery foreshore on the northwest extremity of the Isle of Skye. We were hoping not for complete skeletons but, if we were lucky, an occasional bone or tooth – well, perhaps we were hoping, but plenty of geologists have been here before, so the chances of a large find seemed pretty slim. Having said that, the total number of dinosaur bones that have been found in Scotland is still small, so that any bone is likely to be of interest – and could well be a new species, or evidence that a larger taxonomic group known from elsewhere was present on the island in the Jurassic. To add extra scientific interest, the exposures on Skye include a thick Middle Jurassic sequence, representing a time of a rapid dinosaur evolution, but with a poor fossil record worldwide. So any find might be of great importance. We visited several locations on the excursion. There are well-known dinosaur footprints at Staffin Bay on the east … Read More

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Dinosaur quarries of Hastings

Ken Brooks (UK) For over two hundred years, dinosaur bones and other fossils have been found along the beach to the east of Hastings, between Rock-a-Nore and Pett, but by far the most spectacular specimens were collected from local quarries in the nineteenth century. At this time, Hastings was expanding rapidly as a popular seaside resort. As a result, huge quantities of sand, clay (for chimney pots and bricks) and stone were required for new buildings and roads. This is reflected in the large number of local quarries marked on the 1899 Ordnance Survey map of Hastings. Many brickworks were located near outcrops of Wadhurst Clay. As well as clay, this formation also contains beds of sandstone and Tilgate Stone, which is a hard calcareous grit that was quarried for road stone (White, 1928). It was also known locally as ‘Bluestone’ or ‘Hastings Granite’ (Abbott, 1907). While the natural erosion of cliffs on the coast revealed occasional fossils, inland quarrying provided a more rapid and continual exposure of specimens. These included dinosaur bones from the geological section known today as the Hastings Group (Ashdown Sands and Wadhurst Clay – sedimentary beds which date from 141 to 137Ma and belong to the Valanginian Stage within the Lower Cretaceous). For many years, I have been curious about the exact locations of these long-abandoned quarries, but my research was really inspired by a ‘behind the scenes’ visit to the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. Here, in the storeroom, were huge dinosaur bones, … 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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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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Fleshing-out a dinosaur-eating snake

Tyler Keillor (USA) In the March 2010 issue of the open-access journal, PLoS Biology, palaeontologist Jeff Wilson and colleagues give an account of a truly unique and amazing fossil discovery. In their article entitled Predation upon Hatchling Dinosaurs by a New Snake from the Late Cretaceous of India, the snake Sanajeh indicus is described, based upon multiple specimens. In particular, one snake fossil was found in a nest of sauropod eggs, looped around a crushed egg, with hatchling sauropod bones next to the broken egg. The very moment of predation seems to have been preserved in rock, as a sudden plug of sand from a flash flood smothered the animals, preserving them for millions of years. Fig. 1. Small-scale maquette to help visualise and plan reconstructing the scene at full scale. The sediment analysis hadn’t been completed at this stage, so vegetation tentatively filled the nest in early mock-ups. Jeff contacted me about creating a reconstruction of this fossilised scene ‘in the flesh’ as a display. I had previously collaborated with him while he and Paul Sereno were studying the bizarre African sauropod, Nigersaurus taqueti, at the University of Chicago’s Fossil Laboratory. For that project, I created a restored skull model of the dinosaur for its unveiling, as well as a life-sized flesh model of the head and neck. These models are an extremely effective, visual means of conveying new discoveries to the public. The value of a model is underscored when a fossil isn’t very photogenic or might otherwise … Read More

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Meat-eating dinosaur from Argentina with a bird-like breathing system

