Monday, 24 November 2014

SVP Reflections

Well two weeks has already passed and that is SVP over another year and, on the face of it, it seems to have been yet another very well received meeting. From a personal standpoint I can honestly say that I enjoyed it again and, despite the amount of amazing and totally inspiring research that is going on throughout the world, it is the people at SVP that make the difference and make it such a wonderful event.
There have been several discussions regarding certain issues raised at the meeting this year, many of which are still going on even now. Essentially they focus on the fact that this meeting gets bigger and bigger every year and it is hard to manage so many people efficiently – especially when it comes to the poster sessions and the provision of both food and liquid refreshments.
I am actually not too fussed about being in such a crowded situation during, for example, the poster sessions since you are mixing with essentially likeminded people who are all doing the same thing – we are all keen to learn from each other and discuss the research presented as well as making new friends and thus taking part in a real social event.
However, as I had alluded to in my previous post, the format of the poster layout was certainly problematic. The vertical layout of the poster boards themselves in tandem with the fact that they were situated on a 90° degree angle to each other, made the sessions manic. I noted that the more popular posters sometimes swamped the posters that were opposite to them so that one author was particularly busy whilst the other was boxed in and often looked uncomfortable with the situation.
And not only authors suffered as the amassed ranks of palaeontologists attempted to look through each other and across each other to even glimpse some of the detail presented. The format was also problematic and some posters began at the very top of the board and travelled all the way to the floor – I suspect neck ache became an issue for some and those people who were not as tall as others would have struggled to see anything at all.
This was unfortunate but, as I have already pointed out, there were no issues that I am aware of and most people made the best of it. Indeed we, and many others, cottoned on quite early, to check out the posters throughout the day so that you could spend time reading them properly – especially those that you were really interested in. Certainly my habit of marking out both oral and poster presentations well in advance in a hard copy of the abstracts book pays dividends time and time again.
The oral presentations were par for the course although, on a personal level, I thought that the mix of topics and/or symposia could have been better spread throughout the four days as I found myself being really busy for two days and fairly quiet on the others. But this is very much a personal view and, indeed, there was only one marine reptile talk and only one tyrannosaur-related talk as well (which was about teeth) – so not an abundance of talks concerning my favourite beasties .
For some reason I thought there was an entire session of talks missing as well but I was assured there was only ever three concurrent sessions at SVP – goodness knows why I thought that then. Interestingly, however, that too has been raised in the aftermath of this meeting – that perhaps there should indeed be a fourth session although it was pointed out that it is hard enough chopping and changing during the current three sessions, let alone four. The fifteen minute time slots and no slack gives you little room to manoeuvre.
Strangely I felt that the biggest criticisms during the meeting concerned the lack of coffee supplied during the afternoon. Sure there is the morning break but nothing in the afternoon makes it a long session without a coffee fix. One would imagine that it would not cost that much to provide a secondary supply of coffee in the afternoon and it does not have to necessitate a break such as there is in the morning. I suspect most people would prefer to have coffee as and when during the afternoon anyway. The lunchtime food supply did not appeal either at first as vast cues built up on the first day but it soon settled down and I think the catering staff managed that quiet well.
The biggest criticisms were levelled during the reception at the Museum für Naturkunde on the first evening of the conference. I don’t believe that there is anyone or anything to blame for the situation but the cues for both the food and the drink were a nightmare. The sheer amount of people made the situation impossible for all concerned and, I suspect, is the primary driver for the current debate about the size of the conference these days.
It was quite funny to see people eating a dessert prior to eating something warm at the currywurst kiosk because the cue for that kiosk happened to pass the dessert stand and they were waiting so long that they had to eat something to keep them going! It did not help that most people were milling about in the main dinosaur hall and many did not know that there were other kiosks further along in another wing – a bit of signage or ushering would have helped. 
The biggest debate proliferating the boards on Twitter and the DML concerns the ethics of live tweeting during the conference and the use of electronic devices to surreptitiously record or photograph someone’s poster or oral presentation. Perhaps surreptitiously is a misnomer since most of it is actually quite blatant.
I do not intend to go into great detail on this matter since, as I mentioned, this is an ongoing discussion on the DML and I advise you to check out Jon Tennant’s excellent blogpost here and take the time to wade through the comments as well which will give you an idea of the extent and various opinions on the issue.
I believe this to be a difficult issue and nearly everyone agrees that the society will need to clarify its rules regarding live tweeting and social media – in fact all forms of electronic communication. But presently we are notified that information can indeed be disseminated once the presentation is underway so people cannot realistically be criticised now – not as the rule currently stands.
Secondly, I believe the society has also made a rod for its own back by releasing the abstracts to the public. When I first joined the society, the abstracts volume/PDF was only available to members only but last year I was amazed when the abstracts were available on an open link. Now I am a proponent of open access as much as anyone but when the society did this then every man and his dog was able to read the abstracts and any hope of maintaining a reasonable embargo was gone.
I know that I actually made a couple of appeals on specific sites to ask people to refrain from discussing the abstracts to help protect the authors work but I knew it was to no avail and that the cat was out of the bag. In light of this then, how realistic can it be to expect delegates of the conference not to “live tweet” when the abstracts and the overall points of the research have been in the public domain for weeks?
The concern over photography and/or video footage of presentations/posters is yet another point of contention. And yet it shouldn’t be since the society states “Still photography, video and/or audio taping or any other electronic recording at the SVP Annual Meeting is strictly prohibited.” And yet this rule has been quite openly and blatantly flouted by a minority which has also encouraged others to break the rule. Of course the biggest concern here is that research could possibly be stolen, utilised and maybe even published before the original author(s) has hardly had time to finish and proof read his own work.
Probably the biggest single factor here is that there is no official (or unofficial for that matter) form of policing at the conference. I accept that as members we should all be considered Police but nobody challenges anybody about use of mobile phones, ipads and cameras – not once have I seen it. I have seen the blatant use of tablet–like devices or ipads being held aloft to take video footage of presentations as well as photographs. I have never said anything to be honest but then nobody else has either.
And, I have to confess, that I have actually photographed a couple of posters for my own benefit as well since I was getting frustrated at watching others continually flouting the rule. In retrospect, this was a stupid thing to do and is something I would not do again but demonstrates my earlier point that unless rules are enforced then others are likely to jump on the bandwagon.
I must emphasise that the images I took were for my benefit only and are not, nor will they ever be, in the public domain but unless we do something, then I am sure there is a chance that somebody’s intellectual property may very well duplicated or plagiarised although I believe that possibility is absolutely minimal. In general we are a pretty decent lot.
So we simply need a clarification from the society regarding what is permissible and what is not and then we have to enforce it. Whether it is about social media or photography there must be some form of structure that is crystal clear and made apparent to all and maybe even a form of sanction for a serial offender. But I genuinely hope that this never needs to happen.
So next up comes a review of some talks and posters that caught my eye and made my ears prick up. One animal I will not be discussing, based on my observation at SVP, is Spinosaurus and I will reveal why next time.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

