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Down and dirty at a dig: a dinophile’s dream comes true

By Elena Victory “You really should go on a dig” was the advice of a dear friend during the long, rainy winter of 2005. I was just gearing up to teach my annual, introductory paleontology class at a small college near my home outside Portland, Oregon. “Where?” I asked. “Who specialises in fanatics who read lots of dinosaur books and dream a lot, but has never dug up a real dinosaur?” She smiled and said, “I think Nate Murphy’s program would be good for you”. It unfolded from there. I emailed Nate to find out availability. He emailed back, directly I might add. And so, I found myself outside of Billings, MT en route to my first real dig. It was a beautiful landscape: a few lonely Ponderosa pines stood like silent sentinels over a grassy landscape dotted with spurges, thistles and wormwoods. Through the eyes of a botanist, it didn’t look like dinosaur country to me. That night, after a group of 35 excited diggers had made camp and their introductions, we were given a little history. The next day, we were going to dig our awls and shovels into the “Mighty Morrison”, a huge geological layer cake of shales and mudstones spanning several states and several thousand square miles. The Morrison graveyard also records a story of climate change. Early in the Jurassic period, Apatosaurus roamed on its home range encountering arid seasons part of the year and deluges the rest of the season (poor thing, I thought, … Read More

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Jurassic Gorge

By Dr Susan Parfrey About 95km south of Rolleston, in the southern part of central Queensland, Australia, is a national park that contains the Carnarvon Gorge. The gorge is over 32km in length and is formed of towering white sandstone cliffs. It has almost everything a visitor could want – beautiful scenery, wonderful Aboriginal rock paintings and a garden of moss with a magic waterfall, plus King Ferns, the largest ferns in the world. So what’s missing? Well, obviously, Jurassic dinosaurs. An impression of how these dinosaurs may have looked. © SMP. This is one of the most popular national parks in the state and has over 30,000 people visiting every year. Over the years, you would imagine every centimetre of rock has been carefully studied and, in particular, the ‘Art Gallery’ Aboriginal rock paintings, some of which date back 3,600 years. Imagine the surprise in 1992 when some tourists told the Park Ranger they thought there were bird footprints in a rock at the Art Gallery. The ranger examined the site and, sure enough, there were some marks on the rock. But were they footprints? The Park Ranger took photographs and sent them to the sloe palaeontologist at the Geological Survey of Queensland in Brisbane. Map of Australia showing the position of Brisbane and Carnarvon Gorge. Throughout my career as a geologist, I have seen every shape possible formed in rocks. Nature has an amazing ability to cut interesting shapes in natural objects. Combine this with people’s imaginations and … Read More

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Finding Ophthalmosaurus – the eye lizard

By Paul de la Salle Ophthalmosaurus – the ‘eye lizard’ – is so called because of its enormous eyes, presumably of crucial importance when diving to enormous depths in the Jurassic seas in search and pursuit of its favourite prey, the belemnite. This was a large ichthyosaur, supremely adapted to its marine environment. Some fossil collectors think it should be called ‘Ribosaurus’ on account of the number and size of its ribs that are usually broken into hundreds of pieces when found. Fig. 1. Block as found – 24 June 2007. Fig. 2. Ribs. Individual vertebrae and rib sections of this, the only ichthyosaur known from the Lower Oxford Clay, are fairly common finds. However, I was lucky enough to find a partial articulated skeleton this summer, in the drainage ditches of a Wiltshire gravel pit. Fig. 3. Concretion before cleaning. Fig. 4. Another concretion before cleaning. Recent heavy rains had washed away some of the clay from the bank exposing a large pyritic concretion packed with bones, including a humerus. When I dug into the bank, I was amazed to find both front paddles, including both humeri and about 50 paddle bones. Many of the bones were fused together in life position. Fig. 5. Front and rear flipper. Fig. 6. The left paddle. Fig. 7. Loose vertebrae. Over the next week or so, I recovered quite a bit more of the skeleton but the head had been washed away by one of the floods that had deposited the gravel … Read More

