Wednesday, 25 August 2010

A Cryptoclidoid Rib from the Oxford Clay

A little while ago I finished preparation of an excellently preserved plesiosaur rib, recovered from Quarry 4 during May 2009. As you are probably aware from my previous blog entries regarding this quarry, the rib was located, in situ, in Bed 10 of the Lower Oxford Clay (Peterborough Group). It is Mid- Jurassic in age (Callovian), about 165 million years old.

Unusually for these ribs from the clay it hadn’t suffered any significant compression or distortion and had survived more or less intact and the rib retains its diagnostic plesiosaurian shape . The rib was stabilised in a few places and then removed in matrix since there were several fractures along its length and I wanted to be sure we weren’t missing any pieces.

The process of removing the bone from the clay was fairly straightforward and when the main pieces were removed, I sifted through the clay matrix to be absolutely certain that nothing had been missed. The rib was fairly easy to clean and the fine striated surface was cleared using a pin vice.

Then the process of putting the pieces back together began. Throughout the whole procedure, I was very careful to piece the rib back together as it had been fossilised, and the pieces joined together extremely well. At this point it became apparent that a tiny section of rib had obviously gone astray during fossilisation and prevented two main sections from joining together. Or so I thought.

Because I was in the process of finishing off the rib, I started to get the preparation record up to date on the database and the backup Excel spreadsheet. As I started to group the images of the rib together, I noticed that the images of the bone in situ quite clearly showed a complete rib and yet I could not piece the two sections together.

Closer inspection revealed that there was a definite section missing and yet we had been very thorough when we had removed the bone from the quarry. The answer, it seems, was that when I removed the bone from the matrix I had inadvertently placed the missing section in the wrong grouping and it was residing with a few fish bones from the same bed!

I soon had the last piece prepped and before long I had a complete rib – and very nice it is too. I gave the rib a light dressing of B76 to finish the job.
So this is a plesiosaur rib from what is almost certainly Cryptoclidus eurymerus (MWB-029.0509), since this is the most common taxon at this level. The images show the rib in situ and after preparation. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Field Season Thoughts

This is another entry that was written at the end of 2008. Although I suppose it can be regarded as “out of date”, I believe that it is always interesting to look back at one’s thoughts and attitude at the time and , looking back at them, to see if they were correct or, indeed, that they were even relevant. The following is how I wrote this post at the time and then I’ll follow it up with a couple of comments – an epilogue if you like. First up then, the post, in its original form.

I thought that it might be a good time for some thoughts with regard to this year’s field trips. I suppose that the year 2008 will be remembered for the financial crisis that rocked the world. Its implications have been far reaching, not only for everyone on a personal level, but also with regard to the world of palaeontology.

On a worldwide scale, museums and universities have been forced to make cut backs, field trips have been scaled down and exhibitions cancelled. Some student sponsorships have been revoked, which is a tragedy, but fortunately there are organisations such as the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology which continue to fund impressive schemes.

Early on in the year, the above was a million miles away as we all looked ahead. This was a year where I certainly came to terms with different aspects of field work and, as I continue to mention, we all learn from experience. I’ve also been corresponding with my peers and colleagues and hope that this will hold me in good stead especially with the SVP meeting in Bristol next year.

The two trips to the Bluff were hugely contrasting. The first was all smiles, interesting and a good find to boot. The second was more subdued and there was an element of wondering if we would be able to return in 2009. I really hope the brick works survives, not only for the local jobs it provides, but for the opportunity to continually work the clay which, I am absolutely certain, will reveal further significant dinosaur skeletal remains.

Surprisingly, at time of writing, the Oxford clay brick works and clay quarries appear unaffected by the economic down turn and they remain open and still working. However, I feel in reality that they must be somewhat affected, but they seem to be in better health than their counterparts in the south.

As for the field trips, these quarries continue to frustrate me with regards to vertebrate fossils. Minnie’s quarry was new to me but I liked it very much and hope to visit the site again. Quarry 4, on the other hand, is very much a venue to persevere with and I have now been close to some good finds on a few occasions. However, now that I have site access, I hope to visit the quarry on a regular basis (out of season) and hope that there will be some good finds to be had.

