Category: Photos/Pictures of Fossils

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in Full Swing

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival 2016

The 2016 Lyme Regis Fossil Festival is in full swing.  After a successful day yesterday with around two dozen primary schools attending, Friday is dedicated to supporting secondary schools, those pupils at Key Stages 3 and 4 of the English national curriculum.  Local fossil expert Brandon Lennon reports that there were some strong winds battering the Dorset coast earlier in the week, this affected the build up to the Festival but all the marquees were erected and everything made ready for what will be four days for frenetic fossil themed activities.

The View Towards the Famous Lyme Regis Cobb

Lyme Regis prepares for the 2016 Fossil Festival.

Lyme Regis prepares for the 2016 Fossil Festival.

Picture Credit: Brandon Lennon

Even in bad weather, Lyme Regis is picturesque.  This part of the “Jurassic Coast” tends to have its own micro-climate, a phenomenon that team members at Everything Dinosaur have experienced themselves.  It can be raining in Sidmouth (Devon) to the west, but the Lyme Regis and Charmouth areas stay dry.  The weather forecast for the weekend, the public open days of the 2016 festival, is much better.  Strong sea breezes are still in the forecast but it is going to be dry and as a result, even more visitors are expected.  It is going to be a busy couple of days for the organisers and the exhibitors.

The Marquees Along the Sea Front

All is ready for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival 2016.

All is ready for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival 2016.

Picture Credit: Brandon Lennon

To visit the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival website: Lyme Regis Fossil Festival 2016

The theme of this year’s festival is “promoting science to young people” and there will be lots to do and see at Lyme Regis over the next couple of days or so.  However, team members at Everything Dinosaur have received reports about further minor rock falls from the cliffs surrounding the town.  A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“The cliffs remain saturated and further rock falls over the next few days cannot be discounted.  We urge visitors to the Festival to take care whilst on the beach and to stay away from the bottom of the cliffs.”

One of the best ways to enjoy the geology of Lyme Regis and Charmouth is to take part in a guided fossil walk.  There are a number of these walks built into the programme of the Festival itself, but other walks are available throughout most of the year.

To learn more about organised fossil walks in the Lyme Regis area: Lyme Regis Fossil Walks

Amazing Fossils to Find and Lots to See (and Buy)

For those who would prefer not to explore the beaches themselves, there will be lots of fascinating fossils on display in the marquees.  Many of the specimens on display have been found in the Dorset area and can be purchased, there will certainly be many different Ammonites to choose from, if Chris Moore’s trade stand is anything to go by.

Chris Moore (Forge Fossils, Charmouth) Prepares his Trade Stand

A splendid display of Lyme Regis fossils.

A splendid display of Lyme Regis fossils.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

It looks like there will be one or two bargains to be had.  There will also be plenty of opportunities to discuss the ancient fauna of Lyme Regis with the multitude of local fossil experts who will be attending this year’s event, in addition, visitors have the chance to meet scientists from the Natural History Museum, British Antarctic Survey, Palaeontological Association, Plymouth University, Natural England, Jurassic Coast Trust, Dorset Geologists, Geological Society, Lyme Regis Museum, Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, National Trust, Dorset Wildlife Trust and the National Oceanography Centre.

We wish the Festival every success and we look forward to hearing more about the 2016 Lyme Regis Fossil Festival over the weekend.

The “Kite Runner” from the Silurian of England

Aquilonifer spinosus – Meet the “Kite Runner” from the Silurian

A team of international researchers including scientists from Leicester University, Oxford University, Imperial College London and Yale have published a paper on a two centimetre long, ancient Arthropod that once scuttled around an ancient Silurian sea floor.  The fossil, preserved in almost three-dimensions has slowly emerged from its volcanic ash matrix and the specimen is not only a new species but it reveals a novel way of brooding its young.

The new species is named in honour of the best selling 2003 novel “The Kite Runner” by Khalid Hosseini, as the young are tethered to the adult’s body in capsules or pouches that reminded the research team of kites.

A Computer Generated Three-dimensional Image of A. spinosus

The capsules or pouches to carry young look like squashed lemons in this image.

The capsules or pouches to carry young look like squashed lemons in this image.

Picture Credit: D Briggs/D Siveter/M Sutton/D Legg

The fossil comes from a remarkable site in Herefordshire (England), close to the Welsh borders.  The limestone strata is interrupted by a finely grained bedding plane that represents the ash from a volcanic eruption that settled on the seabed some 430 million years ago.  This ash choked, buried and killed a lot of the Arthropods and other creatures that lived on or around the sea floor, and the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstätte has provided palaeontologists with an unique opportunity to study microfossils in exquisite detail.

The genus name Aquilonifer comes from the Latin “aquila” for eagle or kite and the suffix “fer” which means to carry.  The paper describing the study has been published in the academic journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.

Lead author, Professor Derek Briggs (Yale University and Royal Society Fellow), commented:

“Modern crustaceans employ a variety of strategies to protect their eggs and embryos from predators, attaching them to the limbs, holding them under the carapace or enclosing them within a special pouch until they are old enough to be released, but this example is unique.”

