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Colossal tortoises: Climate change and the evolution of Europe’s largest ‘modern’ reptiles

Benjamin Kear (Australia) and Georgios Georgalis (Greece) Most people are familiar with the famous giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands – isolated oddities evolving in the absence of predators on a remote tropical paradise. However, as little as 5mya, continental landmasses (including Europe, Africa and India) also had their own species of giants. However, these were nearly three times the size of their modern cousins, probably close to the mass of a small car, and would have rivalled some dinosaurs for being among the most colossal reptiles of all time. Fig. 1. A life-size reconstruction of the European gigantic tortoise Cheirogaster as displayed in the University of Athens Palaeontological and Geological Museum. This model represents a massive individual of a carapace length of around 2m and was based on finds from Pikermi, near Athens, and the island of Lesvos. The best preserved gigantic tortoise fossils (as opposed to the merely ‘giant’ ones) have been found in Mediterranean Europe, particularly France, Greece and Spain, and were described in the scientific literature as early as 1877. Yet, despite an impressive chronicle of discoveries, the inter-relationships between these different kinds of gigantic tortoises are far from adequately understood. The present, albeit tentative, consensus is that there are at least three separate lineages, all of which achieved maximal body size at about the same point in geological time. Cheirogaster, the genus found in Europe, has a long fossil history stretching back some 50mys to the Eocene and includes up to 11 species. It is … Read More

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Triassic reptiles from the Lower Muschelkalk of Winterswijk

Henk Oosterink (Netherlands) The Lower Muschelkalk (from the Anisian age of the Middle Triassic) of the quarry at Winterswijk in The Netherlands is well known for its beautiful and sometimes abundant finds of reptile footprints and bones. A few, almost complete, skeletons have even been found. Most of the bones come from marine reptiles within the Sauropterygia (that is, ‘winged lizards’, referring to their paddle-like flippers) group. The quarry is one of the most important sites for Triassic reptiles in the world. Every year, between 2,000 and 3,000 people visit this quarry on excursions and during open days, most being fossil collectors. Many new forms of life The Triassic Period is characterised by an explosive development of many reptile groups. For instance, at the end of this period, the dinosaurs appeared. Many new forms of life developed in terrestrial and marine environments. In the Tethys Ocean and its epicontinental seas, some reptiles adopted a semi-aquatic lifestyle allowing them to be functional in the sea as well as on land. Many of these reptiles belonged to the Sauropterygia. Sauropterygians are diapsids – reptiles are divided into two groups, anapsids that include turtles and diapsids that have two holes in the skull behind the orbit. Their skulls have upper temporal openings and, on the back of the skull, the quadrate is immovable and is connected to the squamosal. The sauropterygians lived mainly in the sea, but they did come ashore, for instance, to lay their eggs. This reptile group appears for the … Read More

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Dinocochlea (Part 2): A solution to the mysterious spiral of Hastings

Paul D Taylor and Consuelo Sendino (UK) Last week, In the first par of this two part series (see Dinocochlea (Part 1): The mysterious spiral of Hastings) we introduced Dinocochlea ingens, a gigantic spiral fossil from the Lower Cretaceous Wadhurst Clay Formation of Hastings, Sussex. Discovered in 1921 during the extension of St Helens Road near Old Roar Glen, this fossil immediately excited local and, indeed, national interest. The specimens were despatched to the British Museum (Natural History) where BB Woodward, a mollusc specialist who had recently retired as chief librarian, formally described the fossil as the new genus and new species – Dinocochlea ingens. The clue to Woodward’s interpretation of the fossil is in the name Dinocochlea, meaning ‘terrible snail’. Woodward (1922) considered Dinocochlea to be the largest snail that had ever lived. By piecing together the fragments found by the workmen building the road, he was able to reconstruct the supposed snail as a monster over 7 feet tall, 14 inches wide and with 23 spiral whorls (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. Plaster reconstruction of Dinocochlea, measuring more than 2m in length. Not a snail For a short time, Dinocochlea achieved celebrity status and was exhibited in the public galleries of the BM(NH) between the wars. However, its identity as a colossal snail was soon to be challenged. One of Woodward’s colleagues, the eminent fossil mollusc researcher LR Cox, was the main critic. Cox (1929, 1935) pointed to the variability in the tightness of spiral coiling between specimens of … Read More

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Dinocochlea (Part 1): The mysterious spiral of Hastings

