Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Rarest of Teeth

I just had to share this with everyone . Been out in the field today at Quarry 4. Heavy overnight rain made conditions tough although the day itself was dry. But just take a look at this tooth will you! Carl found this magnificent specimen this morning and top prospecting it was as well, since only a fraction of the striated surface was visible.
If you haven't recognised it, take a good look at the tooth of Liopleurodon ferox, one of the rarest of the Quarry 4 pliosaurs. I've been looking for one of these for ages now and this is the first one I have seen in the field. Before it was cleaned off it was also possibly considered to be Simolestes but the prominent, widely spaced ridges that alternate with ridges that are not so prominent, and only run half way up the crown, confirm that it is Liopleurodon. Magnificent.
Although I didn't have a lot of luck today, I'm pleased to say that there were both ichthyosaur and plesiosaur material recovered. It also seems that the demise of Quarry 4 is a little way off now and it seems the quarry will be available until maybe the spring. Lots to talk about in a future post but for now, enjoy!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Saurian TV

I’m grateful to Tom Holtz for putting us onto this one. Discovery Channel has announced a new four part series, Clash of the Dinosaurs which premiers, with a double header, in the US on December 6th. From the Discovery website:

“For the first time in 65 million years, innovative imaging technology enables viewers to see deep inside the body of a dinosaur to reveal the secrets of these ultimate prehistoric survival machines. Combining cinematic photo-real 3D graphics and leading-edge anatomy and paleontology, CLASH OF THE DINOSAURS peels back the skin, muscles and bones to show how they survived in such a violent world.“

For some great sneak previews go here. Featuring paleontologists such as Tom Holtz, Larry Witmer, Matt Wedel and, my all time favourite, Bob Bakker, I hope that these programmes are a vast improvement on the debarcle that was Jurassic Fight Club.

Even more intriguing is that the BBC, along with a high profile US channel, have commissioned a new series about vertebrate palaeontology. Focussing mainly on dinosaurs, it will also feature other Mesozoic creatures and, although there will be a healthy amount of CGI, there will be at least half of each programme devoted to the actual research and techniques used and what can be learnt from the fossils themselves.

What has pleased me, after corresponding with one of the series researchers, is that they are committed to not making the same mistakes as the “Walking with…..” series. Namely, they will put the evidence first and make clear what is well accepted and what is pure speculation.

Although at an early stage of development, I hope that this series will live up to expectations and that we will have a palaeontological themed series that will really deliver the goods.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

NHM - Into the Catacombs

You may remember that during my last field trip to the Bluff, Mark had invited me to a behind-the-scenes look at the preparatory labs at the Natural History Museum in London. I had a day’s holiday owing and during December, only a couple of weeks before Christmas, I called Mark and arranged the trip. To say I was keen is an understatement, but I was equally aware that I would certainly try to curb my tongue and concentrate on listening, because although I consider myself knowledgeable with regards to dinosaurian palaeontology, I was going to a place where I would be surrounded by experts. I was determined not to make a fool of myself!

On the approach to the museum I felt a little nervous. This was probably a combination of a stomach bug that I had been suffering, as well as my own apprehension of visiting a place where the general public are rarely allowed. I had 45 minutes to spare before I was to be met, and decided to stroll around both the dinosaur and marine reptile galleries since there were a couple of bones that I needed to identify and I was especially interested in hadrosaurid quadrates and coracoids. The NHM is really exceptional these days, truly a world class attraction, but the amount of children and noise makes quiet study impossible. If I have one tiny criticism regarding the skeletons, it is that they are absolutely covered in dust. I appreciate that it must be difficult to dust a skeleton, but it is to be hoped that a means to do this is found soon, as all the fancy lighting they have focussed upon the exhibits tends to highlight the problem!

Soon enough it was time for me to meet Mark, and after exchanging pleasantries he ushered me away, back past the marine reptile gallery, and towards a door at the back of the corridor. Passing through the secure doorway, there were a few exhibits on display. Mark explained that these changed frequently to suit the particular visitor who was due. At this moment they contained a varied selection of British ammonites and a magnificent copy of the London specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica. Incidentally, I can exclusively reveal that the actual specimen of this fossil is to be removed from its safe house for more preparation, not necessarily to reveal more fossil bone, but to actually reduce the size of the slab that encases the fossil to make it easier to handle for study, to make it thinner. I’m not too sure who will be doing this but he would have to be the best in his field to be allowed to work on the most valuable fossil in the world. I imagine that this will be kept secret as well because of the security aspect. After all, this is the fossil equivalent of the Mona Lisa.

We passed through a couple more doors, down some flights of steps and entered the renowned Palaeontological Conservation Unit (PCU). I must admit it looked much as I’d expected, lots of nooks and crannies full of different preparatory aids, all sorts of fossils in various states of preparation and not a lot of room to manoeuvre! There were staff present at various work stations and others who were passing through from department to department. It was at this point that I was introduced to Scott Moore-Fay, the only preparator in the NHM. I was surprised by this and Scott explained that all other members of staff in the PCU were conservators, who were exclusively preserving the massive collection of fossils – essential work to preserve our natural heritage. But I got the impression from Scott that another preparator would be very much appreciated.

We slowly strolled around the PCU, pausing at different areas where I was shown various preparatory techniques and, of course, the wonderful fossils being worked on. The first fossils I came upon were labelled Trachodon (today a nomen dubium and is actually Edmontosaurus). Nobody was really sure what the bones were, but I was particularly interested in them because they were dated 1912 and collected by one of the Sternberg brothers, which means they are almost certainly from the Red Deer River in Alberta, Canada.

The next piece of interest was the actual specimen of Hylaeosaurus that Mantell collected in the 1850’s. Scott was preparing this particular fossil and showed me some of the exposed bones, including a partial jaw, and I was surprised at how small the tooth sockets were. The surrounding matrix is incredibly tough and exposing the bone is a slow process, but Scott is pleased with the results so far although there is still a lot of work to do.

The highlight of the day for me, however, was the unexpected opportunity to look at the skull and type specimen of Proceratosaurus bradleyi, an animal of some scientific importance in the dinosaur world. Proceratosaurus is considered one of the most basal of coelurosaurs (actually now regarded as the earliest known tyrannosauroid), but I was struck by how similar it was to Ceratosaurus itself, but on a much smaller scale. Although the specimen is missing the top part of the skull, it is in superb condition but still needs consolidating to maintain its current state of preservation. But it is a stunning skull and so well defined.

It was about this time that Mark and Scott decided to go to the IMAX cinema situated in the Science Museum to see a film entitled “Sea Monsters” and they very kindly invited me along. We had barely sat down when the film began and, if you can forgive the amount of inaccurate scientific information and blatant story telling, then the film is great entertainment, especially for three palaeontologists such as ourselves. Highly recommended.

Returning to the museum, we sat down in Scott’s office and discussed all things Palaeontological, and eventually the Weald came to the fore since we all have field experience in this most British of formations. It was at this point that I showed Scott three of my bones recovered from the Bluff, two vertebrae and an unidentified but very hollow bone suggesting that it may be theropod in origin. Almost immediately Scott said he thought they were crocodilian. I could understand that with the vertebrae but I was unsure about the other bone. Scott said he would go into the collections and recover some fossils for comparison.

While Scott was gone, Mark took me down another level into the acid preparation laboratory. I was well aware of the technique but this was the first time I had had the opportunity to see a set up of this magnitude. You may remember David Attenborough’s television series “Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives”, where the acid preparation technique was shown on a fish fossil from Australia. That very same fossil is still in the laboratory and used for demonstration purposes. The acid baths today were empty, and Mark revealed that the technique is currently under review because some fossils have undergone a little too much preparation and have suffered damage.

We returned to Scott’s office and found him waiting for us with boxes from the Beckles’ collection. Samuel Beckles is a collector I am familiar with. A contemporary of Mantell, he too recovered much fossil bone from both the Weald clay and the Hastings beds. One box was particularly revealing in that it contained various bones and vertebrae from Goniopholis, that well known Wealden crocodile. This left me in no doubt that my material was indeed crocodilian, albeit better preserved than the museum’s specimens.

