Category Archives: Palaeontology

On Dreams Made Real

[SPOILER ALERT – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED]

When I was four years old a film was released that has since been a wonder for millions all over the globe, it had some of the most innovative special effects in film history, and did more to update the public perception of palaeontology than any museum or university field program could ever hope to achieve.

(if my memory serves me correctly) I first saw Jurassic Park in 1995, when I was six, when it first aired on the TV here in England. Besides knowing that I hid behind our family sofa from the T-Rex when it was gorging on lawyers and smashing up cars on that magically appearing concrete cliff, the one emotion that abides with me even now is one of childlike wonder and excitement at the creatures on the screen. They were so real, so present that I could not believe they were anything but extant, living beings. No longer extinct creatures confined to the rocks in Montana and the Isle of Wight.

My Old Dinosaur VHS tapes

My Old Dinosaur VHS tapes

I’d loved dinosaurs for as long as I could remember at that point, in no small part thanks to the VHS tapes that my parents bought for me (speaking of which, I must convert those to DVD soon). But as I grew older I learned about acting, CGI became so common in movies that you aren’t even sure the actors are real any more, and I watched as science enhanced our knowledge of the dinosauria beyond anything we could have dreamed of in 1993. We now have theropod dinosaurs – incuding some pretty big ones – with fillamentous integument (proto-feathers), we even know what colour archaeopteryx’ feathers would be. We’ve seen palaeoecology take off wildly, and study of the dinosaurs in relation to their environment as well as just their bones. And we’ve even managed to find out the colours of the insects that they shared their world with.

And over time, the magic dulled.

It’s never gone away  of course, I can still feel it whenever I watch the original film, and even to an extent when I watch Jurassic Park; The Lost World (I won’t speak much of JP3). But as I’m sure you may imagine, when I heard about Jurassic World I had some very high hopes… the question is, would it deliver.

Let’s just stop and talk about some of the inaccuracies though, before we get onto whether or not my expectations were met. Darren Naish published a very good (and frankly spot on) criticism of Jurassic World last week on the CNN website which captures my biggest problem with the backpeddalling from feathered raptors in JP3.

What John Hammond and InGen did at Jurassic Park is create genetically engineered theme park monsters – Dr. Alan Grant, JP3

Yes, Yes they did, they’re not “real” dinosaurs so we (presumably the palaeontological community) should shut up about it. This is the line that the film takes when it comes to the accuracy of Jurassic World’s creations, incidentally it’s also the line that TellTale’s Jurassic Park PC game took (don’t play it, the control scheme is awful) which is fair enough, the film-makers may be able to shut the scientists up but they can’t ignore them.

However, for a film series whose legacy to the world was bringing the public’s perceptions of dinosaur science out of the 18th century and into the 20th, it has, through a desire to make money/maintain continuity (or something like that) kept the public’s perception very much in the 1990’s as far as the look of the dinosaurs goes. I suppose we can all be thankful that the BBC’s excellent “Walking with” series’ picked up the baton and ran with it long before JP3 ever entered production, let alone Jurassic World.You might be able to say that they up-played the raptor’s intelligence, or that they got better at the herd behaviour. but that’s not what people will remember, they’ll remember trikes dragging their tails, pterosaurs flying off with people, and a mosasaur that is at least twice the size of any known mosasaur.

Add to all this the attempts the film makes to shoehorn in some “comedy gold” cliche – the cinema did erupt into laughter at it but it was terribly immersion breaking – and the at times strained nature of the militarisation of raptors story line, and it could have ruined the film completely.

So why didn’t it?

In a word; Magic.

I’m probably not going to be able to put this very well, but I spent the first half of the film trying to be cynical and watch the film objectively. But at some time around the half-way point Zach and Gray – this film’s Lex and Tim – are stumbling through the forest after escaping the Indominus rex and they come across an old, overgrown door; Instantly recognisable to anyone who saw the first film.

And suddenly it’s as if I am six years old again, I felt all the same emotions and feelings as I did watching Jurassic Park for the first time. The magic was back, If I hadn’t read somwhere that the original visitors centre from the first film was destroyed by a Hurricane after the first film’s release, I would swear the film crew had just walked in after the forests of Kauaʻi had reclaimed it. Anyway, the inaccuracies didn’t matter so much any more.

There were other redeeming features to this film as well, the eccentric CEO, Simon Masrani, brings many of the endearing characteristics of Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond to mind, while obviously having a similar vision for the park, and his own foibles… Who else would fly a helicopter into a combat situation without being able to autorotate? The fact that the man dies due to the actions of his creations was a lovely nod to the books and the people who actually read them as well (wherin Hammond is killed by the compsognathus’).

The character of Lowery also harkens back to characters from the previous movies, Ray Arnold and Ian Malcolm, and his workstation reminded me of the character Wash from Firefly… He’s probably my favourite of the film’s main characters, in no small part for the way he’s clearly a convert to Hammond’s initial vision.

So yes, the film has more than it’s fair share of errors in the science department, and it’s quite possible that my fanboy-ism and nostalgia are holding more sway than four years of a geology degree and three and a half as a “professional” palaeontologist. But you know what. I don’t care; nobody in palaeontology ever took me seriously anyway.

“What they did, it was real…” – Lowery, Jurassic World

If only it were.

Museum Lecture: “The Beast in the Cellar”

The 17th of May was the height of an event called ‘Museums at Night‘, a UK wide festival that bills itself as seeking to “encourage visitors into museums, galleries and heritage sites by throwing their doors open after hours and putting on special evening events.” As luck would have it this festival coincided with Lyme Regis Museum‘s celebration of the life of one very important palaeontologist, and I was invited to give a talk for the festival, but more about the talk later.

1840’s portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Trey on the beaches around Lyme Regis

The name of that important palaeontologist was Mary Anning, and if you’ve looked into the early years of palaeontology for more than about twenty minutes then you’ll have come across her name. Or perhaps you know the tongue twister that she reportedly inspired…

“She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.”