Paul D Taylor and Consuelo Sendino (UK) Spiral structures in nature hold a particular fascination on account of their beautiful yet twisted symmetry. The logarithmic spiral coiling of ammonite shells and rams’ horns, the corkscrew helix of a plant tendril, and the planar spiral of a hurricane when viewed from space, all have an aesthetic appeal beyond that of simpler geometrical shapes. Fig. 1. The site in Hastings, as it appears, today where Dinocochlea was discovered during road construction in 1921. This is the first of a two part series on Dinocochlea. The second can be found at: Dinocochlea (Part 2): A possible solution to the mysterious spiral of Hastings. When huge spiral objects were unearthed during road construction in Hastings, almost one hundred years ago, it was not surprising that they attracted the immediate attention of geologists. To this day, the origin of these spirals from the Lower Cretaceous Wadhurst Clay is a puzzle. The story is as follows. History of the find In 1921, St Helens Road in Hastings (now the A2101) was extended westerly to meet up with Seddlescombe Road North (now the A21), thereby providing a bypass to Hastings town centre. Close to Old Roar Glen (a well-known local beauty spot) the workmen excavated a shallow cutting and came across some huge spiral structures lying horizontally in the rock. The engineer in charge of the roadworks immediately notified the Hastings Museum. Those specimens not already bagged as rockery stones by local inhabitants were sent to Dr … Read More

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Fossils from the Polish Bathonian clays

Dr Michał Zatoń (Poland) The Middle Jurassic Bathonian stage, which is preceded by Aalenian and Bajocian and overlaid by the Callovian, was established on the basis of oolitic limestones outcropping at Bath in Somerset. This historical and English connection is a major reason I have chosen the Bathonian as a topic for Deposits Magazine. The Bathonian clays in Poland, like the English classic Kimmeridge Clay or Callovian Oxford Clay, are characterised by their rich fossil content. Although some years ago, the Bathonian clays from Poland were not as well known as these two English formations, today they have become progressively more recognised outside of Poland. This is due to an increasing number of publications dealing with different aspects of the clays and the 7th Jurassic Congress held in Kraków (southern Poland) in 2006, during which scientists from all over the world had the chance to meet and actually look at the Bathonian clays. Geological and palaeogeographical background The best outcrops of Bathonian clays are in southern and south-central Poland, in an area called the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland (Fig. 1). Here, the Jurassic rocks, and especially Oxfordian (Upper Jurassic) limestones, form a distinct belt stretching approximately in a south-east to north-west direction. That is why the late Professor Stefan Zbigniew Różycki in 1960, when comparing the area with such classic areas as the Swabian and Franconian Jurassic, called it the ‘Polish Jura’. Fig. 1. A map of Poland without the Cenozoic cover: 1. Pre-Jurassic, 2. Jurassic, 3. Cretaceous; PJ – Polish Jura. … Read More

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Natural wonders of the Maghreb in Morocco

Sebastian Lüning (UK) Morocco is a popular tourist destination. Most people travel to the white beaches of Agadir to sunbathe and relax, to watch the magicians on Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech, or to go shopping in the UNESCO-protected Osouk of Fes. However, Morocco has much more to offer. Some of the most attractive specimens found at international fossil fairs originate from this country. Morocco is home to exceptionally well-preserved trilobites and attractive Orthoceras assemblages from the Palaeozoic. The beds containing these fossils are systematically mined in the Anti-Atlas. Other fossils, such as goniatites and ammonites, complement the diverse palaeontological national treasure. Fig. 1. Location map of geological sites mentioned in this article. 1) granites near Tafraoute, 2) algal mats near Ouarzazate, 3) Ordovician glaciation, 4) Silurian graptolithic shales, 5) Orthoceras limestones, 6) Devonian mud mounds and Merzouga sand dunes, 7) Triassic Argana river sands, 8) Cascades d’Ouzoud, 9) Friouato karst shaft, 10) Dades Gorge, 11) blowholes near Agadir and Cretaceous oysters, 13) Amesfrane cliff. These fossils are part of an exciting geological past. This article aims to guide you through the highlights of Morocco’s geological history, exploring the stories behind the country’s natural wonders and its multi-million-year-old inhabitants. Concealed in its spectacular mountain chains are some fascinating snapshots from the past. Our trip will commence at the very beginning of this history and will take us gradually forward through time. We will visit various sites on a route starting in the Precambrian of the Anti-Atlas, in the southern part … Read More

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Triassic fossils of West Texas

