Duria Antiquior: A nineteenth-century forerunner of palaeoart

Steven Wade Veatch (USA) Fig. 1. Duria Antiquior. A watercolour painted in 1830 by Henry De la Beche, who conjured up a vivid picture of an ancient world. It is now in the National Museum of Wales and another copy can be seen at the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge. (Image is public domain.) In a breath of inspiration in 1830, English geologist, Henry De la Beche (1796–1855), while exploring new intellectual territories in the emerging fields of palaeontology, painted Duria Antiquior (meaning “a more ancient Dorset”), a representation of a prehistoric Dorset coast. De la Beche’s work was ground breaking – his artwork combined science and art in the first artistic rendering of a paleontological scene, while laying bare the secrets of the past. Before 1830, art depicting the prehistoric world did not exist and these realms were unknown to the public (Porter, n.d.). While it is true that scientists made drawings of fossil animals and exchanged them with each other in private letters, the public had no concept of how prehistoric animals looked. This painting opened people’s imagination to new visions, thoughts and beliefs. De la Beche’s painting also laid the foundation for a new genre that would later be known as palaeoart, an artistic genre that reconstructs prehistoric life according to the fossil record, scientific understanding and artistic imagination. De la Bache’s brushstrokes of prehistoric time included (literally) all the information known at that time about ancient life and soon became the first teaching graphic used in the … Read More

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Concretions in sandstones of the Inner Hebrides, Scotland

Mark Wilkinson (UK) Concretions are a common feature in many sedimentary rocks, yet they seem sometimes to be misunderstood. So, how do concretions form? As well-studied examples, let’s look at the ones found in some of the sandstones of the Scottish Inner Hebrides, notably the islands of Eigg and Skye. The concretions are found in several formations, but perhaps the largest and most spectacular are in the Valtos Sandstone Formation of the Great Estuarine Group. This was originally named the Concretionary Sandstone Series after the prominent metre-scale concretions. It is Bathonian in age (Middle Jurassic) and is interpreted as having been deposited in a coastal environment. The Great Estuarine Group is becoming famous for its abundant dinosaur footprints and much rarer skeletal material. The concretions themselves vary from spherical to elongate volumes of rock and are typically from around 50cm to one metre or more in diameter. They are also often coalesced into groups (Fig. 1). Inside the concretions, the spaces between the sand grains are filled completely with a calcite cement. The concretions are resistant to weathering compared to the host sandstone, which is fairly soft, so stick out from the cliff in a sometimes rather alarming manner as you walk below them. I’ve been visiting the concretions sporadically for around 30 years and some of the ones that I photographed in the cliffs in the 1980s are now lying loose on the beach. None of them have fallen while I’ve been there, touch wood. Fig 1. Concretions on … Read More

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Rudists: A fossil story

Jack Shimon (USA) This article is adapted from a presentation given at the Denver Gem Show, September 17, 2016 by me, Jack Shimon. When I was six and a half years old, my Grandpa took me fossil hunting in central Texas. We went to a Carboniferous Limestone quarry that he had visited earlier and was given permission to enter and collect from. This was one of my first fossil hunting trips and I really enjoyed it. The ancient reef we went to (now a quarry) had huge boulders of limestone and tube-like things in it we later to be found to be rudist bivalves. This article is all about these finds and the efforts we went to, to find out what they were. Fig 1. The author at the quarry. (Photo credit: Mike Hursey.) Fig. 2. This Google satellite image shows the reef we collected from. Two of the three lobes have been excavated for limestone. You can also see smaller pinnacle reefs marked with the short arrows. All of the reefs rise above the flat Texas landscape. (Permission from Google.com: ‘Special Use Guidelines’.)Fossils We spent a lot of time at the quarry observing the massive specimens onsite and then collected some smaller pieces to bring home and look at closer. A simple way of thinking about fossils is to consider them either as a cast or a mould. A mould is formed when an object is placed into a soft substrate and then decomposes or is washed away leaving … Read More

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Fulletby brickyard: A classic locality in the Upper Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay of Lincolnshire