On the nearest weekend to her birthday every year, Lyme Regis Museum celebrates her life with free entry, family events and talks about topics ranging from her life and the early palaeontologists, to the geology of the Lyme Regis area and the animals that she sought in the cliffs and limestone ledges along the coast.

It was into this last category that my talk fell. Earlier this year, Phil Davidson from the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre and I spent some time looking over one of the Museum’s specimens; a large Ichthyosaur measuring four and a half metres long and stored in pieces in the museum cellar. Our task was to document the current state of the specimen and make sure it was all where it ought to be. This creature has been off of public display since the mid-eighties when a cast was made and hung on the wall of the museum to save on exhibition space. In the end my talk for the Museums at Night festival was much more general than our work on the specimen, and I chose to spend a lot of my time talking about convergent evolution between Ichthyosaurs and modern creatures.

Anywho, Here’s the talk in full, the audio is a bit hard to follow at the start but it improves as the talk goes on, and if you’re interested in the assessment Phil and I made earlier this year it can be seen here. I’d really appreciate any comments, suggestions and observations, as they will help me improve my presentation style, my content and its delivery!

Some Museum-ey Stuff and The PodQuest

Hullo everybody,

My last post was somewhat negative, as indeed was the one before; but this time it’s all flowers and sunshine… well, mostly.

The first thing to say is that I’m going to be a student again… and no, I don’t mean the loaf around a campus being either very lazy or over-distracted by clubs and societies type of student. I’ve done that (well the latter at least) and now I’ve landed a place on the Leicester University Museum Studies Masters by distance learning!

That means I’m going to be spending the next two years working on essays about plastazote, the ethics of taxidermy collections and the various merits of museum accreditation, funding applications and humidity guidelines. Among a million other things. It’ll also allow me to apply for all the (5 or so) geological curator’s posts that come up  every year without feeling like I’m wasting my time because the person specification says “Museum Studies Qualification” in the essential column!

N.B.: I took and stitched the photos together, labelled and scaled the image; so I think this isn't copyright infringement.

Lyme Regis Museum’s Hidden Gem – a Temnodontosaurus sp. Ichthyosaur.

In other museum-based news, I and Phil Davidson – the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre’s palaeontologist – recently did some work for Lyme Regis Museum assessing the state of one of the museum’s more spectacular specimens. The saddest thing about the specimen is that the museum cannot display it for a lack of space, and the cast they do have on their wall doesn’t show any of the more exciting bits (like a fragmentary fish preserved in the body cavity for example). If you’re interested in seeing the various parts of that beautiful creature, you can find it all here – I wouldn’t have called this a research paper, more like a detailed inventory, but that’s the way they roll.

That's Right, I can do graphics when I need to!I’ve something else to tell you all about, one of my year’s side projects that I muted in my last post. If you’re in to table-top role playing (if you’re not, think dungeons and dragons and you’ll get the picture) then hopefully you’ll love it. It’s called The PodQuest and it’s going to be a podcasted role-playing campaign set in a world of my own creation – Vilyalad – and with a suite of characters who will cause all sorts of merry hell around this once peaceful world. One of the players, my good friend Thomas is doing the majority of the podcasts’ artwork, so if you want to see what he’s up to I’ll give you a link to his art portfolio here.

Of course, if you’re into gaming then you’ll know I’m making a rod for my own back by being the games master of a world of my own creation… it means everything… background scenery, town plans, cults, religions, histories, NPC’s, creatures… EVERYTHING has to come out of my own head, often on the spot.

I reckon it’ll be a laugh none-the-less. The game system we will be using is RuneQuest Six (published in 2012), which is a re-write of one of the original big three role-playing systems. We’ve played the Avalon Hill version (RuneQuest III) with our usual games master so the system isn’t wholly new.

Anyway, enough of me blabbering about it, the website is here, though there’s not a great deal online yet, but with a launch date of 30th March (brought forward thanks to the fabulous enactment of Geek and Sundry‘s International Table Top Day) we’re pushing ahead with it as fast as can be! We hope you’ll join us for the ride; or at least the first podcast. 🙂

Anyway, as per usual I’ve rambled on about a very small amount of stuff, so I’ll leave it there for now and come back another day to talk about some other things, but I hope I’ve not bored anyone!

Until next time

Ben Brooks
15/03/2013

Home Again – Dispatches from Montana 3 (The Photo Edition)

Missed the previous Dispatches from Montana? see them here and here.

Well I’m back in jolly ol’ England and as promised here’s the photographic edition of the Dispatches from Montana. I’ll try to explain all the photographs as and where they need it.

click for big!

First off here’s the field crew as a group, Liz was the crew chief (the dig boss if you will) with Cary as second in command, Denver was the only other member of MOR staff with us. Danny, Will, Nick, Tom, Dana and Bobby were all undergraduates of various universities and Cracker is the Redding family’s dog.

Click for big!

On my first night in Montana we had a fabulous thunderstorm which provided ample opportunities to get frustrated by human/camera reaction times, the above and below pictures being the best results I could get that night!

Click for Big

Before the storm hit however I was just able to snap this shot of the Redding Field Station’s camp, you can just make out the storm-clouds to the left (south-west) and our flimsy patch of tents to the left of the quansit hut (the grey WWII hangar style building). The practically-bomb-proof ranch house is out of shot on the right.

Click for Big!

The next photograph was taken from behind the afore-mentioned quansit hut, and shows a small section of Kennedy Coulee, the river valley to the north of the Redding Field Station, where all the dinosaurs can be found…Click for Big!

Here’s another panorama showing a small finger of Kennedy Coulee, including the “Rocky” dig site in which I was to spend the last three weeks digging. To give some idea of the scale of the operation, this site has been excavated for only the last 3 years, and at the start of that time, the left of this photograph would have looked pretty much just like the right hand side…

Click for Big!And here’s a view from inside the quarry itself, to give some more perspective on it and also to show you how much of the overburden mentioned in “The Adventure Begins” we had to remove… at the start of the field season, ground level was at the level of the white-grey sandstone layer!

