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Flexomornis howei: A tale of amateur and professional cooperation

Kris Howe (USA) When you think of Texas, what comes to mind? It may be wide open spaces, longhorn cattle, cowboys and ten gallon hats. Now, there’s something else to add to the list – the oldest, definitive bird fossil in North America. That bird is Flexomornis howei, from the Woodbine Formation (lower Middle Cenomanian) near Grapevine, Texas. I first encountered the bones while prospecting potential fossil sites around Grapevine Lake. This is located just north of Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport, in north-eastern Tarrant County. One exposure near the lake soon produced a large number of fossils eroding out on the surface. They included petrified and carbonised wood, amber, at least two types of turtle, two types of crocodile, numerous remains of bony fish, shark teeth and vertebrae, parts of an ornithopod, a nodosaur, ostedeoderms, and a few scraps of small theropods. Fig. 1. Howe, Florillo and Tykoski presenting the Flexomornis howei remains at a press conference. In addition, there was also a cluster of delicate and unusual bones that looked like nothing I had ever seen before. I contacted Dr Ron Tykoski, at the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, for help with the identification. Dr Tykoski had been very helpful in the past with tough identifications, so I knew he could help. He inspected the bones and said that they looked like they were from a bird, but he was hesitant to get too excited – there were no known birds from the Woodbine Formation. Dr Tykoski … Read More

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Fossil sword pommel from Malaya

Ruel A Macaraeg (USA) Fossil hunters have a well-deserved reputation for finding rare things in difficult places. However, there are times when fossils are ‘hidden’ in plain sight as material for the decorative arts. While not as informative as specimens found in situ and undisturbed, nevertheless, they still have palaeontological interest and may yet be of genuine scientific value. The pommel is a carved Stegodon molar, as a stylised cockatoo head.The fossil material on my kris is attached as a pommel to a wooden grip, bound with metal wire.Malay kris sword (keris sundang), Peninsular Malay,s 19th century.This short discussion will take that optimistic approach with a fossil Stegodon molar attached to a Malay sword in my collection. The Stegodon genus, widely acknowledged as closely ancestral to modern elephants, lived in habitats across southern Asia into the Pleistocene, so humans may have developed an awareness and liking for Stegodon remains during their co-existence (Rich, Rich, Fenton & Fenton 1989). Anyway, by early modern times, Stegodon molars (‘garham gaja’ in Malay) were a recognised luxury commodity, whose biological origins were understood and to which totemic significance was attached. Form and context My sword belongs to a class of bladed weapons falling under the general rubric of ‘kris’. Krisses are documented from southern India through mainland Southeast Asia and eastward to the Philippines, but are concentrated in Malaysia and Indonesia (especially the Malaya peninsular, Sumatra, Java and Bali). While there is an unmistakable relationship in these weapons’ blade shapes (particularly the asymmetrical shoulders … Read More

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Harvesting the extinct Bennettitales

Stephen McLoughlin and Christian Pott (Sweden) Just as the animal kingdom lost some remarkable designs during the mass extinction events that punctuated the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic (consider the disappearance of the novel carapaces of trilobites and the aerofoils of pterosaurs), so too the plant kingdom lost some majestic groups that, had they survived until today, would no doubt have been cultivated as centrepieces in many domestic gardens. One such group is the Bennettitales. The Bennettitales were enigmatic, seed-bearing plants (gymnosperms) characterised by complex reproductive structures, some of which are not yet fully understood. Bennettitales are historically divided into two families, the Cycadeoidaceae (or Bennettitaceae) and the Williamsoniaceae. The two families are distinguished primarily by their growth habit and the arrangement of their reproductive organs. The former have short, stocky trunks somewhat like modern cycads, whereas the latter had slender, profusely branched stems. The former appear to have been restricted to the Jurassic-Cretaceous of western Laurasia, whereas the latter had a global distribution and greater temporal range. They were neither the smallest plants of the Mesozoic nor the largest. They were one of the important, mid-storey elements of the vegetation. If you care to view almost any artist’s reconstruction of a Jurassic landscape you will no doubt see bennettitaleans growing around the feet of (or being eaten by) a large sauropod or ornithischian dinosaur. Fig. 1.. A 45cm-tall permineralized cycadeoidaceae stem (Cycadeoidea dacotensis) from the Cretaceous of northern USA. Flowers before there were flowers Apart from their growth habit, the most … 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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Tertiary cephalopods, or where did all the ammonites go?