SVP 2014 - Berlin

 Well it is that time of year again and, despite not being able to blog as much as I would have liked to have done, I am still delighted to be able to attend this year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s conference. This year it is a fairly local event for me being held, as it is, in Berlin in Germany and continues the society’s’ recent commitment to hold the event outside of the USA every fifth year. On the first occasion (2009) it was held in Bristol in the UK and I understand that the society was looking outside of Europe initially for this meeting but events transpired that required it being held in Berlin.
As usual I have been going through the abstract volume marking out what I want to see and there are far more posters of interest this year although there are still many oral presentations that I am keen to see. It will be interesting to see how the vertical presentation of the posters will affect the ability of people to see them clearly and I know that this is causing some concern amongst a few of my colleagues but until we see how it goes it is probably best not to be too alarmist.
Again, what stands out for me, is the degree of research that features further progressive, and I have to say, impressive futuristic technology that is enabling palaeontologists to be able to reveal information that even five years ago would have been impossible to ascertain. This is an exciting and dynamic branch of our science that shows no signs of abating and simply by comparing research presented at last year’s conference, with what is being presented in Berlin, highlights the relentless pace of technological progression and enhancement that is wonderfully inevitable within this field. I cannot wait to see what wonders will be revealed over the next ten years and beyond.
The trip also enables me to visit the wonderful   Museum für Naturkunde – something I have always wanted to do but never quite got round to doing. Although the welcome reception for the meeting will be held at the museum on the Wednesday evening, we do intend to go to the museum on the Tuesday for a much more laid back look at the collection and I can hardly wait to see the fabled material from Tendaguru – one of the truly great dinosaur bone collections in the world.