Wonderworld was another new venue and although it was of some interest, I’m not too sure that I would return in the future. Peacefields and Cuckoo’s Hole, on the other hand, were both classic Wealden venues and I would delight in being able to return to them, especially the second named.

With winter upon us, the official field trip season has drawn to a close. However, with one or two personal trips to the south coast penned in, there will certainly be occasion to look for fossils and, more importantly, the odd trip to Quarry 4 at this time of year could be really interesting.

2009 looks to be an exciting year in the making. I’m very hopeful that next year’s field season will be productive, and with the SVP meeting in Bristol during September, there’s a lot to look forward to!


Well, if there’s been an issue that has affected everyone all over the world it has certainly been the recession. We have all seen institutions closing and coming under threat. The very latest is close to home and involves the closure of the entire micropalaeontology unit at the NHM in London and there is a big effort ongoing to reverse the decision and many of us here, and internationally, are all doing their bit to help. I have to say how impressed I am with the international cooperation that has been mobilised because of the paleo-blogosphere and this, in conjunction with other sites such as Facebook, has roused a significant voice for the palaeoworld and I’m glad to be part of it and will continue to be part of it. Long may it continue.

SVP at Bristol was a fantastic experience for me. Although I have no plans for Pittsburgh this year or, indeed, Los Angeles next year, I would like to think that I will attend another meeting in the not too distant future. For a review of SVP 2009, click here.

I continually report about the state of play with regards to access to quarries and also how the recession continues to plague the survival of those whose livelihoods are entangled with them. The loss of Minnie’s Quarry and the Cuckoo’s Hole is a reminder that we cannot afford to take anything for granted but, as reported recently, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel and that the quarries working the Oxford clay are reporting a big upturn in demand and we hope that this spreads to their counterparts working the Wealden clay in the south.

As autumn turned in to winter in 2008, Quarry 4 really produced the goods but it was unfortunate that this amazing spate of finds was tainted by the spectre of illegal collecting but, never the less, the specimens were truly amazing................

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Time’s They Are a Changing……

With a little homage to Bob Dylan here, this is an account of the last official field trip of 2008 to Misty Bluff. It was only a couple of weeks after the last trip to Quarry 4 and, as ever, I was ready to do battle again. No weird feelings enveloped me on the drive down. Indeed, the trip was quick and easy and I felt good as I drove into the brickworks.

Mark had tipped me off that a group from the Isle of Wight were attending the meeting today and, although I was the first of the regulars to arrive, the IOW group were already there kitted out and ready to go in and were being given the low down on the Bluff by Peter and Joyce.

I seized the opportunity and quickly got ready, signed in and swiftly left for the Bluff while they were being inducted. It was weird walking through the works. There was no machinery running; no ovens burning; no fork lift trucks operating and no personnel whatsoever. Truly a victim of the financial crisis that is engulfing the world at the time of writing.

The only thing missing from this ghost town were dried bushes blowing through the vast stacks of bricks that remain in the yards. It was very odd and kind of unsettling. I soon left the yards and came to the Bluff and, as expected, there had obviously been no work done at the quarry. It was all as we had left it back in April.

Looking around, it soon became apparent that the local plant life was starting to get a hold already. One face on the north east bank was quite green and, similarly, the recently filled north west section had already sprouted a myriad of plants. I dropped onto the favoured south east face and started to prospect.

The weather leading up to this visit had been a mixture of sunshine and heavy showers so I determined that a visual search of the surface would be the best option, not only for bone, but for lepidotid scales that are washed out. My instincts this time proved to be correct and I soon recovered some nice scales. However, the bone was not forthcoming and I decided to start quarrying close to where I had been on the previous trip.

During this time the IOW group had descended upon the Bluff and were searching in earnest, and I later discovered that a couple of them were very sharp eyed. At this point, we were all a little ahead of the game since none of the regulars had arrived. I started to dig in earnest.