Click for Big!

This photograph zooms in on the area that I and two of my compatriots were working (on the right of the previous picture). I myself was working the middle section with the chisel, brush and oyster-knife. It is a surprisingly slow process because you never know when you will hit another fragment of bone (as Nick, working to my left, was finding out. every piece of tin-foil represents another bone uncovered).

Click for Big!Another panoramic photograph for you now, this one again showing Kennedy Coulee, but also some lovely Virga – that is to say rain that evaporates before it touches the ground – to the north of the site.

Click for BigHere’s another photo of Cracker – affectionately known as the Cracker-the-quarry-dog, enjoying the sun and generally getting in the way!

Click for BigSo moving on to more palaeontological topics, here’s a field jacket… It’s what you do to the finds before they get transported to a museum or prep-lab. The first step is to cover all the bones in a consolidant (Vinac in this case) then a layer of wet tissue (to act as a buffer and a barrier to the next layer. Finally a mixture of plaster of paris is concocted and infused into burlap (hessian for us UK people) sacking. This was the first field jacket of this year’s season to be excavated.

Click for Big!A couple of days after the jacket was made it was dry and ready to flip (in order to remove excess rock and jacket the bottom). Here’s a photo of Dana with the flipped jacket. You can also see where it stood before it was flipped!

Click for Big!The strata in which the bone-bed is found is a mudstone approximately a metre thick, capped by a shelly sandstone layer containing bivalves up to 20cm across and many varieties of gastropod. This cap-rock can be seen below:

Click for Big!

Here’s another panoramic shot, this one taken at lunch time (hence all the sleeping dino-nerds) from above the working face of the quarry on the penultimate day of my short stay at the Redding Field Station.

Click for Big!And finally… The night before I was due to fly out of Great Falls we had a rather close call with a thunderstorm that passed within a couple of miles of camp – all we had was a slight drizzle – but I had the chance to take this gorgeous photograph at about midnight…

Click for Big!

I hope you enjoyed the post.

Ben D. Brooks

28.06.2012

Hadrosaur! – Dispatches from Montana 2.

We’ve reached the bone bed! It took over two and a half weeks of digging (one and a half on my part) but we’re finally there. Before reaching the bone bed however I managed to find a few other odds and ends within the overburden, including the following:

Another Hadrosaur tooth,
One small Crocodile tooth,
1 Tyrannosaurid Tooth (possibly Daspletosaurus),
Small fragments of ossified tendons,

After digging away the overburden and flattening out the top of the bone bed, we began to prospect within the quarry for dinosaur remains and very rapidly the first bone was discovered, though accidentally and unfortunately with a jack-hammer… with predictable results. This bone was a humerus of a fairly large individual hadrosaur. Within ten minutes of this find the second bone was discovered – this time by more mild means – and turned out to be a toe-bone, though don’t let that fool you into thinking it small, this one individual phalanx measured in the region of fifteen centimetres in length and a good ten in diameter!

I myself managed to uncover my first bone this afternoon after a slow but steady removal of the bone layer. The technique used by the MOR team is that once the overburden is removed, each digger chooses a section of the quarry wall measuring approximately two feet. The digger then proceeds to remove rock steadily decreasing the height of a flat plane with hand awls, chisel, hammer and brushes. Yes; that’s right, every palaeontologist that points to Jurassic Park and say’s “you can’t use a brush to uncover a fossil” is wrong, dead wrong* – at least in this case!

The only time digging is stopped is when high noon is reached and luncheon begins – consisting mainly of whatever you remember to scrounge from the kitchen supplies in the morning! After the first half an hour or so of lunch most people are fast asleep, taking the opportunity to make up for the early start. I on the other hand take the opportunity to rifle through the ever building spoil heap for small fossil remains that were inevitably missed during the overburden removal. The last two days have been moderately productive in this vein, with several pieces of turtle – including shell, a tyrannosaurid pre-maxillary tooth and a ceratopsian tooth.

The whole experience here at the MOR dig is a very different one to the excavations I’ve been privy to on the landslips and beaches of Dorset and Devon, for one thing everything is more considered and slow owing to the fact that there is no tide to keep a look out for and also that no-one would dare walk onto a museum-run site and remove material that had not been collected. As a result the excavations are both more comprehensive and far more scientific. This is not to cast detriment on my experiences at home as each site must be treated differently, but this approach is far more in keeping with the principles of scientific discovery. Every bone is mapped, numbered, catalogued and carefully consolidated long before there is any thought of removing the bone from its tomb.

Anywho, tomorrow is our town day, the one day off we get each week, so I’m now going to disappear and take some time out. Here’s hoping you’ve enjoyed this post, and as with my last I’ll add pictures upon my return to the UK.

Ben D. Brooks
17.6.2012.

*This group used to include me.

Diggin’ up Dino’s

Poster for the talk: 400 Million Years in 30 MinutesOnce again it’s been a while since I last posted, the talk that was the subject of my last post went very well, even if the staff only talk only had one attendee – the Chief Executive of the Craven District Council. The public talk fared much better with most of the volunteers turning up and one or two members of the public as well. Everyone seemed to enjoy the talk and the handling session held afterwards, though I don’t know that for certain!

I haven’t yet uploaded any video of the talk, mainly because the video is awful and I haven’t had time or a good enough computer recently (sadly my top spec’ laptop died a death out of warranty). However just as soon as I can I’ll get it on YouTube.

Moving on however, the three months I spent at Craven Museum were fantastic, I learned (and re-learned) a great deal and even got to handle some Geological enquiries. Museum Curation is definitely a career path for me to head down and I know I’ll enjoy it.

The Museum of the Rockies, Boozeman, Montana

The Museum of the Rockies, Boozeman, Montana. (c) Wayne Hsieh, 2010

Before I chase down a new job and the start of a new career, I’m heading stateside for three weeks. I’ve been lucky enough to be offered the chance to join the Museum of the Rockies field crew digging up Hadrosaur remains from the Cretaceous rocks near Rudyard, Montana! Which is what I’ll be doing for the first three weeks of June!

