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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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Urban geology: Two granites

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) Building stones may tell us something or nothing about the geology of the local area. As Ted Nield (2014) recently highlighted in his book, Underlands, stones used in Britain today are rarely local. Once upon a time, local stone would have been derived from a nearby quarry. Now, stones are commonly imported from overseas. If that is the case in the British Isles, then pity the poor geologist in the Netherlands, where genuine exposures of rock only occur in the south, in the province of Limburg, and mainly consist of Upper Cretaceous chalks and limestones. In consequence, ornamental and facing stones on buildings are almost invariably imported. I mainly have eyes for the imported Upper Palaeozoic limestones, probably mainly Carboniferous, but potentially including some from the Devonian. These rocks are common (van Roekel, 2007), but I also pay attention when I spy a beautiful granite, in the broadest sense, which are common on the fronts of banks and used even more extensive to clad offices. This article is about two such granites (out of many) cladding buildings in Noord Holland, which have particularly caught my eye. For a general mineralogical reference, I recommend Deer et al (1966). A faulted granite in Hoofddorp This site is close to the limestone street art in Siriusdreef (described by Donovan, 2014; and see also Fig. 1) and is an easy walk from Hoofddorp railway station or bus stops on the #300 express bus route. The building in question (there … Read More

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Fossil fishes of the Old Red Sandstone of Scotland

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

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Geology museums of Britain: Whitby Museum, Yorkshire

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

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Field trip to the building stones of Canterbury

Trevor Devon (UK) Eleven members of the Hastings and District Geological Society (HDGS) assembled in front of the Canterbury Law Courts on a fine Sunday morning in June 2010 to meet up with our guide for the day, Geoff Downer. Geoff had previously given a talk to HDGS in the spring on the building stones of St Augustine’s Abbey and clearly had a great passion for this subject (he calls it a “hobby”). The day was spent on a gentle walk around the eastern part of Canterbury, largely taking in St Martin’s Church, St Augustine’s Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. Geoff provided a fascinating commentary on the geology, history, archaeology and architecture of the area, and stopped at appropriate sites to explore and identify the building stones more fully. Given that Canterbury had been an important major Roman town, and given its subsequent ecclesiastical history from Saxon to Norman and medieval times, there was no shortage of material to see. After a brief introduction to the geology of the Ouse Valley, we took a short walk to look at the thirteenth century Conduit House (Fig. 1), a well-preserved example of medieval water technology that was used to collect groundwater from the natural springs of the surrounding hills and gravity feed it down to St Augustine’s Abbey using lead pipes. The reservoir and tunnels are constructed of all sorts of stone, using some reclaimed material from the nearby city and the structure would originally have borne a circular roof. From this fascinating … Read More

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Some fossil finds in the Hastings area

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

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Real ‘Southend Rock’

Bob Williams (UK) Chert and flint are crystalline (perhaps more accurately described as microcrystalline) forms of rock that man has made use of from Stone Age times. The crystals consist of a microcrystalline form of silica, more commonly known as quartz (silicon dioxide). Flint is the better-known form of this substance and is commonly found as very hard concretions in deposits of chalk. It is so hard that, when the chalk is eroded, the flint remains in an almost undamaged state. Fig. 1. The Clactonian culture ‘handaxe’ tool, which was the first tool we found at Southend beach. When fractured, flint and chert nodules disintegrate to produce conchoidal, glass-like breaks, and this creates sharp edges capable of inflicting physical damage. When controlled, this damage can be put to practical use and early species of man (Homo erectus, H habilis, H neanderthalensis and early H sapiens) recognised this fact and put it to good use in their everyday lives. During the Ice Ages, spreading ice sheets eroded many millions of flint nodules from chalk deposits and spread them all over the UK. When the ice melted during warmer interglacial periods, the nodules were deposited wherever they happened to have been transported to. Such flint nodules are referred to as “derived” nodules. Early man came to recognise them and collected them to make use of their physical properties. In this way, the first stone tools appeared and, as skill levels developed in their manufacture, they became more and more sophisticated in form. … Read More

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Visiting the Zigong Dinosaur Museum

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

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

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

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Moeraki Boulders: The giant marbles of New Zealand

Tasman Walker (Australia) Scattered over Koekohe Beach on the South Island of New Zealand, dozens of huge spherical boulders look like the remains of a monster game of marbles. These were recently featured on the cover of Issue 22 of Deposits. The grey, stone balls are a fascinating tourist attraction, about 70km north of Dunedin, near Moeraki, a small town on the Otago Coast. Some boulders stand alone, but most sit in clusters, with the waves splashing over them at high tide. Many lie broken into segments on the sand. Fig. 1. Large, small and broken boulders. The boulders are spectacular examples of concretions, which form when a mineral precipitates and cements the loose grains of sediment into solid rock. As you walk down the steep bluff to the beach, you can see other enormous boulders still embedded in the uncemented mudstone, but being exposed as the ocean waves erode the loose embankment. They eventually fall onto the beach. Fig. 2. Popular with tourists. The boulders come in two distinct sizes: the diameters of the smaller ones range from 46cm to 92mm, but the larger ones are 137cm to 200cm in size. The largest ones weigh almost 20 tons. Most are spherical, but a few are slightly squashed in a direction parallel to the bedding of the mudstone in which they formed. Although fascinating, the boulders are by no means unique. In New Zealand, you can find similar ones on a beach just 12km south, and others on the North … Read More