Rick Day (USA) I found my first Triassic fossil when I was about 15 years old on a backpacking trip in Tule Canyon, Briscoe County in Texas. After setting up camp, I walked over to a small, red-coloured hill. On its slope, I found a small, unusual bone fragment approximately 5cm by 5cm by 1cm and I remember being really excited. It was the first petrified bone I had ever found and it seemed strange to me. The bone fragment was flat on one side and had dimples and pits on the other side. It just didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before. Fig. 1. My first phytosaur skull. All the teeth and part of the rostrum is restored. Leptosuchus? I carried this unusual bone fragment in the glove compartment of my car for years, hoping to find someone who could identify it. However, I was never able to find anyone who knew anything about the fossil. Eventually, I became interested in geology and learned for myself the geology and paleontology of the region where I live. This eventually led to my becoming a science teacher. In time, I was able to identify my strange little fossil bone as being a scute fragment from the back armour of a Thecodont Reptile called an Ateosaur. (A “scute” is thickened, horny or bony plate that can be seen today on the shells of turtles or on the backs of crocodiles.) For those unfamiliar with Ateosaurs, these were the heavily armored … Read More

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Preserving geological museum collections

Dr Caroline Buttler (UK) It has long been recognised that art and archaeological collections in museums may need specialised conditions and conservation to survive. However, until relatively recently, geological collections have not had the same level of care. Perhaps, it was thought that rocks, minerals and fossils that had already survived millions of years do not need any particular attention. Although geological material may appear strong and durable, there are factors that can lead to the deterioration and even the complete destruction of specimens. The last 20 years have therefore seen a growing interest in storage conditions for geological collections with some museums appointing specialist conservators to care for them. The museum environment The museum environment is traditionally a compromise between the need to preserve objects and to provide comfortable conditions for staff and visitors. Unfortunately for specimens, when there is a conflict, human interest often wins. Environmental factors, including temperature, humidity, light and pollution, can be major threats to geological material. Temperature alone does not usually cause damage to specimens, but it can speed up the rate of deterioration and changes in temperature can affect relative humidity (RH). There are no ideal levels of temperature and relative humidity suitable for all geological material, but the commonly accepted parameters are 20oC plus or minus 2oC, and 50% plus or minus 5% RH, and air-conditioned stores are set at these. However, many specimens do not have the benefit of these conditions and, even those that do, can still degrade and fall … Read More

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Essential collectibles #7: Moroccan mosasaur teeth

Dr Neale Monks (UK) Mosasaurs were large lizards, for a long time assumed to be most related to the modern monitor lizards such as the Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis. Certainly they had a lizard-like shape, except that their legs were modified into flippers for steering and their tail was flattened and supported a vertical crescent-shaped fin, adaptations that presumably helped them to swim efficiently. However, some recent work has suggested that mosasaurs were not as closely related to monitors as we’d thought, and in fact their closest living relatives are the snakes. This isn’t a completely new idea, having originated with the nineteenth century palaeontologist Edward Drinker Cope, who suggested that snakes had a marine origin and placed them together with the mosasaurs in a group known as the Pythonomorpha. But for the last century or so this idea had been largely discarded, palaeontologists generally believing that snakes had lost their limbs as an adaptation to a burrowing, rather than swimming, lifestyle. As things stand now, there’s evidence to support both points of view, but what is certain about mosasaurs is that they were lizards, which distinguishes them from the other big groups of marine reptiles such as the nothosaurs, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pliosaurs. Indeed, they’re unquestionably the biggest lizards to have ever lived, some species of Mosasaurus for example measuring in at well over 15 metres. They were also a very characteristic part of Late Cretaceous marine faunas, predominantly inhabiting inland seas such as the famous Western Interior Seaway … Read More

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Predator and prey

Dan Quinsey (UK) Some fossils show evidence of the violent relationships between predator and prey. Below is a brief discussion of a few of such fossils – fossils that seem to preserve the moment when a carnivore has killed its victim or scavenged a dead body for food. Fig. 1. Placenticeras sp ammonite with limpet (insert) holes show a slightly dissolved and smooth edge to the shell around the holes. Predator: MosasaurPrey: Ammonite Modern mammals, fish, and reptiles feed on squid and octopus. Therefore, it can safely be assumed that ancient reptiles and fish fed on their ancient relatives – the ammonites. In fact, ammonites exhibiting bite marks are not uncommon. However, such bite marks are often mistaken by the collector as being just the result of random brakes in the shells. On the other hand, there have been claims of hundreds of ammonites with the preserved tooth marks of mosasaurs. Most of these claims are false. The marks on most of the shells are holes bored or dissolved in the ammonite by limpets or other forms of gastropods, rather then holes made from the bite of such reptiles. The Placenticeras specimen, on the right, is a fine example of a mosasaur-bitten ammonite. The tooth marks have been left in the phragmocone (chambered portion) of the shell. Here, the septa still supports the surrounding shell as the bite did not result in the wide scale collapse of the shell around the holes. The edges of the holes show an irregular, … Read More