The small bone was harder to identify but another specimen containing various crocodile bones in matrix seemed to show a very similar bone to my specimen. Crocodile they are then! Oh well, maybe on the next trip to the Bluff I’ll be luckier and on consideration, size is probably the defining factor since all the skeletal remains from the Bluff are of big animals and my bones are small by comparison. I felt a lesson had been learnt. I had always known it was difficult to find dinosaur fossils and this proved it was even more difficult than I’d realised. Still, I’m patient and determined – my day will come!

We went back into the PCU and looked at a few more specimens, including a magnificent woolly mammoth skull that was being preserved, but time was moving on and I was very conscious that I did not want to overstay my welcome. My hosts had been extremely generous with their time and I was hoping that I might get another invitation to return in the future.

I wasn’t permitted to see the collections on this occasion but if I was “vetted” by the head of collections, a lady by the name of Sarah, then next time I would be able to see more. This isn’t as straightforward as it may sound and it appears I will have to prove my worth! Scott cordially invited me for a further visit and I left the museum on a high and hope to cultivate my friendship there in the future.

Having now met Angela Milner and visited the PCU, I feel a little closer to what I hope to achieve. I’ve offered my services informally to help out to both Angela and Scott and if I can be in the right place at the right time, then I may be closer to the ultimate dream of either helping out on a field trip or maybe doing some voluntary work at the museum, especially if I could help out in the PCU, very similar to what Mark does now.

My thanks go to Mark for the invitation and to Scott for being so gracious a host. I will be seeing them soon!


Since this visit, a couple of things have moved on. Firstly, the reduction in size of the Archaeopteryx slab was successfully completed and by Lorraine Cornish of the NHM as well. I understand that the specimen is now much more “user” friendly and will aid in ongoing studies.

The acid preparation lab is in use again after a stringent review. A number of improvements have been made and it was interesting to note that after acid prepping, specimens must be rinsed for a significant amount of time but in agitated water. Originally, specimens were simply washed in water for the right amount of time but without any agitation other than water changes. This meant that some specimens continued to be affected by the acid solution, even after washing, and some specimens became damaged. But this has now been addressed and, in combination with other refinements, the technique is being utilised again.

A year is a long time in palaeontology. I was fortunate to be able to examine the Proceratosaurus skull in some detail as it was being conserved and photographs simply do not do it any justice – it is a magnificent skull. And now it is in the news again – see here. The actual announcement regarding Proceratosaurus and its tyrannosauroid affinities came during SVP 2008 in Cleveland and the paper has now been published. It’s nice to see that Scott is a credited author and I’m really pleased for him.

Monday, 28 September 2009

SVP 2009 Bristol - Review

For me, this has been a trip nearly three years in the making. When it was rumoured that SVP would be held in the UK, I made sure to keep my eyes and ears open awaiting the confirmation of the event. When it happened I immediately prepared for the event - nothing would be left to chance and I began to start checking out travel and accomodation, and as soon as SVP put the registration form up on their website, I was amongst the first to register and the trip was on!

At this point, Bristol was months away but, as usual, the time flew. The months turned to weeks, the weeks to days and then I was soon driving up the M4. I could hardly believe that it had come around that quick. It was going to be great but I had a frantic start to the week.

I was attending a preparator's workshop on the Tuesday but a coach fire on the M32 into Bristol ensured a torrid time in attempting to reach the workshop on time. To cut a long story short, I made it on time by the skin of my teeth and it was at this point that I realised that all the conferance venues were up hill. Well at least I would stay fit during my time here.

I really enjoyed the workshop and it was great to meet so many like-minded people. I was more than pleased that my self-taught skills were of a good order and I picked up more than a few helpful tips for the future. We finished off with a nice meal later that evening and it rounded off a pretty hectic first day.

Prior to arriving in Bristol, I had run through the abstracts book and created my own timetable of talks, symposia and posters that I wanted to see. On the first day I attended the Mary Anning marine reptile symposium and this was a great start to the meeting for me and I enjoyed it very much. During the afternoon I visited the Victoria rooms and looked around the exhibits and was pleased to see Scott Moore-Fay of the NHM on the preparator's table and it was nice to catch up.

During the evening I attended, with near enough the entire attending SVP members, the welcome reception from the city and the Mayor. This was held at the @Bristol Interactive Centre and was a good evening and it was here that I started to meet different people and took the plunge in introducing myself to some of the biggest names in palaeontology and I'm pleased to say that all of them were kind and gracious and were happy to discuss all things with me, in some cases quite sensitive data was discussed, and I was honoured that they trusted me with such information.

The second day was similar to the first. I began by attending the Romer Prize Session and was particularly interested in Loewen's ontogenetic variations in Allosaurus. For the rest of the morning I attended the preparator's session which had a few interesting talks but I was really interested by Jabo's et al and Brown's et al linked talks regarding training volunteer preparators in the Smithsonian Fossilab program. This is something which I believe is a real step forward and would hope inspires other institutions worldwide to emulate.

The day ended with the wonderful David Attenborough presenting a talk on Alfred Russell Wallace and the birds of paradise. This was one of the special centenary lectures for Bristol university in conjunction with the SVP meeting. Some of us were fortunate to get tickets, while the rest of the audience was made up of various dignataries and, I'm pleased to say, the general public.

Sir David did not disappoint and the audience were enthralled by his superb presentational skills, which, in conjuction with some excellent video footage, made it an event to remember. After the lecture, Sir David took various questions from the audience, which included such topics as population control, global warming and his favourite animals. For me, it was great to see this great naturalist in the flesh - truly inspiring.

After the lecture, I decided to grab some dinner in a local eaterie and was delighted to meet Scott Sampson of the University of Utah. Scott was running through his talk for the following day and, as we spoke, Scott Moore-Fay came in as well and the three of us spent a while chatting about all things palaeo and we were lucky enough to get a sneak preview of Scott's new chasmosaurines. But I wasn't aware of how special they were until the following day.

On the Friday, I went to the Great Hall to listen to the some of the presentations on pterosaurs and, to my surprise, I found these to be some of the most interesting talks of the meeting. Unwin and Lu's pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull was excellent and, of course, having now been published, we now know it to be Darwinopterus. Kellner et al's continued work on Jeholopterus is excellent. What a magnificent fossil Jeholopterus is.

Throughout the rest of the day there was an abundance of interesting presentations, focusing on ornithischians, iguanodontids, hadrosaurs and ceratopsians. It appeared that the best was left to last and the aforementioned Scott Sampson's two new chasmosaurines was, for me, the presentation of the meeting. Watch out for the paper when it comes out, it will be nothing less than sensational and taxon "B" will become, I predict, one of the most iconic of dinosaurs. Remember - you heard it here first!

Straight after that came John Scanella's excellent talk regarding Torosaurus being a synonym of Triceratops due to apparent ontogenetic parietal change. From a personal point of view, I found the presented evidence to be compelling although I accept that there is still further work to be done and John did cede to this point. Really interesting and I look forward to the paper.

That evening the SVP silent and live auctions were held with the usual fancy dress, big crowd and an ethusiastic pair of organisers in the form of Leslie Noe and Brent Breithaupt. I had a little go in the silent auction for a few things. I thought I was being clever by bidding late on one particular book but Jerry Harris's wife(?) was even better at it and trumped me last knockings! All good fun but a little tight on the room side.

The final day of the meeting arrived and I was already feeling withdrawal symptoms. There wouldn't be a lot of walking though since I knew I was to be in the Great Hall all day. Again there were a plethora of superb presentations throughout the day. Highlights include, but are certainly not restricted to, Denver Fowler's good work regarding the grasping claw of Deinonychus, which worked particularly well following, as it did, Phil Manning et als' work on the same claws' biomechanics. A clash of ideaology though as Denver's focus was on the claw being used to restrain prey as opposed to Phil's finite analysis which pointed to the claw being used for arborial purposes.

Christiano Dal Sasso's work on Scipionyx samniticus was another highlight and the images that accompanied the talk were astonishing. How fossilisation of this quality ever takes place is beyond me - truly astounding. Megalosaurids and basal tetanurans received some deserved attention by Roger Benson and it is nice that the taxonimic wastebasket that is "megalosauridae" is being tidied up.

Three out of the last four talks of the morning session featured my perennial favourites, the Tyrannosauroidea. Two of the talks featured Stephen Brusatte et al's discovery and description of Alioramus altai and the braincase of the same animal. At the time, and shortly after, I was a little harsh with my throwaway comments regarding this animal which, on the face of it, was wrong of me and I'm grateful to Tom Holtz for putting me right. So apologies to Steve and his team for a job well done.