Strategy for Raising Young

No member of the Arthropoda, alive today (as far as we at Everything Dinosaur are aware), adopts such a strategy towards raising the next generation.  As only one fossil specimen has been found and since no Arthropod known to science has evolved this behaviour, the fossil may record one reproduction strategy that ultimately proved to be unsuccessful, or at least less successful than other strategies employed by competing organisms.

Revealing the Tiny Fossil

The scientists were able to identify A. spinosus using a process whereby high intensity scanning photographs are taken, in a virtual slice by slice of the specimen.  The results are then fed into a powerful computer programme that generates a three-dimensional image of the animal, including soft body parts such as, in this case, the pouches or capsules that held juveniles.  The picture in this blog article is therefore an image of the “virtual fossil” that has been generated by this process.

The “Kite Runner” shows ten juveniles attached at various stages of development, all connected to the adult.  The researchers suggest that the adult delayed its moult until the juveniles were old enough to hatch, otherwise, the juveniles would have been cast adrift as the exoskeleton was shed.  It had been considered that the strange capsules/pouches with their tethers were some form of parasite, but the attachment seemed too uniform and the attachment position was not very favourable when it came to trying to access nutrients from the host.

Aquilonifer spinosus shared its marine environment with a host of other invertebrates including ostracods, brachiopods, worms, gastropods (snails), sea stars, and various shrimp-like creatures.  The scientists suggest that this animal was a mandibulate, belonging to a clade of the Arthropoda that includes crustaceans, and modern insects.  It lacked eyes and probably relied upon its long, robust antenna to find its way about, the trunk had eleven body segments which all had tiny jointed limbs to help it scuttle along the seabed.

Co-author, Dr. Legg of Oxford University stated that this bizarre creature that seems to have kept its babies close to it by thin threads may have had a segmented body and an exoskeleton but deciding where in the Order Arthropoda it fitted proved a tricky task.

Over the last few years, Everything Dinosaur has covered a number of fossil discoveries from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstätte made using the same techniques employed in this study.

To read about the discovery of a strange ostracod fossil: Ancient Ostracod from Herefordshire

To read about a rather nasty surprise revealed by this fossil preparation process: Prehistoric Parasites from the Silurian

“Tully Monster” Riddle Solved

Bizarre “Tully Monster” Finds a Place on the Tree of Life

The bizarre “Tully Monster” a very peculiar sea creature that swam in the tropical waters that once covered Illinois (United States), has finally been allocated a position on the tree of life.  So weird was “Tully” or to give this thirty centimetre oddity its formal, binomial scientific name – Tullimonstrum gregarium, that palaeontologists could not classify it even to a Phylum.  However, a new study published in the journal “Nature” has finally solved this riddle.  It is a soft-bodied vertebrate, one that is related to extant jawless fish such as Hagfish and the Lamprey.

The Riddle of the “Tully Monster” Solved

Fossils found in 1958, described in 1966 but not classified until 2016.

Fossils found in 1958, described in 1966 but not classified until 2016.

Picture Credit: Sean McMahon (Yale University)

Thousands of Fossils but Just From One Location

The story of this strange creature begins in 1958 when amateur fossil collector Francis Tully stumbled across a specimen whilst exploring the silt and mudstone beds of the Mazon Creek Formation that are exposed in Grundy County Illinois.  The fossil was studied by palaeontologists at the Chicago Field Museum and, with more specimens having been recovered from the same location, the first formal description of this marine animal was published in 1966.  Since then, it has been described as a nektonic mollusc, an Arthropod, a marine worm and even a Conodont (a jawless chordate, possibly related to primitive, jawless fish).  Thousands of specimens have been collected from the Mazon Creek beds, but this fossil has not been recorded anywhere else in the world.

Tullimonstrum gregarium – Described

This animal had no bones or hard parts, but seemed to have been an active swimmer, due to the fact that there is some evidence of streamlining of the body and fins to provide thrust and manoeuvring in open water.   The long body had a thin bar crossing the top (or could that be the bottom)?  This bar showed that at each end there was some sort of organ, this has been interpreted as an eye.  Reaching forward was a long, delicate proboscis which seemed to end in a mouth with up to eight primitive teeth in the jaws.  This appendage must have been quite delicate, as despite the exceptional preservation conditions associated with the Mazon Creek Formation, less than 5% of all fossil specimens preserve this proboscis in its entirety within the fossil.

A Typical Hard to Decipher “Tully Monster” Fossil

A "Tully Monster" fossil.

A “Tully Monster” fossil.

Picture Credit: Paul Mayer (Chicago Field Museum)

This enigmatic marine animal, probably lived in open water, but storms washed these creatures into the shore and they ended up stranded on the mud and silts of a river estuary.  The high levels of iron found in these sediments helped preserve these and other soft-bodied animals, providing a unique faunal record of life 300 million years ago (Late Carboniferous).

Scientists from Yale University, along with collaborators from The Field Museum, The American Museum of Natural History, Argonne National Laboratory (Illinois) and Yale Peabody Museum examined some two thousand fossil specimens and conducted an array of tests and assessments including sophisticated synchrotron elemental mapping techniques (thanks to Argonne National Laboratory).  The synchrotron study permitted the team to identify the anatomy and physical features of the creature by plotting the chemical signatures left behind by organic material preserved in the matrix.  The scientists were able to confirm that T. gregarium had gills and a rudimentary notochord, which functioned as a backbone.  Neither of these two features had been recognised before.