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Essential collectibles #6: Green River fishes

Dr Neale Monks (UK) So far our essential collectibles have been invertebrate fossils, remains of animals without backbones such as ammonites and trilobites. Vertebrate fossils are much rarer, and consequently more expensive, the pocket money-priced ones tending to be things like sharks’ teeth or small fragments of reptile bone. Certainly, even a small fully articulated dinosaur skeleton is the sort of thing that’ll set you back many thousands of pounds! But exceptions to this rule can be found among the Green River fishes, well preserved fossils with all their bones in place thanks to the rapid burial and fossilisation of the original animals. Of course there are rare species like stingrays that command high prices, but individual Knightia and Diplomystus can be had for a few tens of pounds, while the less common Priscacara goes for a little bit more. Either way, these are fish most collectors end up with sooner or later, whether bought for themselves or received as gifts. Such pieces are attractive enough but the serious collector probably won’t want one. Real mosasaur bone has a distinctive colour and texture that can be recognised easily enough, especially when compared against a fake, but casual collectors will have a hard time recognising a fake when offered for sale at a show or online. Unless the price is low enough you don’t mind if it is a fake, or you’re patronising a trustworthy vendor who offers a guarantee of authenticity with every sale, then the best approach is to … Read More

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Essential collectibles #5: Turritella gastropods

Dr Neale Monks (UK) Gastropods, or snails, are common fossils thanks to their strong, easily preserved external shells. Quite a few fossil gastropods are traded commercially, including members of the genus Turritella. This particular genus first appears in the fossil record during the mid Cretaceous and includes many species still alive today. If you know where to look, you can even find their shells washed up on beaches around the British Isles, often in considerable numbers, reflecting the success of these animals even today. So while fossil Knightia aren’t valued as rarities, they are extremely informative. The fine details preserved tell us about the anoxic conditions at the bottom of the lake and the fine sediments that quickly smothered the corpse. As herbivores of a sort, these fish occupied a position low down on the food chain meant they could exist in huge numbers, and by dint of that success they were able to support a whole range of predators that either fed directly on them, as with Diplomystus, or further up the food chain. Finally, the fact Knightia can only be found at certain horizons tells us something about the dynamic nature of giant lakes. They might seem unchanging on the human timescale, but on the geological timescale they do change, from being full of life at one point, then hypersaline and dead the next, perhaps even evaporating away completely some time later. The Turritella you’ll find in fossil shops are most commonly Tertiary species, such as the ubiquitous … Read More

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Pterosaurs: A brief flight with these remarkable reptiles

Mark Witton (UK) Planet Earth was a busy place 225Ma. The super-continent, Pangaea, in the Northern Hemisphere started rifting, creating the beginnings of the North Atlantic Ocean. Dinosaurs began their campaign for global dominance of Mesozoic terrestrial ecosystems and drove many older reptile lineages into extinction. In the seas, enormous marine reptiles began to challenge fish for the role of top predators. Hidden in the shadows of this reptile-dominated world, the first mammals quietly appeared. Even plants were undergoing a revolution, as archaic seed ferns were replaced with sleek new conifers. Yes, the Late Triassic was a busy time indeed. However, away from all this bustle, in the treetops and skies, another branch of reptiles were quietly carving their own place in history, as the first vertebrates to evolve powered flight. These extraordinary animals were pterosaurs – the ‘flying reptiles’. Most people are not terribly familiar with pterosaurs. Sure, they might have come across Pteranodon or ‘pterodactyls’ in books, films or television documentaries. However, pterosaurs are mostly cast as secondary components of prehistoric landscapes, playing bit parts in productions dominated by their dinosaur contemporaries. At most, pterosaurs have brief cameos in which they carry off scantily clad women or harass explorers on their entry to forgotten, lost worlds. However, these bit parts do little to tell the real pterosaur story. It is one of humble beginnings and eventual domination of Mesozoic skies for 160 million years, of global distribution and tremendous ecological diversity and, in the final days before their … Read More

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Essential collectibles #4: Orthoceras nautiloids