Dr Neale Monks (UK) Most geologists will be familiar with Palaeozoic and Mesozoic cephalopods, but their Tertiary counterparts are much less well known. It isn’t that Tertiary cephalopods are rare as such – at some localities they can be quite common – but their diversity is extremely low. For example, the Gault Clay is a Lower Cretaceous formation that has yielded hundreds of cephalopods species, including ammonites, belemnites and nautiloids. Fast-forward to the London Clay, an Eocene formation, and that diversity falls to about five species, at most. At first glance, you would think this reflects the fatal decline of a group marching towards extinction. However, there are 700 cephalopod species alive today, so clearly that isn’t the case. In fact, what the lack of Tertiary cephalopod fossils shows is the switch within the group from forms with shells (such as ammonites and nautiluses) towards forms that don’t have shells (like squids and octopuses). Because they don’t have hard parts that fossilise easily, squids and octopuses have an extremely sparse fossil record. Nonetheless, the Tertiary isn’t entirely devoid of cephalopods if you know where to look. The London Clay exposure at Sheppey is a particularly good place to find nautiloid fossils. Occasional specimens from other cephalopod groups occasionally turn up as well and these give us some fascinating glimpses into the evolution of the post-Cretaceous cephalopods. Fig. 1. Warden Point, on the Isle of Sheppey, is one of the best places to collect Tertiary cephalopods (UKGE photo). Nautiloids Perhaps surprisingly, the … Read More

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Windmills and building stones: Antigua, West Indies

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands), David AT Harper (UK) and Roger W Portell (USA) In his latest book, Ted Nield (2014) reflects on building stones and what they tell the geologist about where they are. Once upon a time, building stones in Britain were derived locally and told the informed observer something of the local geology (apart from, of course, the exotic stones imported for banks and office blocks). That is, they were built of local stone from the local quarry. Today, stone is imported from as far afield as China, where once they would have been derived locally by horse and cart or canal boat. One place where local stone is still used is Antigua in the Lesser Antilles. For example, Jackson and Donovan (2013) described an attractive, green chloritized tuff, which is used throughout the island as a bright and distinctive building stone. Many old structures in rural areas are still constructed of stone, such as walls, buildings (including ruins) and, the subject of this article, disused windmills. For a general introduction to the geology of Antigua, see Weiss (1994) or Donovan et al (2014). All major stratigraphic units are Upper Oligocene; the regional dip is to the northeast. Betty’s Hope The Betty’s Hope site, in the parish of Saint Peter in eastern Antigua (Fig. 1), is an open air monument administered by the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda. Fig. 1. Outline map of Antigua (redrawn and modified after Weiss, 1994, fig. 3), showing the principal geological subdivisions … Read More

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Looking through a crystal ball: Unravelling the wonders of trilobite eyes

Dr Clare Torney (UK) The weird and wonderful world of trilobite eyes has been subject to study since the late 1800s, but despite being scrutinised intensively over the decades, we are still left questioning how trilobite eyes actually worked due to the loss of their soft parts (that is, photosensitive cells) during the fossilisation process. The numerous strange forms that trilobite eyes come in no doubt plays a role in keeping researchers interested: from the bulging eyes of the Ordovician pelagic trilobite Carolinites to the eyes of Neoasaphus, which stand proud on stalks – trilobite eyes might seem better placed in a sci-fi movie than a palaeontology textbook. However, the study of their eyes can reveal an incredible degree of information, from details of how these extinct marine arthropods lived, to the change in chemistry and temperature of our oceans; and they can even help us understand how animals of today mineralise their (exo)skeletons. Unlike our own eyes, which are made of soft moving parts that allow most of us to focus on whatever we choose whether it be near or far, trilobite eyes in-vivo were actually composed of the hard mineral calcite (crystallised calcium carbonate), which they also used to construct the rest of their exoskeleton (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. An enrolled specimen of Acernaspis orestes from Anticosti Island. The calcitic eyes of trilobites are an extension of their exoskeleton. Although this may come with its advantages (essentially like wearing your safety specs all the time), using calcite to … 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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Interesting borings

