Wednesday, 16 July 2014

From the Toarcian to the Callovian Pt.3

The following day I decided to visit Whitby Museum and do a little scouting ahead of the next field trips. The museum is situated quite central in Whitby and is fairly well signposted but be aware that it is situated at the top of Chubb Hill which, if ascending from the sea front, can be quiet steep for those with mobility issues – or those who are just plain unfit.
The museum charges a modest entry fee of £5 and the museum not only caters for the fossil enthusiast but covers all aspects of Whitby’s local history which includes whaling, the local textile and agricultural industries, luminaries such as Captain James Cook and Dracula author Bram Stoker as well as a comprehensive natural history collection. But I came to look at the fossil collection and this is the first section you come to as you walk through the doors on the left hand side.
I was initially struck by how small the display area was considering the long history of collecting in the Whitby area and just how many specimens of note that had been found that we, as palaeontologists, were familiar with. But they did cram a lot of material into this area and there were specimens everywhere, the walls and cabinets were filled and there were even specimens tucked under the display cabinets for those of us who tend to look in these hidden caches of small museums. 
Some of the panel mounts were of particular interest and I spent quite a bit of time with a specimen of “Teleosaurus chapmani” which is synonymous with Steneosaurus bollensis and, as a result, was useful for comparing anatomy with some teleosaurid material we have been collecting elsewhere. Also of interest was the similarly panel mounted “Plesiosaurus propinquus” which, from today’s perspective, is so plainly a rhomaleosaurid that it is difficult to perceive it as anything else. But then we have to remember, that at the time this was first described, there was so much uncertainty, so many unknowns that it was clearly acceptable to label all long necked plesiosaurians as Plesiosaurus or similar – even if the skull was larger and much more robust than the standard plesiosaurian model.
Ichthyosaurs are well represented in the museum and taxa represented include Ichthyosaurus crassimanus, I. acutirostris and I. platydon and there are several other vertebrate specimens  as well. Unfortunately, many of the older specimens have suffered because of poor collecting methods and both primitive and unnecessary preparation techniques. I am not criticising our collecting forefathers you understand but merely pointing out that, by today’s standards, many fine specimens have been compromised by these older practices.
That being said, many specimens have undergone rigorous reconsolidation and preparation over the last twenty years or so  and are in a much better condition now but they still have to be regularly monitored since pyrite decay is a constant threat. All in all, Whitby Museum houses a fine collection of specimens and I would heartily recommend it to you.
I was not permitted to take photographs on this occasion but a quick Google search will enable you to see plenty of images of the museum and its exhibits. As an example, click here for a quick guide.
After my visit to the museum the sun shone and I decided to check out the quaint coastal village of Staithes, some 12 miles north of Whitby. You have to park at the top of the village and walk down to the harbour since there is extremely limited access  but it is also worth noting that this is also a very steep climb back – especially if you have a sack full of fossils. Staithes is another collecting location that is well known for its ammonites so I thought it worth checking out although I had already been tipped off previously that it was producing very little lately.
It was, unfortunately, high tide but I still decided to take a look to see what I could see. As I rounded the promontory from the harbour the tide was approaching its peak and there was very little coast for me to walk on. But even with the limited exposure available I could still make out belemnites and shell in the mudstones and I then decided to walk around to the other side of the harbour and check out the sea cliffs from there.
As I walked below a noisy gull colony and made my way out on the sea wall, the ancient sea cliffs rose in front of me. I could clearly see the headland at Penny Nab which is where most ammonites are recovered from and, even at high tide, it all looked rather tempting and I decided to return the following morning to prospect. Before I left I took advantage of the Cod and Lobster Inn, sat in the sun and sampled a fine pint of Black Sheep bitter. Life was good.

The following day I returned all geared up for another hunt. It was another dry day although rather murky and as I made my way down the steep hill into this picturesque coastal village I felt pretty optimistic. However, my optimism was soon dashed by the sight of around forty students who were attending an organised fossil hunt. They made a fine sight all resplendently dressed in their high visibility jackets and safety helmets as they were preparing to skirt the headland.
Now I have nothing against this sort of event – indeed I am very happy to support them and have done so on numerous occasions but I was looking for a little solitude this week and decided against sharing their excursion on this occasion. This left me in something of a quandary but rather than waste the day I quickly headed out of Staithes and headed back to the cove for another look but this time for a much more intense look.
I was delighted to see that, yet again, I had the cove to myself and I soon returned to the productive spot. To be honest I was not expecting to find too much since I had already gathered a nice collection of specimens previously, so I made a point of searching those areas that I had missed and even areas that I thought unproductive because they were so clearly over exposed.
Again I was delighted to find some more ammonite specimens throughout the entire exposure and even those spots I had considered probably not worthy of attention produced the goods. It was another lesson learnt and proved yet again that closer scrutiny of those spots that appear bereft of fossils will yield results. Nobody should be surprised by this and I have seen it that time and time again that a spot that has been searched maybe two or three times in the space of perhaps an hour will produce a fossil as if it had just been sitting there fully exposed to a fresh pair of eyes.
I admit to being surprised by my success considering the finds I had already procured on the two previous occasions and, again, I ignored many partial ammonites that I may have been tempted to pick up previously. I then determined it was time to leave for the day for I had truly scoured every part of this one section and, as I walked back up the cliff, I decided to visit one more venue the following day – one that had a particular reputation for being hard to get to but one where the rewards could be exceptional.