Dr Neale Monks (UK) Orthocone nautiloids, loosely referred to as Orthoceras in the trade, are another type of fossil exported from Morocco in large numbers, like the Diacalymene trilobites discussed earlier in this series. Both their common and scientific names refer to the long, narrow, conical shape of their shell, the Greek prefix ‘ortho’ meaning ‘straight’, and contrasting them with most other nautiloids (not to mention ammonites) which have coiled shells instead. Orthocones were a very common type of cephalopod during the Palaeozoic, some types reaching enormous sizes, well over six metres long, making them among the largest animals in the seas at the time. The ones sold to fossil collectors are generally smaller than those giants, anything up to 30 cm being typical, and because they’re usually sectioned and polished before sale, it’s easy to see some of their key anatomical features. For a start, there’s the chambered external shell. Partly the shell was there to provide protection from predators, but the shell was also important for providing neutral buoyancy. As it grew the orthocone nautiloid would add additional chambers, allowing gases to diffuse out of its bloodstream and so replace the water in the chamber. The basic idea was not dissimilar to how a submarine works in terms of being able to hold its position in midwater without sinking or rising, but unlike a submarine nautiloids aren’t able to rapidly change the amount of gas and water in the chambers, so they couldn’t use their shells to quickly … Read More

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Essential collectibles #3: Gryphaea oysters

Dr Neale Monks (UK) One of the most interesting aspects of fossil collecting is learning about the folklore attached to them, and few fossils rival Gryphaea when it comes to this sort of thing! Known as ‘devil’s toenails’ because of their curves and gnarly shape, during medieval times they were used in magical treatments for arthritis and other types of painful joints. This is a classic example of what folklorists call sympathetic magic, where something that looks like another thing is used to influence or banish that thing. Other examples included the use of ammonites (as ‘snake stones’) to combat snakebites, and loaf-shaped Cretaceous-era sea urchins (as ‘fairy loaves’) as charms in bakeries to ensure the quality of the bread produced there. Whatever their magical value, Gryphaea are in fact a genus of oyster that were inhabitants of warm, shallow seas for an unusually long period of time. First appearing in the late Triassic about 230 millions years ago, Gryphaea-type oysters were hugely diverse during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, but unlike a lot of the organisms we associate with Mesozoic faunas they persisted into the Tertiary, the last ones into dying out in the Eocene. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than a single lineage of oysters persisting for hundreds of millions of years, and some geologists prefer to limit the use of Gryphaea to only one particular, strictly Jurassic branch of the oyster family Gryphaeidae. Later species belong to allied, but distinct, genera such as Exogyra and Pycnodonte. One … Read More

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Essential collectibles #2: Perisphinctes ammonites

Dr Neale Monks (UK) Alongside trilobites, ammonites are among the ‘must haves’ in any palaeontological collection. Professional geologists value them as among the best index fossils, many species having only existed for a relatively brief period of time (often a few tens of thousands of years) but in that time having become widely spread in terms of geographical distribution (often found in places as far apart as Britain and Australia). This is the basis of biostratigraphy: the way geologists can tell that sediments in two different places were laid down at the same time because they contain the same organisms. Perisphinctes is a particularly widespread genus of Jurassic ammonite that may be found in places as far apart as the Europe, the Caribbean, India and Madagascar. They’re often very common fossils, and you’ll frequently see attractive Perisphinctes specimens being sold in fossil shops. But familiarity needn’t breed contempt, because while this ammonite might be a bit of a default specimen for nascent collectors, it’s a very typical ammonite that tells you a lot about this particularly interesting group of extinct organisms. In short, while Gryphaea might seem the most mundane of fossils, they’re actually among the most interesting. They’ve been intensively studied by palaeontologists for decades now, and while lots is known about them, much remains unclear: definitely essential collectibles. To start with, Perisphinctes is a good example of a Tethyan ammonite. The Tethys Sea opened up during the Triassic as the two halves of the Pangaea supercontinent pulled apart. … Read More

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Essential collectibles #1: Diacalymene trilobites

Dr Neale Monks (UK). In this series of articles we’re going to be looking at those fossils many people buy rather than collect. This doesn’t mean they’re less interesting of course, but because of the way they’re acquired hobbyists often don’t know much about them beyond what they are and very broadly where they’re from. Our first such fossil is the trilobites of the genus Diacalymene that are collected in vast quantities from Silurian sediments in the Draa Valley of Morocco and exported all around the world. They’re usually all described as Diacalymene ouzregui, but taxonomists would probably argue that name has been used a bit indiscriminately! In any case, apart from being abundant and therefore inexpensive, these particular trilobites are enduring popular because they’re such large fossils, anything between 8-10 cm is typical. That’s a lot bigger than the average trilobite, which means its a lot easier to see all their key features. Trilobites get their name, which means ‘three-lobes’, because if you look at one from the top, you can see it’s external skeleton, or exoskeleton, can be neatly divided into three parallel regions: the left and right hand sides which lay on top of the legs and gills, and the central region that went above the other organs including its digestive tract. Diacalymene ouzregui is a typical Diacalymene species and shows all three regions clearly. It can also be looked at in terms of body segments. Like all arthropods, trilobites had bodies consisting of a series of … Read More