This should be an awesome experience, I’ll get to take part in a full-on palaeontological excavation (think the opening scenes of Jurassic Park – for all the errors it’ll still give you the idea). I’ll also have the chance to see part of the USA properly – albeit a very limited part – and meet some very clever people who’ll no doubt be far more awesome than me… shouldn’t be that hard to be fair.

I’ll also be taking my cameras and will be writing a diary while I’m out there, so I’ll be able to give you all a lovely looooong post about it all when I return at the end of June – possibly even while I’m out there?!

Ben D. Brooks

24.05.2012

Dig scene at "Snakewater, Montana" from Jurassic Park

Dig scene at “Snakewater, Montana” from Jurassic Park (c) Universal Studios, 1993

A rare summer find in Lyme Regis

About two weeks ago, after the Lyme Regis Museum‘s fossil walk on the 27th August, there was an interesting find on the Church Cliffs landslip east of Lyme Regis.

Paddy Howe, fossil walk leader and the museum’s resident geologist was walking back from the end of the walk with myself and Chris Andrew (the museum’s education officer) when he spotted something in the shales of the landslip…

Line of ribs visible in the shale

Rib cross sections visible in the shales of the church cliff landslip.

…There were only three small (approximately 5mm in diameter) cross sections of ichthyosaur rib bone that could be seen in the shale layer he had spotted. When some of the shale was removed however there could be seen a small number of holes in the shale where other ribs had been. This immediately caught Paddy’s attention as it meant that there could be a significant portion of an animal fossilised in this spot, but with the tide rapidly approaching it was necessary to return the next day, so the find was carefully covered to prevent further erosion and we burned the location in our minds, determined to return on the Sunday.

Paddy Howe Digging out the Ichthyosaur

Paddy Howe digging out the Shale Slab.

Had the fossil survived the night? Had another fossil collector discovered and excavated it? or worst of all, had it been destroyed by the tide?

After some not inconsiderable trepidation during the Sunday mornings fossil walk, we three returned to excavate the slab containing the ribs that had been spotted the day before. To my amazement – and I am sure; Paddy’s relief – the slab had survived relatively undamaged and so the excavations began.

The first task was to remove as much of the surrounding material as was possible, and this was done through the liberal use of a hammer, chisel and shovel… and took about 30 minutes to complete. This done, a more careful investigation of the slab could be made, which raised far more questions than answers because at first inspection there appeared to be no further bones in the rock! Had we wasted our time digging around this slab when all we would find were a few rib fragments?

Thankfully not, more bones were eventually seen, after some mud and shale was washed off of the newly exposed surfaces, so now the task was to remove the block – preferably  in one piece – for preparation and exposure of the whole fossil.

Ichthyosaur Slabs on the Stretcher

Slabs of rock collected together on Paddy's stretcher. (this is only half of them!)

Disaster – or near disaster at any rate – struck a few minutes later when the slab split, not once, but many times, leaving us with a large number of small blocks and a jumble of loose bones at the bottom of the hole. This was a mixed blessing in that it made the fossil easier to get onto the stretcher (the only method of transporting the remains) but as the hole was rapidly filling with water and all of the bones of the skull (the lower-most bones in the slab) had been disarticulated. Sifting them from the mud may have resulted in some being lost lost in the pool of muddy water. Sadly we will never know.

The final task now facing us was to get the remains of the slab off of the beach, which was to take an inordinately long time thanks to both the weight of the slabs, and the ungainly and distinctly uncomfortable nature of the ex-army stretcher we were using. This process took approximately an hour and a half, and yet we only travelled about half a mile along the coast back to Lyme Regis. Including some impromptu outreach along the way to interested tourists!

Paddy and the Fossil talking to Tourists

Paddy undertaking some impromptu outreach with holiday-makers and the Ichthyosaur fossil.

The slabs have now been passed to a local fossil preparator, who will work hard for a couple of months to release the fossil from it’s muddy tomb and carefully piece the jigsaw back together. Unfortunately we won’t be able to identify the animal to a species level until this work is completed, and even then only if all the diagnostic features are available… only time will tell if that’s possible.

Ben Brooks

07/09/2011

Short-Link for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-dh

Scelidosaurus harrisonii: A Reprise

Scelidosaurus Harissoni

The Bristol Museum Scelidosaurus Harissoni specimen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After posting my Scelidosaurus Harrisonii post and submitting it to the Science 3.0 blogging contest last month, a friend of mine asked me an interesting, indeed fascinating question about it, which I asked him to cross-post to the blog comments section:

Hi Ben, is there a possability that the Stellare specimen/s are derived? Just thinking about the “disarticulated, poorly preserved and pretty beat up dinosaur” comment.

But what does he mean when he asked if the Stellare specimen is derived?

Well now; there’s a story…

Palaeontology by its very nature is a race against time, a race against the slow, steady destruction of fossil remains by a heady mixture of time, ice, wind, rain and biological influences. Commonly any fossils you find will have already been eroded or weathered from their dark, rocky tombs. This is why for example the Fossil Collecting Code of my adoptive home (Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset) is so very lax and geared towards and in favour of the fossil collectors.

The thing is though, luckily for the fossils – and to the chagrin of many geologists and palaeontologists – they aren’t necessarily destroyed by the elements once they have been relieved of their incarceration. Geological processes roll on, regardless of human desires for an easily understood tree of life.

recycling graphicSome fossils are lucky… very lucky. They not only get eroded out of the rocks in which they are fossilised, they survive the elements for long enough that they are re-deposited in sediments (a process called re-working). As a result you have a fossil that can be found (many millions of years later) in rocks which in turn are from many millions of years after the original death of the animal.

…So how do we know that the new scelidosaur remains are not reworked, and are indeed a true indication of an extended range for the creature?

