Triassic beasts and where to find them

Sue Beardmore (UK) Located amid the scenic Southern Alps, on the Swiss-Italian border, is Monte San Giorgio, a mountain that rose up like many across Central Europe as a result of continental collision between Africa and Europe during the Alpine Orogeny. It is not particularly big or distinct by alpine standards but it is special, a status emphasised by the designation of its slopes as a UNESCO World Heritage site initially in 2003 for the Swiss part with the neighbouring Italian area added in 2010. To begin, the rocks outcropping on the mountain form an almost complete stratigraphic sequence from the Permian through to the Jurassic (Fig. 1), not only an extended interval of time but an important one around the massive Permo-Triassic extinction. The same rocks provide a context for the equally important Middle Triassic vertebrate, invertebrate and plant fossils, now numbering more than 20,000, that have been found at the locality over the last 170 years. Fig. 1. A stratigraphic section of the rocks at Monte San Giorgio. © Commissione Scientifica Transnazionale Monte San Giorgio, 2014. In particular, it is the diversity, relative abundance and excellent preservation of the vertebrate fossils that has thrown the locality into the spotlight. These occur in six main fossiliferous horizons deposited in a shallow marine basin, the Monte San Giorgio Basin, one of many depressions on a carbonate platform between the Eurasian continent to the north and west, and the open waters of the vast Tethys Ocean to the south and east. … 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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Boxstones: In search of Miocene Suffolk

Tim Holt-Wilson (UK) The date is 24 May 2014 and I am browsing across East Lane Beach at Bawdsey in southeast Suffolk. A brown lump of sandstone with a white fossil shell impression catches my eye. A boxstone. This is the first one I have ever found with a fossil in it. Looking closely, I see that the sea has abraded the shell’s outlines, although the margins have survived better than the rest, so it should be possible to identify the specimen (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. Boxstone, found 24 May 2014. Boxstones are fragments of a vanished world. They are all that remains of a lost geological stratum in Suffolk called the ‘Trimley Sands’ (Balson, 1990), although deposits of similar age are still present across the sea in Belgium and other parts of Europe. Boxstones are lumps or concretions of brown sandstone, which may contain shell fossils and – if you are extremely lucky – bones and teeth. They are beach-rolled and rounded, and typically measure between 5 and 15cm in diameter. The sand is mostly quartzose, with a rich assemblage of secondary minerals, and is cemented with carbonate-fluorapatite (a phosphate mineral) and calcite (Mathers and Smith, 2002). Boxstones can be found scattered sparsely across the shingle beaches at Bawdsey and Felixstowe Ferry (Fig. 2), and in situ as a common component of the basement beds (nodule beds) at the base of the Coralline Crag and Red Crag formations of southeast Suffolk (Fig. 3). They are eroding out of the … 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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Tully Monster: Is this the world’s most mysterious fossil?

James O’Donoghue (UK) The Tully Monster is a mysterious 307Ma-old marine animal known only from the famous Mazon Creek fossil locality in Illinois. Its body plan is unlike any other animal that has ever lived, and it has been subject to wildly different interpretations as to its identity since its discovery in 1955. Last year, Victoria McCoy of Yale University and colleagues identified it as a lamprey, a primitive type of fish, but this has since been challenged by a team of vertebrate palaeontologists. Fig. 1. Reconstruction of a Tully monster based on the research of McCoy and colleagues. The claw and proboscis are on the right and its eyebar and eyes, gills and tail fin are further back. (Sean McMahon/Yale University.) Fossil collector Francis Tully knew he had made an extraordinary discovery. Inside a rounded nodule was a bizarre, foot-long animal with a long trunk and claw. But he could never have known quite how extraordinary his 307Ma-old fossil would turn out to be. Sixty two years later, scientists are still arguing over the basics as to what sort of creature it really was. What makes it even stranger is that this is no rarity known only from fragmentary remains. After Tully made his find, word got around among collectors and, before long, hundreds more had been found. Tullimonstrum gregarium, or ‘Tully’s common monster’, is now known from well over a thousand fossils, including many complete specimens. “We’ve got four cabinets of Tully monsters here, each of which has … Read More