Victoria McCoy, lead author of the research commented:

“I was first intrigued by the mystery of the Tully Monster.  With all the exceptional fossils, we had a very clear picture of what it looked like, but no clear picture of what it was.”

The “Tully Monster” a Vertebrae Related to Jawless Fish


Tullimonstrum gregarium


Picture Credit: Sean McMahon (Yale University)

With its formal classification now assured, the celebrity status of this foot-long oddity is unlikely to diminish.  In 1989, Tullimonstrum gregarium became the official fossil of the State of Illinois.

Dr. McCoy said:

“It’s so different from its modern relatives that we don’t know much about how it lived.  It has big eyes and lots of teeth, so it was probably a predator.”

Some intriguing questions remain.  The fossils of this animal are confined to one location, no one knows when these animals evolved, or even when they became extinct, perhaps somewhere out there on the immense abyssal plain a “Tully Monster” still lurks.  Now that’s an interesting thought.

Megaloceros Fossil Exhibit

Megaloceros (Irish Elk)

One of the best exhibits in the walkway between the galleries at the National Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh), is this magnificent Megaloceros fossil skeleton.  The name of this extinct member of the deer family (Cervidae), means “great horn” and although antlers are not technically horns, it is not hard to see why this Ice Age herbivore got its moniker.  The fossils were found in the Isle of Man and we think this was one of the first if not the very first specimens to be scientifically studied.  Although a number of species have now been assigned to the Megaloceros genus, this is the largest of the species M. giganteus.

The Magnificent Megaloceros on Display at the Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh)

A Megaloceros skeleton on display.

A Megaloceros skeleton on display.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The impressive antlers grew each year and a large pair could measure more than three and a half metres wide.  The weight of the antlers was considerable putting tremendous pressure on those cervical bones and the muscles in the neck.  It has been estimated that a pair of antlers could weigh as much as forty kilogrammes.  That is heavier than the young girl in the pink coat in the picture.  Although also known as the “Irish Elk”, Megaloceros was not restricted to Ireland.  It had a very wide distribution, fossils having been found all over northern Europe and Asia.  Fossils of Megaloceros have even been found in China.  It was also not very closely related to the extant Elk, but more closely related to modern Fallow Deer.  Standing more than two metres high at the shoulders, it is one of the largest members of the Cervidae family known.  Note the elongated skull, the strong neck and the strong legs.   Sadly, this magnificent beast became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, however, a dwarf species is believed to have survived on the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Sardinia until about 5,000 B.C.

It is always a pleasure to find a Megaloceros exhibit on display so prominently in a museum.

Oldest Pine Fossils Reveal Link with Firestorms

Oldest Pine Tree Fossils Described

A pine tree is such a familiar object that it hardly deserves a second glance.  Walking in the park, driving into work, many people will pass these ubiquitous trees without giving them a thought.  Pine trees are also found in gardens, if you are mowing the lawn this weekend, stop for a moment and nod your head towards your pine as these types of tree originated at least 140 million years ago.  In addition, pine trees that dominate much of the northern hemisphere today might owe their success, if not their very existence to a fiery past.

Pine Trees Once Overlooked Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs once roamed Surrey (England).

Pine trees part of the faunal landscape of the Cretaceous.

Picture Credit: Natural History Museum (London)

The pine trees (Pinaceae) are a very diverse conifer genus these days, there are something like 115 species known today.  They are renowned for their ability to retain water thanks to their tough needles and their adaptations that help them withstand forest fires.  They contain highly flammable deadwood that burns very easily.  Conifers produce terpenes, which are highly combustible organic compounds, it is these compounds that make pine trees so inflammable.  They also produce cones that will only germinate in many cases after being scorched by fire.  A new generation of pine trees can then emerge, using the nutrient rich ash left by a forest fire to sustain them and without much competition from other plants as these would have been destroyed by the conflagration.

A team of scientists from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway (University of London), have found the oldest fossil evidence of pine trees.  The discovery was due to serendipity almost as much as hard work and dedicated research.  Dr.  Howard Falcon-Lang discovered the fossils preserved as charcoal in a rock layer dated to the Valanginian faunal stage of the Cretaceous, approximately 133 to 140 million years ago.  The tiny fragments of pine tree suggest that conifers co-evolved with fire at a time when atmospheric oxygen levels were much higher than today, making forest fires much more likely and intense.

A False Colour Image of a Pine Tree Fragment Preserved as Charcoal

Fossilised pine tree fragment preserved as charcoal.

Fossilised pine tree fragment preserved as charcoal.

Picture Credit: Royal Holloway, University of London.

Commenting on the significance of the fossil find, Dr. Falcon-Lang stated:

“Pines are well adapted to fire today.  The fossils show that wildfires raged through the earliest pine forests and probably shaped the evolution of this important tree.  Modern pines store flammable resin-rich deadwood on the tree making them prone to lethal fires.  However, they also produce huge numbers of cones that will only germinate after a fire, ensuring a new cohort of trees is seeded after the fire has passed by.”

A paper detailing the research has been published in the journal of the Geological Society of America.  The fossils had been gathered several years ago and lay unexamined in a cupboard.  It was only when the rock samples were subjected to acidification to digest the matrix material that the tiny fragments of tell-tale pine tree were revealed.  Although each specimen is only a few millimetres in length they have been interpreted as being the remains of an evergreen two-needle pine.