John P Green (UK) The Upper Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay Formation in Lincolnshire crops out along the western edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds scarp (Swinnerton and Kent, 1981) and many years ago was formerly exposed in many small workings that exploited the Lower and Upper Kimmeridge Clay Formation for brickmaking. The once famous brick pits at Market Rasen (TF120888) and at Stickney near Boston (TF342570), both richly fossiliferous and the source of many historic museum specimens (in particular, ammonites and marine reptiles) have long since closed and the sections are no longer accessible. Fig. 1. Saurian vertebra (crocodilian or possible plesiosaur), discovered on the reverse of a Pectinatites ammonite. Nevertheless, I have located another former, now largely overgrown brickyard, near the village of Fulletby (TF298734), situated just under five kilometres north of Horncastle. Whilst largely overgrown, small exposures remain of the Upper Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay Formation. The Palaeontographical Society lists the locality of Fulletby brickyard in its 1954 publication, Directory of British Fossiliferous Localities. It identifies the exposures present as belonging to the ammonite zone of Pectinatites wheatleyensis, and it was indeed thanks to this publication that I was able to discover this locality. The locality is also briefly discussed in Swinnerton and Kent (1981). The exposures that remain are intermittent and scattered, but shallow excavations made by me have revealed a sequence of richly fossiliferous mudrocks, which has allowed a rare opportunity to inspect and collect specimens from this rarely exposed horizon at this little known geological locality in Lincolnshire. … Read More

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Saltwick Bay, North Yorkshire

Emily Swaby (UK) Saltwick Bay is located along the Yorkshire Coast, between Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay, and can be accessed from the Cleveland Way, which passes the spectacular Whitby Abbey. The geology of the area is predominantly Jurassic in age, with the site often being described as a ‘fossil treasure trove’. The bay yields a wide variety of specimens, including common ammonites and belemnites to rarer finds such as marine reptiles, Whitby Jet and even dinosaur footprints. Even though Saltwick Bay is close to Whitby, it is still a very productive locality and you never leave empty handed. In fact, it is a good location for families and beginners. The walk to Saltwick Bay from Whitby itself is approximately 2.4km and provides many picturesque views of the abbey, the harbour entrance and the remarkable coastline. The steps leading down to the beach are located just past Whitby Holiday Park, but can sometimes be slippery during winter months. It is also recommended that you check tide times for the area before arriving, as high tide can limit the extent of accessibility and could potentially cut you off. Fig. 1. The steps descending down the cliff to the bay. Once you have made your way down the steps, fossils can be found immediately among the scree or in the shingle. However, it is advisable stay away from the base of the cliffs, as rock falls are common, with loose fragments of shale constantly falling down. Fig. 2. The Nab is a … Read More

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Carbonate platforms and coral reefs: The Coralline Oolite of the Yorkshire Upper Jurassic – a prime source of palaeontological information

Keith Eastwood (UK) The Malton Oolite Member of the Coralline Oolite Formation (Corallian Group), as exposed in the Betton Farm South Quarry (TA00158555) at East Ayton, near Scarborough (Fig. 1), provides a wealth of fascinating palaeontological and sedimentological information. Examination of outcrops within this small quarry enables the geologist to reconstruct the palaeoenvironment of deposition of the Betton Farm Coral Bed, a localised system of patch, ribbon and framework reefs that developed during the Upper Jurassic. Fig. 1. Locality map of the Betton Farm and Spikers Hill quarries. Geological outcrops from BGS Sheet 54 (Scarborough) (1998), (Wright, 2001, p.157, fig.4.20). Total image © Joint National Conservation Committee; geological outcrop map – British Geological Survey © NERC. Redrawn and reproduced with permission. The lithology and textural characteristics of the Malton Oolite Member provide a sedimentological basis for the interpretation, but the fossil content adds definitive ecological and climatic insights. The Malton Oolite is the upper of two oolite members in the Coralline Oolite Formation (Fig. 2). The lower one, the Hambleton Oolite Member, is not seen in the Betton Farm Quarries (which consist of two quarries: Betton Farm North Quarry and Betton Farm South Quarry, north and south of the A170, respectively) but is fully exposed in the Spikers Hill Quarry (SE 980863) just 3km to the WNW (Fig. 1). This location is important in providing a regional depositional context for the Betton Farm deposits, even though the upper surface of the intervening Middle Calcareous Grit Member is a minor unconformity. … Read More