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Coping with coprolites

Carl Mehling (USA) Generally, we have no use for it, or at least we convince ourselves we don’t, conveniently ignoring the fact that faeces of one kind or another (even our own) have fertilised our food for millennia. Organic waste products are an integral part of the living system and don’t tend to sit around for long. And it’s a good thing too, because, without the recycling of waste in Nature, we’d certainly be swamped by the stuff. Fig. 1. Ammonnite chamber steinkern composed of tiny invertebrate coprolites (Carl Mehling). Fig. 2. A probable Cretaceous crocodililian coprolites Fig. 3. The real thing? (Carl Mehling). Alas, this is a problem for students of coprolites – those droppings from Deep Time – as it reduces the probability of good coprolite fossils. However, everything in Nature has a story to tell, and there’s usually someone eager to listen, whomever or whatever that storyteller might be. I am one of those palaeontologists drawn to make order out of ordure and, thanks to the whims of the fossil record, enough of these now-inoffensive offerings have fortunately survived to the present. Fig. 4. A Triassic coprolite filled with fish bones (Carl Mehling). My first coprolite emerged from the Late Cretaceous marine sediments of Big Brook, New Jersey. It was a coprolite of spiral morphology – surprisingly common, once one’s search image is tuned – which my mentors credited to a shark. All ‘experts’, both amateur and academic, reflexively parroted this identification. Later, I learned that other … Read More

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New predator ‘Dawn runner’ discovered in early dinosaur graveyard

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

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Urban geology: Palaeontology at the Wagamama restaurant, Amsterdam

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) A misconception shared by many non-palaeontologists is that fossils are rare. For example, when governments pass legislation to protect their fossil heritage, they are stopping the export of complete and well-preserved specimens, such as those of Mesozoic dinosaurs, hominids and Ice Age mammoths. There can be little argument that protecting their prehistoric heritage is responsible. Yet, these same politicians will support, for example, the export of cement. This may seem unrelated, but, of course, limestone is rich in fossils, most particularly invertebrates (Bathurst, 1971), and is an essential component of cement. These fossils are not dinosaurs or mammoths, admittedly, but they are fossils nonetheless. Legislation needs careful wording to ensure that exporting cement is not an illegal activity. Fig. 1. Imported rocks used in raised flowerbeds and paving at Amsterdam Zuid (=south) railway station, the Netherlands. (A) General view. The grey stone is Carboniferous limestone; the pink stone is gneiss. The Wagamama restaurant is to the left of the photographer. (B) Detail of the upper surface of limestone on a raised flower bed. The fossils are dominantly fragments of crinoid and a colonial tabulate coral (Michelinia? sp.) is seen towards the bottom of the page and a section through a productid brachiopod(?) is right of the coin. The coin is €2, about 25mm in diameter. The Netherlands is an exporter of cement from the Upper Cretaceous limestone quarries in Limburg, in the far south of the country (Felder and Bosch, 2000) and therefore trades fossils … Read More

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Ashdown maniraptor: The world’s smallest dinosaur?

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

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Urban geology: Boulders and the Dutch

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) My late wife, Dr Trina MacGillivray, was a geomorphologist. She loved the Netherlands and the Dutch landscape, but more than once made astute comparisons with the scenery of other northern European countries. The Dutch landscape, if it has a fault, is too organised, too well arranged and too manicured. Woe betide the blade of grass that dare step out of line. Trina’s observations extended to Belgium. If travelling to Brussels by train, it is immediately obvious when you have crossed the border because the landscape relaxes. It is not unruly or untidy, but, unlike the Netherlands, it does not need to maintain a near-geometric precision. Trina liked her trips to Belgium, too. These memories were revived on a recent bus ride from Leiden to Hoofddorp, near Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport. It was a grey, overcast day – the sort of dreary weather that the Netherlands does too well and too often. Even before we had left Leiden, the regular geometry of the town impressed itself on me. But then there was something in the central reservation that caught my eye – a cluster of irregularly rounded boulders of various lithologies (Fig. 1E, F). It occurred to me then that such clusters of boulders were not so unusual in the Dutch landscape, breaking up the geometry in unusual ways (Figs. 1 to 3), yet were undoubtedly man-made. Fig. 1. Boulders in Leiden, 4 February 2015. (A) The boulder garden, a favourite of all children who like … Read More

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Geological expedition along the southwest coast of Scotland