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) It is unfortunate that the miscellaneous holes, pits and depressions produced in wood, rocks and skeletons (bones, shells and tests), both pre- and post-mortem, by a wide range of invertebrates, plants and fungi, are called borings. A less inspiring name for a fascinating suite of structures is hard to imagine. Borings represent a range of activities, although most can be interpreted as feeding – predation or parasitism – or construction of a domicile (=home). Borings may or may not be assignable to a particular species, although shelly borers, such as gastropods, may rarely be preserved in situ (see, for example, Baumiller, 1990, text-fig. 1). And borings are real evidence of ancient organism-organism or organism-substrate interactions that would be impossible to determine based on the evidence of skeletal remains alone. Therefore, borings breathe life into a dead fossil record and, in truth, are exciting. Small round holes in shells Borings vary in complexity from the complicated interconnected chambers of clionoid sponges and the trace fossil (ichnogenus) Entobia Bronn (Fig. 1), to the simplicity of small round holes, formerly included in the ichnogenus Oichnus Bromley, although this is now considered a junior synonym of Sedilichnus Müller (Zonneveld and Gingras, 2014). Fig. 1. Entobia cretacea (Portlock, 1843), the Natural History Museum, London (BMNH) S.9015, clionoid sponge boring preserved in flint, chalk drift (=clay-with-flints?), Croydon, Surrey (after Donovan and Fearnhead, 2015, fig. 2). Note the cushion-shaped chambers connected by fine canals; the small tubercle-like structures in the centre of … Read More

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Hunting the Dutch beach of Hoek van Holland for fossils

Bram Langeveld (The Netherlands) Holland is a small country that lies for the most part below sea level, which can be quite problematical. However, if you are a fossil collector hunting for the fossils of animals from the Weichselian (Last Ice Age) and early Holocene, it is not such a bad thing. That is because the Dutch government regularly has sand deposited on Dutch beaches, which is dredged up from the bottom of the North Sea to fight erosion of the beaches by the sea. Taking this one step further, Holland also has large scale land reclamation projects, where whole new parts of Holland are made by spraying sand from the bottom of the North Sea onto a location close to shore until it rises above sea level. Fig. 1. Map of The Netherlands showing Hoek van Holland. Much of this sand is dredged up by big, specially equipped vessels, called trailing suction hopper dredgers, from a location known as ‘Eurogeul’, which is the route for big vessels to reach the port of Rotterdam. Here, the sea is approximately 13m deep, but is deepened to 30m, by removing sand from the bottom. Much of this sand is used to reinforce beaches and for land reclamation projects. However, it is not just sand that is dredged up … Fig. 2. Simple timescale of the late Pleistocene and Holocene.The North Sea Plain If we could travel back in time – approximately 30,000 to 100,000 years ago – we would find ourselves in … Read More

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Fossil folklore: Ammonites

Paul D Taylor (UK) People have collected fossils since prehistoric times. In pre-scientific times, a remarkable folklore developed about how fossils originated and their usefulness. Folklore refers to the beliefs – usually non-scientific – and customs of ordinary people. Before the true origin of fossils as the remains of once living organisms was firmly established and became universally known, fossils must have been extremely bewildering objects to anyone who found them. Although some fossils resembled living creatures, others looked quite different. For example, the internal moulds – ‘steinkerns’ – of molluscs were unlike anything from the living world. Even for fossils that did match known types of animals and plants, the fact that they came out of the ground was puzzling, as was the finding of fossil shells of sea-creatures far away from the sea and on mountain tops. Therefore, it is not surprising that fossils spawned a myriad of myths. From ancient tales about their alleged magical or medicinal powers, to the uses of fossils for religious and decorative purposes, the folklore of fossils is rich and varied (for example, Bassett, 1982; Gregorová, 2006; Mayor, 2000, 2005; McNamara, 2011; Thenius and Vávra, 1996). This article is the first of a series about fossil folklore, exploring fossil myths from around the world. Ammonites in folklore Ammonites are the most iconic of all fossils. Their strikingly beautiful spiral shells make them greatly valued among fossil collectors and, of course, they play a key role in stratigraphy. They have long attracted the … 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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Ammonite pendant from Highland New Guinea