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Fossil folklore: Molluscs

Paul D Taylor (UK) The final article of this series on fossil folklore focuses on molluscs, excluding the ammonites, which were covered earlier (see Fossil folklore: ammonites in Deposits, Issue 46, pp. 20–23). Molluscs are second only to arthropods in the number of species living today and the resistant calcareous skeletons possessed by the majority of species accounts for their extremely rich fossil record. Most fossil molluscs belong to one of three major groups – bivalves (oysters, clams and so on), gastropods (snails and slugs) and cephalopods (ammonites, belemnites and so on). Added to these are a few minor groups, such as the monoplacophorans and scaphopods (tusk shells). Fossil molluscs are usually recognisable instantly as belonging to this phylum because of their close similarities with the shells of familiar species of modern molluscs. Some, however, are not quite so straightforward. These are more likely to have been the sources of fanciful stories about their origins and significance. Among the more obscure ancient molluscs are those dubbed ‘difficult fossils’ by Martin Rudwick in the context of the early history of palaeontology and doubts over the origin of fossils. They include the solid internal casts (steinkerns) formed by lithification of sediment enclosed by the shell and subsequent loss of the defining shell itself. In addition, there are some mollusc fossils – notably belemnite guards – that bear little resemblance to any living species, adding to their enigmatic nature. Belemnites: thunderbolts and Devil’s Fingers The first fossils I ever came across were belemnites … Read More

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One way to ‘collect’ a massive specimen: Simple photogrammetry in the field using a mobile phone

Nigel Larkin and Steven Dey (UK) Inspired by the excellent series of articles by Trevor Watts discussing the types of Mid-Jurassic dinosaur footprints to be found along the Whitby coast (see The dinosaur footprints of Whitby: Part 1, for Part 1 – links to the other parts can be found at the end of that part), when recently working in the area I (NL) made sure that I would have the time to walk the beaches from Saltwick Bay to Whitby. I also timed my work to make sure I could make use of the low tides early in the morning at first light. As well as the usual ammonites, belemnites and plant fossils, I found a handful of single footprint casts (most too heavy to attempt to move) and some very nice fallen slabs of claw marks and partial trackways – also mostly too big to move. One slab in particular stood out among the others at the bottom of the Ironstone Ramp in Long Bight (Figs. 1 and 2) – a ‘double trackway’ from what look like two quite different beasts walking in parallel – although they were possibly formed at different times. In the form of raised footprint casts rather than actual indented footprints, the specimen included five good prints in the left track and four, possibly five prints, on the right track – so each track contained a ‘full set’. Although the tracks look superficially quite different from one another, both appear to be attributable to … Read More

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Jurassic Coast (or is it?) with the Geologists’ Association

Mervyn Jones (UK) Since 2012, the Geologists’ Association (GA) has put on annual field trips to the Dorset coast led by Prof John CW Cope (of the National Museum Wales), who is author of the definitive Field Guide No 22. The second edition was published in April 2016 (Geology of the Dorset Coast (2nd ed)). In fact, the trips were started to celebrate the publication of the first edition of the guide. The Dorset Coast is often equated with the ‘Jurassic Coast’ when, in fact, the geology stretches from the topmost Triassic, near the Devon border, through Jurassic and Cretaceous successions, to Eocene deposits at Studland. For this and other reasons, it attracts amateur geologists in large numbers. John’s guide provides essential information including descriptions of the succession and practical guidance about access. What’s missing are the entertaining stories that John Cope can provide and the context provided by exploring inland a bit. Day 1 – Saturday (1 October) For our fifth field meeting, we met up in Lyme Regis (in the car park next to the newly-restored house originally owned by John Fowles – see below) – a town to stir the heart of any geologist. Our mission for the weekend was to look at the unconformity below the Cretaceous, as it oversteps the older Jurassic and Triassic strata progressively in a westerly direction. En route, we observed the instability of the cliffs and suffered the same ourselves, as we scrambled over the boulders and shingle. On this occasion, … Read More