Firstly and perhaps most obviously. The specimen in question, while somewhat more disarticulated than the existing specimens, is still being eroded out of the cliffs in a very specific location, and the remains appear to be fairly complete. If the animal had been re-worked, there are two predictions for what we would find. The first expectation would be that the remains would be wantonly scattered by the erosive processes that would transport them after they are denuded (eroded or weathered) from their original location. The second being that the fossil would be very incomplete, perhaps only represented by a few small bones or even fragments. This is especially true for vertebrate fossils consisting of many parts.

Mass movement classifications - image courtesy of the USGS (click for big)

There are two erosive processes (that come to mind as I’m writing) which might allow for a whole vertebrate fossil to remain intact and still be re-worked. The first of these being glacial erosion, transport and deposition of the fossil within a Glacial Erratic – a rock carried by a glacier from one place to another, occasionally including rocks up to the size of a house. The second possible process being Mass Transport – landslips, slides and debris flows. There is however no evidence of either process having occurred to the stellare specimen.

Secondly, we might expect  that re-worked fossils to be affected by taphonomic – after death – processes such as encrustation by marine creatures. Especially if the bones had remained on the seafloor for a long time between erosion and burial. Modern worms encrust anything that is lies on the sea-floor for any length of time, including fossils from the Oxford Clay which are being eroded out offshore of Portland in Dorset so it is fair to assume this would also happen in the past. However anyone who knows the rocks around Lyme will know that the sea-floor is widely accepted to have been anoxic throughout the deposition of the Blue Lias, perhaps including some of the lowermost water column. This would mean that the organisms that would encrust the fossils would not have survived, so this perhaps is a moot point.

The final point to note regarding the possibility of the Stellare Scelidosaur being re-worked is that we see no other re-worked fossils within the stellare bed, or anywhere within the Blue Lias to my knowledge. Why is this a problem? simply because many of the bones of the Scelidosaur are more fragile than many bones from other fossilised creatures, including invertebrates, so we would expect to see at least some other fossil remains being re-worked. One single dinosaur (a rare fossil in and of itself) re-worked within an entire marine deposit is hugely improbable.

In closing it would seem that on balance, it is extremely unlikely (if not impossible) for the Stellare Scelidosaur to be a re-worked specimen.

I hope this answers your question Simon!

Ben Brooks

16/08/2011

Short-link for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-bz

Thanks to Mr Chris Andrew of Lyme Regis Museum and “The Fossil Workshop” for advice in compiling this post.

Scelidosaurus harrisonii: a tale of mass death and discovery

a Microraptor cute-bomb

Artist's illustration of three Microraptors resting in a tree.

Dinosaurs are awesome, the very nature of the name Dinosauria is pretty badass, even for the realms of Linnaean classification, after all the name means “terrible lizards”. Though now we have finds of such unnerving cuteness as Microraptor gui (right), the name may be a little silly. That however is another blog-post altogether, so I’ll leave it for another day.

My love of ancient life and palaeonotology was sparked off by dinosaurs, and like a true geek I still have all the old VHS tapes (yes… I remember VHS) that set me off on my way to where I am today, including one entitled “Dinosaurs: Fun Fact and Fantasy” which I was amazed to find the whole programme floating about on YouTube, so here you go… a little dinosaur quiz for you with the show’s puppet-crocodilian host; Dill…

Anywho, childhood memories aside, I now live in Lyme Regis. This small Dorset town is famous for many things, John Fowles’ ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’, and thanks to the film adaptation also the town’s iconic Cobb Harbour being just two of them.

The town is far more famous however for its fossil material, indeed I’ve mentioned it before on this blog. Mary Anning and her contemporaries supplied many of the first scientifically recorded and described examples of marine reptiles like Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs. The town even boasts a Dinosaur, Scelidosaurus harrisonii, which was first discovered by a local quarryman – James Harrison of Charmouth – in the cliffs of Black Ven in 1858 and was named and described by Professor Richard Owen of the British Museum (Natural History Dept.) in 1863.

What’s really interesting about the animal is that since that time only nine specimens had ever been discovered eroding out of the cliffs near Lyme Regis, and they tell us an awful lot about the area.

Back Ven Marls Strat' Log

Stratigraphic Log of the Black Ven Marls, Courtesy of Dr Ian West, Uni of Southampton (Emeritus) (click to enlarge)

These nine fossil animals are all found within one particular horizon within the Black Ven marls, this being a layer of “topstones” or hard limestone blocks within the marl sequence, though as they’re found already eroded from the cliff (usually on the beach in their own blocks) no one’s particularly sure which of the two topstone bands the dinosaurs come from. Equally the Scelidosaurs are all found within a very short stretch of the beach, always at Black Ven, never anywhere else, even though the same rocks crop out in Yorkshire, some 280 miles away in Northern England.

This does tell us some interesting things though, firstly it tells us exactly when these dinosaurs lived (something I’ll come back to later), but secondly it tells us that land was very close by at this time in the distant past. Why does it tell us this? Well these dinosaurs are land animals, they did not venture into the sea, and certainly would not have done so as a group, so they had to have died before they came to be out at sea. The suggestion being that a herd of S. Harrisonii were crossing a river on land and were swept away. Possibly by a flash flood, or possibly in the same manner as many wildebeest die when their huge herds cross African rivers, by being crushed, jostled under the waterline, and drowning.

OK, so we know that the dinosaurs came from a nearby land-mass, and we know (from the fact that they are all from the same horizon, and closely spaced) that they were probably from the same herd, but how close is that land-mass? Well again we can assume it was very close, maybe as little as a couple of miles. Why? If we assume the postulated herd-drowning hypothesis is correct, then the unfortunate creatures are swept out to sea. If they had “bloated and floated” as the local fossil collectors call it, then the tides and currents would have swept them far and wide. Instead these animals sank to the sea floor rapidly and were not scattered so we know that the land-mass from which they came is very close to the spot where they are found today.

Ancient and Modern Scorpionfly wing.