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SEACHANGE sets sail: Science on the high seas

Jack Wilkin (UK) During April and May 2022, I had the fantastic opportunity to participate in a research expedition to the North Sea and Iceland on the RRS Discovery, as part of the SEACHANGE project. The following article is a brief description of the science that happened on the ship. What is the SEACHANGE Project? SEACHANGE is a six-year research project funded by the ERC Synergy Grant Scheme (part of the EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020). It is jointly run by the University of Exeter (UK), Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (Germany) and the University of Copenhagen (Denmark). This is a collaborative project with scientists worldwide, from master’s students to professors working diligently to answer the question: What were the oceans like before large-scale human impact? To answer this question, we need to test the scale and rate of biodiversity loss resulting from fishing, whaling and habitat destruction over the last 2,000 years in the North Sea and around Iceland, eastern Australia and the Antarctic Peninsula. In addition, we need to find out more about the earlier transition from hunter-gatherer to farming communities in northern Europe around 6,000 years ago. However, before answering this question and starting to generate data, we first needed the raw materials. Because we were monitoring the oceans, we needed to go to the sea to gather our samples, so we need a boat … a very big boat. The RRS Discovery. The RRS Discovery (Fig. 1) is one of the most advanced research ships … Read More

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Book review: Hands-on Palaeontology: a practical manual, by Stephen K. Donovan

I wish I had this book when I was starting out collecting fossils. It has everything and more you need to take your hobby (and, who know, later a career in palaeontology) to a better, and more advance and fulfilling place. While I will never take the record-keeping and note taking to the levels gently suggested in this very readable book, perhaps if I had read this when I was a teenager, perhaps I would have done.

British fossil elephants

By Adrian M Lister Fig. 1. From a realistic scale model at the Natural History Museum, London. Note the sloping back and the double ‘finger and thumb’ at the end of the trunk. (© Natural History Museum, London.) The elephant family (Elephantidae), like that of humans, originated in Africa. Finds from the late Miocene of southern and eastern Africa show that, by between seven and six million years ago, true elephants had arisen, probably from advanced mastodonts, which are related to stegodons. Between those dates and about four million years ago, the earliest representatives of the three great stocks of elephants – the African elephant (Loxodonta), Asian elephant (Elephas) and mammoth (Mammuthus) all make their appearance in the African fossil record. Loxodonta, of course, stayed in Africa, while Elephas eventually migrated north and east into its current range in south-east Asia. The first true elephant fossils in Europe are of the Mammuthus lineage. In Britain, these first make their appearance in the Red Crag of Suffolk, now dated to around 2.6 million years old. The fossils are not common, but three well-preserved molars from Rendlesham can be seen in Ipswich Museum. This material has recently been attributed to the species Mammuthus rumanus, on the basis of the primitive appearance of the back molars with only ten complete enamel loops (Lister and van Essen, 2003). Fig. 2. A molar from one of the earliest mammoths in Europe, Mammuthus rumanus, from the Red Crag of Suffolk, Ipswich Museum. (Photo by H van … Read More

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Fossils from Denmark (part 1)

By Niels Laurids Viby Denmark – why on earth should anybody in the UK go to such a strange place – where people, among other things, drive on the wrong side of the road and speak a funny language? And why write something for Deposits on the subject at all? You can find fossils from almost every time period apart from a few in the UK. For example, you can find them from the very top of the Cretaceous period (Maastricien) and the Lower Palaeocene period (Danien). However, these particular geological periods, especially the Danien that was, after all, named after a site in Denmark are also found in many places in Denmark. Moreover, at one site, you can actually access the KT border and get a sample from the famous (but thin) band with high concentrations of iridium. Of course, most fossil collectors concentrate on what is found close to home, and for good logistical reasons. However, for those who want a broad collection covering the development of life or for that matter a mass extinction, a holiday in Denmark is a good option for filling a gap without having to drive long distances – Denmark is a rather small country! In this first article on Danish geology, I will provide the reader with two things. Firstly, a short description of Danish geology, including what is legal to collect and what is not and secondly, a description of a Danish speciality – Lower Eocene diatom clay, the ‘moler’, which … Read More

