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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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Mining in Brazil’s ‘Garden of Gold’

Graham Roberts (UK) There is an old maxim in the mining industry that says, “Mines are where you find them”. To put it another way, you cannot change the location of geological deposits. This is frequently unfortunate for all involved and, almost inevitably, takes exploration and mining companies to wherever the best economic mineral deposits can be found, whatever the challenge. Such a quest has recently taken London-listed Serabi Mining plc (Serabi Mining) to the Tapajos region of northern Brazil. The Tapajos was the location of a major artisanal mining gold rush from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. During this time, it has been estimated that up to 30 million ounces of gold may have been extracted, making it one of the largest gold regions in the world. However, despite these figures, this exciting area has been poorly explored to date. Fig. 1. Garimpeiros working gold-rich, weathered bedrock with monitor hoses. The Tapajos region is situated in the Central Amazonian Province, within the Amazon Craton, and is mainly of Proterozoic age. The gold deposits have various geological settings but, amongst these, a dominant NW-SE fracture zone some 100s of kilometres long and about 50km wide is particularly important. Serabi Mining has secured an extensive land position and identified a number of targets along 70km of this zone, in addition to other Tapajos projects. Geological potential also exists for very large, low-grade gold and copper deposits of the porphyry and IOCG (Iron Oxide Copper Gold) types. Fig. 2. Location … 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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Mining in ancient Greece and Rome

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) Ancient civilizations had a high demand for raw materials, like clay, diverse rocks and, most of all, metals. These were required for buildings, crafts, agriculture, their armed forces, financial concerns, art and culture. Clays and rocks produced by opencast mining primarily served for the production of bricks and building blocks, which were used for civil and hydraulic engineering. They were additionally extracted for the manufacture of durable goods and art objects, such as dishes and statues. Metals – like gold, silver, copper, tin, iron and lead – being essential raw materials in antique civilisations, were commonly produced by underground mining. Gold and silver were mostly used as raw material for ancient coins. The use of noble metals in monetary economy has been going on since the seventh century BC, when barter trade was successively replaced by a monetary economy. Copper, tin and iron was mostly produced for the manufacture of arms, whereas lead was, among other things, used for the production of water conduits and as a stain for ornamental painting. Fig. 1. Some examples for the use of metals: lead was, among other things, used as stain for ornamental painting (left), whereas silver was used for coins (right). Ancient techniques used for the mining of raw materials Sufficient supplies of metallic and mineral raw materials required systematic mining, since only gold was found in large enough amounts in washes of brooks and rivers to make panning worthwhile. Other metals usually occurred as chemical components of … 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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Urban geology: Monumental geology

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) My writings on urban geology are normally centred in the area around my home in Noord Holland, but sometimes I am lucky enough to travel. A personal wish that I have had since I was a teenager was to see and, if possible, board a dreadnought battleship. This whim was finally satisfied in March 2014, when I visited the last surviving dreadnought from World War I, the USN Texas, preserved at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, near Houston (Fig. 1A). What I had not realised was the battleship is interred adjacent to the site of the Battle of San Jacinto, where a rag-tag army of insurgents, following defeat at the Alamo and Goliad, decisively defeated the Mexican army in under 20 minutes in April 1836, thereby winning independence from Mexico for Texas. Fig. 1. Two breathtaking exhibits at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, near Houston, Texas. (A) The dreadnought battleship, USN Texas, commissioned in 1914 and a veteran of two world wars. (B) The San Jacinto Monument, built in 1936 from Cordova Cream Shellstone and the tallest memorial stone column. The San Jacinto Museum of History is in the base. The Battle of San Jacinto is commemorated by a towering monument (Fig. 1B), which is the tallest memorial stone column, about 175m, and some 4.5m taller than the much better known Washington Monument in Washington DC. The San Jacinto Monument is visible over a wide area of this flat coastal plane … Read More

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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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Mineral classics from Wales

