Prominent figures of the 1800s who gave rise to vertebrate palaeontology

Megan Jacobs (UK) For centuries, the creatures of the past, from the terrifying theropod dinosaurs to the tiny early mammals, have captured the imaginations of millions. However, the people who put those beasts into the limelight are rarely acknowledged for their work and, in many cases, remain unknown. So here is a short account of some of the first prominent names in the world of vertebrate palaeontology, their contributions to the field, and an insight into the often eccentric behaviour that came with it. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) Fig. 1. Georges Cuvier.Georges Cuvier was a French naturalist and zoologist, and is regarded as the ‘’father of palaeontology’’. He was one of the finest minds in history, founding vertebrate palaeontology as a scientific discipline. For example, in 1800, he identified Pterodactylus as the first known pterosaur from a print published by Alessandro Collini. Shortly after, he described the first mosasaur, a giant marine reptile that was brought to France by Napoleon after he conquered the Netherlands. Going against his old Christian (Catholic) upbringing, Cuvier believed the Earth was immensely old and, during its history, underwent abrupt changes that Cuvier called ‘revolutions’, in which large numbers of species were wiped out. This was the first recognition that extinctions were facts. Cuvier also rightly speculated that there had been a time where reptiles had been the dominant animals on the planet. Indeed, the decades after his death yielded spectacular finds that confirmed his theory. After a study comparing modern elephant species, he worked on … Read More

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Essential collectibles #8: Coprolites

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

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Fossil 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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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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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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