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Fossil folklore: Some myths, monsters, swallows and butterflies

Paul D Taylor (UK) Myths are traditional stories embodying ancient yet false ideas. At the root of many myths lie unusual events, for example, extreme floods, or mysterious objects such as fossils. Numerous myths about different kinds of fossils can be found in the folklore of many countries around the world. Indeed, some ‘monsters’ or mythical creatures of legend – such as the Cyclops, griffins and dragons – may have their roots in findings of fossil bones. Angels’ Money and Slaves’ Lentils The Greek traveller and writer known as Strabo the Geographer (c. 63BC–21AD) visited the pyramids of Gizeh in Egypt, which were then some 2,500 years old (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. The pyramids of Gizeh, constructed of Eocene nummulitic limestone. The pyramids are constructed of Middle Eocene nummulitic limestone. Nummulites are a type of foraminifera. These single-celled protists lived on the seabed and secreted disc-like chambered shells up to 4cm in diameter (Fig. 2), the large size for animals having only one cell reflecting the presence of symbiotic algae in their tissues. Fig. 2. Eocene nummulites from Gizeh, Egypt. The block on the left contains both large and small specimens, ‘Angels’ Money’ and ‘Slaves’ Lentils, respectively. On the right are three specimens of ‘Angels’ Money’, weathered out of the limestone matrix. Fossil nummulites drop out of the limestone at Gizeh after weathering. Picking up examples of these fossils, Strabo was informed that they were the petrified remains of the food belonging to the workers who built the pyramids. Strabo … Read More

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Giant’s Causeway (Part 2): Other volcanic highlights

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) This is the second and final part of an article on the volcanic highlights of Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and surrounds. For the first part, see Giant’s Causeway (Part 1): An introduction.) We were in the area for several days and the weather was fairly mixed, but there were glorious skies between the showers, and the high winds brought the waves up beautifully. Of the six highlights discussed below, we visited the first three in one day, as all were a few kilometres to the west of The Giant’s Causeway. Those to the east, we visited on another day. Fig. 1. A map of some of the highlights. They are all supremely interesting and give an idea of the range of volcanic features to be seen. You cannot see an actual, traditional volcano in Antrim, with its classic shape. However, you can visit many scattered and varied elements of the area’s vulcanicity, and so gain an appreciation of the overall picture. Fig. 2. Fanciful cross section of highlights. 1. Deep lava flows forming the Causeway Basalts and their columnar basalt features. Found at The Giant’s Causeway and Ballintoy Harbour. 2. Beds of red ‘laterite’ rocks and soils buried by the later lava flows. Seen along the whole coast, especially east of the Giant’s Causeway. 3. Multiple relatively thin lava flows forming the Lower Basaltic Series. Seen at The Giant’s Causeway area and Dunluce Castle. 4. Dykes bringing magma towards the surface through fissures of cracks in … Read More

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Other mass extinctions

Neal Monks (UK) The extinctions at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K/T) boundary make up what is probably the most famous geological event in popular culture. This is the point when the great reptiles that characterise the Mesozoic went extinct. Alongside the dinosaurs, the giant marine reptiles died out too, as did the pterosaurs, and a whole host of marine invertebrates, including the ammonites and belemnites. What happened? Some geologists argue the climate changed over a period of a million years or more, thanks to the massive volcanism that created the Deccan Traps in India. Others maintain that the K/T extinctions happened suddenly, pointing to evidence of a collision between the Earth and an asteroid. Perhaps there wasn’t a single cause, but rather a variety of factors: volcanism, climate change, asteroid impact, underlying changes in flora and fauna, and perhaps even variation in the output of the Sun and resulting weather patterns. That life on Earth can be wiped out this way is the stuff of disaster movies as much as TV documentaries. However, what comes as a surprise to many people is that there wasn’t just one mass extinction at the K/T boundary, but a whole series of them that can be observed throughout the fossil record. One of them, the Permo-Triassic extinctions, appear to have been even more catastrophic than the K/T extinctions, and at least three other extinction events are comparable in scale. In between these five big extinctions were lots of smaller extinctions that aren’t well studied, but had … Read More