Tom Cotterell (UK) Ask any mineral collector to name a classic mineral locality or region in Britain and they will probably think of Cornwall or Devon, perhaps Weardale in Co Durham, or even the Caldbeck Fells or the West Cumbrian iron mining district in Cumbria – but probably not Wales. This is not to say that Wales has no classic minerals, but is perhaps a reflection of collecting habits and the preference for large, brightly coloured crystals. Wales has a long history of mining dating back to, at least, the Bronze Age, but, unlike some other regions, there does not appear to have been a desire by miners to extract mineral specimens for sale. Indeed, a network of mineral dealers, as was clearly present in Cornwall during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was totally absent in Wales. One factor is that the establishment of a National Museum in Wales occurred relatively late (in 1907) and did not open to the general public until the 1920s. Before this, there was no central repository for specimens collected in Wales and, consequently, mineral collections with historical significance are rare in the Principality. The university colleges founded during the 1870s and 1880s built up their own academic collections. Earlier still, the Royal Institute of South Wales (founded in Swansea in 1835), established geological collections, but its focus appears (from what records remain) to have been wide ranging and not specific to Wales. Therefore, during the heyday of mining in Wales, the lack of one … Read More

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Bass Rock of the Firth of Forth

Mark Wilkinson (UK) From much of the coast along the Firth of Forth in southeast Scotland, and from coastal hills such as Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, the impressive piece of rock called the Bass Rock forms a prominent landmark. This steep island is the neck of a Lower Carboniferous volcano, rising 107m above sea level. Scuba divers, on the north side of the island, have shown the sea bed to be around 40m in depth, so the neck would be 150m high if we could see it all. The rock is made of phonolitic trachyte, that is, an alkali igneous rock with less silica content than a ‘normal’ trachyte, so the alkali feldspar is accompanied by one of the silica-deficient feldspathoid minerals, such as analcime. Unfortunately, this interesting mineral assemblage is too fine-grained to see easily, except in thin sections under a microscope. In winter, Bass Rock is a dark brown as might be expected, but, in summer, it turns white from both the seabirds that crowd every available surface and their accumulated guano. The shape of the island is significant – clearly the igneous rock was more resistant to erosion than the surrounding sediments into which it was intruded. These country rocks are not visible now, having been eroded away to below water level, with an estimated one kilometre or more of overlying rock removed since the time of intrusion, along with any surface eruption products, such as lavas and pyroclastic rocks. Fig. 1. The Bass Rock from the west. … 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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Crystals and minerals of the London Clay

Bob Williams (UK) I developed a passion for crystals while collecting fossils. To me, crystals don’t have to be fancy, rare or expensive to be of immense interest. Even a good specimen of the commonly encountered “fools gold” (iron pyrite, more technically referred to as iron sulphide) will be of great interest to me. I live in south-east England, which is perhaps not the best place in the country for collecting interesting crystal specimens. However, I have a special interest in a geological deposit known as “London Clay” that is highly fossiliferous and includes fossils of crabs and lobsters. Many people will not associate this deposit with interesting minerals, but this would be to underestimate its potential. Fig. 1. London Clay, Isle of Sheppey, Kent. Crystal groups display the geometry of the crystal structure that is associated with a particular mineral and their forms can vary a great deal. The atoms, from which a substance is built, combine into structures known as “unit cells”. The atomic structure of a unit cell is then identically repeated, forming assemblies that give rise to the final crystalline form (that is, the mineral itself). Some compounds produce small, crystalline structures while others can produce individual crystals that are massive in size and striking in overall appearance. Amethyst is a good example of this and is, perhaps, the most familiar and most commercially available mineral of this type. A closer look at the crystal structure of any mineral will reveal objects of such incredible, geometric … Read More

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Lavas from Hawaiian volcano contain fingerprint of planetary formation

Dr Steve Koppes (USA) Hikers visiting the Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii today walk along a mostly flat surface of sparsely vegetated basalt. It looks like parking lot asphalt, but, in November and December 1959, it emitted the orange glow of newly erupted lava. Now, a precision analysis of lava samples taken from the crater is giving scientists a new tool for reconstructing planetary origins. The results of the analysis, by the University of Chicago’s Nicolas Dauphas and his associates, were published in the 20 June 2008 issue of the journal Science. Fig. 1. Eruption Hill in Kilauea Iki crater on the Big Island of Hawaii. In December 1959, lava spurted 580m feet high from this location. Working with lava samples from the crater, scientists at the University of Chicago and elsewhere have devised a new tool for reconstructing planetary origins. (Photo: Steve Koppes.) The researchers selected Kilauea Iki for their study because scientists have drilled it for samples many times over the years as it cooled. This sequence of samples makes the lava lake a perfect site for studying differentiation – the separation of minerals and elements as magma cools and hardens. In particular, a close examination of iron isotopes – the slight variations the element displays at the subatomic level – can tell planetary scientists more about the formation of crust than they previously thought, according to Dauphas and co-authors, Fang-Zhen Teng of the University of Arkansas and Rosalind T Helz of the US Geological Survey. Dauphas informed … Read More