Steve Koppes (USA) Mendoza, Argentina. The remains of a new ten-meter-long predatory dinosaur discovered along the banks of Argentina’s Rio Colorado are helping to unravel how birds evolved their unusual breathing system. In September 2008, palaeontologists, led by the University of Chicago’s Paul Sereno, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, have published an article about their discovery in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE. Joining Sereno to announce the discovery at a news conference in Mendoza, Argentina, held on 29 September 2008, were Ricardo Martinez and Oscar Alcober, both of the Universidad Nacional de San Juan, Argentina. The discovery of this dinosaur builds on decades of paleontological research indicating that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Fig. 1. Flesh rendering of the predator Aerosteon with the body wall removed to show a reconstruction of the lungs (red) and air sacs (other colours) as they might have been in life. (Drawing: Todd Marshall c 2008, courtesy of Project Exploration) “Among land animals, birds have a unique way of breathing. The lungs actually don’t expand,” Sereno said. Instead, birds have developed a system of bellows, or air sacs, which help pump air through the lungs. This is the reason birds can fly higher and faster than bats, which, like all mammals, expand their lungs in a less efficient breathing process. Discovered by Sereno and his colleagues in 1996, the new dinosaur is named Aerosteon riocoloradensis (meaning “air bones from the Rio Colorado”). Sereno explained that “Aerosteon, found in rocks dating to the Cretaceous period … Read More

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Denizens of the Oxford Clay

Robert Broughton (UK) In many ways, Britain is the birth-place of palaeontology, and the heady years of the 19th century saw the discovery of creatures that have inspired the imagination of small boys ever since – myself included. I’m talking, of course, about the dinosaurs. A vast plethora of names abound for the various scraps of bone that were discovered in those days and, unfortunately, many finds today still suffer from this taxonomical mess. Fortunately, however, the British dinosaur scene is undergoing something of a revival with new research and, more importantly, new finds coming to light. This is the story of one of those finds and the bigger picture it fits into. Fig. 1. Ornithopoda incertae sedis – PFL03 in lateral view. Note the prominent projection (prezygapophysis) that would have articulated with the next vertebra behind and provided the rigidity in the spinal column. The attachment site for a bony chevron can be seen to the bottom right. The neural spine is broken along its width, but would have extended an estimated 1 to 2cm. ‘PFL 03’ is probably not the most exciting name in the world. I came up with it, and even I agree it is fairly dull. However, this is my collection number for a small bone that thudded to the floor inside a parcel during August 2008. The parcel’s various contents were the result of a trade with Fiona Jennings (a fellow fossil-hunter), and the small bone was thrown in due to the lack of … Read More

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Isle of Wight: Dinosaurs down at the farm

Martin Simpson (UK) The Isle of Wight has long been regarded as a world famous fossil locality. It is now called Dinosaur Island, with no less than 29 different species having been found along the southern coast. Indeed, it has recently been ranked in the top seven dinosaur localities worldwide. On the Island, the Lower Cretaceous Wealden rocks crop out at Brighstone, Brook and Sandown Bays. Many of the first dinosaur discoveries were made here by the pioneer collectors, including William Buckland and Gideon Mantell. It is only right, therefore, that the Island now boasts a £3 million lottery funded museum and visitor centre situated at Sandown. This attraction is called Dinosaur Isle and it represents the official scientific repository for local finds. Fig. 1. Dinosaur Farm and Museum. However, there is another, quite different museum dedicated to the Island’s geological heritage and this one is situated right in the heart of dinosaur country on the south-west coast near Brighstone, an area known locally as the ‘Back of the Wight’. In 1993, Dinosaur Farm opened to the public with an exhibition built around a recently discovered brachiosaurid skeleton. The original idea was to use the farm buildings as workshops to clean and prepare the bones in front of the visitors, a project which took many months of painstaking work. The find represented approximately 40% of an animal that was something in the region of sixty feet in length. It is now known as the “Barnes High Sauropod”. In 2001, the … Read More

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Dinosaurs in Scotland

Neil Clark (UK) The existence of dinosaurs in Scotland is not something that is generally well known. Yet, there are at least three different families represented from fossil bones and a number of different footprint types from the Middle Jurassic. Of the bones, there is a sauropod, a thyreophoran, a coelophysid and a theropod. The footprints include large, carnosaur-like footprints, smaller theropod footprints and ornithopod footprints of different types. All this put together sounds like a decent representative dinosaur fauna from a poorly represented part of the Jurassic worldwide. Sadly, most of these dinosaurs are represented by only one or two identifiable bones. Having said that, the fossil remains that we do have in Scotland, contribute significantly to our knowledge of Middle Jurassic dinosaurs. The footprints are more common but are no less important, helping us to understand little known aspects of dinosaur movement and interactions. Fig. 1. View over the Middle Jurassic deposits that contain dinosaurs, at Port Earlish towards Raasay. The first dinosaur remains to be found in Scotland consisted of a single footprint. It was a 49cm long footprint with rounded toes, found on the Isle of Skye in 1982 by researcher Dr Andrews and is now preserved in the collections of the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. It is now thought that a bipedal herbivorous dinosaur made this footprint, similar to Camptosaurus. There are several difficulties in assigning footprints to particular kinds of dinosaurs. The main one is that we do not have skeletons … Read More

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Can the end-Permian mass extinction be attributed to a single, catastrophic event?