Miyashita and Currie's new phylogeny of Tyrannosauroidea was interesting for what it didn't do - that is there were no significant revisions of note to work that had previously been done by previous workers including Currie himself. The only oddity is that Alioramus comes out closer to Tyrannosaurus than Daspletosaurus but we'll have to wait for the detail before making any judgements. But I was intrigued that there appear to be at least four confirmed species of Daspletosaurus representing two distinct lineages. I love daspletosaurs - they are proper tyrannosaurids and knowing that there are now multiple species (and probably more) adds to their attraction.

After lunch it was the turn of the sauropods, and lots of interest here as well. I've started to be more interested in sauropods these days since they are almost mechanically impossible (if I'm making my self clear!) and I've always thought that when we can say for sure how they actually "worked", then we will have gone a long way to understanding how dinosauria "worked" as a whole.

I was in the company of Heinrich Mallison of the the Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin, for this session. It was a delight to have someone next to you with so much insight and, you might say, such constructive criticism and appreciation. He amazed me in as much that he continued to work on his latest digital rendering of Plateosaurus whilst managing to talk to me and listen to the presentations all at the same time. And what a 3D program he has on his laptop - truly awesome.

After the final technical session, we all headed for the last poster session, which was definitely the best attended of the meeting. But, as mentioned previously, the room constraints made viewing really awkward and, if you spent any time talking to the authors, then everything tended to seize up. It was really hot as well but everybody coped and nobody appeared to get agitated at all and it made for an enjoyable experience. Heinrich seemed to be particularly enjoying himself, presenting his poster on sauropod rearing capabilities, since every time I looked, his poster was always well attended and he was always in full flow!

Eventually the poster session drew to a close and the exhibits hall was dismantled and most of us returned to our rooms and hotels and prepared for the SVP awards ceremony and the traditional end of meeting party. I didn't attend the awards ceremony but did go the party. It appeared that almost everyone was there and it appeared that a good time was had by all. When I left it was still going strong. I said a few brief farewells and made my way back to my room. As I walked back, the realisation that the meeting was over started to sink in and I found myself wanting it to go on. But, as we all know, all good things must come to an end.

I started the drive home the following morning, slightly sad it was all over, but absolutely buzzing because of the great time I had. It really had been a fabulous meeting. Next years meeting is in Pittsburgh which I probably won't be attending but never say never - and circumstances do change. But Las Vegas in 2011 - now that is really tempting!

A Word of Thanks......

I have been so fortunate to meet so many of the people that I wanted to meet and every single one of them was courteous and gave up a little of their time for a chat with me and, in some cases, share their considerable knowledge as well. In no particular order, I'd like to thank the following people:

Catherine Badgley, Greg Brown, Lorraine Cornish, Phil Currie, Amy Davidson, Patrick Druckenmiller, Denver Fowler, Jerry Harris, Scott Hartman, Tom Holtz, Dave Hone, Scott Moore-Fay, Scott Sampson, Remmert Schouten, Darren Tanke, Mike Taylor, Mike Triebold and a host of others whom I was fortunate to meet. Thank you all.

Special thanks to the wonderful Eva Koppelhus who was gracious enough to spend quite a bit of time chatting to me and introduced me to the charming Ariana Paulina-Carabajal, who somehow succeeded in making theropod braincases really interesting.

Finally, my biggest thanks go to the previously mentioned Heinrich Mallison, who just made the week such fun, taught me quite a bit, and told me such great stories that not laughing was not an option!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

SVP 2009 - Final Day

Day 3 was a long, long day. I started off listening to some papers on pterosaurs and these were amongst the best talks of the week. The first dinosaur papers soon followed and there were some really interesting papers but the highlight was Scott Samson's (whom I'd eaten with only the previous night) paper regarding two new chasmosaurines from Utah, as yet unnamed. These were truly awesome animals. And then the revelation (not new mind) that Torosaurus is no longer a valid taxon.

After another lively poster session and something to eat, it was time for the SVP silent and live auctions and these were well attended and great fun. I eventually got home later in the evening and crawled into bed ready for the final day.

Today was tough early on. I was having trouble keeping up as it were but as the morning moved on there were some good papers and there was a couple of subtle exchanges regarding tyrannosauroid phylogeny. Really feisty stuff. The afternoon was dominated by sauropod papers and there were a couple of interesting talks but a few of them, in my opinion, were non-events. But like I say, that's my opinion.

After another superb poster session, I'm now in my room getting ready for the end of conference party and I have to say I'm already suffering from withdrawal symptoms - it's been that good. I return home tomorrow and although I'm looking forward to it, I know that I'll go pretty quiet after coming down from a very big high.

I'll sum up the meeting soon with a list of names of the people who have taken the time to speak to me and discuss things. I feel very privileged. Now lets go the party.....

Thursday, 24 September 2009

SVP 2009 - Live

Well I'm writing this during a break on the second day of the SVP conference in Bristol. And I must say that it's meeting all my expectations and more. This event is massive and you wouldn't imagine that there would be this many paleontologists in the world, let alone in Bristol right now.

Before the conference started proper, I attended a preparators workshop and this concentrated on the use of glues and consolidants. It was great meeting and listening to so many good preparators. I was delighted to find that my self-taught preparation skills are, indeed, of a good standard and is a case of refinement. We followed the workshop with a preparators dinner that evening which was good fun.

The following day the conference started proper, and I attended talks on marine reptiles during the morning. There was some really interesting talks and I will discuss these at some point in the future. During the afternoon I visited the exhibits at the Victoria Room and looked at the first of the poster sessions.

Today I attended a few talks in the Romer Prize session ( a really interesting talk on allosaur ontogeny here) and then attended the preparators session for the rest of the morning. After a look at the second poster session I returned to my room for a bit of a break - I've been on the go non-stop for a few days now. Tonight I'm attending a lecture by David Attenborough on Wallace and the birds of paradise and I'm really looking forward to it.

With two days to go I've already seen so much and met so many people. I consider myself very lucky and look forward to the rest of the meeting. The really good stuff is about to start!

Monday, 21 September 2009

All Roads Lead to Bristol - SVP 2009

As many of you know, SVP 2009 is at Bristol University this year - the first time the event has been held in the old world and I'm really looking forward to it. For me, this will be the chance to meet so many of the people that I have corresponded with over the years, as well as the opportunity to meet new acquaintances and, hopefully, some good contacts.

More than that, it is the opportunity to learn so much that draws me to the event. Indeed, as I have already mentioned tonight, I shall be as an ant amongst giants, but I hope to make a small contribution to the event and ensure that I do more listening than talking!

I hope to see some of you there but if not you are bound to hear more about the event in the coming weeks. Some of the abstracts I've read are truly amazing! See you soon.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Sometimes I Hate Being Right

Soon after my luckless trip to Quarry 4, I was again heading south to the Bluff. Apart from my usual anticipation and excitement driving to the quarry, I also had that feeling in the pit of my stomach that today was not going to be my day. I don’t think there was any particular reason for this feeling but it was there none the less and I hoped it was just me being silly.

I’ve had these feelings before, but they also come with a positive message. It’s like a sixth sense, which I also get when I go fishing - that wonderful, nerve tingling sensation that something exciting is about to happen. Of course, it’s not always right but when it does come off, I find it one of the most satisfying feelings to have.

Arriving at the Bluff I was, as usual, one of the first to arrive. Having signed in, and after exchanging the usual pleasantries, I made my way to the quarry. I wasn’t the first – indeed there were three others already present. One lady, who I knew well from over the years, was engrossed in her searching. Of the other two there, one guy, Mark, I had met last time but the other I didn’t know.

Mark is a preparator at the NHM. I was extremely interested to learn that he was working on the original specimen of Mantell’s Hylaeosaurus armatus, an animal recovered in 1832! He confirmed that BMNH R3375 is still encased in Tilgate sandstone despite continuous preparation over the years and is proving “stubborn” to extract. I’m sure!
He has also invited me for a look behind the scenes which I am very much looking forward to.

I walked along the dinosaur beds looking for a suitable spot to start searching in. Having found what were the obvious remains of a tree, I opted to dig around it, but first I had a quick glance around to see if anything had worked its way to the surface. I looked briefly and then moved on.