Of course one of the best things about SVP is the chance to catch up with so many friends and colleagues from around the world and it looks like many of them are going to be there so I am really looking forward to a great event. This enables you to be able to network with colleagues and discuss future research and field work and is a great opportunity for our group to continue to register its presence in the palaeoworld.
This will be my last SVP meeting for two years so I will not be in Dallas next year but I hope to be back in Salt Lake City in 2016. However, the fact that I have managed to attend the last three, including Berlin, represents a nice run and I am constantly aware of how lucky I have been to attend these wonderful meetings – I never take these things for granted.
And the reason for not going to Dallas in 2015? Well next year will represent a great opportunity for me and I am hopeful that I will be spending three weeks doing field work in the USA which is, of course, subject to changes that can occur when these things are first planned. But the outlook is positive and I am excited by the prospect.
So it is my intention to report on this year’s meeting and some of the research that will be presented and hopefully to blog about it on my return but for now – onward to Berlin! 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

From the Toarcian to the Callovian - Addendum

Since publishing the final instalment below I have received some rather interesting feedback from palaeontologist and colleague Dean Lomax in relation to the locality discussed in the first part of the post. Firstly let's clear up where this location is - it is indeed Kettleness, a well known fossil bearing locality on the North East Jurassic Coast that is famous for producing superb fossils of ammonites and is best known for the amount of marine reptile remains it has produced over the years.

Well it appears that the spot I reached in thirty minutes is NOT the main fossil producing spot at Kettleness. Rather it appears that you need to walk around the headland as seen in the above image and then, after a further 40 minutes walk, you will arrive at your destination. Who would have thought that? The cave and waterfall are always mentioned in relation to fossil hunting at Kettleness so it is not surprising that I made the mistake. To make me feel a little better about this, Dean also mentioned that he got caught out by this on his first visit as well.

So it appears that the information that it is a good hours walk to the fossil bearing strata was indeed  correct and I apologise that I may have misled some of you with the report in my previous post. So there a few more thoughts here of which one includes the fact that, despite the revelations above, the first bay I came to is still fossiliferous and I found a few nice ammonites here so do not discount it by any means. This also means that I will now have to return at some point to check out the "true" Kettleness so that next time I can provide you with some proper information and relevant data!

Lastly, and this is by far the most important aspect here, that you appreciate that the walk from Runswick Bay to the actual fossil grounds is most assuredly an hour and ten minutes so you MUST prepare accordingly. Leave nothing to chance - check the weather forecast right up to the last moment and, of course you must know the tide times and time your visit to optimise the amount of time you have to look for fossils and still allow time to walk back before the tide returns.

I would also remind you that if you have any amount of fossils in your rucksacks that the weight will tell on your return journey and you will naturally be walking more slowly after hours of fossil hunting so you need to factor this in as well. It goes without saying that a fully charged mobile phone is essential.

So, as I mentioned previously, many thanks to Dean for putting me right and allowing me to correct those points I made in the previous post. Most of all, do not be put off and I hope some of you make the effort and visit this truly classic location for there still many fossils waiting to come to life.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