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Geology and fossil fauna of the South Ferriby foreshore

John P Green (UK) The large working quarry at South Ferriby, North Lincolnshire (SE991204) is a well known and productive source of Late Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils, exposing beds from the Upper Oxfordian stage, Upper Jurassic (Ampthill clay, Ringsteadia psuedocordata zone) to the Terebratulina lata zone of the Turonian stage (Welton Chalk Formation, Upper Cretaceous). Research on the stratigraphy and palaeontology of the site has been carried out by many authors, and a generalised section detailing the overall stratigraphy and macrofossil occurrences was published by the local amateur geologist, Dr Felix Whitham (1992). However, in recent years, access to the quarry for geologists has been relatively curtailed due to health and safety concerns. In light of this, my research at South Ferriby has shifted to the nearby geological exposures on the easily accessible foreshore, on the southern banks of the Humber Estuary. Fig. 1. South Ferriby foreshore, looking east. In general terms, the beds exposed on the South Ferriby foreshore tilt eastward, exposing the older (Jurassic) rocks to the west and the younger (Cretaceous) rocks to the east. The exposures are largely wave-cut platforms, accessible only at low tide, and are often covered with sand and estuarine sediments, as well as a large variety of erratic rocks and fossils. Especially prominent among the latter are carboniferous corals and limestones, Cretaceous flints, the Jurassic oyster, Gryphaea, and specimens of the Cretaceous (Late Campanian) belemnite, Belemnitella mucronata, most likely derived from chalk of this age that floors the North Sea. The low … Read More

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Interpreting ammonite fossils

Neale Monks (UK) Ammonites are such popular and well-known fossils that suggesting they need interpreting may seem ridiculous. But for all their familiarity, there is still a good deal of debate over how they lived and what they did. If nothing else, ammonite experts all agree that they were ecologically diverse, with different species doing different things, and broadly speaking, they can be divided into ammonites that moved about close to the bottom, ammonites that actively swam about in mid-water and ammonites that drifted about on currents, rather like modern jellyfish. The aim of this article is to help you extract the maximum amount of information from the ammonite fossils in front of you. The way an ammonite shell coils is important, but so too are things like the shape of the suture line and the ornamentation visible on the surface of the fossil, which means that even fragmentary specimens can be quite informative. But first, you need to find your fossils … Where to collect ammonites Fig. 1. Folkestone, Kent. Ammonites only lived in marine environments, most often in moderately deep seas where water chemistry and salinity were more or less constant. So, the classic places to find ammonites are marine limestones (including chalks and oolites), marls, clays and shales. While ammonites seem to have inhabited a range of environments including reefs, their fossils are only occasionally common in places where coral reefs or crinoids dominate. On the other hand, sediments that contain lots of oysters, bivalves, belemnites and … Read More

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The Nautilus and the Ammonite

Ken Brooks (UK) This article was inspired by a poem in which an ammonite and a nautilus travel the world’s oceans for millions of years, until they are finally separated by extinction, and is based on a talk I gave on HDGS Members Day, on 18 July 2010. The nautilus and the ammonite The Nautilus and the Ammonite were launch’d in storm and strife; Each sent to float, in its tiny boat on the wide, wide sea of life. They roam’d all day, through creek and bay, and travers’d the ocean deep; And at night they sank on a coral bank, in its fairy bowers to sleep. And the monsters vast, of ages past, they beheld in their ocean caves; And saw them ride, in their power and pride, and sink in their deep sea graves. Thus hand in hand, from strand to strand, they sail’d in mirth and glee; Those fairy shells, with their crystal cells, twin creatures of the sea. But they came at last, to a sea long past, and as they reach’d its shore, The Almighty’s breath spake out in death – and the Ammonite liv’d no more. And the Nautilus now, in its shelly prow, as over the deep it strays, Still seems to seek, in bay and creek, its companion of other days. And thus do we, in life’s stormy sea, as we roam from shore to shore; While tempest-tost, we seek the lost – but find them on earth no more! GF Richardson … Read More

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Hooks, paperclips and balls of string: Understanding heteromorph ammonites