I was only about 50 yards away when I looked back to where I had left my gear to see the others gathered around my pitch! I slowly ambled back (as you do) only to find that four pieces of bone were picked up off the surface only a few feet from my gear. I could hardly believe it. I must have simply missed them.

Closer inspection revealed them to be associated pieces of bone, jet black in colour (unusual for this quarry). it was difficult to say with any certainty what animal they belonged to, but one possible rib piece looked distinctly crocodillian.

The discoverer was Chris who had come with Mark and he was, understandably, quite pleased. I, on the other hand, was suitably rattled and this seemed to confirm that my feeling about the day was coming true. I continued my search of the surface and was not surprised at finding nothing.

I returned to my spot, made absolutely certain that there was no more bone in the vicinity, and started to dig into the reptile beds. Mark was doing the same, about five yards to my left but Chris continued his walkabout and headed toward the North West banks.

As the morning wore on, the temperature rose and both Mark and I were working hard for scant reward. Approaching midday we were surprised to see a large group of people standing on the rim of the quarry, all kitted out, looking down at us. They quickly descended and joined us in a long line of excavators – I’ve never worked with so many people in a single bed. Mark and I exchanged glances, slightly bemused by the whole issue.

We were even more surprised when they started conversing in French! We later found that they were a group of visiting French geologists and enthusiasts who had gained admittance to the Bluff for the day. Work continued apace but even with all these extra hands, all that turned up was a single Lepidotid scale.

Eventually news reached us that the North West insect beds were again producing the goods and that a nice vertebra had also been recovered. The French picked up on this and soon migrated en masse to these beds. There were just three of us now, until Chris wandered back with yet more salt to rub into our wounds.

Chris had stated that he was desperate to find an Iguanodon tooth, and whilst walking on the top of the North West section came across a spit tooth just sitting on the surface. Amazing! The tooth, although heavily worn in life, was jet black in colour and had retained its overall shape – a really nice example.

Whilst standing there chatting about the morning’s events, Chris then decided to root around in Mark’s spoil heap and immediately extracted two different species of brachiopod that Mark himself had missed. Ouch!
It was time to move on.

Chris went back to the northwest bank while Mark and I also went on walkabout – we were now desperate for anything no matter how insignificant. But as the afternoon wore on it became apparent that we would continue to struggle. Mark eventually found a fish scale, and even when Chris joined us for the latter part of the afternoon, there was nothing else to be found.

Eventually it was time to leave and again I was empty handed – as many other people were. As we were leaving, however, Mark found another lepidotid scale in the road around the Bluff; a knife was all that was required to secure his prize.

The Bluff can be annoyingly tough at times but generous at others. I’ve always found that the second trip of the year is never as productive as the first. Usually, on the first trip, there will have been at least one good scraping of clay removed by the brick works, as well as an eroding winter of wind, rain and frost.

Only on very rare occasions will there have been another scraping to help with the second trip, and this is mainly the reason for the September trip always being more difficult. I left the Bluff again, down but not out, for I had gained two new fellow fossil hunters to share in trials and tribulations for the future! Roll on next spring when I’m sure that we will all return and try again. Who knows? Maybe that elusive skeleton may put in an appearance.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Almost There

Just a quick line to say that I am just about over this infection now and am feeling much better. Indeed, I have returned to work today and, despite the continual discomfort of the drugs on my stomach, am coping well. I am also working on the next field diary entry which will appear here shortly. A big thank you to all of you who have shown concern - it is much appreciated.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

My Turn To Be Ill

Over the weekend when I was fishing, just every now and then, I would get the shivers and feel really cold. At first I didn't pay any attention to it and put it down to "one of those things". However, when I arrived home on Sunday, I was obviously not right and felt progressively worse as the day wore on.

Sunday night was a torrid affair with hardly any sleep simply because of my temperature fluctuations and I could feel my throat becoming a little sore. As I rose from bed on Monday morning, it was obvious that I wouldn't be going in to work - I was a little giddy and quite weak and decided that I would deal with this sickness as I would any other sickness. So I gargled with TCP and took flu powders and hot lemon since this would normally work in most cases.

It was at this point that I rang the NHS swine flu line - just in case as it were. But I knew from the amount of times that I said "No" that I did not have this form of flu. As the day wore on I felt a little better but I still kept suffering the hot and cold flushes. Later in the day I checked out my throat and was confronted with a sight so disgusting that I then realised that I may have to go to the doctors at some point.

I went to bed, planning to go to work the following day, but a second really uncomfortable night made me realise that I wouldn't be going in at all. I managed to get an appointment early this morning and this was the result.

I have, and I quote, an "....ultra-aggressive infection..." of the throat. I am running an extremely high temperature, not too far from being classed as a fever (as you can imagine I was not enjoying this). This is because my body is struggling to fight the infection and then she smiled and said that she hadn't seen a throat like this for some time. I began to slump in the chair....

So the first thing to do is that I must control my temperature so I am to gargle four times a day with soluble aspirin, then swallow, to lower it and this will also clean some of the muck off of my throat. And I also have a very strong course of penicillin to combat the infection.

But then,and this was the "I don't want to worry you but...." moment, is that the next few days are crucial. If the drugs don't work then there may be a chance that an abscess will have formed (something called a quinsy) and this can inhibit breathing and will definitely entail a trip to hospital for an operation. This can mean having the abscess drained or having the tonsils removed or both.

So that's my current health report - not good - but it could be worse and the hospital trip is most unlikely (I hope, touch wood etc etc). Those of you that care need not worry, I shall be fine and be doing all the right things and hopefully be fully operational in the not too distant future. Thanks for listening.

Monday, 7 September 2009

What I Last Caught.....3

I actually managed to get away for the weekend and do a spot of carp fishing. I love all sorts of fishing but this is the one that really yanks my chain because you know, if you get it right, you are in for one hell of a ride.

Anyhow the weather appeared right and there wasn't a huge amount of pressure on the lake, which is always better. On the first night, however, things did not go to plan and all I caught was a bream, about 6lb in weight, of which 3lb was slime (just why are bream soooo slimy?).

The following evening felt much better. I really felt that something was going to happen and the fish were showing en masse. The first fish I caught was another bream, but this was around the 9 or 10lb mark and actually put up a bit of a scrap - a novelty in itself. Eventually the buzzer indicated that a very angry fish had attached itself to my hook and proceeded to give my entire body a very physical workout. I was almost certain that it was a common carp since this is how they fight in here, and after about 15 minutes slid the net underneath her.

At 23lb 6oz she was a real stunner and I sacked her for the images to be taken a little later. Just before first light I latched into another fish which I guessed to be a mirror carp because of its much more ponderous and steady scrap and was pleased to see that my guess was correct. At 15lb 4oz she was more than welcome.

I really do seem to have the rigs absolutely spot on at the moment and this is proven in that this was only my second trip here this year and have caught on both occasions. Incidentally it appears that nothing else was caught that night, at least not as far as I'm aware. I suppose I've set myself for a great fall now but I really am 100% confident in my carp fishing and in this game, confidence is everything.

With apologies for the sound and light levels (well it was first light and I didn't want to shout)here are a couple of short video clips of the fish - enjoy!

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Whither Quarry 4......?

For some time now, Quarry 4 was nearing the end of its life, approaching exhaustion as it were. Finally, this week, I have received confirmation that, indeed the end is nigh and the quarry will be closed toward the end of the year.

I still have several field diary entries about the quarry to post in the not too distant future so, as far as Saurian is concerned, there is still a little bit of life in the old girl yet. And, realistically, Quarry 5 will open immediately for clay removal. Already the glacial till and sands have been removed and the Oxford clay is fully exposed.

On our most recent field trip to Quarry 4, it was very apparent that the water level was now rising and it made prospecting quite dificult. Since then, in the last week, a new drainage channel has been dug at the back of the quarry and this will alleviate the flood problem in the short term. But this is only a temporary measure and it is definitely safe to assume that this will be the last one for the quarry.

All machinery, cabins and power will be transferred to Quarry 5 during October/November. Some machinery is already in place. At this point, our quarry passes will also be transferred to 5 for all future field trips. Soon after this the quarry walls will be breached at the south west end and Quarry 4 will be allowed to flood, lost to both geologists and palaeontologists alike, forever.
Before this, teams from both Oxford and Cambridge universties have applied for access to the quarry before the flood event and these will almost certainly be the last field trips there although I'm sure Mark and I will be on the end of the last clay extractions if at all possible.

