Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Burniston Bay & Port Mulgrave

During July 2008, Chris and I took a week’s holiday in the north east near Scarborough. Of course it would be remiss of us not to visit a fossil location or two while on the heritage coast, so I planned in a couple of trips. I’d read about Burniston Bay in a recent article describing an abundance of dinosaur footprints that were exposed during December 2007. The article made it very clear that such footprints do not survive long once exposed, either due to erosion or as a result of collection by the many fossil hunters in the area. But we decided to have a look anyway.

As the tides were not in our favour during that week, I determined that we would have to visit Burniston during the early part of the week and we went, in fact, on the second day of our holiday. We arrived at the bay at exactly high tide. The steps down to the bay are known as Crook Ness and, on looking down, there is a huge wave hewn rock platform that used to be covered in tracks. It is mostly worn away now but we saw a couple of indentations that looked as if they may once have been tracks.

We referred to the aforementioned article and, as the tide ebbed away, eagerly searched the immediate areas on both sides of the steps for tracks. I really liked the bay and it was pleasant place to be but, try as we might, no tracks were forthcoming. Every mark, every indentation became a possible footprint when, in fact, it most certainly wasn’t. We continued our search to no avail but, looking at the cliff, the sandstone layer which contains the tracks could be clearly identified, and it appeared very likely that there would be a further rock fall in the coming winter, thus exposing more tracks.

Eventually I came across what appeared to be a large tridactyl footprint on the foreshore very close to the cliff. This had become exposed probably due to sand and other debris being washed away by the sea. It appeared to be ornithischian in appearance, probably iguanodontid.

We left Burniston shortly afterwards and felt that if we were to revisit the bay, then it would have to be in the dead of Winter, preferably after a big storm or a scouring tide, when some freshly exposed tracks would be visible. But don’t let me put anyone off visiting at any time of the year – it really is a nice bay.

Later in the week we prepared for Port Mulgrave. The weather forecast wasn’t particularly encouraging but because of the tides it really was our best day to visit. We knew what to expect and weren’t to be disappointed. As we drove past Whitby the weather deteriorated and, on parking above Port Mulgrave, the rain came down heavier. We got out of the car, changed footwear and readied ourselves to go, but the rain continued to fall and we sat on the tailgate for a few minutes waiting for it to stop.

After a while I started to get itchy feet, mainly because low tide had been and gone and the sea was slowly coming in. Although we had a few good hours ahead of us, I felt we had to push on, especially with the descent that had to be tackled and the adverse conditions. We set off and very gingerly made our way down to the bay. I could see why this place is considered unsuitable for children and, to be honest, we did find it difficult as the wet conditions made the steps treacherous. After what seemed a long time we reached the shore, both grateful we had made it intact.

Right in front of us was a loose gathering of boats and lobster pots and also a few storage shacks. Fossil bearing strata was evident on both sides of us, but we headed north since, by reputation alone, this was the place to retrieve the best ammonite nodules. As we walked around the headland of the bay we came across a huge amount of rocks and boulders which were obviously the fossil bearing rocks. Getting there was a little harrowing since we were walking across wet Jurassic clay and, even with the proper footwear, it was difficult to keep upright!

We started to prospect. It was still raining but we carried on regardless. The rocks and boulders were a complete jumble, all different shapes and sizes but this meant there were lots of nooks and crannies to check out – my favourite sort of hunting, especially since many people appear not to have the patience to do it.

As usual it took me a few moments to get my eye in, but I soon found a cracking little ammonite, fully exposed and glistening wet. I showed it to Chris and was relieved that we appeared to be looking in a good spot. After a while the rain stopped and we started to dry out very quickly in the light breeze, so things were starting to look up.

For the next few hours we were engrossed in these rocks and started to recover some proper little nodules that obviously contained ammonites. Some were quite worn but careful preparation should still recover some good little specimens. Chris found what appeared to be the best nodule of the day. It certainly looked to contain a nice sized ammonite, which should be more or less intact since only a very small part had been exposed and worn away. Opening it will be a challenge but I’m hopeful it will make a nice display piece for home.

Slowly the tide started to come in and it was apparent that we would have to leave. We had amassed a good amount of nodules which was evident from the weight in my haversack, but, as usual, I was reticent to leave. I was having such a good time. We left at a somewhat slow pace continually looking as we returned to the steps, which by now, had dried out considerably. There were several different places still to look but we really did have to leave and we made our way to the top of the bay. The ascent was a lot easier without the rain but it was still a fair climb. We got back to the car and made ready to leave. We were both very hungry and fish and chips in Whitby were calling!

Port Mulgrave is reputed to be one of the top fossil locations in the UK and I was delighted to find it totally fulfilled my expectations, bearing in mind that we had covered just one small area. There are further spots heading north, and at the centre of the bay and on the south side, all highly fossiliferous. Without doubt we will return to this prime location the next time we are in the area. Burniston Bay and Port Mulgrave – both highly recommended.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Quarry News

I recently took the opportunity to visit Quarry 4 again but this time it was on a field trip organised by a local geological society. The quarry is made available every now then to such societies, as well as university students from Leicester and Cambridge. It was more of a fact finding mission since Mark and I haven’t visited the quarry much since spring due to other commitments and other family matters.

It proved to be an interesting day, not least because I was able to catch up on the news regarding a few quarries, but also because of a couple of recent finds from Quarry 4 and, of course, the days discoveries.

Firstly, it appears that Quarry 4 has finally ceased to be worked on. The last drag line has been moved away and the edges of the quarry are being sculpted in preparation for flooding. This looks almost certain to happen now, some time prior to December and the quarry will be lost to us forever. However, Carl Harrington pointed out that one of the huge clay scoops has been left in the secure compound located at the head of the quarry and it MAY mean they can start digging again should they need to. A kibbler is still there but it doesn’t appear to be doing much either.

Since we were last there, there hasn’t been that much clay removed and, despite the recent heat wave, there is still plenty of water in the left hand side of the quarry, which is a pain. There were some interesting pieces recovered. The most significant being a long rib-like bone from Leedsichthys. About three feet long and well preserved although in pieces, which is quite normal for these fragile bones. Carl winkled out what looks to be a plesiosaur ischium last knockings as well.

One chap found some teeth at the back of the quarry, including plesiosaur teeth. However, the majority of material was largely fish including scales, micro-verts, teeth and some small jaw sections. These were all found in an area about 5 meters square and this is also where the Leedsichthys bone was recovered.

Cliff Nicklin found the majority, as you would expect. Some of these teeth and jaw sections are tiny – no wonder I keep missing them! But some of the preservation is amazing. Speaking of Cliff, he only recently recovered a complete Lepidotes macrocheirus from Quarry 4. It was in pieces scattered over an area of about 3 or 4 feet. After extraction, he cleaned them up and pieced it back together and it’s all there! He showed me a picture – 2 feet long and awesome.

Quarry 5 still remains off limits to us at this moment in time although we are all optimistic that we will gain access in the near future. This highlights the continual problems for gaining access to any quarries these days and it is very sad that it continues to get harder, even for us who are already “on site” as it were.

The quarry itself is being excavated properly now and it makes you wonder how much is being uncovered and lost right now although, as mentioned previously, Quarry 5 is about as secure a quarry as it is possible to have. Worth mentioning again is the fact the clay is still not of a good quality for the brick making process so there is still a remote possibility that more clay may be required from Quarry 4.

Other quarry news now and I have some more positive news regarding the Devil’s Hole and Minnie’s Quarry. It seems news of their permanent closure is a little premature. Although the vast majority of workers at the quarries have lost their jobs, it appears that the quarries themselves are simply lying fallow and will be reopened when demand resumes.

This is indeed good news and means that these quarries join the Bluff in waiting for an upturn and there does seem to be signs of that now. I can confirm the brickworks are busy now and that all three were working when I was there. Not too long ago there was only one.

Its still too early to say that this is the turn around we’ve been waiting for but it is the first time that I could sense the belief that this may be it.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Minnie's Quarry

Minnie’s Quarry (name changed) is a very similar quarry to the Devil’s Hole and is, indeed, quarried for the same materials, i.e. the sand and gravels laid down during the Pleistocene period, although older at around 125 thousand years. And again, as in the Devil’s Hole, the upper levels of the Oxford clay are soon reached, whereupon the excavation stops.

However, this is where the two quarries differ slightly. Whilst the north end of the quarry is exactly as above, the southern end has been quarried for its clay as far down as bed 10, the same range of clays as Quarry 4. And this is where I intended to concentrate my efforts, not only for vertebrate fossils, but also to see if I could find one of those very elusive three dimensional Oxford clay ammonites that are so rare.

A small group of us arrived at the quarry after a trek of about a mile and the conditions were good. There had been substantial rainfall in mid-week and a drying wind had made the clay reasonable underfoot. We gathered at the head of the quarry to review safety procedures and then proceeded to prospect for fossils.

I could hardly believe it when, after only five minutes, Cliff Nicklin found a super little tooth. About 25mm long, it looked initially like an ichthyosaur tooth but both Cliff and I were inclined to think that it was from a marine crocodile. All in all a great find and a super start to the day.

Galvanised by that find I went down to the Bed 10 level and started to look in earnest. I found it hard to differentiate objects, primarily because the volume of belemnites in view at any one time made it difficult to concentrate on anything else, and I found my eyes constantly tuning into the symmetry of the belemnites!

As I moved down the quarry I could see that the group had broken into two distinct groups, with some concentrating on the Pleistocene gravels and the rest of us on the Oxford clay. I moved further into the quarry, crossed over to the other side and started to look through some very fine shales. They were full of ammonite impressions; some were startlingly beautiful in their clarity but you could hardly touch them without fear of breaking them and, unfortunately, there were no three dimensional fossils at all.

I pushed on further into the quarry and after a little bit of scrambling reached a section that looked really promising, the fine layers of clays and shales glistening wet in the newly arrived sunshine. But still nothing of note appeared before me. I then arrived at a flat section of the quarry, the deepest part as it turned out, and found myself walking on Bed 10. Shaped like an amphitheatre, the flat area shelved into water and was surrounded by the aforementioned clays.

I spent some time scrutinising Bed 10 but continued to struggle. After a while I moved out of the area and started to sift through the spoil heaps further along, but again I was to find that continually moving on isn’t always the best policy.

I had moved on about 200 metres when I decided to climb the spoil to my right and head up a bank to an area that looked as if it had been untouched for some time, and decided to walk back to Bed 10 along this route. This was a great area for well preserved belemnites but I ignored these and continued to look for other fossils of note.

After about 45 minutes I reached the Bed 10 area and was surprised to see four or five of the others on their knees carefully removing spoil near the back of the amphitheatre. This was the only area I hadn’t checked and again I had that sinking feeling that I had missed something important.

Sure enough, as I reached the others, I saw the remains of some fossil bone weathering out of the clay and more had been carefully exposed. These were fish bones, and Cliff tentatively assigned them to Leedsichthys but this would need to be verified.

As the others continued to carefully remove the clay around the bone, I decided to help and proceeded to prospect in the immediate area. However, it soon became apparent that there were no further bones to be exposed in the bed and it was a case of carefully removing the existing bone and preparing it for travel.

At this point I moved on more or less back to where we had entered the quarry and eventually arrived at the spot where Cliff had found his tooth. But still there was nothing of any significance to be found. After a drink and a bite to eat I decided to head to the Pleistocene gravels at the other end of the quarry.

I was struck by its similarity to the Devil’s Hole and remembering how I located the rhinoceros vertebra previously, I felt that had a reasonable chance of finding some bone. Gradually I worked my way through the spoil heaps and started to find derived fossils out of the Oxford clay, but eventually found a couple of pieces of badly exposed bone.

At last I noticed a block of clay that was situated between two spoil heaps and was pleased to find a small section of well preserved rib bone that had obviously only just been exposed. An expert would be able to identify it but, in my opinion, it was not a particularly diagnostic rib. The later consensus was that it may be bison but more likely deer.

At this point I met up with Cliff and a couple of others and we headed back to the end of the quarry, more or less in a line, continuing to prospect. Nothing else turned up and we eventually returned to the cars and discussed the day. Fossils that had been recovered included a plesiosaur tooth, a nice section of proximal femur from a big mammal, maybe rhino or mammoth, and a partial lower leg bone from a similar sized animal.

Incidentally, the guy who found the plesiosaur tooth was also the “lucky” chap who had those excellent bones and tooth finds from Quarry 4. His name is Carl Harrington and he’s much more experienced in Oxford clay fossils than I am, and I’ve also met him at the Bluff. I’ll chat with him soon and ask him how he does it. Cliff says it’s definition – he looks for shapes but this is difficult when there is so much material in view at any one time and all I focus on are belemnites because they are simply everywhere but I will keep trying. I’ll get there in the end.

Whatever his advice may be I hope to be able to use it soon! Minnie’s Quarry was a good site overall and I’d like to think a return trip may be possible for the future.

Earlier this year I got word that both Minnie’s Quarry and the Devil’s Hole had been closed – permanently. I never got that chance to go back to the former and am bitterly disappointed at the news. These two quarries, as mentioned previously, were quarried for their sand and gravels and demand over the last two years has collapsed.

I have to say that I have no idea what has happened to both sites and I hope to have more detail soon. The only sand and gravel extraction in recent months has come from Quarry 5 but they are only removing this to get to the clay so you would assume that there is some form of action plan in place that will enable a ready supply of sand and gravel to be extracted quickly should demand reoccur.

And I hope there will be better news soon. Having spoken only the other day to the guys at Quarries 4 and 5 (yes, 4 is still being worked!), there has been a marked increase in demand for bricks and thus clay. The works were described as “hectic”. I only hope that this is an upturn for all concerned, not yet another false dawn, and that this is the beginning of the recovery and that it spreads to the quarries in the south as well. Keep your fingers crossed..........

Thursday, 8 July 2010

More on Books!

Well it finally arrived! Like so many of you, I've been eagerly awaiting the publication of New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs edited by Ryan, Chinnery-Allgeier and Eberth. This book represents the proceedings of the very successful ceratopsian symposium that was held at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta.