Ruel A Macaraeg (USA) In recent years, a number of ammonite pendants, similar to the one in Fig. 1, have been offered by tribal art dealers. As scientific objects, they offer the interest all fossils – a chance to study the tangible remains of ancient life. Being among the more abundant of fossil types, ammonites normally wouldn’t excite major paleontological interest. However, the relatively unexplored locality from which these ammonites come, and the unfamiliar use to which they are put, call for a closer look. Fig. 1. Ammonite pendant. They are reportedly from the Dani – a people from the central highlands of Irian Jaya (the western, Indonesian half of New Guinea) – and the methods and materials used in their construction support this attribution. Surrounded by steep mountains on all sides, these highlands were largely isolated from the outside world until the 1930s, when passing airmen spotted densely clustered villages and cultivated fields in the river valleys. Anthropologists were quick to realise the importance of this enduring Neolithic culture, and among the works published on the Dani were the book Gardens of War and its accompanying film Dead Birds (Gardner & Heider 1968), which remain classic studies of social violence. These investigations emphasised the ritualised nature of Dani warfare, during which the normally unadorned men would dress in elaborate costumes decorated with cassowary feathers, boar tusks and bailer shells. Scholarly interest soon translated into artistic interest and tribal collectors began turning their attention to Dani ornaments, which now appear … Read More

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Geology and terrestrial life of the Carboniferous

Russell Garwood and Alan Spencer (UK) The Carboniferous Period is a fascinating time in earth history. It spanned 60Ma (359.2 to 299.0Ma), towards the end of the Palaeozoic era, falling between the Devonian and Permian. During the Carboniferous, the supercontinent Pangaea was assembling and the oceans were home to invertebrates such as corals, bryozoa, ammonoids, echinoderms, trilobites and crustaceans. Fish were also well represented (especially sharks), which were rapidly diversifying at the time. The continents were no barren wasteland either – they were host to some of the first widespread terrestrial forest and swamp ecosystems. In these lived both invertebrates, which had crawled onto land by the Silurian period (at least 423mya) and vertebrates, which were relative newcomers to this realm. This article provides us with an excuse to write about the Carboniferous. We will first introduce the geology and palaeogeography of the Carboniferous, including an overview of the most common mode of preservation we see in terrestrial fossils. Then, we will provide an overview of terrestrial life during the period, as land-based ecosystems of this age are among the best known from the Palaeozoic and an exciting time in the history of life. Fig. 1. Global paleogeographic reconstruction of the Earth in the late Carboniferous period 300mya. (C)opyright Dr Ron Blakey (Wikipedia Creative Commons). Carboniferous geology The Carboniferous is split into two epochs, the Mississippian (or Lower Carboniferous; 359.2 to 318.1mya) and the Pennsylvanian (or Upper Carboniferous; 318.1 to 299.0mya). As we shall see, the two are associated with … Read More

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Essential collectibles #8: Coprolites

Dr Neale Monks (UK) Our look at those fossils that commonly bought rather than collected has so far looked at the fossil remains of animals, whether shells, teeth or whatever. But this time we’re looking at a trace fossil; that is, a fossil produced by a living organism but not actually part of that organism. Trace fossils include such things as burrows and footprints, and are of huge importance in telling us about the behaviour of animals in ways their skeletal remains might not. The trace fossils we’re looking at today are fossilised faeces, also known as coprolites. It might be a surprise to know that faeces fossilise at all, but essentially the same principles apply to them as to any other type of organic material. Provided they are quickly buried in some type of sediment lacking in oxygen, there’s a chance they’ll become fossilised. In some cases the faeces eventually decompose away to nothing, but not before leaving a mould of some sort in the surrounding sediment, so what the geologist uncovers will be a cast of the original droppings, composed of some type of mineral, such as marcasite (iron pyrites). But often some elements of the original faeces remain, usually the harder and more durable parts that persisted long enough to become mineralised, such as fish scales, fragments of bone, even certain types of plant material. These coprolites are of very great value because if the palaeontologists can determine what types of animals produced those coprolites, they can … Read More