It's strange to think that all those ammonites, belemnites, various shells and almost certainly more marine reptiles are to be buried below water yet again but in many ways this is a fitting end for the quarry. And yet, it really isn't the end of Quarry 4 - not by a long way.

Quarry 5 is, realistically, an offshoot of 4. It's on the same site, indeed only several hundred yards away from the older quarry and the fossils will be the same. But a fresh quarry, new exposures and we are able to prospect in it. It doesn't get much better than that and 5 is also much more secure and will be much harder for illegal collectors to poach and that can only be good for science and our national heritage.

It's sad to see Quarry 4 disappear below the waters, but Quarry 5 will be just as prolific and Quarry 6 has already been approved for extraction and when that opens in a few years time, it is going to be a massive quarry. Happy days.................

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

What I Last Caught.....2

Because of other commitments throughout the year, fishing has taken a bit of a back seat just now. I've only actually managed to get out a couple of times to do some genteel float fishing, as opposed to the rather precision planned carp fishing.

Anyhow, I stayed with relatives on the coast at Walton-on-the-Naze and while there, I took advantage of the situation and had a days fishing on a commercial fishery that I had fished before. Although not the nicest water to fish I did, in fact, have a good day and caught a multitude of species, nothing big, but all very welcome.

The highlight of the day was this glorious looking golden tench - an ornamental version of the common green tench. Although only about a pound in weight, it was the first of this species that I've ever caught and I don't think I've seen a prettier coloured fish. It really is a stunner.

In fact, the day turned out to be one of my happiest days for a long time and I really felt great at the end of it. I hope there are many more to come.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Quarry 4

Quarry 4 (name changed) is another of those amazing Oxford clay quarries that continues to yield abundant and varied fossils. Situated along the A1 corridor, the quarry is still being worked for its high quality brick making clay.

Because it is still being worked, the pit changes shape rapidly and good finds are virtually guaranteed. The clay is Jurassic in age, Callovian, about 160 million years old.

The most common fossils are the ammonites, but these are nearly always paper thin and not very collectable, although some of the clay matrix is very beautiful and the ammonites can be preserved in situ to make a really nice piece for study. Occasional three dimensional ammonites can be found but these are exceptionally rare.

The next most common fossils are the belemnites and Gryphaea, the Devil’s Toenails. The belemnites are often large and well preserved. Most are broken but some full length fossils survive intact and these make impressive pieces. Occasionally, they are recovered on slabs of clay with the outline of the soft parts preserved, including the tentacles and these are highly sought after.

Not so common but of great interest are the occasional remains of trees and plants. These are often land plants that have been washed out to sea, sank and were covered by sediment to become fossilised. A lot of these are poorly preserved but every now and then, a really nice example survives and I was very fortunate to recover a superb piece of bark on my last visit here.

But this quarry and others like them are rightly renowned for the remains of the fish and marine reptiles that swam in the open sea. Many fine specimens of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pliosaurs have been found over the years, and it was these fossils that I was determined to seek out.

When you first visit a highly productive quarry such as Quarry 4, you cannot help but collect loads of fossils and pretty soon you have a bag full of belemnites and the like. Nothing wrong with that, but the hard part comes when you start to look between these fossils for bone or teeth and then it becomes a lot more difficult.

But I was determined to try on this latest trip.

Lessons Learnt

Unfortunately we arrived about 15 minutes later than our associates and by the time we dropped into the quarry and reached the search areas, the freshly turned over sections were already being scoured for their fossils. I noticed, however, that the “hot” section from the last trip was devoid of people, so we opted to start there – a mistake I was later to realise.

Despite our closest attentions along this whole section we turned up very little. Without sounding blasé, there were, of course, plenty of belemnites and shells but try as we may, no vertebrate fossils were forthcoming. The sun was beating down on us as well – we were sweating for very little return.

After a while we decided to head for the freshly turned clay as some of the others had moved on but even there we struggled. As we started to head back to the meeting area for lunch, news reached us that an ichthyosaur had been located on the upper level of the quarry and was being assessed for possible excavation.

We went back to the car for lunch and were able to see the morning spoils. Some nice pieces of bone had been recovered but the highlights were two teeth found by the same guy. The first was a nicely preserved plesiosaur tooth, jet black and slightly curved but the second was an exceptional pliosaur tooth, about 2 inches long, on matrix with exceptional enamel preservation and colour. To say I was a little envious is an understatement!

Shortly afterward, two of the more experienced collectors returned with the ichthyosaur bones that were exposed on the surface. They removed the bone because of the possibility that the pieces may be illegally collected – a sad factor in today’s world.

The site was marked out and photographed and permission will be obtained from the quarry owners for a proper excavation. Confidence is high that the rest of the skeleton is probably there. Hopefully I will be able to let you know the outcome in a separate post.

Moon Pit

After the excitement of the ichthyosaur and lunch duly finished, we were delighted to find out that we were going to another quarry for the afternoon. This was only about a mile away and a somewhat famous quarry in the area.

The quarry, which we will call Moon Pit, is no longer being worked for its clay but is rightly famous for its marine reptile fossils and, more recently, aroused nationwide interest when the giant fish Leedsichthys problematicus was excavated there and television cameras were there to capture it on film.

Arriving at the quarry, one was struck by how much of it was already overgrown and surprised at the sight that there was a solitary excavator positioned there digging into the fresh clay. On one side of the quarry, there was a clay “peak” that had been heavily excavated on both sides leaving a strange hoodoo- like structure that was quite eerie.

We all went our separate ways to search for fossils. Initially, we went to the area where the excavator was in the hope of finding freshly uncovered specimens, but the clay was strangely barren. We slowly circumnavigated the quarry until we reached the area with the most spoil heaps and searched there.

In the centre of this area was a long man-made trench and it would appear to be the place where Leedsichthys had been removed. Searching in the vicinity revealed very little, a few belemnites and not much else and I suspected that today was going to be one of those days.

As the afternoon wore on it was obvious that everyone was struggling so we slowly headed back to the cars (these, incidentally, were parked in the bottom of the pit – not every day you park your car on an ancient sea floor!). On arriving at the cars, we found to our surprise that the guy, who had found those teeth back at Quarry 4, had also found a partial plesiosaur paddle bone and some other fossil bone. Well, when your luck’s in.....

The day had drawn to a close, an unsuccessful day from a personal point of view but highly rewarding none the less. We had seen some nice fossils recovered and had been on site when at least a partial ichthyosaur had been discovered.

We headed home, a little more wiser than earlier in the day and determined to return next year for a more successful trip.


Shortly after I finished this article, the ichthyosaur site was revisited but unfortunately the hope of a complete skeleton soon disappeared. Instead, it appeared that a conglomeration of not only ichthyosaur, but also plesiosaur bone had come together and was scattered about on the surface over a fairly wide area. However, all the bones have now been recovered and taken to a repository, and we hope for better luck next time.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Walking With Dinosaurs - Live!

A brief review of this then. For the last two years WWD has been touring Australia firstly, and then the USA last year and the show has arrived here for 2009. The first thing to mention is that, as you can imagine, the show is aimed at a younger audience but if, like me, there's still a little boy in you and you love dinosaurs, then you will enjoy this.

We saw the event at the O2, an ideal venue since there are no barriers or structures in the way - everyone gets a good view. The general synopsis is that a paleontologist named Huxley (not THE Huxley by the way) is your guide from the very beginning of the dinosaurian era during the Triassic through to their extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. The stage set is cleverly conceived with images projected onto a massive curtain at the back of the stage in conjunction with some ultra-clever plant and tree designs that pop up on cue and collapse equally quick when required. This was a really clever piece of technology and choreography backed by a rich and sumptuous soundtrack.

The dinosaurs themselves are a marvel of technology. When they first appear and you look at them walking with the aid of supports and platforms you are, at first a little disappointed. However, this is short lived and as you get into the show, more and more, the platforms become less obvious. The one thing that everyone should get out of this show is how big these animals truly were. You don't realise, at first, just how big, but then you see Huxley wandering amongst them and they are BIG.