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The Elgin Marvels

By Neil Clark (UK) Not to be confused with the Elgin Marbles, the Elgin Marvels actually come from the Elgin area of Scotland. They are well known fossil reptiles and their footprints, of Permo-triassic age, that were collected from old sandstone quarries mostly over a century ago. They are partly what inspired me to take up palaeontology although, at that time, I had never actually been to Elgin, nor ever seen the fossils. It was through the lectures of Professor Euan Clarkson of Edinburgh University in the 1980s that I first became aware of these animals. However, it was not until much later that I came face to face with the Elgin Marvels themselves. Sketch map of the geology around Elgin. In the summer of 1996, while recovering from a broken leg as a result of dinosaur hunting on the Isle of Skye (see my article in Issue 12 of Deposits), I was asked to give a talk on my exploits at an Open University Summer School in Edinburgh. Most of the talk was concerned with the study of dinosaur footprints, their interpretation and identification. After the lecture, I joined the students in their usual nocturnal social discussion groups. It was at this time that I was approached by one of the students who claimed to have seen some ancient footprints in the bedded sandstones near Elgin. The student, Carol Hopkins, invited me to Elgin to have a look at the footprints she had found. I could not pass up … Read More

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Building a fossil preparation box

By Chris Pamplin I have been collecting fossils on and off for about 36 years and it’s not since I lived at my mother’s home, some 25 years ago, that I have been really organised about cleaning fossils for display. Although I am a professional fossil hunting guide, my interest in fossils has always been as an amateur collector and, for many years, my main fossil cleaning tool was an electric engraver, which cost £30 back in the 1980s. At my last rented house, the brick barbeque with a sandbag on it was my outdoor cleaning station. It is only since moving into a new house and finally buying a shed that I have got myself sorted. Fig. 1. The dimensions of the box. So here is how to make a fossil preparation box, like the one that I now have ready for use in my shed, which will keep the dust at bay and cut noise levels as well. You can use it with an electric engraver or, as I now do, with a compressed air pen specially adapted for palaeontological work. Fig. 2. An example of an Air Abrasive Blaster (125psi). The box described in this article was built from odds and ends that I had laying around, left over from various DIY projects. However, the materials can also be bought new if you are not in a position to recycle. The sides and base are plywood and the back and top are an old estate agents board … Read More

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Bryozoans: more than meets the eye

By Paul D Taylor A few years ago a survey was undertaken of the changing proportion of bryozoans relative to other fossils at an Ordovician locality near Cincinnati popular with fossil collectors. The site was revisited annually over a ten-year period, random collections of fossils were made and the numbers of crinoids, trilobites, brachiopods, bryozoans and other fossils were counted. At the beginning of the study, about 25% of the fossils consisted of bryozoans, by the end the proportion had gone up to 75%. The author of the study referred to this phenomenon as “bryo-enhancement”. Of course, the bryozoans had not been increasing in an absolute sense, rather visitors to the site had preferentially collected other fossil groups, causing the proportion of bryozoans left behind to rise. The Cincinnati study is a fair reflection of the unpopularity of bryozoans among fossil collectors. Fossil bryozoans generally languish unloved among the sponges and trace fossils in the bottom drawers of collectors’ cabinets and are seldom seen for sale in fossil shops or on the Internet. Why should this be? Part of the reason is that few bryozoans have the aesthetic appeal of such fossils as ammonites or trilobites – well at least to the naked eye. They are also difficult to identify and all too often mistaken as corals, sponges or algae. But another reason is that bryozoans have a low public profile. Unlike molluscs and crustaceans, you won’t find bryozoans on the menu at fish restaurants, even in the Far East. … Read More

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Mammalian Paleoecology: Using the Past to Study the Present, by Felisa A Smith

The blurb for this book states that it will “profoundly affect the way paleontologists and climatologist view the lives of ancient mammals”. However, not being either a (professional) palaeontologist or climatologist,but having read it with interest, I am not sure that is correct. Anyone with an active interest inwhat the interactions of ancient mammals and their environments tell us about the presentand future will be interested in this well-written and engaging book.