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Geology of Grandfather Mountain

Landis Wofford (USA) Like all mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee are the result of the action of plate tectonics. The crust of our planet is composed of five primary plates, or huge pieces of rock that move very slowly over deeper layers of hot, pliable rock. Some of the plates are composed of heavy oceanic crust, while others are made of lighter continental crust. At the middle of each oceanic plate, a large crack pours lava out onto the ocean floor. This causes oceanic plates to expand by an inch or two every year. When oceanic crust is forced against continental crust, the oceanic crust is pushed underneath the continental crust. When continental crust is forced against continental crust, huge mountains usually are formed. Fig. 1. View from the top of Grandfather Mountain. The Appalachian Mountains were formed in the remote past, some 200Ma, by collision of two continental crusts. During such mountain building, huge sheets of rock are pushed over each other. A rock layer called the Blue Ridge Thrust Sheet was moved over 60 miles to cover what is now Grandfather Mountain. These mountains were once ten times higher than they are today. Over hundreds of millions of years, erosion has carried away most of the rocks to form thick layers of sediment across the Piedmont, Coastal Plain, and in the Atlantic Ocean. Grandfather Mountain is the tallest mountain in the Blue Ridge and is now a popular tourist destination resort. … Read More

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Mineral collecting in Slovakia

Trevor Devon (UK) Slovakia is situated at the north-western end of the Carpathian Mountains, a region well-known for its metal ore mines and quarries. One of the Sussex Mineralogical Society’s members had been a schoolteacher in Slovakia and had explored many of its mineral locations. Through his contacts there, an 11 day visit was arranged and a quite large group, comprising 17 society members, descended on the rural tranquillity of eastern Slovakia in August 2008. We were met by our two expert guides, one of whom was Dr Rudolf Ďud’a, head of the Department of Natural History in the Eastern Slovak Museum in Košice and author of the Slovakia chapter in the book Minerals of the Carpathians. Our journey took us on a round trip from eastern Slovakia up to Prešov and the Tatra Mountains on the border with Poland, across to Banská Bystrica in central Slovakia, south to šiatorská Bukovinka near the Hungarian border and back to Košice. Much of the driving was through heavily wooded mountains and attractive scenic valleys. The mines (now mostly inactive) and quarries were often well hidden, and generally required some walking (always upwards, of course) to get to from our coach. During our trip, we visited four quarries, eight mine dumps and a wooded mountainside deposit of ‘flesh opals’, so we were kept busy. One of the lasting impressions of the mine dumps (some of which were very large indeed) was the richness of secondary mineralisation – when in Cornwall, one is usually … 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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Gold panning at Wanlockhead, Scotland

Charlie Smart (Scotland) Today, the villages of Wanlockhead and Leadhills (the highest in Scotland) are probably best known for the centuries of toil that gave them the most productive lead mines in Scotland. However, it was the search for gold during the sixteenth century that revealed the abundance and richness of the lead veins. At the marriage of James V to Magdalene of France in 1537, cups filled with bonnet-pieces made with gold from Crawford Muir were presented as specimens of ‘Scotch fruit’. From the same district, gold was supplied to refashion an older crown for the King. This Crown of Scotland, last worn at the coronation of Charles II at Scone in 1651, is now on display in Edinburgh Castle and forms part of the ‘Honours of Scotland’. Earlier, in 1578, Sir Beavis Bulmer headed north across the Border. Having obtained letters of recommendation from Elizabeth I and, with his strong family connections to mining operations in the north of England, he was granted a patent by the Scottish Government ‘to adventure and search for gold and silver mines in the Leadhills’. Due to harsh climatic conditions, prospecting was confined to the summer months only. Nonetheless, over a period of three years, Bulmer amassed £100,000 worth of gold (in tutor values). He eventually returned to England where he presented Queen Elizabeth with a porringer (a small soup dish) made from Scottish gold. On the lintel of the house he left behind were inscribed the words, ‘In Wanlock, Elvan & … 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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