Everyone has their favourites and naturally enough Tyrannosaurus was the star of the show although I liked Stegosaurus and both of the brachiosaurs. Some of the smaller theropods such as a pack of Utahraptor and a juvenile Tyrannosaurus are actually powered by men but it is done in such a clever way that it is hard to believe sometimes and the animal-tronics really make it work.

The only criticism I would have is that the merchandise was heavily overpriced. A programme would set you back 12 pounds and parents were rapidly emptying their pockets to give their kids a souvenir or two. I'm not expecting merchandise to be cheap but I would expect the prices to be more realistic especially when parents would have forked out up to £35 a ticket to see the show in the first place. You do the math.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed the show and aside from my usual criticism of anything like this ie. portraying speculation as fact, I would recommend the show. WWD can be seen shortly in Birmingham, then Liverpool before finishing at the Wembley Arena. Go and see it while you can.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Lets Hear It For The Wasp.....

A couple of quick posts now. The wasp has a pretty bad reputation as a whole. "The only good wasp is a dead wasp" and "What use does a wasp have except to sting people?" are oft quoted statements by just about everyone. Nearly all of us can be seen at the moment waving our arms around to ward them off, chasing them with rolled up newspapers or luring them to their doom with jam pots ( Jam a la Brea I call them).

Well it's time that somebody stood up for them and made people think before they extinguish so many lives. You have to admire them in so many ways and a couple of things need to be mentioned in their defence. Firstly, what are they good for? Well wasps are active hunters and do much more good than harm, plundering all sorts of pests for both farmer and gardener. Secondly they are a wonderful social insect with a complex life cycle that is on a par with any bee. Finally, just consider the life of the working wasp. Born to a queen in Spring, to serve the nest all Summer on behalf of the next generation - theirs is a life of toil.

Eventually, as the year moves on, the next generation of queens leave the nest and, at this point, the nest becomes virtually inactive and the workers are literally at a loose end. This is the wasp's "dozy" time. There is no point to their existence and they are condemned to a miserable day to day survival until the first frosts kill them off - all of them. Not a single worker survives. But the queen remains and sleeps in her nest until the Spring and then the whole cycle starts again.

Remember then. When the "dozy" wasps are around, seemingly punch-drunk and determined to sting you, remember to give them a little respect for they are all about to die after a life of selfless servitude to the cause. Let's hear it for the wasp......

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Into the Devil's Hole

The Devil’s Hole (name changed) is a working quarry situated fairly close to the A1 heading north not too far from St.Neots. It is a shallow quarry in comparison with some others in the area because it is only the top 4 metres or so that are quarried.

These 4 metres of materials are sands and gravels laid down during the Pleistocene (Early Devensian) around 75,000 years ago and were subsequently scoured by glaciers during the last glacial period. Below these layers is a channel of Oxford clay dating back to the Jurassic, but this is not extracted here. Only the sand and gravel is extracted and this is why the quarry is shallow.

As you were no doubt aware, the Summer of 2007 had proven to be extraordinarily wet but in early July, after a week of rain, I arrived at the Devil’s Hole in bright breezy conditions with only occasional banks of cloud to break up the sunshine.

As the quarry is still being worked, you have to sign in and then be escorted to the area where we could start looking for fossils. The quarry itself, although shallow as mentioned, actually covers a vast area and we were taken to a couple of recently excavated areas that lie parallel to each other and these were to be our hunting grounds for the day.

Both mini-quarries were similar in layout and it was a toss of a coin to decide which one to start with. The stratigraphy of the glacial units was instantly clear as were the spoil piles of Oxford clay that were created as the excavators hit the ancient sea bed once the bulk of the sand and gravel had been extracted.

I started with the clay looking for ammonites and any possible reptile remains and after previous trips in the Oxford clay, I was expecting abundant fossils from the off. I was wrong. There was very little exposed, just the odd gryphaea and poorly preserved belemnite. I was a bit bemused by this but carried on looking convinced that there would be something, somewhere.

But still fossils were hard to come by, and after a while I decided to get up close and personal with selective spoil heaps. Since I’ve been fossil hunting, one of the best ways to start finding fossils when I’ve been struggling is to get close to the ground and start carefully sifting through dirt (or clay in this point). Today would prove to be no exception.

After a few hours of close up intense scrutinisation, I eventually found a few nice pieces including three tiny pyratised ammonites which are just a wonderful golden colour. I located one complete ammonite (species to be determined) that will need to be stabilised, a couple of beautifully preserved brachiopods, a tiny gastropod and some other ammonite pieces.

Whilst having a break and something to eat, word filtered through that some bone had been recovered from the quarry next door. “Typical” I thought, as visions of Ichthyosaur or Plesiosaur bones came to mind. For the second time I was wrong. The bones were from mammals of the Pleistocene, animals that roamed England not too long ago.

After lunch, further investigation revealed that a partial rib had been recovered, a partial ulna from possibly a bison, and amazingly enough, a mammoth task. Although, by mammoth standards, the tusk was small (about 3 feet) the tip was superbly preserved. As I was going to look in this quarry during the afternoon anyway, I hastened to get there somewhat more urgently!

This quarry was a little harder to traverse - there was water everywhere. The spoil heaps were similar though although they were very much in parallel lines, more so than the quarry next door. There was a few of us in the quarry now and I suspected that the best fossils had already been removed.

However, I was more than pleased when, after only half hour in the quarry, the chap who had found the tusk located an excellently preserved mammoth tooth only 50 yards from where I was. Today was certainly his day alright but at least it proved that were still good finds to be had.

As the afternoon wore on, nothing else was found and I resigned myself to the fact that I was probably going to end up boneless for the day. Eventually though I resorted to type and picked a likely spoil heap, got on my knees and started to look closely.

A piece of white “wood” caught my eye, roughly half-moon shape, buried in the spoil with only about 25mm exposed. Closer inspection revealed the tell-tale porous cell structure of bone and, holding my breath, I started to carefully remove the spoil around the base and the wonderful rich enamel colour of fossil bone appeared and confirmed that I had indeed found something special.
But what was it? I couldn’t determine what it was at first. It was big and held fast and I was particularly careful in removing the spoil. After 10 minutes or so I managed to remove an exquisite neck vertebra.

Unofficially it has been identified to belonging to either a bison or woolly rhinoceros – an amazing find. After carefully wrapping up the specimen, I continued to look in the immediate area for any further remains of the animal but the day was drawing to a close and, in the time remaining, I knew that further finds were unlikely.

Shortly afterward, we gathered together to compare notes and specimens. It had been a remarkable day with some nice fossils recovered. Our escort then led us from the quarries and back to the office to sign out. They had looked after us all day and a big vote of thanks is very much deserved. Thanks – you know who you are!

The rain had held off all day and I headed south for home. This was a first visit to the Devil’s Hole and I hope to return in the future, although this particular quarry is getting increasingly difficult to access, like so many these days, and opportunities are sure to be limited.


And here it is. This is an exquisitely preserved cervical vertebra from a wooly rhinoceros. Compared to some preparatory operations that are currently in progress, this was a relatively simple process. What matrix that there was was easily removed, and after a fairly standard clean up operation, the entire bone has been stabilised with B72.

The problem with sub-fossil bone of course is that I'm not absolutely certain that this consolidant will do the correct job, but it will do for now. There are those that prefer PVA for this form of bone or maybe PEG 4000. I'm hoping to get the definitive answer at SVP in Bristol during September since this form of bone preservation will be getting some deserved attention.

Monday, 27 July 2009

PC Hell-o

Well, I have my computer back. There is no need to go into detail other than to say that when I mess things up, I can do it with some aplomb. The good news out of all of this is that I've met a real gentleman of the computer world who has spent no considerable amount of his own time putting things right. A big thank you Kris and a special mention of thanks go to my fellow preparator Mark who put me on to him in the first place.

As for the computer itself, well it would appear that the fix is one of those that is hard to quantify. It may last ten hours, ten weeks or ten years - there is just no way of knowing. But Kris has set the system up with a few fail-safe options and with the addition of an external hard drive I can rest easy knowing that all my data is at least safe.

So since reliability is obviously going to be a problem (and I hate that feeling of wondering if it is going to crash at any time), then I have no option but to invest in a new system in the near future. I suppose it was due anyway since I've had the current set-up since 2003 - ancient by today's standards. I'll time the purchase to coincide with the release of Windows 7, a quantum leap better than Vista by all accounts. Mind you, from a personal point of view, it will have to go some to beat XP - by far the most stable OS since Windows was launched many moons ago.