The research is published in the journal Geological Society of America.

Big-eyed Mosasaur from Japan – A Night Time Hunter?

Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans – New Species of Mosasaur Announced

An international team of researchers, including scientists from the Royal Tyrrell Museum, the University of Alberta (Canada), the University of Cincinnati (USA), Hobetsu Museum and Fukuoka University (Japan), have announced the discovery of a new species of Mosasaur found in Upper Cretaceous rocks in Japan.  This three metre long predator may have specialised in hunting in deep water or perhaps it evolved to fill a specific ecological niche, that of a night hunter preying on bioluminescent fish and squid.

The Newly Described Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans

The first Japanese Mosasaur to be identified.

Rare Japanese Mosasaur identified.

Picture Credit: Tatsuya Shinmura / Ashoro Museum of Palaeontology / Trustees of the Natural History Museum, (London).

Growing to around the size of an extant American Alligator (C. mississippiensis), this large-eyed Mosasaur from the island of Hokkaido (northern Japan), was probably most closely related to another species of Late Cretaceous Mosasaur, but one from Belgium thousands of miles away (P. ortliebi).  This fossil find, consisting of beautifully preserved cranial material plus some post cranial elements, will help palaeontologists to build a better understanding of the biogeographical distribution of certain types of Mosasaur towards the end of the Mesozoic.

In 2009, scientist Tomohiro Nishimura (Hobetsu Museum), recovered a calcareous nodule from one of the tributaries of the Pankerusano-sawa Creek, about 3 miles east of the town of Hobetsu.  The rivers in this part of Hokkaido cut through sandstones which were laid down at the very end of the Age of Dinosaurs (Hakobuchi Formation of the uppermost Yezo Group), the fossil is believed to have come from the lowermost strata representing the early part of the Maastrichtian age, approximately 71 million years ago.

Mosasaur Creek!  The Rivers Cut Through the Loosely Compacted Sandstones

Small rivers cut deep channels in the sandstone.

Small rivers cut deep channels in the sandstone.

Picture Credit: University of Cincinnati

The picture above shows the topography of the area.  Shallow soils overlie sandstones and the action of rivers results in deep channels being cut in the rock which can expose fossils such as ammonites and occasionally the fossilised bones of marine vertebrates.

Views of the Remarkably Well-Preserved Skull

Dorsal view (left), ventral view (right), lateral view (bottom). Scale bar = 5cm.

Dorsal view (left), ventral view (right), lateral view (bottom).
Scale bar = 5 cm.

Picture Credit: Takuya Konishi et al.

Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans  means “phosphorus lizard from an elegant creek”,  co-existed with much larger Mosasaurs, ten-metre plus monsters that were the apex predators.  The scientists propose that P. ponpetelegans adapted to an ecological niche, that of a night time predator or perhaps a deep water hunter.  The almost complete skull was slowly removed from its rocky matrix by being placed in a bath of dilute acid each night.  Once the skull bones had been freed from the rock, the researchers set about piecing the skull together.

Huge Eyes

This marine reptile had huge eye sockets and a reduced snout when compared to other Mosasaurs.  As the fossil skull was so well preserved the scientists have been able to determine that Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans had binocular vision, its eyes were located on the front of its face, providing depth perception.  Most other Mosasaurs have eyes towards the side of their heads.  This gives them a large, all round field of view but they lack the depth perception to the extent demonstrated by a study of Phosphorosaurus cranial material.

The Huge Orbit (Eye Socket) of P. ponpetelegans

The skull in lateral view showing the huge eye-socket.

The skull in lateral view showing the huge eye-socket.

Picture Credit: Takuya Konishi et al.

Commenting on the significance of the size and position of the eyes, lead author Takuya Konishi explained:

“The forward-facing eyes on Phosphorosaurus provide depth perception to vision, and it’s common in birds of prey and other predatory mammals that dwell among us today.  But we knew already that most Mosasaurs were pursuit predators based on what we know they preyed upon — swimming animals.  Paradoxically, these small Mosasaurs like Phosphorosaurus were not as adept swimmers as their larger contemporaries because their flippers and tail fins were not as well developed.”

The researchers depict Phosphorosaurus has a nocturnal hunter, although the pursuit of prey in deeper water cannot be ruled out.  Phosphorosaurus could be thought of as an owl, whereas the diurnal, larger, more streamlined Mosasaurs in the ecosystem were the equivalent of day time hunters such as hawks and eagles.  The binocular vision in nocturnal animals doubles the number of photoreceptors to detect light.  Just like an extant owl, this small Mosasaur had very large eye sockets.

A Comparison of the Binocular Vision Potential of Different Mosasaurs

The forward facing vision of Mosasaurs are compared.

The forward facing vision of Mosasaurs are compared.