Neale Monks (UK) Heteromorph ammonites were a group of externally shelled cephalopods that were particularly diverse during the Cretaceous period. Many species were abundant and geographically widespread and, for this reason, they have been used to date and correlate rocks. Unlike regularly coiled ammonites, which underwent a steady decline in diversity through the Cretaceous, the heteromorphs continually produced new and often bizarre species indicating a certain level of success at occupying new ecological niches. Only at the final mass extinction, at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, did the heteromorphs finally fail. Fig. 1. Anisoceras armatus is a typical hamiticone heteromorph. In this reconstruction, it is shown as a benthic animal with the head oriented towards the substrate, though some recent work suggests that they were in fact planktonic animals that inhabited deep water. What makes a heteromorph? Broadly speaking, heteromorphs are ammonites with shells coiled in something other than the normal way. Whereas most ammonites had shells that can be described as flat, closed spirals where each whorl at least partially enclosed the one before it, heteromorphs had shells that coiled in a variety of ways. Some were simply open spirals, while others were helical like snails, or consisted of approximately parallel shafts connected by tight bends, so that the resulting shell looked a bit like a paperclip. At the most extreme, there was Nipponites. This is an ammonite with a shell formed from connected U-bends, each at an angle to the preceding one, resulting in something that looks more like a … Read More

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Who did it? Bite marks in Jurassic and Cretaceous ammonites

Adiël A Klompmaker (USA) Ammonites are among some of the best fossils to collect. They are relatively easy to find, for example, in the Lower Jurassic Posidonia Shale in Germany and the Jurassic sediments of Dorset in the south of England. The larger, well-preserved ones will always be sought after and, if of sufficiently high quality, may even be displayed in museum exhibitions. However, while these nicely-preserved, complete ammonites are ideal for identifying species, they often do not say much about the life history and, more specifically, the death of the ammonite itself. On the other hand, studying the sub-lethal or lethal damage to the fossil shell certainly does. This article is about a relatively newly discovered type of bite mark. It is found on Jurassic and Cretaceous ammonites, might have occurred worldwide, is easy to recognise and is also fairly common. Ventral damage When I was browsing through the ammonite collections of several Dutch museums (including, Naturalis and Oertijdmuseum De Groene Poort) and the Geologisch-Paläontologisch Institut der Universität Münster in Germany, it became apparent to me that there were many specimens with damage to the outer whorl, on the back side of an ammonite (the ventral side) in its living position. This damage was not only visible on the ventral side, but could also be seen on both lateral sides, if preservation permitted. Fig. 1. Measurements relative to the aperture (A) and relative to the last septum (B). After Klompmaker et al. (2009). When viewed from the lateral side, … Read More

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Tertiary cephalopods, or where did all the ammonites go?

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

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Fossil folklore: Ammonites

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

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Ammonite pendant from Highland New Guinea

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

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Geology and terrestrial life of the Carboniferous

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

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Essential collectibles #2: Perisphinctes ammonites

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

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Ammonite wars

Neale Monks (UK) Ammonites have been studied intensively for the last 200 years but, between experts, there is very little agreement on what ammonites looked like or how they worked as living organisms. Could they float? Did they swim? How did they catch their food? How long did they live? Why did they disappear at the end of the Cretaceous? All these questions remain essentially unresolved. In fact, ammonites are a quite poorly understood group of fossils in many ways. By far the majority of scientific papers written about ammonites concentrate purely and simply on what is known as primary taxonomy — is this ammonite species distinct from all the others so far discovered and, if it is, how can it be recognised reliably and where else can it be found? The reason most scientists concentrate on these questions above all others comes down to the usefulness of ammonites for biostratigraphy. Many ammonite species evolved and died out within fairly short periods of time, perhaps a few hundred thousand years, but their fossils are often abundant and, most crucially of all, often very widely distributed. So, if a particular ammonite species can be found in sediments at two different localities, it’s a good indication that those two sediments were laid down within the same, rather narrow period of time. Just taking British palaeontologists as an example, virtually all the major scientists working on ammonites did so to further their studies of biostratigraphy: WJ Arkell, R Casey, MR House, MK Howarth, … 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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