So next up is another field diary entry - computer permitting!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

PC Hell

I'm posting from my work computer. Why? Well, since I have had my computer, I have managed all the hardware and software upgrades myself. Indeed, so completely pain free have the procedures been that any problems that arose have been methodically and systematically dealt with. Until now.....
A little while ago, the CD-ROM/writer stopped working, so I took the opportunity to purchase a new DVD-ROM/writer as an upgrade. At first everything went as well as could be expected. Yet again all would be fine. Well not this time.
To cut a long story short, my PC is now undergoing serious surgery by somebody who DOES know what they are doing. Suffice to say that the BIOS is corrupt, the OS needs re-installing etc etc. Why did I bother? I'm not sure that there is a moral to all this but one thing I know for sure - don't get cocky with your computer because when it does bite you the treatment is likely to be expensive! I'll be back soon (I hope).

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Quarry Closure

I was saddened to hear this week that another brick works closed its doors for the last time in June, another victim of the recession. From a humanitarian point of view, it is again distressing that 61 people have lost their jobs and now find themselves competing for too few or non-existent jobs. Being in the manufacturing industry myself, I can totally relate to the situation and can say that we too are struggling to get through this tough period and I know I can speak for all my work colleagues in being apprehensive about the future. Certainly there are continuing hard times to come.

This particular works got its clay from the Cuckoo's Hole quarry, one of the most important Wealden sites in the south. This quarry shows beds in the lower part of the Weald Clay Group including beds B.G.S 3 and 3a (the Oakhurst Sand) and is from the Lower Cretaceous, Hauterivian, about 135 million years old. There has been some excellent material recovered over the years including insects, fish, crocodile and dinosaur remains.

I was only able to start prospecting there last year so this has come as real blow, not only from a personal point of view, but also in the bigger scheme of all things palaeo. The site itself is at the centre of many heated discussions just now as to what to use it for. Most controversial is the possibility of siting a waste incinerator there although this has come under the most fierce criticism.

But as for the quarry itself I have, as yet, no detail. It does have some protection since it is a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) which has it registered as " outstanding site with great potential for palaeontological and sedimentological research". As soon as I get some more detail as to the future of the quarry I'll let you know.

Incidentally, in the not too distant future, I'll publish my account of that first field trip at the Cuckoo's Hole and I'll also provide more in-depth palaeontological and geological data. I pray that it can be saved because, although only I've been there just the once, it's one of those places that feels right and it obviously has some impressive fossils to reveal.


Cuckoo's Hole is a pseudonym. For most of the quarries that I work in, I never reveal its true name unless it is the public domain. This is to protect them since they are all vulnerable to illegal collecting which, regrettably, is becoming more and more prevalent. There have been many fossils, important to science, which have been removed this way and I will never knowingly give thieves (for this is what they are) any help in locating prime sites.

I will highlight any name changes as I go along. There are some of you who will know where I am referring to - most of you will not but I am adamant that I will do all I can to stop the unauthorised pillaging of these quarries, and I know that most of you will agree with these sentiments.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Return to Seatown

Seatown is situated on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, not too far from the fossil hunting mecca of Lyme Regis. We first visited Seatown in May, 2005. I had always planned to visit this area before in the search for fossils but had been put off by the thought of hoards of tourists!

Eventually, though, the lure of complete ammonites and a sense of palaeontological history was enough to get me to Dorset. That first trip was a real eye opener. The weather had been atrocious that week and it rained heavily throughout the night before our trip on the Saturday.

I knew quite a bit about Seatown; I'd done my research. It was the best compromise location in the area since it was certain that fossils would be fairly abundant, maybe not complete ammonites but certainly plenty of bits. I've worked in various clay formations for some years now and know that quite often the best times to look in the clays are after heavy rainfall, but be prepared for very muddy boots!

By the end of the day, I felt we'd done quite well. A nice selection of both nautiloid and ammonite fossils graced our rucksack, including a few nigh-on complete ammonites. It helped that very few people were there and we had the beach virtually to ourselves. However, we didn't find any of the highly prized nodules that contain complete three-dimensional ammonites once prepped, and there were very few belemnites in evidence which I felt was strange (more on this later).

We left Seatown and then Dorset itself a couple of days later, but I knew then that I wanted to return and have another delve into Seatown's past. Early in 2007 we decided to return.

The Return

We returned to Dorset at the end of March 2007. This time the weather wasn't as "fossil-friendly" as previously but, on the other hand, it was just after the highest tide of the Spring and my hopes were high of at least enjoying similar fortune to that of our previous visit.

Low tide was mid-afternoon and we timed our arrival for lunchtime. It was a beautiful day, the sun was out and the cold northerly wind was blowing way over our heads. Again there were only a few people there as we made our way to the fossiliferous beds of the blue lias.

However, this time the situation was somewhat different. There was only one reasonable cliff fall which yielded a few nice pieces, but very little else. On our previous visit the clay cliffs were literally crumbling and falling before our eyes, but without the heavy rain they remained in fairly good shape.

On the other hand, the scouring tide had really cleaned up the exposed beds and in some sections we were walking on very flat stone, almost table-like. It was here that there was a marked difference from our last trip.

Exposed in extremely large numbers were belemnites and some were large for this particular locality. Previously they had been conspicuous by their absence and those that were found were tiny. This time we only collected one or two but the fact that they were present in numbers was surprising.

We continued our search but ammonites were in short supply, so we headed around the point at Seatown and proceeded to look for the elusive ammonite nodules. Despite our best efforts we struggled to find anything - a partial nodule with a partially exposed ammonite was all we could manage.

We turned back at low tide and headed towards the car, stopping to look as we went but without a lot to show for our efforts. Perhaps the most interesting fossils recovered were about half a dozen fully pyritized ammonites about 15mm across. I haven't quite made up my mind whether they are complete ammonites or whether they are the central coils of bigger specimens.

Either way, they are extraordinarily beautiful with an exceptional degree of preservation. It is easy to forget that they are 190 million years old (Lower Jurassic).

More people were scouring the beach by then and we returned to the car for a drink. At that point I knew that, whereas I would probably not visit Seatown again, at least for fossils, I definitely wanted to return to the Jurassic Coast and try again at another location, Charmouth for example.

Seatown is a great place to look for fossils, but please be aware of the tides. It is easy to get cut off if you are not careful. Also be aware that the cliffs are continually crumbling, especially in wet weather, so keep a good distance in these conditions.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Wyoming Geo Museum Closes

While I was away I was sorry to hear that, despite a considerable public outcry, the Wyoming Geological Museum has indeed closed its doors for the last time. Like so many people I find myself extremely disappointed by this conclusion, all to save 80,000 dollars as well, not a huge amount in the greater scheme of things.
You can read a little more here at ReBecca's blog. I guess I'm not that surprised but we must be ready for further battles to come. At least we are all a little wiser now and maybe go into the next scenario better prepared. Thanks to all of you who helped.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Back from the West....

It was very remiss of me not to mention that I would be on vacation for the last ten days but I'm back now. We've been to Cornwall, somewhere I haven't been to since I was little, and I do mean little!
We had a great time and the weather was near enough perfect, which is quite the statement since the rest of the country has been putting up with a rather oppressive heatwave. There was nothing during our holiday that was dinosaurian, paleontological or geological for that matter although I did do a little light reading to keep my engine ticking over.
Anyway, here is an image of the Cornish headland from Tintagel castle which is, according to legend, the birthplace of King Arthur. It does give you an idea of the sheer beauty of the area and the perfect weather that we had during our time there.
I'll put up another field diary entry soon. Until then, enjoy!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Tyrannosaurids (By the Numbers)

In his excellent article "Oh no, not another Wealden theropod!", Darren Naish briefly describes the remains of MIWG 6350 as belonging to a basal tetanuran theropod. Although fragmentary and non-diagnostic at the taxa level, they are certainly good enough to confirm the presence of yet another big theropod from the Wessex Formation.

Quite rightly he points out that there are several examples of late Jurassic and early Cretaceous palaeo-faunas that have at least three big theropods. Generally, they are from different clades as well and, when you first take that into account, it appears that there was obviously some form of resource partitioning - but does it? And also, as Darren states, why was the late Maastrichtian apparently dominated by only the one big theropod?