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) Compared to the geological architecture of other European countries not exceeding a total area of 100,000km², the geology of Scotland is characterised by an unusual diversity of geological features. Due to its tectono-metamorphic complexity Scotland attracted numerous earth scientists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose main aim was the development of theories about, on the one hand, rock formation and, on the other, metamorphic alteration of initial lithologies. Besides being the preferred target of foreign scientists, the country has also produced its own important figures in the history of geological research. In this context, James Hutton – the “father of modern geology”, after whom, for example, ‘Hutton’s Unconformity’ at Siccar Point in Berwickshire is named – has to be mentioned, but also Hugh Miller and Archibald Geikie provided valuable contributions to the enlightenment of various geological problems. Fig. 1. Geological subdivision of Scotland into four main units. Returning to the geology of Scotland, it is possible to subdivide the country into four main geological and geographical units. The Southern Uplands, which extend south of the Southern Uplands Fault, are mainly composed of sedimentary rocks dating back to the Silurian and the Devonian. The Central Lowlands or Midland Valley, which border the Southern Uplands Fault on the north, represent a rift zone that chiefly comprises Palaeozoic rocks of both sedimentary and volcanic origin. North and west of the Highland Boundary Fault lies the Highlands and Islands, which, due to their geological diversity, can be further subdivided … Read More

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Rival theories by English amateurs: Matley, Trechmann and the geological origin of Jamaica

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) The two most significant geologists to visit Jamaica and study its geology between the two World Wars were both British: Charles Alfred Matley (1866-1947) and Charles Taylor Trechmann (1885-1964). Both had active research programmes in Jamaica and the Antilles in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly on subjects that did not overlap, but the one geological concept on which they strongly disagreed was the one that underpinned all of their work – the geological evolution of the Caribbean basin. C A Matley Charles Matley (Fig. 1A) was a career civil servant and distinguished amateur geologist. He studied at the Birmingham and Midland Institute and the Mason Science College. The latter was incorporated into the new University of Birmingham in 1900. At Mason College, he was taught by Charles Lapworth, the father of the Ordovician System and one of the principal debunkers of Murchison’s assignment of the Scottish Highlands to the Silurian (Oldroyd, 1990). Matley’s principal field research while at Birmingham was on the Precambrian and Lower Palaeozoic of North Wales (for example, Matley, 1899, 1900, 1928), particularly Anglesey, work for which he was awarded a DSc by the University of London in 1902. Of particular relevance to his Jamaican research was his understanding of the geology of the Llyn Peninsula and Anglesey (McIlroy and Horák, 2006). Fig. 1. (A) Charles Alfred Matley (1866-1947), probably in about 1935 at the earliest (after Donovan, 2008, fig. 2). (B) Charles Taylor Trechmann (1884-1964), date of image unknown (after Donovan, … Read More

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Geology and fossils of the Spilsby Sandstone Formation of Nettleton, Lincolnshire, UK

The Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary interval is represented in Lincolnshire by the Spilsby Sandstone Formation, a shallow water marine deposit that spans the Volgian stage of the Jurassic to the Berriasian stage of the Cretaceous (Hopson et al. 2008). The ammonite faunas of this formation are of particular interest, exhibiting affinities with correlative forms in both Russia on the Siberian plain, as well as Greenland and Canada (for example, Casey, 1973; Mikhail Rogov, personal communication 2015).

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Rare Cretaceous ichthyosaur from Lincolnshire

John P Green (UK) As many amateur and professional palaeontologists are aware, ichthyosaurs are well-known aquatic reptiles from the Mesozoic era, which are especially common in Jurassic marine deposits in the UK. They are particularly conspicuous in the Charmouth and Whitby Mudstone Formations of the Lias (Lower Jurassic), as well as the Oxford and Kimmeridge Clay Formations (Upper Jurassic). These horizons have yielded numerous complete and fragmentary remains that grace many private and museum collections across the UK. By contrast, the record of ichthyosaurs in Britain from the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary interval is somewhat scanty, and only rare and fragmentary remains having been discovered. Any remains discovered from this time interval are therefore of great potential significance. Back in August 1995, during one especially hot summer’s day, I was fortunate to discover fragmentary ichthyosaur remains at a small quarry at Nettleton, Lincolnshire. This quarry exposed the Lower Spilsby Sandstone Formation, which is a shallow water marine deposit that embraces the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary interval in Lincolnshire (Gaunt et al, 1992). Fig. 1. Locality map of the Castle Top quarry. Reproduced from Green and Lomax 2014; image originally reproduced. by permission of the council of the Yorkshire Geological Society. The specimen was discovered at a single horizon, 3.5m above the base of the formation, which (based upon stratigraphical grounds) falls within the ammonite zone, Subcraspedites preplicomphalus (Casey, 1973). This was formerly considered to fall within the Volgian stage of the latest Jurassic (Gaunt et al, 1992), although more recent work by Hopson et … Read More

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Barry’s secret dinosaurs

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

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

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

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Book review: Walking the Jurassic Coast: Dorset and East Devon: The Walks, the rocks, the fossils, by Ronald Turnbull

There are a lot of guide books to the Jurassic Coast Work Heritage Site. This one is intended to provide a useful introduction to the general geology of the coastline, dealing with its formation, fossils and plate tectonics (among many other things), but specifically in the context of walks – for both afternoon rambles and long distance hikes for the more committed.