Picture Credit: The Journal of Systematic Palaeontology with additional notation by Everything Dinosaur


BFoV = Binocular Field of Vision

In the line drawing above, the field of vision of Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans (c) is compared to two other Mosasaurs.  The skulls are drawn not to scale.  Plotosaurus bennisoni (a) was a much larger, more streamlined Mosasaur.  Its fossils come from Upper Cretaceous rocks found in California.  It grew to lengths in excess of twelve metres and it was very probably an open ocean predator relying on its pursuit speed to catch its prey, which probably included other Mosasaurs and marine reptiles.  The binocular field of vision for the long-snouted Plotosaurus bennisoni has been calculated to around 22 degrees.  Mosasaurus missouriensis (b)was also a large, apex predator.  Size estimates vary, but this Mosasaur, whose fossils come from North America, could have been four times the size of Phosphorosaurus.  It too, was an ocean going predator, but it is depicted as being more bulky and therefore less streamlined than Plotosaurus.  Its binocular field of vision has been calculated at around 29 degrees.  In contrast, the much smaller, shorter snouted Phosphorosaurus with its forward facing and proportionately much larger eyes had a binocular field of vision of around 35 degrees.

What Did Phosphorosaurus Hunt?

Numerous fossils of Cephalopods such as squid and ammonites have been recovered from the same strata as the Phosphorosaurus fossil remains.  In addition, fossils of ancient lantern fish have also been found.  The scientists speculate that this Mosasaur may have hunted the bioluminescent fish and squid at night, whilst larger Mosasaurs in the area hunted during the day.

Discussing the potential ecological niche of Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans Takuya Konishi stated:

“If this new Mosasaur was a sit-and-wait hunter in the darkness of the sea and able to detect the light of these other animals, that would have been the perfect niche to co-exist with the more established Mosasaurs.” 

Such is the exquisite quality of the preserved skull, that the researchers hope to be able to piece together more details concerning the evolution and radiation of the Mosasaur group as a whole.  Phosphorosaurus has been assigned to the Halisaurinae Sub-family of Mosasaurs.  Its discovery will help to fill the gap between similar types of Mosasaur fossils found in Europe and the Middle East and those from the Eastern Pacific.

Biogeographical Distribution of Late Cretaceous Halisaurine Mosasaurs

The distribution of the Halisaurine Mosasaurs (Late Cretaceous).

The distribution of the Halisaurine Mosasaurs (Late Cretaceous).

Picture Credit: Journal of Systematic Palaeontology with additional notation by Everything Dinosaur

The red mark indicates the Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans fossil location.  It is the most northerly Halisaurine Mosasaur discovered to date.

The Teeth of Phosphorosaurus ponpetelegans

The curved and widely spaced teeth support the idea that this Mosasaur hunted squid.

The curved and widely spaced teeth support the idea that this Mosasaur hunted squid.

Picture Credit:  Takuya Konishi et al.

Unborn Foal Identified from Ancient Horse Fossil

Eurohippus messelensis – Fossil Reveals Ancient Foetus

The fossilised remains of an ancient, prehistoric horse that once roamed southern Germany has revealed the presence of an unborn foal.  Scanning electron microscopy of the beautifully preserved fossil has revealed the bones of a foetus, this is the oldest fossilised equine foetus discovered to date and reveals that the horse reproductive system was already highly developed by the early Middle Eocene.

Ancient Horse Fossil Reveals Unborn Foal

Eurohippus foetus fossil from the Messel Shale.

Eurohippus foetus fossil from the Messel Shale.

Picture Credit: Senckenberg Research Institute

The position of the foetus in the mare is marked by the white ellipse in the picture above.  Scale bar equals 10 centimetres.  The fossil has been set in resin, this is a standard procedure to help preserve the fossils from the Messel oil shales.

Details of the research, conducted by scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute (Frankfurt) and the University of Veterinary Medicine (Vienna), have been published in the academic journal PloS One.  The fossil, an early horse called Eurohippus messelensis, was excavated from the Messel Shales near Darmstadt (Germany) in 2000 but it was only after recent high resolution micro-X-ray studies in combination with the scanning electron microscopy that the 12.5 centimetre long foetus was found.  Most the skeleton is intact (post cranial material) and elements of the placenta can be determined.  Based on a comparison with modern horses, the position of the foetus, which was near full term at the time of death, is almost identical to that seen in today’s mares which are at roughly the same stage of pregnancy.  The death of the potential mother-to-be and the unborn foal are not related to any potential complications that arose during parturition.  It seems that this little, ancestral horse that was just thirty centimetres high at the shoulder, ended up in a large, deep lake and was quickly buried in the oxygen depleted sediments at the bottom.  These sediments eventually became the oil shales which make this part of southern Germany so famous.

A Line Drawing of the Exposed Side of the Foetus

Scale bar 10 cm (A and B)

Scale bar 10 cm (A and B)

Picture Credit: Senckenberg Research Institute, Jörg Habersetzer; line drawing (b) by  Jens Lorenz Franzen.

The picture above (a) shows the foetus position in relation to the bones of the adult and maps out the position of the placenta (line drawing b).

How did the Ancient Horse Die?