Now I've only had a quick flick through so far but what a magnificent volume this is. It's big but looks well set out and I'm really looking forward to getting to grips with it. It really is filled with a wealth of data and new material and ten (yes TEN!) new taxa.

At some point I'll publish a review. It won't be as late as the previously reviewed Tyrannosaurus rex volume but it'll take a while to get to. I'm still reading Scott Sampson's Dinosaur Odyssey (review to come) and still have the last issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology to get through, but I'm getting there!

Incidentally, if anyone knows whatever happened to the book that was to be published with the proceedings of the tyrannosaur symposium that was held at the Burpee museum a couple of years back, then please let me know.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The Late, Late Book Review

This review of Tyrannosaurus rex: The Tyrant King was originally written at the back end of 2008 but I never published it. But now, having received a few enquiries about the viability of the book, I’ve decided to share it. Remember, that this is simply my own personal review, and there is no substitute for reading it yourself. Your glass will either be half full or half empty at the end of it!

With more than one reference to this book in a few threads and, since I’ve just finished reading it, I thought I’d make a few comments of review.

Firstly, as is often the case with books of this nature, it depends on your level of understanding as to whether this book is suitable for you. If you think this is an “everything you wanted to know about T.rex but were afraid to ask” then you will be somewhat disappointed. It isn’t. Rather it is a collection of the most up to date chapters /papers that deal with selected anatomical slices of this magnificent tyrannosaur as well as the ecological niche it filled and the palaeoenvironment it lived in.

The book itself consists of twenty one chapters and, naturally enough, I found some of great interest and a few somewhat routine. That isn’t a slight on their content as such, rather, they just weren’t that interesting to me personally. The very first chapter, however, by Neal Larson, is a complete listing of T.rex skeletons (at time of publication) including location of discovery, stratigraphical data, skeletal remains and completeness etc etc and is a very, very useful reference document.

Peter Larson’s work on variation and sexual dimorphism is very interesting and, on the face of it, it does seem likely that the female of the species was bigger but, as usual, tyrannosaurid splitting at a taxanomic level can pose the odd question or two.

I’m not too sure what to make of Lockley et als’ holistic work with regards to T.rex’s forelimbs. It seems to be some form of “reverse” chaos theory and, despite reading the chapter twice, I was perplexed by their apparent continual contradiction of themselves. Or maybe I just didn’t understand it.

Lipkin and Carpenter’s work on the same subject was much more like it and I was particularly interested in their take on the functional morphology of the furcula and their overall analysis of the biomechanical function of the entire forearm. Good stuff.

The next few chapters concerned the tyrannosaur at rest, its possible speed and an atlas of the skull bones. All useful papers although Phil Manning’s speed chapter, although extraordinarily thorough, was hard work but the skull atlas, by Pete Larson, is another handy reference document.

Both Hans Larsson and Ralph Molnars’ papers on palatal kinesis and jaw musculature respectively, represent good solid, albeit unspectacular, work and go rather nicely together.

Molnar, again, and Bruce Rothschild’s work on tyrannosaur pathologies I really enjoyed. For me this is the meat and drink of tyrannosaurid investigative science. This chapter brings to the fore what it meant to be a tyrannosaur in life. Fractures, infection and bite marks are just a few of the injuries highlighted. Sue had such a torturous forty years!

I have to say that I am big fan of Greg Paul and I was always going to like his chapter. His work on the lifestyle and habits of T.rex is written with a style that takes you back to the days of Bakker and the dinosaur renaissance. Paul takes no prisoners and makes it quite clear that rex was an agile, quick, active hunter at the peak of its tyrannosaurid power and it’s hard not to agree with him when he writes as passionately as this.

Happ’s work on the much talked about Triceratops skull that shows evidence of tyrannosaurid aggression puts to bed, once and for all, the question as to whether these two famous dinosaurs “inter-acted”. They most certainly did. Of course the question then becomes whether the tyrannosaur was attacking the trike for predation purposes or maybe, as already intimated, the ceratopsian was seeing him off. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Tom Holtz then proceeds to debunk the scavenging theory piece by piece but does so in a very matter-of-fact way by arguing that, not by simply rejecting certain points out of hand, but rather by showing that whatever argument put forward to support a scavenging lifestyle can equally be used to support hunting tyrannosaurs. I was particularly impressed by his comparative ratio analyses of the hind limb proportions of the tyrannosaur and his arguments regarding their incrassate teeth are compelling.

Overall the book feels like a missed opportunity and would have benefited from a more comprehensive approach as I did feel that there was much more that could have been featured. Is it worth buying? Absolutely but it is more of an additional volume to the overall library on the subject of T.rex and is definitely not the definitive volume with regards to this fantastic animal.