Isotopes provide key insights into dinosaur lives

Jack Wilkin (UK) Isotopic geochemistry has a long history in the palaeosciences since Urey (1947) first suggested that 𝛿18O from fossil calcite could be used to estimate past temperatures. Stable isotope analysis of fossils has become an increasingly important method for gathering dietary, physiological and environmental/climatic information from extinct species in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The benefits of these analyses come from the geochemical fingerprint that an environment leaves in bones, teeth and soft tissues. Ongoing studies of living organisms have found that the stable isotope composition of several light (hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulphur) and even a few heavy (calcium and strontium) elements are useful tracers of ecological and physiological information, and many of these can be similarly applied to the study of dinosaurs. Over the last few decades, stable isotopes have greatly expanded our understanding of dinosaur palaeobiology and diet. Thermoregulation in an animal is affected by metabolic rates. Therefore, by learning more about dinosaur thermoregulation, we can make an accurate interpretation of their metabolic strategies, life histories and even evolution. Thermoregulation – the internal body temperature of an animal – can be ascertained by directly measuring oxygen isotope ratios in their bones.  Isotopes and other geochemical proxies can also help reconstruct dinosaur diets and food webs. Below, I will briefly discuss the applications of oxygen, carbon and calcium isotopes in dinosaur research. Diagenesis Before continuing, it is worth discussing the effects of diagenesis – the process by which fossils are formed. Diagenesis is the term that … Read More

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Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Fossils, by Dean R Lomax, illustrated by Bob Nicholls

Dean Lomax, sometime author of articles in Deposits magazine, is certainly making a name for himself, and has been now for many years. For instance, in January 2022, he was on television explaining about a remarkable find at Rutland Water Nature Reserve. And now he continues his admirable efforts for popularise his chosen academic subject – palaeontology – in this fascinating book about the fossilisation of behaviour.

Lake District: Landscape and Geology, by Ian Francis, Stuart Holmes and Bruce Yardley

I recently reviewed another of the guides in Crowood Press’s excellent “Landscape and Geology” guides, which was undoubtedly a great read. And this one is equally good, with great, full colour pictures, maps and diagrams, and easy to read text, with descriptions of interesting walks and what can be seen on them.That is, there are easy-to-understand explanations of how the rocks formed and how the geology affects the landscape, and there is also an n exploration of the long human story of the landscapes.

Book review: Isle of Wight: Landscape and Geology, by John Downes

This is another guide in the excellent “Landscape and Geology” series of local geological guides published by The Crowood Press. And this is as good as the others. Admittedly, it has a wonderful subject matter, because the Isle of Wight is a geological gem with its 110km long coastline displaying a range of rocks dating from Lower Cretaceous to Oligocene age. I know from personal experience that many of its sands and clays contain collectable fossil bivalves and gastropods, and its famous dinosaur footprints attract attention from both geologists and tourists, with always the possibility of finding a bone or two.

Fossils re-united

Brandon Lennon (UK) My kind of collecting requires collectors to be in the right place at the right time. Science directs fossil collectors to the right place, but it is good luck that puts them there at the right time. The latter is often referred to as “serendipity” and what … Read More

Book review: The Chalk of the South Downs of Sussex and Hampshire and the North Downs of Kent (Geologists’ Association Guide No 74) (vols 1 and 2), by Rory N Mortimore

I have to admit, I was beginning to wonder where Prof Rory Mortimore’s update of his excellent Chalk of Sussex and Kent was. And now I know. It wasn’t a second edition he was working on, but this magnificent magnum opus in two volumes covering a vastly greater area than that other guide. And the wait was more than worthwhile. The thoroughness, writing quality, content and publication standards are superb.