Robert Broughton (UK) The end Permian mass extinction occurred 251mya and marked the end of the Palaeozoic era. The loss of life is currently estimated to consist of 95% of the marine fauna and around 70 to 77% of the known terrestrial fauna (where the fossil record is inevitably less complete). This article will provide an overview of the many events and processes that played a part and a discussion whether they can all be attributed to a single, root cause. Reef evidence At this time, the landmass was united into the single, super-continent of Pangea, surrounded by warm shallow seas with abundant reef systems. This extensive reef fauna supported a variety of suspension feeders (for example, crinoids, rugose and tabulate corals, and so on), which were the most heavily hit by the extinction event, with all the known corals dying out. Modern scleractinian corals only appeared in the Triassic and there is a considerable gap in the coral fossil record at this time. Other reef inhabitants, such as the last phillipsid trilobites also became extinct. All these creatures were sessile or relatively immobile inhabitants of the reefs that occupied a relatively narrow zone on the continental shelf. This habitat must have been destroyed almost globally by a number of factors, but importantly, the single shelf margin around Pangea meant there was no other shallow reef environment for the fauna to migrate to. Fig. 1. Reef evidence. Tectonic activity The single continent of Pangea was always doomed to split apart. … Read More

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Artistic reconstructions of palaeoenvironments: A unique fusion of science and art

Richard Bizley (UK) Life on Earth has been affected and shaped by geological and astronomical events during the 4.5 billion years since it was formed. Scientists study geological and palaeontological processes to answer some rather fundamental questions. What did the animals and plants look like and how did they interact? What were the environment and ecology like? What about the climate? Was it dry, wet, cold or humid? Scientific descriptions of fossil species and published descriptions of fossil assemblages are the first steps in recreating theoretical reconstructions of the palaeoenvironments of the past. These normally take the form of descriptive prose in academic papers, only occasionally accompanied by an interpretative sketch. My interest lies in bringing the palaeoenvironments to life much more vividly. Fig. 1. Devonian of Scotland. One of the earliest known terrestrial ecosystems is from Scotland near Rhynie, where beautifully preserved fossils have been found in Rhynie Cherts. This palaeoenvironmental reconstruction is approx 400myrs ago. There were geysers, with water runoffs. Along the fringes of the runoffs and ponds, there were bacterial mats (which I have painted in reddish/pinkish colours). First terrestrial plants were small and here I’ve shown Horneophyton lignieri (Horneophytopsida), these grew approx 20cm high. Occasionally, hot silicated water from the geysers would flood the area, coating, killing and preserving the life forms. They would be covered with whitish silicated material (sinter). In the extreme foreground is a pair of springtail (Collembola: Ryniella praecursor). These were only between 1 and 2mm in length. Behind this an … Read More

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Some fossil finds in the Hastings area

Ken Brooks (UK) This specimen was found in blue-grey clay on the beach at Bulverhythe, near Bexhill, by a local fossil collector in May 2008 (Fig. 1). This fish, Scheenstia mantelli, was previously known as Lepidotes mantelli (Lepidotes coming from the Greek, ‘lepidotos’, meaning ‘scaly’). Fig. 1. Scheenstia head. Bulverhythe, Bexhill. Scale bar = 25cm. Between 145 and 125Ma, there would have been a variety of fish living in the lakes and rivers of this area, but, by far the most frequently found remains are those of Scheenstia. It could grow to over one metre in length and was covered in thick scales coated with a hard, shiny layer of ganoin. This ‘armour-plating’ would have given Scheenstia protection from some predatory animals and also ensured that its remains survived long enough to become fossilised. Individual teeth and scales of this fish are very common in local rocks, but specimens with articulated scales are rare. This particular Scheenstia head provides important clues to its feeding habits, as its mouth contains rounded teeth that were probably used for crushing the shells of aquatic molluscs. Scheenstia fossils are often found near freshwater bivalves, such as Neomiodon, which are abundant in the sandstones of the Lower Cretaceous Ashdown and Wadhurst Formations (Hastings Group). Such observations can provide evidence of a small link in the food web of this environment. The teeth of Scheenstia were continually growing to replace those that were worn or broken, as they still do in fish and reptiles today. With … Read More