Sometime it takes an article such as this to slap you around the face and you ask yourself "What on earth have you been thinking about?". For some time now, I've been looking at the tyrannosaurid fauna of the Dinosaur Park formation (DPF) and particularly the fact there were two big contemporary tyrannosaurids in the form of Gorgosaurus and Daspletosaurus. It appeared to be nice and simple at first. Gorgosaurus appears to be a quick, agile, lightly built albertosaur ideal for tackling hadrosaurs. Daspletosaurus, a much more robust and powerful tyrannosaur, was obviously designed to take on the much tougher ceratopsians. Resource partitioning at its best, right? Maybe not.

Suddenly it appeared that there could be multiple species of tyrannosaurids resident in the DPF alone. Certainly there appears to be another species of Daspletosaurus which (hopefully) will eventually be described by Currie et al. There may be another tyrannosaur in the form of Aublysodon, known from D-shaped non-serrated teeth and (possibly) very fragmentary skeletal remains, but this seems unlikely now since Currie (2005) attributes these teeth to being juvenile premaxillary teeth from the previously mentioned Daspletosaurus Sp.

So, Aublysodon aside, we appear to have, again, three big theropods in the DPF. The only marked difference is the fact that these animals all belong to the one clade, the Tyrannosauridae. So where am I all leading with this? Bear with me and I'll explain my thoughts.

There is no doubt that tyrannosaurids suffer from being over-split at the generic level. However, when you look into tyrannosaurid remains throughout the Campanian and into the Maastrichtian, there is, for me, pretty good fossil evidence (albeit sometimes scrappy), that there are multiple tyrannosaurs present throughout the Upper Cretaceous (for the sake of argument I will use the term "multiple" to describe formations where there are at least two big tyrannosaurids present).

And yet, or so it appears, the Hell Creek formation (HCF) has only the one big predator in the form of Tyrannosaurus. And yet this animal may have a greater stratigraphic range than was initially realised for there is certainly circumstantial evidence that this may be the case and, if not, the evidence again proves the existance of multiple tyrannosaurids right through the Cretaceous until the uppermost Maastrichtian.

By way of examples then. There are elements of a big tyrannosaur from the De-na-zin member of the Kirtland formation as well as the underlying Fruitland formation. Urban and Lamanna (2007) reported on the possible existance of a rex-sized tyrannosaurid in the latest Campanian of the Judith River formation in Montana based on an isolated lacrimal. Although, at the time, it was tentatively referred to Tyrannosaurus, further comparative studies have now rendered this specimen as indeterminate. But what it does show is that the Judith River fauna also had multiple big tyrannosaurs.

There are also large tyrannosaurs known from the Naashoibito member of the Ojo Alamo formation in New Mexico, known mainly from teeth and postcranial skeletal elements. Also from New Mexico, there is material from the McCrae formation. And the same again - large tyrannosaurids are known from both the Javelina and North Horn formations. Interestingly now, the Javelina is dated at being around 69 million years old so this is right on the verge of the "official" T.rex timeline.

This being the case then, why does it appear that there is only the one large theropod in the Maastrichtian of the HCF? Well there are a few theories about this and, to be fair, each of them have a little merit. Firstly the non -predatory fauna of the HCF includes hadrosaurs, pachycephalosaurs, ankylosaurs and ceratopsians and this is a lot prey animals for one single species of tyrannosaur to "control", especially considering all the previously mentioned formations where multiple large theropods are present.

This may suggest an age specific partitioning of Tyrannosaurus to enable an efficient hunting strategy. Alternatively there may be other large theropods which are as yet unknown but this seems unlikely since Hell Creek is one of the most sampled formations in the world and it appears that the collected biomass is close to the actual biomass.

There were other predators present. Theropods such as dromaeosaurs, troodontids, ornithomimosaurs and oviraptorosaurs have all been found in the HCF but these are small animals and could hardly be classed as even mid-sized theropods. Even if the dromaeosaurs and troodontids hunted in packs, and could bring down fair sized prey, there would still be a vast amount of prey animals for adult tyrannosaurs and their juvenile forms to predate on.

This brings us nicely to Nanotyrannus. Currently, it would appear that the general concensus regarding the taxanomic status of this animal is that it is a juvenile Tyrannosaurus. But this is not really an issue since, as mentioned earlier, the probable over-splitting of tyrannosaurids means that these theropods are so closely related to one another as to make no difference. Of course this may mean that sampling is still an issue or, on the other hand, may confirm that resource partitioning by age is relevant.

Maybe it wasn't necessary to have two or three big theropods in the HCF. Perhaps juvenile and half grown Tyrannosaurus were the mid-sized theropods of this time. Of course others may point out that, if this was the case, why was it necessary to have multiple tyrannosaurids in the Campanian? And also, and this particularly frustrates, why are the remains of juvenile tyrannosaurids/Nanotyrannus so rare in relation to adults? Even a half grown rex could be twenty feet long and you would think that there would more found of them than there ever has been.

So where does that leave us? Darrens' question at the beginning remains valid and there appears no definitive answer. Despite my earlier protestation that Hell Creek is extremely well sampled, it is obvious that more sampling will need to be done and, maybe then, a combination of this and a review of tyrannosaurid systematics will provide an answer. Until then, this particular issue will rumble on and on. Don't you just love palaeontology?


Currie, P.J. 2005. Theropods, including birds; pp. 384-388 in P.J. Currie and E.B. Koppelhus (eds), Dinosaur Provincial Park, a Spectacular Ancient Ecosystem Revealed. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.

Urban, M.A., and Lamanna, M.C. 2007. Evidence of a giant tyrannosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Upper Cretaceous (?Campanian) of Montana. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 75(4):231-235.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

What I Last Caught.....1

Those of you who know me will be aware that I am, and always have been, a keen angler. At one time, it is all I would do. In my younger days (cough) every spare day, every spare hour, every spare moment would be spent fishing. Indeed, I would think nothing of spending an entire week fishing whenever vacation time was available.

Eventually, of course, life moves on, priorities change and all of a sudden fishing became less important but never the less has remained an essential part of my life. It's important because it brings you closer to nature and you see things that you would not otherwise see. It gives you time to think - many a master plan has been hatched on the banks of some lake or a river. Indeed, you often hear fishing described as "simply being there" and I believe that is just about what sums it up.

Catching fish is important too, not as much as it once was but, believe me, you still want to catch. As I've got older, though, I've reached a state of mind where I find myself knowing that, if the fish are feeding, then I will catch them. My rigs are efficient, I use a good bait and, provided I am in the right place, then the fish will do the rest.

Anyway, here's the last fish I caught and what an impressive beast it is - all 22lb 8oz of it. By carp standards it actually isn't that big but what a fight it put up. It was such a dogged slogging match that, if I had lost this fish, then I would have imagined it to have been much bigger than it actually was.

I caught this fish ( a common carp if you didn't know) just before first light this morning. After safely retaining the fish in deep water, I sat back and made myself a cup of tea and waited for the sun to come up so that I could take this picture. Early Summer mornings, by a lake in England with the birds singing to meet the rising sun - it just doesn't get any better than that (although first light in Alberta near Red Deer runs it close).

After the photographs she was safely returned to fight another day and I was grateful to her for sharing the dawn with me.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

University of Wyoming Geological Museum - Cut!

I appreciate that this story is doing the rounds big time in the palaeoblog world just now, but I feel that all of us who can contribute and help in any way have a duty to do so. For those of you who may be unaware of the situation, a short recap may help.

The University of Wyoming has included the Geological Museum in a group of budget cuts as a result of a decrease in funding by the state. 45 people across the University lost their jobs, including the Director of the Geological Museum Brent Breithaupt and the part-time museum secretary.

This could be the thin end of the wedge and detrimental for palaeontology as a whole and should not be allowed to happen. Many of us in the palaeoworld are spreading the word and you can help by getting as many people as possible (family, friends etc) by signing the petition below:

The cuts are due on July 1st 2009, so hurry up, sign up and spread the word!

And don't think that this situation is not being observed elsewhere. Remember that the recession is world wide and if we can make a difference now then maybe we can stop other institutions being targeted, both in the USA and elsewhere across the globe.

Finally, a big thank you goes to ReBecca of Dinochick fame who has done a brilliant job in championing the cause and spreading the word. You can find further details here: