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......