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Fossil arachnids

Dr David Penney (UK) and Dr Jason Dunlop (Germany) When it comes to fossils, arachnids are not a group that obviously springs to mind. However, with more than 100,000 described living species, Arachnida form the second most diverse group of primarily land-living organisms after the insects. And they probably made up a significant proportion of the Earth’s biodiversity in the past, just as they do in terrestrial ecosystems today. Despite this, arachnids have usually received only a cursory mention in palaeontology textbooks. In fairness, they are not as common as trilobites or brachiopods in the fossil record, and are usually found only under conditions of exceptional preservation. Yet, despite their rarity, we aim to show here that there are more fossil arachnids out there than is sometimes appreciated. What are arachnids? Arachnids are not insects and can easily be differentiated from them by the fact that they have eight legs and, in general, two principal parts to the body. Arachnids also lack both wings and antennae. In total, there are 16 arachnid orders (including four extinct) and all of them have a fossil record. Despite the advent of computer cladistic analysis and new molecular techniques, the relationships between the different arachnid orders continues to be debated and there is no universally accepted consensus regarding how they are all related to one another. Fig 1. Basic body plans of the fossil and extant arachnid orders. Note that the eye arrangement in Uraraneida is unknown.Arachnids as fossils Fossil arachnids date back more … Read More

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Rare amber inclusion of harvestman donated to Natural History Museum, London

Terence Collingwood (UK) Recently, I was lucky enough to unearth a prize find – a 40-million-year-old, spider-like insect perfectly preserved in amber. I found the valuable harvestman in a piece of prehistoric amber and considered it to be of such scientific interest that I donated it to the National History Museum in London. Fig. 1. Piece of Baltic Amber, slightly larger than a £2 coin. Amber is the name for fossil tree resin, which is appreciated for its colour and beauty and used for the manufacture of ornamental objects and jewellery. Although not mineralised, it is sometimes considered to be a gemstone. It can also act as nature’s time capsule, telling us about life in ancient forests. This is because, millions of years ago, the original resin was once a gluey trap, which captured small insects as it oozed from tree bark. Therefore, it is extremely important for understanding the history of prehistoric land-living animals, particularly small insects that are not often preserved in rocks. I have been buying, collecting and selling fossils for several years and, more recently, for my shop I Dig Dinos in Rochester High Street. I consider every piece of amber a chance to examine a past ecosystem and an opportunity to gain insight into an extinct age. Therefore, each piece of amber I buy is examined and labelled meticulously and, every now and then, I find something a little different, rare or unusual. (I even make jewellery, bracelets, earrings, cufflinks and charms from this versatile … Read More

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Urban geology: A sunny Sunday in Hoofddorp

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) The last weekend in September 2013 was sunny after more than two weeks of grey skies, rain and even some fog. Saturday was spent as planned, moving bookcases ahead of Karen’s insatiable paintbrush, the walls changing from lime green to white as she progressed. Sunday morning was spent putting some books back onto bookcases, but I had to get out in the afternoon. It might be six months or more before I could venture out again in only a T-shirt, shorts, training shoes and floppy hat. I had my son, Pelham, as field assistant, but where to go? The answer was obvious to me – this was the day to consummate a project that I’d had in contemplation for some years. The Netherlands is not renowned for its pre-Pleistocene geology. There is the type Maastrichtian (uppermost Cretaceous) in the south, some fine Triassic near the German border in the east and odd spots of poorly exposed Tertiaries. Where I live, in Hoofddorp (near Amsterdam Schiphol Airport), we live below sea level on the bed of a drained lake; but what Hoofddorp lacks in surface exposure, it makes up for in building and ornamental stones. To the south and east of the town is a business park in the Beukenhorst district, with a fine range of architectural styles and building materials, both man-made and natural stone. One road, Siriusdreef, in this part of town has intrigued me for years. Street art is widespread in the Netherlands … Read More