Fossil Scorpion fly wing found in Lyme Bay with modern equivalent. courtesy of Lyme Regis Museum, (c) Chris Andrew

What other evidence is there to support this? Well for a start in the rocks of black ven and in the ‘stonebarrow topstones’ we also find a lot of fossil insects, by no means as many as we do ammonites, but enough to demonstrate the proximity of land. Insects aren’t something you find in the middle of the ocean, even today, even blown out to sea by storms they don’t get far from land, so finding dead and fossilised beetles and dragonflies in the stonebarrow topstones helps add weight to our land proximity hypothesis.

Supporting the herd hypothesis is not so hard either, of the nine specimens found, many of them are near complete specimens, and of the nine, one has small horns above the eyes, while the other eight do not. There are two possible explanations for this. Firstly the one with the horns could be better preserved than the eight without, but a second possibility is that the one with the horns is exhibiting sexual dimorphism, and that the horns are some form of display or ‘rutting’ characteristic, suggesting this individual is a male of the species. Perhaps even an alpha male leading his herd to an unfortunate doom? What a nice image, if slightly sad and morbid…

Now I’ve got to admit to something here… I’ve not been wholly truthful with you. There are actually 10 specimens of Scelidosaurus harrisonii from the area around Lyme Regis… Why didn’t I mention the tenth specimen? Well basically because this individual isn’t found with the other nine. In fact this individual may be far more important that just finding another member of the herd; the reason being that this one isn’t found in either of the topstone bands, oh no. This one is found in the Stellare Bed (bed number 88f according to Lang), about one metre above the topstone beds, and therefore many many years after our unfortunate herd found its way into the ocean.

This is important because up until this tenth specimen started eroding out last year, S. harrisonii was known only from the first nine specimens at an age of 195 million years, so this one disarticulated, poorly preserved and pretty beat up dinosaur extends the range of the scelidosaur lineage.

Why do I mention it here… because while I only found this out a few days ago, I also found out that my first dinosaur bone (a partial scelidosaur vertebra I found last year) came from this animal… which considering I was pretty psyched to have found a dinosaur bone in the first place, then even more psyched to know it was from a S. Harrisonii… you can probably guess as to how freakin’ amazing I found this new information!

Scelidosaurus Vertebra

My Scelidosaurus Vertebra photographed for posterity before donation to Paddy Howe of Lyme Regis Museum

Sadly (from a personal perspective) I donated the bone to Lyme Regis Musuem’s geologist Paddy Howe because it was “scientifically important”… now I understand why!

Ben Brooks

31/07/2011

Addendum: There are rumours that one of the original nine scelidosaurs may also have come from a layer other than the Stonebarrow Topstones… this I shall investigate…

There are also rumours that scelidosaurus scutes have been found in Arizona (hardened plates that lie beneath the skin)… though this is still disputed.

REFERENCES/RESOURCES/ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Website of Dr Ian M. West: http://www.soton.ac.uk/~imw/Lyme-Regis-to-Charmouth.htm

Wikipedia | Scelidosaurus, Microraptor

Bed numbers originally found in: Lang, W.D. and Spath, L.F. 1926. The Black Marl of Black Ven and Stonebarrow, in the Lias of the Dorset Coast. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London, 82, 144-187, pls. 8-11

Thanks to Mssrs. Paddy Howe and Chris Andrew for some facts and photographs respectively

An Essay On: The Fossil Record

A favourite citation of those who do not understand evolution is that the fossil record does not show any transitional forms (like the now famous fictional Crocoduck that Kirk Cameron proposed), and that if evolution were “true” then we would expect to see an evolutionary continuum between the first single-celled bacterium and all modern creatures.

This “argument” is wrong for several reasons, firstly and fore mostly, nobody has ever said evolution was “true,” scientists say that evolution is a theory, it is not even a scientific FACT because a fact is something that is observed outright, such as the FACT that the sky is up, Truth is a philosophical idea and should not be used in a scientific context. It can be true that someone loves another person, but the fact of love is that a series of chemical reactions are going on that cause this – often irrational – attraction.

The "Ideal" vs. the "Real" fossil record

The top image shows the ideal fossil record in the form of a tree of life, this is what people want when they say "where are the transitional fossils". The lower image is an apporximation of what the same tree looks like in reality, showing the paucity of the fossil record.

The image on the left shows the ideal state of the fossil record at the top, and the real state of the fossil record on the bottom. It is not a brilliant nor is it an accurate representation of the tree of life, but it illustrates the point and I defy anyone to give the lower image to 10 people and have them all give you the same (join the dots) tree.  In comparison Palaeontologists are studying an incomprehensibly large, fragmented and poorly resolved tree of life, some idea of it might be to attempt to read this page of text if only every 150th character were printed in place, with the rest missing, and those characters were not spaced evenly within the document… in fact, you may have noticed the red letters In the first two paragraphs of text, imagine only having those letters to read, and trying to piece together the whole two paragraphs; that’s what studying the fossil record is like.

There are a wide variety of reasons why the fossil record is so poor, and I will endeavour to explain some of them here.

The Remoteness (or Improbability) of Fossilisation

Firstly let’s talk about the fossilisation of different forms of tissue. Animals and Plants are made up of a variety of types of tissues, in all there are 6 major groups to consider: Mineralised (Bony/Shelly), Cartilaginous (The stuff your nose is made of), Lignified Cellulose (wood), Cellulose (other plant, e.g.: Leaves), Chitin (hair/horn/insect carapace) and Volatile Tissues (soft body parts/organs/skin). Each one of these groups of tissues has a different preservation potential, that is to say that different tissues have different likelihoods of being fossilised under the same conditions. Mineralised Tissues such as bones for example, are made up of a large proportion of mineral in the first instance, this is why it is so difficult to break a bone, and how your skeleton is able to hold up your weight (as well as considerably more – as any hiker or boy-scout will tell you). This mineral content is the reason for the high preservation potential, as the fossilisation process only has a relatively small amount of the tissue that it “has” to replace before the process is completed, by analogy you can compare it to making a house from a cave rather than from scratch. Compare this to the other end of the scale, which is volatile tissues, which have a non-zero but minute mineral content, to fossilise this kind of material the process of fossilisation requires a huge surplus of chemical to precipitate to form the fossil, as compared to a bone.