The oil shales of Messel contain a huge amount of fossils, both aquatic and terrestrial species, but how did this rich fossil assemblage come about?  This part of Germany was located ten degrees further south during the early Middle Eocene than it is today.  It is believed to have been a very geologically active area and infrequent releases of large concentrations of poisonous gases from the deep lakes in the area could have devastated the local ecosystem.  Deadly releases of carbon dioxide mixed with hydrogen sulphide would have quickly suffocated animals in the water and once these gases had reached land they would quickly overcome any animal in close proximity to the shore.  Corpses would have been washed into the lake by rains and eventually they would have drifted down to the bottom, where the lack of oxygen and bacteria would have facilitated their excellent preservation.  This theory also accounts for the number of bird and bat fossils found in these oil shale deposits.  Any animal flying over the lake and encountering the gas cloud would be affected and fall into the water.  Bat fossils are amongst the most numerous of all the terrestrial vertebrate fossils found at the Messel quarry site.

Such a scenario was depicted in the “Walking with Beasts” episode “New Dawn” made by the BBC.

Eurohippus (E. messelensis) is one of a number of early ungulates known from the Messel shales of Germany.

Notes on Lyme Regis

A Private Fossil Walk Represents Good Value

With the completion of the eastern sea wall at Lyme Regis last year the access to the beach between the town and Charmouth has certainly got easier.  No more climbing over the slippery rocks and the groynes that laid between the end of the beach front and the Church Cliffs.  That might sound like good news and it certainly is, especially for families trying to access the beach.  There is a downside to the new sea defences though, greater access has meant that over the summer months there have been more people than ever scouring the beach between Charmouth and Lyme Regis looking for fossils.  Pickings can be somewhat slim as a result.

The Newly Completed Magnificent Sea Wall at Lyme Regis

Part of the coastal defences at Lyme Regis

Part of the coastal defences at Lyme Regis

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The sea wall is part of an extensive array of features to help secure the cliffs and the land immediately behind them in a bid to protect the area from further land slips.  Eventually, these defences will give way but the engineering works has probably given the many houses on the cliffs another fifty years of life or so.  Whether or not the sea wall and other defences such as the remodelled beach area close to the famous Cobb has had an impact on the way in which the waves scour the beaches remains uncertain, time will tell, although we have heard from one reliable source that there seems to be a greater amount of sediment deposited out into Lyme Bay.  To help stabilise the cliffs, the slopes have been planted with thousands of small bushes and other plants to help anchor the soil.

The Cliffs have been Planted to Help Prevent Further Land Slides

Stonebarrow and Golden Cap can be seen in the background.

Stonebarrow and Golden Cap can be seen in the background.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

What Do the Changes Mean for Fossil Hunters?

Lyme Regis has always been a popular destination for would-be fossil hunters. With easier access to the beaches to the east of the town, there is a feeling amongst locals that finding fossils along the shoreline is getting harder.  There are certainly lots of fossils to be found, but large pieces of ammonite and any Ichthyosaur vertebrae are increasingly rare.  For example, during a recent trip to Lyme Regis, we spent a morning on the beach walking slowly up to Charmouth and we were surprised by the lack of fossils.  Belemnite guards were still plentiful, especially as we approached the “Belemnite Beds” but we found no fossils of Promicroceras, which surprised us somewhat.  This small ammonite used to be a relatively common fossil find, there was also a lack of nodules on the beach, although from the scattered shards of split rock there was plenty of evidence of previous visitors having hammered away quite happily at any stone bigger than a house brick, whether or not it was likely to contain a specimen inside.

Not a Very Successful Fossil Hunt

Fossils are becoming more difficult to find at Lyme Regis.

Fossils are becoming more difficult to find at Lyme Regis.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Advice for Visitors to Lyme Regis

With the popularity of fossil collecting on the increase and with the easier access to the beach, visitors to Lyme Regis might be disappointed by their lack of fossil discoveries.  One way of helping to get the most out of a visit is to book yourself onto an organised public walk.  There are a number of professional fossil hunters and guides who offer public walks.  These are a very good idea, especially when one considers the risk of getting cut off by an incoming tide or the hazards of rocks falling from the cliffs.  On a public walk your knowledgeable guide should be able to provide you with a very informative tour of the geology and help you to find a few fossils along the way.

Private Fossil Walks are Best

However, if you really want to make the best use of your time, try booking a private walk.  On some public walks that we have observed there can be as many as fifty people in the party.  Simply, getting a question answered amongst a throng of eager fossil hunters that size can be quite an ordeal, even the most dedicated guide can struggle to accommodate everybody’s needs.  Public walks tend to take place on the weekend, a time when the beaches are likely to be congested.  Private walks can be booked at a time to suit you (tides permitting) and you can be assured that your party will be very well looked after by the guide.  You are also more likely to be directed to the best fossil hunting locations, local knowledge wins out every time.  For example, for that beautiful Promicroceras ammonite, your best chance might be to sieve for fossils.  On a private walk, the guide can provide suitable sieves and show you the best technique to help you make your very own fossil discovery.  Knowing exactly where to start sieving on the beach is half the battle.

Still Fossils to be Found but Local Knowledge is Key

Fossils can still be found on the shore.