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Visiting the Zigong Dinosaur Museum

Michał Zatoń (Poland) During the 8th International Congress on the Jurassic System 2010, which was held in Shehong, Sichuan Province in China, I had an opportunity to visit several palaeontological museums, exhibitions and geoparks. However, one of them exerted on me incredible impression – the Zigong Dinosaur Museum. Fig. 1. Dinosaur Hall with sauropods. Shunosaurus lii on the right, Mamenchisaurus youngi on the left, and a theropod, Szechuanosaurus campi, in the background.The Zigong Dinosaur Museum, known as the ‘Oriental Dragon Palace’, is located at Dashanpu, a town situated 11km northeast of the Zigong City in the Sichuan Province. The museum opened to the public in 1987 and was built on the site where a vast amount of more or less complete skeletons of a diverse range of dinosaurs (as well as other vertebrates) were discovered in the 1970s. It is China’s first museum to be built on the actual burial site of dinosaurs. The museum covers 66,000m2 and the fossil bones are embedded within Middle Jurassic sandstone. To date, about 100 dinosaur skeletons have been excavated, of which 30 are more or less complete. As well as bones, dinosaur skin impressions have been discovered. Equally impressive are the complete skulls of dinosaurs found belonging to both herbivores and carnivores. In all, some 22 dinosaur species are known from the Zigong area, including three species of stegosaurids, two species of hypsilophodontids, three species of fabrosaurids, four species of megalosaurids, one species of plateosaurid and nine species of sauropods. Fig. 2. A … Read More

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New predator ‘Dawn runner’ discovered in early dinosaur graveyard

Steve Koppes (USA) A lanky predator roamed South America in search of prey as the age of the dinosaurs began, approximately 230Ma. This dinosaur, named Eodromaeus (the “dawn runner”), sported a long neck and tail, and weighed only 4.5kg to 6.8kg. A team of palaeontologists and geologists from Argentina and the USA announced the discovery of dawn runner in January 2011. Fig. 1. Reconstruction of Eodromaeus, by Todd Marshall. “It really is the earliest look we have at the long line of meat eaters that would ultimately culminate in Tyrannosaurus rex near the end of the dinosaur era,” said Paul Sereno, University of Chicago palaeontologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. “Who could foretell what evolution had in store for the descendants of this pint-sized, fleet-footed predator?” Sereno and his colleagues described a near-complete skeleton of the new species, based on the rare discovery of two individuals found side-by-side, in the 14 January 2011 issue of the journal Science. The paper presents a new snapshot of the dawn of the dinosaur era – a key period that has garnered less attention than the dinosaurs’ demise. “It’s more complex than some had supposed,” Sereno said. Fig. 2. Dr Paul Sereno. (Photo by Mike Hettwer.) Set in picturesque foothills of the Andes, the site of the discovery is known as the “Valley of the Moon,” said the report’s lead author, Ricardo Martinez of Argentina’s National University of San Juan. For dinosaur palaeontologists, it is like no other. “Two generations of field work have generated … Read More

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Ashdown maniraptor: The world’s smallest dinosaur?

Dr Steven C Sweetman (UK) Most palaeontologists now accept that birds are descended from non-avian dinosaurs and are therefore the only living representatives of otherwise terrestrial animals that ruled the world during the Mesozoic. That being the case, the Cuban bee hummingbird, which measures just 5cm in length and weighs about 1.8g, is arguably the world’s smallest dinosaur. However, if birds are excluded and looking only at the non-avian dinosaurs, all of which became extinct in the often-discussed mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous, what is the world’s smallest dinosaur? Until very recently and considering only animals that are thought to be fully grown, the answer is Anchiornis huxleyi (Hu et al., 2009; and Fig. 1) from the earliest Late Jurassic of China. This tiny, feathered troodontid has been estimated to be between 34 to 40cm long (excluding the tail feathers). In the ever-changing environment of what represents the world’s largest and what the smallest, Anchiornis’ position as the world’s smallest dinosaur has now been threatened and quite possibly overturned. The fossil concerned is not another wonderful specimen from the Late Jurassic or Early Cretaceous of China, but a single, tiny cervical (neck) vertebra (Fig. 2) discovered at a brickworks near Bexhill, in East Sussex. Fig. 1. Anchiornis – an artist’s impression by Matthew Martyniuk. Fig. 2. The maniraptoran cervical vertebra discovered at Ashdown Brickworks by Dave Brockhurst in: A: left lateral; B: right lateral; C: anterior; D: posterior; E: dorsal; and F: ventral views. For more … Read More