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Baffling bones from Lyme Regis

Nigel R Larkin (UK) A recent find from Lower Jurassic marine deposits on the Dorset Coast consists of a curious association of bones and bone fragments that have so far eluded identification, despite being inspected by some top palaeontologists. Is it a shark? Not according to some shark specialists. Is it a fish? Probably, but despite the presence of several complete bones, none have been identified and there are no scales present. Is it regurgitate? Possibly, but there is at least one very long thin bone that is unlikely to have been swallowed and upchucked again whole, and the matrix in which the bones are preserved does vary. So, is it simply a mass of completely unassociated bones? Unlikely, as there are several examples of at least two types of bone within the fossil. So, they are not a random accumulation, but they do remain a mystery. Do you recognise any of the bones? Do take a look and tell me what you think. Discovery of the material Fig. 1. Richard Edmonds trying to work out which piece goes where. I found the first piece of this specimen on the beach beneath the Spittles Slip, east of Lyme Regis in Dorset, during the Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy (SVPCA) meeting in the town in September 2011. It was a large block (approximately 40kg) from the Shales-with-Beef Member of the Charmouth Mudstone Formation (Lower Jurassic). Bones were visible in cross section on all four sides, within a layer about … Read More

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Palaeocene lagerstätte in France

Dean Lomax (UK) A Lagerstätte is a sedimentary deposit that exhibits exquisite fossil richness, detail and/or completeness, often preserving fine details, including soft parts, which wouldn’t normally be found as fossils. There are two main types of fossil Lagerstätten: concentration Lagerstätten, which simply consists of large concentrations of fossils found together in deposits such as bone beds; and conservation Lagerstätten, where the defining feature is the preservation of quality rather than the quantity of fossils. A few examples of famous Lagerstätten include the Eocene Green River Formation, which is primarily known from Wyoming, but can also be found in Colorado and Utah. Famous European Lagerstätten include the Solnhofen Formation of Bavaria, Germany. This has produced some spectacularly preserved fossils, including Archaeopteryx, which is considered to be a transitional fossil between dinosaur and bird evolution. Another famous Lagerstätte, situated in central Germany, is the Messel Pit (Grube Messel). This quarry contains Eocene-aged strata and has produced specimens such as Darwinius masillae, identified as a basal primate and described in 2009. Fig. 1. A group searches for fossils in one of the privately owned quarries. (Photo by Dean Lomax.) Geological setting and location Menat is a small village located within the department of Puy-de-Dôme, Auvergne in central France, near the town of Gannat, a town famous for Oligocene and Miocene-aged fossil deposits. The geology of Menat consists of sedimentary rock that includes soft shale layers (including bituminous, pyritious and oil shales) and hard layers consisting of diatomite. The preservation of the fossils … Read More

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Living fossils in a petrified forest

James O’Donoghue (UK) It’s a Welwitschia!  Nestling among 280 million year old fossil tree trunks, this is the rare plant I have been searching for. Two wonders of the natural world – the living, sprawling Welwitschia and the ancient, petrified trees – have fortuitously come together here in Namibia. Separated by more than an immense period of time, they also bear witness to completely different environments. Welwitschia is adapted to the extremes of dryness and heat of a desert while the archaic trees once lined a great floodplain and were felled by melting glacial waters. However, in spite of their many differences, these two plants share a hidden secret. Between them, they reveal the fascinating story of a gigantic landmass that broke apart over 100Ma. Fig. 1. Petrified log showing segmentation caused by compressional stress. The ancient southern supercontinent of Gondwana existed for hundreds of millions of years and embraced South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia, Antarctica and parts of Asia. By 280mya, vast cool temperate forests of Cordaites trees covered parts of Gondwana. Cordaites is a primitive relative of the conifers that grew to 30m in height and is best known from the coal swamp forests of 325 to 295mya in Europe and North America. As Gondwana emerged from a great ice age, Cordaites trees lining river floodplains were engulfed by melting glacial waters. This catastrophic flooding resulted in their burial under hundreds of metres of sediment. Over an immense period of time, silica dissolved in groundwater replaced the original … 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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Fossil forests in the freezer