Fossils can still be found on the shore.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Private walks book up very quickly in advance, if you are thinking of visiting the Dorset coast next year, now is an ideal time to get yourself and your family booked on one.  Fossil walks are arranged around safe tide times so be aware that some preferred days may not be suitable.  Most organisers of private fossil walks ask for children to be at least five years old.  Walks take around three to four hours, advice can be provided on where to park any vehicles and as for what you should bring here is a quick check list:

  • Suitable clothing, wellington boots or other stout footwear.  Warm clothing especially in the winter and early spring, having  a waterproof jacket on hand is very sensible, gloves in cold weather too.
  • Bring a snack and a drink although remember to take your rubbish home with you.
  • Bathroom breaks – there are no toilet facilities on the beaches, although most walks commence from the town centre and there are toilet facilities here at the start of the walk.
  • Tools to bring – most guides will be happy to break any nodules open for you, hammers are not usually supplied.  If you do bring your own hammer (please make sure it is a geological hammer), then remember the safety specs and tough gardening gloves.  For advice on the difference between geological hammers and tool box hammers: Geological Hammers What’s So Special About Them?

The fossil walk guide will be able to provide you with the very best chance of finding a top quality fossil and also be able to point out the best places to look.  You will learn a lot more about the history of the local area as well as having the opportunity to get one to one assistance and support.  Private fossil walks really do offer excellent value and they usually cost less than a family three-course meal in a pub.

For further information on private walks (public walks as well), Everything Dinosaur recommends: Lyme Regis Fossil Walks (Public and Private)

Private fossil hunting walks at Lyme Regis can prove to be a very worthwhile investment and provide visitors to the Jurassic Coast with an excellent opportunity to learn more about this fascinating area of Britain.

The Oldest Known Eurypterid

Not Jaws but Claws Pentecopterus decorahensis

Named after an ancient Greek ship (penteconter) which was renowned for its speed and agility, a new and somewhat surprising addition to the mega-fauna of the Middle Ordovician has been described in a paper published in the academic journal “BMC Evolutionary Biology – Bio Med Centre”.  Enter Pentecopterus decorahensis (pent-tee-kop-ter-rus dek-kor-rah-en-sis), which at around 1.7 metres in length suggests that this was an apex predator of the brackish, shallow marine environment represented by shale deposits located in north-east Iowa (United States).

A Very Fearsome Arthropod – P. decorahensis

Ancient predator of the Middle Ordovician.

Ancient predator of the Middle Ordovician.

Picture Credit: Patrick Lynch/Yale University

This armour-plated, marine predator is a member of the Order Eurypterida, an extinct group of Arthropods distantly related to spiders and lobsters.  These creatures are often referred to as sea scorpions as they are distantly related to modern-day scorpions too.  With its streamlined body, grasping limbs for trapping prey and large, well-protected head this formidable carnivore would have dined on a variety of invertebrates as well as jawless fishes.  The fossils are part of the extraordinary Winneshiek Lagerstätte fauna (Iowa) and have been dated to around 467 million years ago (Darriwilian faunal stage of the Middle Ordovician).  Something in excess of 250 different eurypterid species have been described, but only eleven species have been documented from the Ordovician (488-443 million years ago) to date.  P. decorahensis is the oldest known, extending the documented range of the eurypterids by more than nine million years.

Commenting on the fossils, James Lamsdell of Yale University and the lead author of the study stated:

“This shows that eurypterids evolved some ten million years earlier than we thought and the relationship of the new animal to other eurypterids shows that they must have been very diverse during this early time of their evolution, even though they are very rare in the fossil record.”

Some of the Fossil Specimens that have been Found

Examples of fossil specimens.

Examples of fossil specimens, scale bars = 1o mm

Picture Credit: Lamsdell et al

The highly fossiliferous strata was discovered by an Iowa Geological Survey team (University of Iowa), close to the Upper Iowa River.  A temporary dam had to be constructed to allow the fossil site to be excavated. More than 150 fossils of Pentecopterus have been found, many of them representing juveniles.

University of Yale palaeontologist Derek Briggs, a co-author of the study explained that the shale deposits represent an ecosystem that became established when the sea flooded a meteorite impact crater some three miles across.  The weak currents coupled with the oxygen depleted bottom contributed to the remarkable state of preservation of the fossil material.  Even tiny hairs on the limbs can still be seen.

Although, enormous for an Arthropod, it is not the biggest eurypterid known, Everything Dinosaur has reported on a number of very large fossil sea scorpions

To read more about giant eurypterids: Giant Eurypterid Tracks Discovered in Scotland

Giant Devonian Sea Scorpion: Claws! of the Devonian

The largest living member of this Phylum today is the Japanese spider crab (Macrocheira kaempferi), the diameter of the legs of the largest males can be in excess of 3.5 metres and some specimens have weighed more than fifteen kilogrammes.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“Thanks to the remarkable Winneshiek Lagerstätte scientists have been able to look into a window of marine life from some 467 million years ago.  Anyone taking a dip in the brackish waters that linked this part of Iowa to the seas surrounding the ancient land mass of Laurentia had better watch out.  This was one Arthropod capable of giving you more than just a “nip” with its claws.”

Cave in the Urals Reveals Haul of Cave Lion Bones

Imanai Cave – Strange Significance to Stone Age People

A team of Russian archaeologists have been putting on display some of the huge collection of prehistoric cave lion bones and other artefacts recovered from a cave in the Russian republic of Bashkiria close to the Ural mountains.  The small cave has yielded some five hundred cave lion bones so far, plus a number of flint spearheads and a cave bear skull that shows evidence of having been pierced by a spear.  The cave, known locally as the Imanai cave, shows no signs of sustained hominin habitation and it has been suggested that prehistoric people considered part of the cave to have some special, perhaps even religious significance and these items were brought into the cave deliberately.