Fossil Preservation Potential

This image shows the preservation potential of the main types of biological tissues, the least preserbable are at the bottom left. These must be preserved very rapidly if they are not to be lost to the fossil record. (source: Harding 2009, Lecture, Original source unknown)

Moving Evolution

Sometimes you may find a fossil which seems to have miraculously appeared from out of no-where in Geological terms, in one stratum you find it but in strata below you do not, nor do you find any evolutionary predecessors… How can this be? Well first off I can assure you there is no need for magic… there is a rational explanation, and that is evolution that occurs elsewhere. If evolution of a species occurs in one region of the globe, cut off from the progenitor (parent) species by some form of barrier which is later removed. The evolved species can become the dominant one in the lands inhabited by the progenitor species, and when these creatures fossilise, there will be no evolutionary process visible in that location. This lack of evolutionary intermediates will make it look as though the species appears from no-where, but this is not the case.

Hostile Geological Circumstances (Environments)

Another, slightly related reason for the scarcity of the fossil record is the plethora of geological environments in existence compared to each environment’s preservation potential. To take three examples of geological environments that will hopefully illustrate this point, we will discuss a Terrestrial Desert Environment, a Shallow Marine Shelf Environment and a Deep Sea Anoxic Zone.

The Terrestrial Desert is a very hot environment where there are fewer animals; this will aid preservation in that scavengers are less likely to disassemble the skeleton. This environment also lacks several important factors that would greatly aid fossilisation, the main missing parts being a surplus of chemicals to precipitate (chemistry is facilitated by water, so the lack of it is vital here) and the protection from the elements that would otherwise erode the organism (Deserts often do not deposit sediment quickly enough to prevent erosion). The end result of this is that there is a significantly lowered preservation potential compared to most geological environments. Another way to look at it is that a desert is an erosive environment, so the majority of things in it will not be lithified in the first place.

A Marine Shelf environment by contrast, is a lot less erosive, and in most places is depositional (that is to say, forms sediments). This environment is also beneath the sea, and as such has an enormous supply of chemicals that can precipitate out to form fossils (sea-water contains 3.5% ‘salt’ – including six chemical compounds at greater than 0.35 grams per litre); deposition of sediment in this environment is often rapid enough to preserve the most resistant tissues. Whilst there are more predators and scavengers in this environment, the significantly increased biology of this environment increases the number of dead organisms with the possibility to fossilise. The cumulative result of these factors is that this environment has a higher preservation potential than the desert environment previously discussed.

The final environment that we will consider is a Deep Sea Anoxic Zone, in this environment there is a huge quantity of available chemical compounds, few predators or other animals to disturb the dead organisms or the sediments onto which they come to rest. The environment is depositional but in all cases at a slower rate than most environments. One final significant benefit is that this environment will (depending upon the degree of anoxia) prevent the decomposition of the organism’s softer, more volatile tissues, allowing for exceptional preservation of tissues that would otherwise not fossilise. There is however one major caveat to these benefits; and that is that if the ocean is “too” deep, or the Calcium compensation depth is too high in the water column, the hard parts of the organism (shell/cartilage/bone) will all dissolve fairly rapidly.

One poignant example of this latter style of environment is the world famous Burgess Shale Deposits of British Columbia. This enhanced the scientific picture of the environment in which the fauna (animals) were fossilised. Before the discovery, only the hard parts of the fauna (mineralised tissues) were found.

Burgess Shale Fauna

image showing the Burgess Shale Fauna; most of these animals were originally soft bodied, so would not have been known about were it not for the Burgess Shale. (Source: Harding (2009a) lecture, original source: "The Fossils of the Burgess Shales", by Briggs, Erwin and Collier, 1994)

After the discovery of the Burgess shale, the deposit produced a huge quantity of soft-bodied animals that would otherwise not have been known. Comparisons of these two pictures of hte environment show that the average non-hard-part dauna that palaeontology normally misses far out-weighs that which we know – which in itself demonstrates how depleted the fossil record is (Conway Morris, 1997).

Geological Unconformities (Time Gaps)

The geological record is full of unconformities, which put simply are gaps in time. Each unconformity can represent a gap of millions of years, during which time many species could have evolved and become extinct, but no organisms would be preserved because no sediments are being deposited. In point of fact most modern environments that we as humans come into contact with are non-depositional, and it is these areas that will produce future unconformities.

Unconformities allow fossils of completely different geological ages to be juxtaposed one stratum atop the other, so you might see a Triassic rock stratum lying directly above a Silurian stratum where the intervening strata (Devonian, Carboniferous and Permian) are completely missing. Any organisms from this intervening age will not have been fossilised and so there would be a gap in the observed tree of life.

Denudation (Erosion and Weathering)

Along a similar vein to geological unconformities, denudation – or the weathering and erosion of existing rock strata – removes a significant portion of the fossil record, so that any fossils that existed in these removed strata will no longer be there to find, and may indeed have been re-worked and deposited into younger strata, thankfully this is fairly easy to spot when looking at a new fossil, and the re-working doesn’t fool a palaeontologist for long.

Though this process is responsible for the loss of huge amounts of the fossil record, it is also a blessing in disguise because if it wasn’t for the erosive nature of many of the earth’s environments, most fossils would never be found, as they would remain in the rock, hidden forever from human eyes.

Plate Tectonics and Metamorphism

Plate Tectonics and Metamorphism both remove huge amounts of the fossil record over time. Taking these processes one at a time; Plate Tectonics works at what is (on a human timescale at least) a perilously slow pace, however it is the reason that so much of the earth’s early fossil record is missing. The earth’s crust is constantly recycling itself, perpetually being created at Mid-ocean ridges and volcanic regions, and then destroyed at plate margins like those off of the Japanese and Chilean coasts; the oldest ocean crust is approximately 200 million years old. No ocean crust older than this exists beneath the waves, the only places where it does are where it has been obducted (or raised) onto and incorporated into the continents. The continents so contain older rocks up to approximately 4.3 Billion Years old; but these parts are small and rarely in their original state due to the second of these forces: Metamorphism.