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Collecting fossils in Florida

Niels Laurids Viby (Denmark) I didn’t go to Florida especially to look for fossils, but I am always looking for opportunities when I am abroad. Being an architect, I actually went there to study houses, in particular, the Art Deco district at Ocean Drive in Miami. However, it seems that every museum in the State (other than art museums) has a fossil exhibition: the Science museum in Miami was showing Chinese dinosaurs, the Orlando Science Centre had displays of Upper Cretaceous dinosaurs and the Natural History Museum in Gainesville had the very best – complete skeletons of mammals from Florida. Fig. 1. Fossil exhibition with complete skeletons of mammals from Florida, at the Natural History Museum in Gainesville. The result was that I spent a lot of time looking at things (including buildings) rather than finding fossils. In fact, out of thirteen days in Florida, I spent three in or waiting for planes, four driving long distances (but with some stops checking out potential fossil sites), four looking at houses, one on paperwork for a report on buildings and only one full day looking for fossils. The time spent driving was a big surprise. Florida looks small on a map of USA, but all of Denmark (my home country) could fit into the area south of Gainesville and the Danish population is probably equal in number to half of the people living in Greater Miami. However, I saw this trip as an expedition into unknown territory – a future trip … Read More

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Fossil collecting at Bracklesham, West Sussex

David Bone (UK) “I have been greatly disappointed … [owing to] sand, sometimes two to three feet in thickness, or the tide not leaving the shore sufficiently exposed; so that a stranger might conclude that there were no fossils to be procured at Bracklesham”. The Sussex geologist, Frederick Dixon, writing about Bracklesham in 1850 warned readers with these words and it is no different today. Exposures of the richly fossiliferous Palaeogene sediments, which comprise the Bracklesham Group (Eocene), come and go unpredictably with the tides and weather. On a good day, extensive shell beds, around 46 million years old, cover the beach and sharks’ teeth may be found by the hundred. On a bad day, Dixon’s quote is all too true. Fig. 1. Location map for Bracklesham Bay, West Sussex. Bracklesham Bay is located seven miles south of Chichester in West Sussex, on the south coast of England (Fig. 1), at the eastern end of the syncline known as the Hampshire Basin. To the north, beyond Chichester, the ground rises to the Cretaceous chalk hills of the South Downs, while, to the south, across the waters of the Solent, the Isle of Wight stretches across the horizon. It is often said that if you can see the Isle of Wight, it is going to rain. If you can’t see it, then it is raining. This is a fair warning to anybody planning a trip here – this balmy stretch of coast, even on a sunny day, takes the full brunt … Read More

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Collecting fossils on the Jurassic Coast: The Eype Starfish Bed

Richard Edmonds (UK) Between Seatown and Eype, on the West Dorset coast (part of the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site), there is a remarkable layer of rock known as the Eype Starfish Bed. This is famous for exquisitely brittle starfish (brittlestars) fossils that are usually preserved on the soft, sandy underside of a thick sandstone unit within the Middle Lias. It has been speculated that they became buried during a single storm or possibly even a tsunami event, about 185Ma. Fig. 1. A block containing starfish showing a failed extraction next to the hammer, stone saw extraction on the right and centre and also attempts with a cordless powerdrill at the top. On the outside of the block, the sandstone is relatively soft, but becomes progressively harder the deeper you go. It follows that specimens are highly vulnerable to erosion and rapidly damaged or destroyed if left in the rock, on the beach. The bed itself is located high in the cliffs and, in places, its sharp base is clearly visible. This means that it is only possible to examine and collect specimens from ex situ, fallen blocks. Fortunately, occasional cliff falls bring these large blocks down to beach level and storms also uncover material that has been buried in the talus at the base of the cliff. Fig. 2. The Starfish Bed is located high up in the cliffs (just above the spring line), with large fallen blocks below. There is only one way to collect … Read More

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Farming for fossils in Morocco