Scientists Show some of the Flint Tools and Cave Lion Skulls

Imanai cave lion skulls on display.

Imanai cave lion skulls on display.

Picture Credit: Pavel Kosintsev

The concentration of cave lion bones in the cave is unique, nowhere else in the world has such a mass concentration of cave lion bones been discovered.  The bone assemblage probably represents six individual animals.

Pavel Kosintsev, a senior researcher at the regional Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology (Urals Branch of the Russian Academy of Science) stated:

“We found about five hundred bones and fragments of bones of the giant cave lion, but there could be more, after we finish with sorting the collection.  Such a large quantity of giant cave lion bones at one site is really unique, the only one in the world so far discovered.”

Giant Cave Lions

The cave lion (Panthera leo) shares the same scientific name of the modern African lion of the savannah.  Although some scientists believe that it is sufficiently different from its African relative to be classified as a sub-species (P. leo spelaea) It may be classified as the same species, by many academics, but the cave lion looked very different from its modern African counterpart.  It was around 15-20% bigger and it had longer legs.  It also possessed a thick, shaggy coat which during the winter months, when snow covered a large part of this animal’s range, that coat might well have turned white to help camouflage this large predator.  It seems that in the past, the lion as we know it today lived over a much wider area of the northern hemisphere.  Its range extended out of Africa and into Europe, indeed cave lion fossils have been found in the UK, most notably Kents Cavern near Torquay (Devon).

Despite their name, cave lions were not adapted to a life in caves, they were creatures of the open tundra, forests and plains.  Their bones may have been washed into caves or brought into cave dens by scavenging animals and as a result, since the bones of these large cats are associated with caves and rock overhangs the term cave lion was adopted to distinguish them from extant species.

An Illustration of a Cave Lion (note the light coloured coat)

An illustration of a cave lion.

An illustration of a cave lion.

Picture Credit: Russian Academy of Science/Pavel Kosintsev

Earlier excavations had found isolated bones deep inside the caves, but these were interpreted as having been sick or injured lions, or lost cubs.  The researchers believe that the cave may have been an ancient sanctuary and that these sick and injured animals could have been brought to the cave by ancient people.  This suggests that the Imanai cave had some significance to the ancient humans that inhabited this part of the Urals, perhaps it was a place of worship.  A number of other such sites were bone deposits have been made are known, the scientists hope to compare their cave data with similar sites from Austria and the Czech Republic.

The human relics found include ten stone spearheads, identified as being from the Mousterian culture, previously only two such spearheads had been found in the entire Urals region of Russia.

Inside the Cave (Imanai Cave Ural Mountains)

Going down to the bone deposit site.

Going down to the bone deposit site.

Picture Credit: Pavel Kosintsev

The Mousterian culture is defined by the style of stone tools associated with European hominins.  It relates to the Old Stone Age and dates from around 600,000 years ago with the youngest tools associated with this culture dating to around 30-40 thousand years ago.  This technology has been found in sites across southern Europe, Turkey and parts of the Middle East.  Mousterian flint tools have been discovered as far west as Wales and the Imanai cave represents one of the eastern margins for this stone tool culture.  During the Mousterian, Europe was populated by a range of hominin species, including Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and latterly our own species which migrated into this part of the world from Africa – H. sapiens.

Spearheads the Only Sign of Human Activity

The spearheads and the cave bear skull with its spear hole are the only signs of human activity.  If ancient hominins had lived in this cave, even for a short period, the archaeologists would have expected to find a lot more evidence of human habitation.  For example, signs of fire having been used, animal bones with cut marks from being butchered and other stone tools.  The lack of other human artefacts supports the hypothesis that this site might have been a sanctuary of some sort or perhaps a shrine.

The latest finds have not been dated, but the upper layers of the cave floor mapped during an earlier reconnaissance are believed to be around 30,000 years old.  The lower layers are much older, how much older will have a significant bearing on the study, as the scientists cannot be sure what species of people (indeed, the cave could have been an important location to more than one type of hominin) they are dealing with.  Preliminary estimates place the lower, bone yielding layers at around 60,0000 years ago, so this site could be very significant in terms of Neanderthal research.  However, different populations of humans occupied different parts of Europe as the climate swung dramatically from very cold periods to much warmer inter-glacial periods during this part of the Pleistocene Epoch.  Further dating of material is currently being undertaken by scientists from the University of St Petersburg.


Archaeologists Working in the Cave at the Bone Deposit Site

Scientists carefully examining in situ evidence.

Scientists carefully examining in situ evidence.

Picture Credit: Pavel Kosintsev

Explaining the team’s future plans Pavel stated:

“We plan to continue the excavations next year, but the amount of finds we made this year is very large.  There are about twenty sacks with ground and small fragments and about twenty to twenty-five boxes with bones.  We need to examine all this and I think that some significant updates may appear as soon as this year.”

All the bone and tool finds come from an area of just six square metres in the cave, which has been excavated to a depth of around sixty centimetres.  The research team are excited at the prospect of exploring other parts of the cave and finding many more artefacts.  The greater the number of artefacts, then more information can be obtained which should help the scientists to understand more about the cave, its occupants and how it fitted into ancient human cultures.

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