I’d been digging into an astonishing amount of fossil wood and charcoal and reasoned that where wood collects then bone may also be evident. Although I still believe that this is the way to go, I could find no bone throughout the morning and, after some refreshment, decided that I would search on the flanks of the north east bank.

A couple of the IOW party had turned up a few scraps of bone but then one of them found a HUGE chevron encased in matrix. The vertebra it would have been attached to would have been massive. If iguanodontid, it would have come from a gigantic specimen. Quite possibly it may prove to be sauropodomorph but that would have to be confirmed. The bone came from the spoil on the side of the road into the Bluff, and I have to admit that I would have probably missed it.

Undeterred I pushed on and headed for the north east bank. By this time a few of the regulars had arrived and were busily searching the lower shales for insects and plants. I looked to the top of the bank and saw that three people were beavering away in a tight little area. I saw Peter and asked what they were working on.

He informed me that a significant amount of bone had been exposed but unfortunately had been crushed by one of the diggers. Indeed there were so many pieces that it was almost impossible to see what they were, although Peter was fairly convinced that there may be a couple of ribs involved. His comments that this find will keep them busy throughout the winter seemed appropriate!

Not willing to “poach” that particular area, I prospected a little further on and in the same bed as the bone had been situated but found nothing. Undaunted, I decided to look at some old fish bearing shales in an eastern part of the quarry. This section had survived being entombed when this end of the quarry had been back filled and I felt sure that nobody had searched here for some time.

Again, I was rewarded with further fish scales and a tiny concretion, which, when examined under the hand lens, revealed a few scales and another small undetermined bone. I made my way back to the south east horizon and continued the search, but by mid-afternoon I felt that there would be nothing else forthcoming from the quarry today.

Finally, I returned to the spoil heap where I had recovered the Iguanodon vertebra on the previous trip but this time, and maybe not surprisingly, I could find nothing else. At this point I determined to check some older spoil heaps round the back of some trees that I had noticed before, but on reaching the area found that they had been removed and the area was now bare.

I checked the area out anyway, just in case, but there was nothing to be found. This must have been one of the last operations the staff here had performed prior to closure. It was very quiet here and added to the strange atmosphere at the Bluff. I felt it was appropriate to call it a day and headed for the car.
In retrospect, I suppose it was a lot of effort for some fish scales but remembering the exceptional vertebra I found last time, payment seems reasonable. I headed home and I am now keeping my fingers crossed, not only hoping to be able to visit next year, but also that the brick works survives the current crisis and reopens soon.


It’s always good to meet new like minded people on field trips such as these. For the most part, everyone you meet is pleasant, unpretentious and willing to share their knowledge. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case and, I found in this instance, that more than one of the IOW group were disrespectful to the Bluff and to fossil dinosaur material in general.

The first chap I spoke to was not of this ilk. He was obviously fairly knowledgeable and we hit it off straight away. He was so glad to be at “the” quarry where Baryonyx was found and was also respectful of the dinosaurs as once living animals, which is something I feel strongly about.

When I mentioned how lucky he was to be living on “Dinosaur Island”, he said it had changed considerably and had become an extremely cut throat place. The Neovenator quarry was continually plundered, which distressed him since whatever was left of any scientific value had already been removed, but still the site was under continual scrutiny.

Anything found has to be kept strictly secret where possible; otherwise any new site instantly suffers the same fate. During periods of rough weather pounding the coast, especially during winter and spring, literally hundreds of resident collectors are out at all times of the day and night, pillaging the dinosaur grounds. Indeed, during such storms at night, the hunting grounds are almost lit up like a Christmas tree, such are the amount of torches and tilly lamps that can be seen from the cliffs.

He sounded quite despondent and suddenly I wasn’t too keen to visit the isle again. We went our separate ways until during the afternoon when a couple of the others approached me and introduced themselves. At first they appeared decent people. They too had been keen to visit the home of Baryonyx and had even found a few pieces of bone. It was when they described the bone as “not up to much” that doubts crept in.

