Finders, keepers: The lost world of some Isle of Wight geological heroes

Martin Simpson (UK) There is a growing misconception that most of the earliest important fossil discoveries were made by a select few famous geologists – established names, who were supposed to have ‘found’ everything in their collections. In reality, however, the true ‘discoverers’ of the original specimens were an often unknown or forgotten assortment of amateurs, labourers, beach-combers, longshoremen or quarrymen: opportunists, who were finding ‘new’ material with surprising regularity. These people not only had local knowledge, but also had the distinct advantage of being in the right place at the right time, thanks to the hours they devoted to searching. On the other hand, the early geological pioneers were fervently adding to their private museum cabinets by whatever means possible. As news of major finds of unusual fossils came to their attention, perhaps by way of the reports in some of the provincial broadsheets mentioned later, the more diligent and successful collectors (the acquirers) put their money where their mouths were and purchased directly from the sources (the finders). Eventually some of this material found its way to the academics and their institutional museums (the keepers). In the case of the Isle of Wight – that classic locality for Cretaceous and Palaeogene fossils – the earliest and most important historical discoveries have been attributed to a small group of generalised geologists. These include William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, William Fitton, Edward Forbes and the surgeon, Gideon Mantell between the 1820s and the 1850s; and later to a whole host of … Read More

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New look for Utahraptor

Kenneth Carpenter (USA) One hundred and twenty eight million years ago, a killer stalked eastern Utah. Known as Utahraptor, this distant relative of Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame was also equipped with a sickle-claw on its hind feet. The name means “Utah’s raptor” with “raptor” being the informal name commonly (but incorrectly) used for the sickle-clawed dromaeosaurid theropods. Utahraptor was named in 1993 by Dr James Kirkland for bones from the Gaston Quarry (also known as Yellow Cat Quarry), north of Arches National Park. The Gaston Quarry occurs in the lower part of the Yellow Cat Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation. The presence of an ankylosaur related to Polacanthus at the Gaston Quarry suggests that the Yellow Cat Member is the same age as the Wealden Formation on the Isle of Wight, in other words, it lived 125 to 130mya. A radiometric date of 126 +2.5mya was obtained from the Yellow Cat Member which supports the dinosaur evidence for the age. Utahraptor has been found at several other sites in the Yellow Cat Member, so must have been relatively widespread in the region. Nevertheless, most of this material remains undescribed. Fig. 1. Some of the bones used in the original description of Utahraptor (scale is 10cm). Casts of these and other bones were used to make a new reconstruction. Until recently, what Utahraptor looked like relied a great deal on imagination. Several recent scientific studies have shown that Utahraptor is related to Achillobator, a dromaeosaurid from the middle of … Read More

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Geology of islands

 Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) Islands are attractive places to visit, not just for geologists. Nonetheless, for us, they provide three advantages that favour collecting and research in the Earth Sciences. One of the attractions of an island is its small size in comparison with continents. The corollary of this small size is its relatively long coastline. Assuming that our island is not the mound of sand with a palm tree so loved by cartoonists, a long coastline indicates abundant exposures of rock, commonly well-exposed and accessible. Second, because of their relatively small size, islands offer a limited possible area of outcrop. The island may be volcanic in origin, so you may have one (or a few) volcanoes and its deposits to map, log and sample, producing a self-contained study. A particular sedimentary deposit may be (probably will be) limited to a single island. If you want to determine the palaeontology or palaeoenvironments of this deposit, the only place it can be studied is on one island. To give one example (among many), the Middle Miocene Grand Bay Formation, exposed on the east coast of Carriacou in the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles, includes the only crinoid-rich deposits in the Caribbean Islands. I had been studying the few Antillean fossil crinoids for ten years until I went to Carriacou and the sum total of specimens I had collected until then could have rested, comfortably, in the palm of one hand. From Carriacou, I collected bags of crinoid-rich bulk sediment samples (Donovan and … Read More

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Erratic rocks in fields and beaches of the Isle of Wight

 Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) The Isle of Wight is a marvellous place for the geologist on holiday, but there must be a suspicion that it has all been done before. When I first visited the island in 1999, my late wife Trina said that, of course, I would want to geologise at some point. She was surprised at my immediate and emphatic reply of ‘no’, until I explained that every square inch of the island was already ‘claimed’ by so many geologists and groups of geologists that I could not possibly get involved without starting a priority war. I was there to relax, not fight. Fig. 1. Outline map of the Isle of Wight, showing the positions of the principal settlements and villages mentioned in the text, and Sites 1-3. Key: CP = Chessell Pottery; EC = East Cowes; OH = Osborne House; 1-3 = collecting sites mentioned in the text. Today, I have a different approach. The family Donovan goes to the Isle for their summer holidays most years and I still go to the island to relax, not fight. But I am now working on a range of projects on the Island that are unlikely to impinge on other peoples’ research, while informing my own interests. These have included identifying borings in fossil wood from the Cretaceous greensands that have been misnamed since the nineteenth century (Donovan and Isted, 2014) and exploring closed railway lines using a geological field guide published a hundred years ago (Donovan, 2015). … Read More

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Histology of a sauropod rib bone from the Wessex Formation, Hanover point, Isle of Wight