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Jurassic Park meets the US presidential race 2016

Back here in the United States, the blockbuster movie Jurassic World still plays in theatres, while presidential candidates hit the campaign trail. This confluence of events reminds me of a crazy idea I had back in 1992, a couple years after Michael Crichton published his novel. This tongue-in-cheek essay explores the idea to its full absurdity.

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Barry’s secret dinosaurs

Ryan Clayton (UK) I have always been curious about footprints and trackways made by prehistoric animals, especially dinosaurs, due to the concept that the ground has captured the process of an animal, which is now long dead and their species extinct. I find it even more exciting when the creature that made the tracks is not known from physical remains, as it allows the opportunity for absolutely anyone subsequently to discover bones or even skeletons which can be associated with the preserved trace fossils. An ichnogenus (a genus only known from trace fossils) can be identified, but the actual physical profile of the animal remains a mystery. I’ve known for many years that, not far from the town of Barry in South Wales, there are trackways made by different dinosaur genera and sizes at Bendrick Rock. As a student studying less than 30km away, it would soon be a place I would explore as the workload calmed after my first year in 2015. On scanning the ground when visiting for the first time, I knew all I needed to do was find that first print with the iconic ‘three toes’ or tridactyl track. After that, every depression I could see was a footprint. The opportunity of being able to put my hand down on the same bit of ground on which a dinosaur had walked about 200Ma, which no one has any idea what it looked like, was, for me, extraordinary. Fig. 1. A photograph capturing the density of tracks … Read More

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Iguanodon is older than you think: The public and private announcements of Gideon Mantell’s giant prehistoric herbivorous reptile

Martin I Simpson (UK) The details of how the nineteenth century Sussex surgeon and palaeontologist Gideon Mantell came to acquire, describe and announce to the world a new fossil herbivorous reptile, later to be christened Iguanodon and to be included in Owen’s Dinosauria, have been merged together to form one of the most often quoted and legendary stories in the history of vertebrate palaeontology. However, the accuracy of some elements of the story has been questioned by recent scholars, for example, the role played by Gideon’s wife, Mary Ann. She has long been thought to have discovered the first teeth in a pile of road metal by the roadside, while her husband was attending one of his patients in Cuckfield. This is an event which is supposed to have occurred before 1822. In his book, The Fossils of the South Downs, published in that year, Gideon clearly states that Mary had found teeth, although the exact circumstances are not discussed. Some of the teeth acquired by the Mantells were examined by Baron Cuvier. In June 1824, this famous French anatomist ultimately decided that they all belonged to a new and unknown herbivorous reptile. Inspired by this conclusion, Gideon visited the Huntarian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in the autumn of 1824 to hunt down a modern reptilian equivalent. However, it was Samuel Stutchbury, not Gideon Mantell, who provided the next ‘light bulb’ moment by noticing a similarity between the teeth of the enigmatic fossil animal and those of … Read More

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Book review: Geology and Fossils of the Hastings Area (2nd edition), by Ken Brooks

I remember buying the first edition of Ken Brook’s fascinating little guide on Hastings a long time ago, and bumbling off to Hastings in the hope of finding Lower Cretaceous dinosaurs and tree ferns. Sadly, I was disappointed, as the area is not as productive as, say, the Dorset or North Yorkshire coastlines. Having said that, I have been back a few times armed with that first edition and have enjoyed the visits every time.

Book review: The Artists and The Scientists Bringing History to Life, by Peter Trusler, Patricia Vickers-Rich and Thomas H Rich

This fascinating book looks at the professional interaction over more than 30 years between a respected husband and wife team of US palaeontologists working for most of their professional lives in Australia (Prof Pat Vickers-Rich and Tom Rich) and a freelance artist (Peter Trusler), as he tries to interpret their work and bring to life ancient organisms and environments.