Stephen McLoughlin (Sweden) South of the craggy limits of Patagonia, Africa and Tasmania, and beyond the piercing gales of the roaring forties and the furious fifties, lies Antarctica – the last great continent on Earth to be explored. Straddling the South Pole, it lies frozen in a winter that has lasted millions of years. Today, only a few plant species more robust than mosses eke out a harsh existence on its warmest fringes. The bitter cold and screaming katabatic winds (a katabatic wind is one that carries high density air down a slope under the force of gravity) that drain off the continental interior mean that few plants and animals can survive in Antarctica year-round. However, this has not always been the case. Through much of deep time, it has not been the ‘white continent’ but a land of green forests and lush swamps. This forested landscape provided habitats for a wide range of terrestrial animals for most of the past 400 million years. The continent’s central location within the ancient southern supercontinent of Gondwana also meant that it held an important role in the exchange of plants and animals between the southern lands. Fig. 1. Map of Antarctica showing the Permian-Triassic basins. Early clues Little was known about Antarctica’s geology or fossil heritage until ‘the heroic era of exploration’ began to unlock the continent’s secrets in the 1800s. Some of the first explorers to realize that vegetation once clothed Antarctica’s landscape were the members of Captain Robert Scott’s team, … 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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Mollusc diversity for palaeontologists

Dr Neale Monks (UK) While arthropods and roundworms exceed the phylum Mollusca in terms of species, molluscs hold their own when it comes to anatomical diversity. There may be well over a million species of arthropod, but crabs, spiders and bees are all obviously related, sharing the same multi-limbed body plan organised around a jointed exoskeleton. Molluscs are very different. Clams, snails and squid are all molluscs, but their anatomy, ecology and behaviour couldn’t be more different. What molluscs have in common Although incredibly diverse, molluscs do have features in common. These include: A fleshy foot used for locomotion.A visceral mass containing the internal organs.A mantle that secretes the shell.A toothy tongue, known as a radula, for scraping food into smaller pieces.A shell made from calcium carbonate.Not all molluscs have all of these features, but they each have at least some of them. So, while an octopus doesn’t have a shell, it does have a mantle and a radula, as well as a foot divided up into the eight arms that give it its name. From the perspective of the palaeontologist, the key thing about molluscs is that most have (or had) shells. These fossilise more readily than soft tissues or even bones, and that means that molluscs have a remarkably rich fossil record. Origins The earliest fossil molluscs are known from the very base of the Cambrian, the Tommotian, about 530mya. This period of time was marked by the appearance of several major animal groups alongside molluscs, including arthropods, … Read More

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Homotherium: A saber-toothed cat of the North Sea

Dick Mol (Netherlands)and Wilrie van Logchem (Netherlands) Somewhere around the Dutch coast, a mammoth herd, led by an experienced matriarch strolls along a trail on the cold, dry and treeless steppe – the mammoth steppe – typified by tall, tough grasses and Artemisia. The impressive herd numbers about thirty animals, reflecting several generations, young and old, trailing each other on their way to the river (the paleo-Meuse) for a drink. Meanwhile, far off in the background, we notice a stampeding herd of large steppe buffaloes, chased by a pack of lions. Some hyenas are watching the scene with interest from their hideout in the tall, dry grass, eagerly hoping for some leftovers from the anticipated feast. Also hidden by the tall grass, another, strange and unknown predator observes the panorama – a saber-toothed cat. The head of the animal looks fierce. Incredibly long, flattened canines, sharp as daggers, are exposed when this Homotherium opens its mouth… This drama is set in the Netherlands, some 28,000 years ago and it is quite plausible that such a scenario happened in the last part of the ice ages of the Pleistocene epoch. The North Sea is being fished intensively today and Dutch fishermen not only collect flatfish like sole and plaice, living on the sea floor. They also retrieve the weirdest objects – fragments of shipwrecks from days gone by or bombs from World War II, jettisoned by the bombers in the dark days of the previous century. But, the most intriguing discoveries … Read More

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