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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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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Dendermonde Mammoth: Fighting pyrite decay and the preservation of unique palaeontological heritage

Anthonie Hellemond (Belgium) Collecting fossil vertebrates is rather popular among amateur palaeontologists. However, little interest is shown in the different stages one should undertake to treat and safely guard these specimens for the future. Loads of fossils from historical collections are currently suffering because of years of storing and neglect. This might seem strange, since the fossils themselves have spent most of their time underground in very humid conditions, but in reality, problems only start right after digging them up. Following-up on the restoration project of the “Dendermonde Mammoth”, we want to give an insight into the problems one can encounter when dealing with the restoration and preservation of Pleistocene vertebrate remains that have remained untreated for the past 20 years. The discovery In the historical Belgian city centre of Dendermonde (French: Termonde), we find the city’s history (including natural history) museum called the “Vleeshuis” museum (the house of meat merchants). It is located in one of the most authentic sandstone buildings in the main market square of “Dendermonde” (a province of East-Flanders). Inside the majestic wooden attic of the museum, the city’s oldest resident watches over the collection, which is packed with fossils and artefacts from the last ice age and prehistory. When walking up the impressive stone stairs that lead to the attic, visitors will encounter the paleontological pride of the “Dender” valley (the river flowing through Dendermonde). When we take a closer look at the information signs, we learn that this mammoth was found between 1968 and … 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 folklore: Fish

Paul D Taylor and Mike Smith (UK) Fish are the most diverse animals with backbones – that is, vertebrates – living today. Bone and teeth of fishes abound in the fossil record, from the armour-plated, primitive fishes of the Devonian, through the cartilaginous sharks with their shiny dagger-like teeth, to the bones of advanced ray-finned teleosts related to modern carp and cod. Along with other marine fossils, fossil fishes were once used as ‘proof’ of the biblical deluge, for example, the fabulous Cretaceous fossil fish deposits of Lebanon. Gayet et al. (2012) recorded that, in the third century, the Bishop of Palestine wrote: That Noah’s Flood covered the highest mountains is for me the truth, and I say that the witness of my eyes confirms it: for I have seen certain fishes, which were found in my lifetime on the highest peaks in Lebanon. They took stones from there for construction, and discovered many kinds of sea fishes which were held together in the quarry with mud, and as if pickled in brine were preserved until our times, so that the mere sight of them should testify to the truth of Noah’s Flood”. Petrified nails Hugh Miller, in his book Foot-prints of the Creator (Miller, 1849), mentioned that amateur geologists of Caithness and Orkney would refer to one particular fossil in the Old Red Sandstone, presumably relatively common, as ‘petrified nails’ (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. A so-called ‘petrified nail’, about 150mm long, as depicted by Hugh Miller. These fossils represent … Read More

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All change at Selsey, West Sussex, UK

David Bone (UK) Issue 26 of Deposits magazine in the Spring of 2011 included my article on fossil collecting at Bracklesham Bay in West Sussex, following in the footsteps of my guide book on Fossil hunting at Bracklesham & Selsey, published in 2009. This area has been well known for the foreshore exposures of Palaeogene and Quaternary geology since the mid-nineteenth century and is still very much an area for popular fossil collecting, as well as research. Many readers will have been to Bracklesham or Selsey to collect sharks’ teeth and may have even been lucky enough to find a piece of mammoth bone or tooth. The scientific value of the area is recognised by much of the coastline being designated as a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest (or SSSI). However, this has been impacted by two major coastal defence schemes at Selsey that were completed in 2013, significantly changing access to the foreshore and any exposures of the geology, as well as rendering my guide book in need of a major update. In medieval times, Selsey was effectively an island, although this is no longer the case due to the construction of sea defences and land reclamation. However, Selsey remains a localised area of higher land surrounded by low-lying land prone to flooding (Fig. 1). It has also been an area of coastal erosion and loss of land to the sea throughout recorded history. The relatively unconsolidated Palaeogene and Quaternary sediments exposed in the low cliffs of the … Read More

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Geoscience highlights from the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Ruel A Macaraeg (USA) Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is among the world’s leading academic institutions and natural science is one of its most celebrated programs. Since its founding in the seventeenth century, the university has been a repository for specimens of scientific curiosity. Over time, these grew into three comprehensive reference collections – the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria and the Harvard Mineralogical Museum. Selections from these were eventually gathered into the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which, in 1998, opened to the public alongside the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology with which it shares a building. Though retaining separate names and administration, the HMNH and PMAE are physically connected, and visitors to either gain entry to both with a single ticket. As one of these more recent visitors, I will share some brief impressions of the major palaeo and geoscience exhibits below. Mineralogical and geological gallery Geology displays worldwide tend to look the same – rows of labelled rocks grouped into categories in ascending shelves. Harvard’s geological gallery follows this pattern, but is distinguished by the inclusion of several large and notable mounts. Chief among these are two very large rocks, a gypsum crystal (Fig. 1) and an amethyst (Fig. 2). Fig. 1. Gypsum. Fig. 2. Amethyst. There are also several, well-preserved meteorites from locations across North America, some of which are shown in Fig. 3. Fig. 3. Meteorites. Fossil mammals A narrow, winding hallway somehow manages to display quite a few large Cainozoic … Read More

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