Charles Underwood (UK) Fossil sites are generally the result of happy coincidence. It may be that this is the result of natural processes, when the sea or a river has eroded into cliffs of fossil bearing rocks. It could also be the result of human activity, where a quarry opened up for commercial reasons also happens to contain fossil-rich layers. However, it is rare for a fossil site to be made specifically for access to the fossils; and, when this does happen, access is usually restricted. However, there are exceptions. One of these is in the great Moroccan phosphate fields. Fig. 1. Meadows of spring flowers conceal the fossil-rich rock just below the surface. Strip mining for mineral phosphates is massive business in Morocco, providing the raw material for a vast proportion of the world’s phosphate fertiliser. Near the town of Khouribga, vast spoil heaps extend across the horizon and give an indication of the scale of the rock extraction going on behind them. These phosphate-bearing rocks are famous for their fossil content, and the cream and tan fossils from them can be seen for sale the world over. Unfortunately, access to the mines is very difficult and so, most of the time, collectors will have to satisfy themselves with what they can buy from dealers. While, purchasing specimens allows access to some really impressive finds, inevitably the fossils are out of context so their age is uncertain, and small and otherwise ‘unsellable’ fossils cannot be obtained. As some layers … Read More

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Fossil lions of Europe

Dr Ross Barnett (UK) The lion (Panthera leo) can rightly claim to be the most oft-invoked animal in all of human culture. Whether praising someone as leonine or lion-hearted, or throwing them to the lions, the second largest of felines has the ability to evoke emotions that the tiger (Panthera tigris), leopard (Panthera pardus) and jaguar (Panthera onca) simply do not. This entwined history stretches at least as far back as the late Pleistocene (100,000 to 10,000 years ago) and possibly as far back as the late Pliocene (about 3.5Ma), when the lion lineage first split from the other pantherine cats. We tend to think of the lion as a quintessentially African animal and, indeed, this is where the vast majority of lions survive today. However, the tiny enclave holding around 400 lions, in the Gir forest reserve of India, hints at the expanses previously ranged by this majestic cat. If you were to travel back in time to 50,000 years ago, you would find lions in all of Africa (north and south of the Sahara), the Middle East, Europe, the Indian subcontinent (including Sri Lanka), Siberia, Alaska and North America as far south as Mexico. From the Cape of Good Hope to the isthmus of Darien, lions occupied a range greater than any other terrestrial mammal, except man (Fig. 1). It seems incredible to modern eyes, but the lion was an integral part of the European ecosystem right up until the Holocene (10,000 years ago to the present). Fig. … Read More

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Fossil fishes of the Old Red Sandstone of Scotland

Dr Neale Monks (UK) While they can be found in many other parts of the British Isles, Scotland is uniquely associated with Palaeozoic fossil fishes. That Scotland’s fossil fishes are so well known is largely thanks to a remarkable man from Caithness, called Hugh Miller. Where scholars had dismissed the Old Red Sandstone as lacking in fossils, Miller found many finely preserved fossil fishes. He published several books on field geology including, in 1841, his most famous work, The Old Red Sandstone. This eminently readable book described the formation in great detail and included dozens of beautiful engravings that illustrated the fossil fishes he had discovered. Fig. 1. Dipterus – Achanarras Quarry (© Dr Jens Rydell). What is the Old Red Sandstone? The Old Red Sandstone is a distinctive set of sandstone rocks dominated by sediments laid down under non-marine, relatively dry climate conditions. It is predominantly Devonian in age, though, in Scotland at least, certain parts may be as old as Middle Silurian. This makes it much older than the formation known as the New Red Sandstone, which was laid down during the Permian. Fig. 2. Milleosteus remains from Thurso. (© Dr Jens Rydell.) Geologists can find Old Red Sandstone sediments across much of the British Isles, from Cornwall in the southwest of England to the Orkney Islands off the northeast tip of Scotland. For the most part, the Old Red Sandstone is indeed red thanks to the large quantities of iron oxide it contains, but, at some localities, … Read More

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Coccoliths: Tiny fossils with immense paleontological importance

Robert Sturm (Austria) Microfossils, such as foraminifera, diatoms, ostracods and conodonts, are usually studied using a magnifying glass or under a stereo-microscope. However, nannofossils, such as coccoliths – with sizes measured in micrometres – are way beyond the resolving power of these optical tools. Fig. 1. Biology of a coccolithophorid alga. Abbreviations: cl — coccolith, cp — chloroplast, f — flagellum, Ga — Golgi- apparatus, hn — haptonema, m — mitochondria, n — nucleus, nl — nucleolus, v — vesicle (modified from Bown, 1998). In general, coccoliths are very regularly shaped, fine calcite platelets that are produced by unicellular, autotrophic (that is, capable of synthesizing their own food from inorganic substances), marine algae – the so-called Coccolithophorida (phylum: Haptophyta; class: Prymnesiophyceae). They are arranged in spheres (coccospheres) that completely enclose the organisms. After the death of the algae, the coccospheres are either preserved entirely or fall to pieces. Then, either way, they settle on the seafloor and can do so continuously over periods of millions of years. Coccoliths are of immense value to the palaeontologist, because of their highly specific shapes. For this reason, they are frequently used for biostratigraphic investigations, where the ages of lithological strata are estimated by using the fossils found in them. Palaeontology distinguishes between two types of coccoliths – the holococcoliths and the heterococcoliths. The first type is composed of calcite crystals of identical size, whereas the second consists of variably-sized calcite crystals. Extant Coccolithophorida preferentially produce heterococcoliths during the phase of their life cycle … Read More