Metamorphism is a fossil destroyer in its own right, the process of heating and compressing the rocks involved can deform, crush, and even obliterate any fossils within the rock, and whilst this is not always the case (a friend of mine discovered a trace-fossil in the metamorphic rocks of Anglesey) exceptions to this rule are rare. Combining the extreme age of an ancient rock (say circa 4 billion years), with it’s almost inevitably small size, and the all but inescapable repeated metamorphism of that rock, and the chances of a fossil being preserved, let alone found, are hideously small. Certainly not a fossil in the traditional sense of the word, Biomarkers are a possibility, but that’s another story

Destructive Biology (Predation, Bacteria and Decomposers)

Consider a world without any form of predation or biological decay, putting aside all the severe detriments that this world would have, one group of people would be extremely happy… yep, you guessed it, the Palaeontologists. Just think about it for a moment, if there are no predators, no bacteria and no decomposers, the number of organisms that can be fossilised increases immensely, because a large number of animals that at present are decomposed or disturbed would not be. The carcasses would be left to allow the mostly physical and chemical processes of fossilisation to occur.

This imaginary world does not exist however, and most dead organisms are predated, scavenged, and eventually decompose, and a number of the environments involved do not induce rapid fossilisation, so in most cases by the time fossilisation begins, there is nothing left of the creature to preserve.

Yet another reason why the fossil record is so… empty…

Human Fallibility (Not Knowing Where/How to Look)

Well now we come to the last factor I intend to cover in this essay; Human Fallibility. Humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) have many wonderful characteristics; one is their innate curiosity, without which Science, Religion, Technology, and Society itself would never have developed. That said, however good our brains are at many things, they are flawed because of the evolutionary way in which they have come into being… like everything evolved, there are problems. Scientifically speaking the biggest are Bias, over-extrapolation and over-interpretation.

Often scientists have been accused of creating forgeries of fossils; however in many cases we have now found modern analogues or corroborating fossils… not to mention how is it possible for someone to forge something we did not know existed?

Once we get an idea in our heads, it is extremely difficult to change it, so when we are taught that something is the case; it is very hard on us (and our egos) to find we are wrong or that there is a better model out there. For example when the Gunflint Cherts of Southern Canada were first found, no-one knew what they were, and when it was proposed that they were organic in origin, the rocks were so old that the scientific establishment balked at the idea. Since then there has come to light ample evidence to back the hypothesis and we even have modern analogues – the Stromatolites of Shark Bay, Australia.

It takes real initiative to look for fossils in places where the rest of palaeontology considers it impossible to find a fossil… however this has repeatedly shown that there are things that we do not know; Microfossils, Biomarkers, the Ediacaran Hills Sandstones… again and again new, exciting fields open up and the world learns something new. The same applies to methods, electron microscopy, chemical analysis, polarised light (recent studies have shown diffraction gratings on fossils (Parker 1998) including insect carapaces and even feathers; allowing us for the first time to accurately colour in some of our reconstructions of the ancient world); even the re-cataloguing of old collections brings out new fossils and new species.

One other issue of human fallibility is something that can be referred to as collecting bias. Many of the early fossil sites were in quarry workings and mines, whereas most early palaeontologists were men of class and distinction – not the type to go around caves and quarries – and thus the people doing the collecting (quarrymen and miners) would only collect the major specimens that they knew would garner a rich payment from the palaeontologist This results in lots of individual skeletons of vertebrates and many large or novel or pretty invertebrates, but the more common and less beautiful fossils would be left or ignored, even if they were of high scientific importance. After all most miners and quarrymen would not know what was scientifically important at that time. Unfortunately for science, most of these pits and quarries no longer exist, have been filled in or collapsed, leaving no way to regain the knowledge potentially lost – not that it is anyone’s fault.

Professor Ichthyosaurus

in a future world... Professor Ichthyosaurus opines on the existence of the great apes: cartoon by Henry De La Beche (1830)

In Conclusion

So when you next hear someone decrying the lack of “transitional forms” or how useless the Fossil Record is for defining the history of life… remember that this lack of forms, this sparse nature of the record, the amazing variety of preservation… is all innate, is all integral to the record itself.

How likely do you think it is that in 200 million years time a future palaeontologist will dig up your bones? You might be scavenged, denuded out, metamorphosed or just were buried in the wrong environment… which is most likely, a church-yard is perhaps the most inappropriate place to hope to fossilise yourself. Try putting a clause in your last will and testament that you will be soaked in amber… or weighted and dropped into an anoxic shallow water environment… or thrown into a tar pit… these would all be better bets.

Then again, at the end of the day if Palaeontology saw a seamless transition from inorganic molecules to prokaryotes to eukaryotes to metazoans to you… it would be Soooooo boring… so easy, so lacking in challenge and intellectual thought… wouldn’t you agree?

Ben Brooks

Short-Link for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-8r

REFERENCES

Conway-Morris, S. (1997). The Crucible of Creation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harding, I. C. (2009, March). SOES 2001 Palaeobiology Lecture 8. Southampton Uni. Original Source Unknown

Harding, I. C. (2009a, March). SOES 2001 Palaeobiology Lecture 9. Southampton Uni. Original Source: The Fossils of the Burgess Shales, by Briggs, Erwin and Collier, 1994

Parker, A. R. (1998). “Colour in Burgess Shale animals and the effect of light on evolution in the Cambrian”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 265(1400), pp. 967-972. (ONLINE) Available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1689164/ (Accessed 20 Nov. 2010)

With Thanks to Messrs Paddy Howe and Christopher Andrews of The Fossil Workshop, 55 Broad Street, Lyme Regis, DT7 3QF for reviewing, critiquing and commenting on this post and for all their kind help and assistance as both Palaeontologists and Personal Friends.