I explained to them that any find at the Bluff, whether dinosaur, plant, insect or shell was an achievement and should be recognised as such. Big mistake! I then proceeded to get the full gamut, such as the following:

“If you want dinosaur bone on the isle, you simply go out and find dinosaur bone – no problem.”
“I wouldn’t get out of bed normally for bone of this quality.”
And so forth.

My newly found IOW friend looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I knew exactly what he meant and recognised that these were exactly the kind of collectors to whom he had been referring earlier. I quickly said my goodbyes and moved on for I knew that I would just get aggravated if I listened to them any further!

We are all different people – I accept that. If someone searches for fossils for profit, then that is their choice, it isn’t illegal after all (not yet anyway – but maybe now it is time for some form of action, especially on the Isle of Wight, an internationally important location for early Cretaceous dinosaurs). If the aim is to only hunt for dinosaur bone of the highest quality and value, then fair enough. But no one should ever lose respect for the fossils they find or the other collectors they meet. Everything we find is simply borrowed from future generations and is part of our planet’s inheritance. These magnificent extinct animals, whether ammonite or dinosaur, should always be given the respect they deserve.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Toros, Trikes & the Media

I thought that I’d add my little contribution to the media reaction to the synonymy of Torosaurus and Triceratops. This has provoked an unjustified furore outside of the palaeoworld since, yet again, the media has incorrectly assumed that the taxon Triceratops is about to be lost forever in favour of Torosaurus.

Why is it that the media never ever appears to do any research into these matters? How much time can it take to do a little research so that at least the correct facts are presented to the public? And when are they actually going to show the people they interview a little respect instead of condescension?

A couple of nights ago I heard an interview on BBC Radio Five Live between a female interviewer (who shall remain nameless) and palaeontologist Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies. Straight away it was very obvious that the interviewer had done no preparation at all and proceeded to ask questions in that ridiculous “I haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about” tone with a slight giggle to hide her obvious embarrassment.

In line with so many other media organisations, she immediately got the wrong end of the stick and got the sinking of Torosaurus into Triceratops the wrong way round. Jack, in his first response, corrected this straight away which completely wrong footed the interviewer and thus threw out of the window what ideas, if any, she had regarding the subject. It could only get worse.

To Jack’s eternal credit, he sussed this out straight away, and proceeded to explain, in layman’s terms, some of the subtle differences that led John Scannella and himself to the conclusions that they had reached. He didn’t once mention parietals, fenestrae or ontogeny. He did mention neck shields, holes in the neck shields and growth stages.

He attempted to explain in a slow deliberate way, using such simple terms as above, why Torosaurus is indeed the adult stage of Triceratops. When he mentioned that Triceratops is actually sub-adult, the interviewer, however, couldn’t even comprehend the phrase “sub-adult”. Jack kept his cool but I was rocking just listening to it.

At the end of the interview Jack was virtually cut off in mid sentence – incredibly rude but I wasn’t surprised. And this was the worst thing. Talking to such an eminent scientist as if he didn’t know what he was talking about, I found it insensitive, patronising and insulting. Well done Jack for keeping his composure at all times and being a credit to the paleontological world in the face of crass questioning from a clearly unsuitable interviewer.

As for the paper itself, I was lucky to be at SVP last year when John gave his presentation in Bristol. I was pretty convinced then to be honest and reading the paper now has only reinforced their research. I understand there will always be a few doubters but the demonstration of cranial morphological transformation within Triceratops appears telling.

It’s fascinating that the parietal-squamosal frill actually gets thinner and gains fenestrae in the adult stage morphing from the thickened fenestra-free version of the sub-adult. This appears to bring a halt to the theory that Triceratops frills thickened as an aide against predation from tyrannosaurs (which I have supported) and thus reinforces the belief that chasmosaurines did indeed use their cranial ornamentation for intraspecific communication, a theory that has gained significant momentum over the last few years.

An excellent paper and well worth your time. If only the media would bother to read it.


Scannella, John B. and Horner, John R.(2010) 'Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny', Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 30: 4, 1157 — 1168


For those people you know who are still concerned, point them to this link. I'm grateful to Tom Holtz via Lee Hall for supplying the detail.