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Geology museums of Britain: Whitby Museum, Yorkshire

Dean Lomax and Jon Trevelyan (UK) By the early nineteenth century, geology in England had started to appeal to the public at large. For instance, in 1824 the Reverend William Buckland of Oxford University named the first dinosaur (Megalosaurus bucklandii) and, after this, it seems that this awe inspiring group of prehistoric animals had taken hold of the public’s imagination in ways that continue today. At the same time, several organisations had sprung up to cater for this increased interest in geology, many of which would go on to form the geological societies and museums that still exist today. The small coastal town of Whitby in North Yorkshire has been associated with fossils for hundreds of years. The geology of the area consists of highly fossiliferous, Lower Jurassic rocks from the Pliensbachian to Bajocian, with three main fossil bearing layers – the Whitby Mudstone, Saltwick and Dogger formations. (Rocks from the Pleistocene and Holocene can also often be found on the beaches washed in from the North Sea.) It was the highly fossiliferous nature these local rocks and, in particular, the discovery of prehistoric animals around Whitby (especially, marine reptiles), together with the increasing scientific interest in them, that prompted the formation of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society. It was this society that later founded Whitby Museum in 1824. Fig. 1. The Whitby Museum house many fossils from the the local area, including plesiosaur and icthyosaur remains. (© Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society.) Whitby Museum, often ignored or unheard … Read More

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Monster nautiluses of the Palaeozoic

Neale Monks (UK) The handful of nautilus species found in seas today are small, retiring animals that scavenge about at night, foraging for carrion and crustacean moults. However, nautiluses were not always so insignificant and, during the first half of the Palaeozoic Era especially, nautiluses were major predators, occupying the same niches in Ordovician and Silurian seas as sharks do today. The first nautiluses Compared to their cousins, the ammonites, the Palaeozoic nautiluses are relatively unfamiliar animals. That is a shame, because they are truly remarkable, in all likelihood being the first really big predators to evolve on Earth. But, to understand how they reached the top so quickly, we need to look back at their ancestors, the floating ‘snails’ of the Cambrian. Nautiluses are the most primitive of all the cephalopods, the group of molluscs that also includes squids, octopuses, cuttlefishes, ammonites and belemnites. Nautiluses appeared during the Late Cambrian, about 500Ma, but what their ancestors might have been remains uncertain. The traditional explanation is that the first nautiluses, such as Plectronoceras exile, were derived from monoplacophorans. These are snail-like molluscs today, limited to a few species only found in relatively deep water, but in the past they were quite diverse. Although they look a lot like a limpet, their internal anatomy is distinctive, with unusual features such as serial repetition of the gills, kidneys and reproductive organs along the body. At least some monoplacophorans had chambered shells. The Late Cambrian animal, Knightoconus antarcticus was one such species, but, … 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. … Read More

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Sharks of Whale Valley: Or should that be whales of Shark Valley?

Dr Charlie Underwood (UK) Leaving behind the noise and pollution of Cairo, the drive across the monotonous buff desert comes almost as a relief. After passing through the lush farmlands of the Fayum Oasis and back out onto the desert plains, the first sign of the fossils to come is unexpected and indicated by the desert surface changing from pale brown to silver-grey. Looking closer at the shiny silver desert surface, fossils became visible, being millions of giant nummulite foraminifera covering the desert surface, each polished to a metallic sheen by millennia of sand blasting. However, it was not forams that we had been invited to study. Rather, it was far larger and more impressive specimens we had come to see and the appearance of dramatic sandstone cliffs on the horizon heralded some of the most extraordinary fossiliferous rocks that I, for one, have ever seen. Fig. 1. Wind sculpted sandstone outcrops with a mud hut. The fossils of the Fayom are by no means a recent discovery – they have been the source of vast numbers of important finds for over 120 years. The earliest collections were made during a series of expeditions by Georg Schweinfurth, from 1879 to 1886, and it was during these that the first fossil whales were recovered from the Eocene rocks north of Lake Birket Qarun. Despite the success of these expeditions, Schweinfurth never ventured to the western end of the region and never saw the most impressive assemblages of fossil whales. As the … Read More

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