Megan Jacobs (Isle of Wight) In September 2015, I went to Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight to hunt for dinosaur bones. It was equinox tides all week, so an ideal time to get out on the furthest rocks of the Wessex formation, dating from the Barremian stage of the early Cretaceous (about 130Ma) also famous for the bone debris beds, which are highly fossiliferous. Time passed and I hadn’t had a great amount of luck. So, deciding today was not my day, I decided to head home. As I turned, I glanced down to see a beautiful piece of rib bone with the most amazing internal structure I’ve ever seen (Fig. 1). But also nothing like I’ve ever seen before. Fig. 1. The bone when found at Hanover Point, Isle of Wight, September 2015. I took it show my tutor, David Martill, at the University of Portsmouth. He was quick to identify it as being from a sauropod, due to the large air cavities now filled in with a clear mineral banded by pyrite. He then followed the identification by: “how’d you fancy cutting it in half for a thin section?” I was dubious about the idea at first: I’d never looked at a bone and thought ‘you know what, that would be better cut in half’. But I went along with it and handed over my prize. What is a thin section? A thin section is an approximately 30µm thick slice of rock, or in this case, … Read More

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Fossil insects from the Lower Cretaceous of southern England

Dr James E Jepson (UK) It was over 150 years ago that the first major work began on the fossil insects of the Lower Cretaceous of England. The pioneers were Victorian naturalists, including the Rev Osmond Fisher, John O Westwood and, in particular, the Rev Peter Bellinger Brodie. 1845 saw the publication of Brodie’s A History of the Fossil Insects in the Secondary Rocks of England, the earliest English language book on fossil insects and the first major study of the fossil insects of England. The Victorians collected and described many species from Wiltshire, Dorset and the Weald, and started the ball rolling for British palaeoentomology. The twentieth century saw little activity in British Cretaceous palaeoentomology. At this time, there was a shift towards the Palaeozoic insects from the Carboniferous, with Herbert Bolton leading the way – Bolton’s major work was published in a monograph on British Carboniferous insects in 1921–1922. A few descriptions were made on British Cretaceous insects in the early twentieth century, most notably Anton Handlirsch’s monograph of fossil insects (1906–1908) included some British Cretaceous insects; but there was no major studies completed. However, in the late twentieth century, interest in the Cretaceous insects of Britain was reawakened by Edmund A Jarzembowski, with his studies on Wealden insects and later the Purbeck insects with Robert A Coram. Into the twenty-first century, Jarzembowski and Coram have remained a driving force for the study of Lower Cretaceous insects of southern England and, through their work and their collaborations with … Read More

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Isle of Wight: Dinosaurs down at the farm

Martin Simpson (UK) The Isle of Wight has long been regarded as a world famous fossil locality. It is now called Dinosaur Island, with no less than 29 different species having been found along the southern coast. Indeed, it has recently been ranked in the top seven dinosaur localities worldwide. On the Island, the Lower Cretaceous Wealden rocks crop out at Brighstone, Brook and Sandown Bays. Many of the first dinosaur discoveries were made here by the pioneer collectors, including William Buckland and Gideon Mantell. It is only right, therefore, that the Island now boasts a £3 million lottery funded museum and visitor centre situated at Sandown. This attraction is called Dinosaur Isle and it represents the official scientific repository for local finds. Fig. 1. Dinosaur Farm and Museum. However, there is another, quite different museum dedicated to the Island’s geological heritage and this one is situated right in the heart of dinosaur country on the south-west coast near Brighstone, an area known locally as the ‘Back of the Wight’. In 1993, Dinosaur Farm opened to the public with an exhibition built around a recently discovered brachiosaurid skeleton. The original idea was to use the farm buildings as workshops to clean and prepare the bones in front of the visitors, a project which took many months of painstaking work. The find represented approximately 40% of an animal that was something in the region of sixty feet in length. It is now known as the “Barnes High Sauropod”. In 2001, the … Read More

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Fossil crustaceans

Dr Neale Monks (UK) The crustaceans are the second biggest group of arthropods after the insects and have a good fossil record, but, for one reason or another, they are not as familiar to fossil collectors as the trilobites. It may be because they’re a bit harder to identify, with many of the most diverse groups being essentially microscopic, while the bigger ones like shrimps and crabs – arely get preserved in their entirety. But even if they’re difficult to identify, crustacean fossils are interesting and often make very attractive specimens. So that’s the theme of this article really – to draw your attention to these fossils and allow you to think a bit more deeply about what they were like and how t hey w ere all related to each other. Fig. 1. While most crustaceans are marine, a large number of crayfish live in freshwater, including crayfish. Crustacean origins The earliest crustaceans are known from Cambrian sediments including the well known Burgess Shale fauna. These primitive crustaceans are essentially worm-like in shape, but they do have many of the key features of crustaceans visible even on modern types such as shrimps. Their body is segmented, but the dorsal (back) part of each segmented was hardened into a thick, protective plate. Most segments bore a pair of appendages, one pair of legs and one pair of gills. This ‘biramous’ condition has been used to contrast the crustaceans (and also the trilobites) with the ‘uniramous’ insects and spiders that normally only … Read More

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