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Fossil fish from northern Scotland

 Bob Davidson (UK) The north of Scotland is famous to scientists and amateur collectors for its wealth of localities where fossil fish of Devonian age can be collected. From plate tectonics, we know that in Devonian times Scotland was situated just below the equator, as part of a continent that was largely arid desert and where land plants were only just emerging. Most life on earth was still aquatic and fishes were the most successful backboned animals. The fossil fish of the area are unique in many ways. They present a window on the development of vertebrates, in which many of the innovations necessary to pave the way for the next great evolutionary step (the invasion by tetrapods of the land) were already in place. The fauna contains the acanthodians, one of the first group of vertebrates to evolve jaws, and the lobe finned fishes, so called because of their fleshy lobes supporting their pectoral and pelvic fins. The lobe fins also include the lungfish. Their fleshy fin lobes played an important role in the development of the limbs of early four-legged animals (tetrapods) and ultimately to all terrestrial vertebrates today – including ourselves. The classic Middle Devonian (380 to 375Ma old) locality is Achanarras Quarry in Caithness, where exquisitely preserved fish can be collected in an old roof tile quarry. Many such quarries existed in the past and fish have been widely collected from several localities over the years. The fish are preserved in thinly laminated siltstones and limestones, … Read More

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Humble flint sea urchins and the stories they tell

Joe Shimmin (UK) Flint is a very hard-wearing rock from the chalk of the Upper Cretaceous. Whole beaches made of flint pebbles can be found many miles away from the chalk strata that the nodules originated in, owing to the rock’s ability to withstand the processes that destroy other rocks quickly. Flint sea urchins are especially hard-wearing, as their rounded shapes require a lot of force to damage, while less-rounded flints tend to break up over time if subjected to high-energy environments, such as beaches and fast-flowing rivers. Because of this robustness, it is possible to find flint urchins, which have undergone some very interesting journeys before being collected, adding to their interest for fossil hunters. Fig. 1. The hardness of flint and the rounded shape of flint urchins make them extremely robust fossils. All flints start off within chalk strata. Where these strata are exposed at the coast or in quarries and cuttings, it is possible to collect flint sea urchins, which, at first, look very much as if they are preserved like every other urchin found in chalk. They have a white calcite-replaced test and all that can be seen of the flint within is a slight blueish tint or maybe a glimpse of the nodule through the anal or oral apertures. Of course, flints can also be found that partially or fully envelop an urchin and, in these cases, highly aesthetic display pieces can sometimes occur. Fig. 2. Two of these pristine fossil urchins, extracted straight from … Read More

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Giant trilobites and biotite nodules in Portugal

Peter Perkins (UK) The generally accepted reason for the fame of Arouca is Princess Mafalda, born 1195, who was responsible for the convent becoming Cistercian. Here is an interesting story – she was beatified in 1793. However, I won’t go into that now, but it is well worth investigating. For this article, there are other reasons for its fame, at least among geologists. Arouca is 38km to the south east of Oporto, in northern Portugal, and gives its name to one of two geoparks in Portugal. In Arouca Geopark (Fig. 1), which has an area of 330km2 (just a little smaller than the Isle of Wight), there are two quite remarkable geological features, one palaeontological and the other concerning igneous petrology. Fig. 1. Map of Arouca Geopark. A geopark is an area of significant size that has a particular geological heritage, with a certain number of sites of special importance – scientific quality, rarity, aesthetic appeal and educational value. It must also have a sustainable strategy for development to be accepted as a member of the worldwide network of geoparks. There are 42 in Europe, in 16 countries. The other Portuguese Geopark is Naturtejo, through which the River Tagus flows. There are nine geoparks in the British Isles, for example, NW Highlands (Scotland), Copper Coast (Ireland), Fforest Fawr (Wales) and the English Riviera. The website, http://www.europeangeoparks.org, gives website addresses for all. The geology of Portugal is very complex. There are no strata younger than Triassic, except for Holocene deposits in … Read More

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