From the Toarcian to the Callovian Pt.4

The following morning I headed off to the final venue for the week. By reputation it was difficult to reach and, for me, this reason alone was why it would be worth the attempt since it would follow that those spots that are hard to get to are probably more likely to throw up some nice specimens. The most direct route was to scale a more or less vertical cliff with the help of only a rope that is permanently in situ there.
Well I cannot speak for others but I actually don’t fancy risking my neck to find a fossil. Sure, it saved time, was very direct and dropped directly onto the fossil beds but, in my opinion, it was not worth the risk. Trying to manoeuvre down a cliff face by using a rope that is constantly exposed to sea salt and the elements does not imbue you with confidence. Add to that you have at least a shoulder bag or rucksack on your back to make things even more imbalanced as you climb down which will probably become quite heavy with any amount of fossils you may find and make the ascent back even harder. And if the rope breaks and the tide comes in – you are going to drown.
Having quickly decided that I was not going to do that I set off on the reputedly long walk to the fossil grounds. I double checked the tides and the weather and, going by the information I had researched, nothing would be left to chance. It was a beautiful morning and I made goodtime as I circumnavigated the main cove which was all sand and then, as I approached a large stretch of boulder strewn coastline, I was pleased to be able to negotiate this stretch without too much trouble.
I rounded the headland and was gobsmacked to see that I had already reached my destination. At first I doubted myself that I could not have possibly been able to reach this spot in such a short time – but I had. It took me thirty minutes to get here and I could just make out the rope from the top of the cliff coming down the face to reach the shoreline and, right in front of me, the very well-known small cave with a delightful waterfall falling behind it.
Just why this trip has been made out to be such a tough and long walk to partake is anyone’s guess but perhaps it is perpetuated by local fossil hunters to dissuade people from visiting the site. This may seem harsh but I can think of no other reason. Thirty minutes from car park to site walking at a reasonable rate - but not over the top. The terrain is a little awkward in only one or two spots but the rest is easily negotiated. However, I would reinforce that it is still essential to plan the trip knowing the tides and weather – it is still easy to get cut off unless you take extra care and pay attention to the time. Never take chances.
As I approached the beds I was delighted to be, yet again, the only person around and it was such a beautiful day. The tide was going out, the sun was pleasantly warm and there was a gentle breeze – I could not believe my luck. I quickly found the fossil bearing spot and began to search and soon found one or two odd bits of ammonite. This area was very similar to my other regular haunt and was also not that big an area.
It consisted of boulders, rocks and gravel and these were intermingled with large dislodged sections of shale that had broken off from the wave cut platform and were slowly being eroded away by the ceaseless tides of the North Sea. Amongst this there was a lot of seaweed that had taken hold in the nooks and crannies and, all in all, this seemed to represent quite a challenge to locate fossils.
I need not have worried and continued to find bits of ammonite but I only kept a couple of fragments since I had loads from the other coastal spots I had been frequenting. Pretty soon, however, I found my first nodule which seemed likely to hold a reasonable ammonite and then found another one in quick succession. As I got my eye in, the fossils came in little hot spots where I would find two or three fairly close to each other and then nothing for quite a while. The same issues here were the same as at the other stretches – namely there was lots of cracked nodules where other fossil hunters had been here before me and, again, there were a couple of nice specimens that had been completely destroyed by reckless hammering.
As the tide moved out I checked the platform but this was extremely difficult to walk on and there was copious amounts of seaweed in place that covered the shales in vast swathes of green. I persevered for a while for I knew that vertebrate fossils were not too uncommon here but I could find only flattened ammonites and a few belemnites. Ichthyosaurs are the most common reptiles found here and a fairly complete skull had been removed only a few years prior.
After I gave up the search on the shales (mainly because I did not want to slip and break something!), I returned to the foreshore and continued the search there. The fossil bearing stretch slowly widened out and became more difficult to search but it was apparent that it was not rich at all and I returned to the more constrained area to look for more nodules.
Despite not being as rich as I first imagined I still managed to find some nice pieces that are likely to yield one or two nice specimens and I felt quite happy with my finds. I also looked further up shore and had a tentative look in the cliff face but I could find very little. That weather was still wonderful and I decided to call it a day and begin the walk back. Again I reiterate that the walk is not as long or as tough as is made out by others – just be sensible and pay attention to the tides and weather. I soon found a pub and enjoyed the view for today was my last day in the north east but although this week was ending, tomorrow I would be heading south to an undisclosed and disused quarry to look in the clays of the Callovian seas.
I left the north very early and headed south down the A1. After I has stopped for a much needed breakfast I arrived at the quarry around nine o’clock and met up with a few colleagues from our research group to see what we could find. Conditions were fine – blue sky, not too hot and a gentle breeze but there had been no rain here for many a day and the terrain looked harsh. Compared to what I had been experiencing over the last week with the ever encroaching tides revealing new treasures each day, this looked very likely to be a hard day. A dry arid basin swept before us with the ancient clay sea glistening white amongst the copious amount of vegetation that was now growing rapidly.
Add to this I knew that this venue had been visited only recently by another group and without a change in the weather, I felt our chances of finding things were low to say the least. As we began searching we immediately came across a vast plain of mud cracks, many of which were already desiccating and others were curling up and were now loose on the surface. Everything looked grim.
We found a spot that looked like it may be promising and a couple of us dropped down onto our hands and knees for a closer inspection of the exposed surface. The clay looked completely bereft of fossils and I was just about to move on when I spied a tiny black fragment pushing through the clay. I carefully cleared the sediment from this speck of black and was amazed to find a partial tooth from the hybodont shark Asteracanthus. Considering the conditions this was completely unexpected.
We gradually looked around the same spot gently sifting through the clay and were rewarded with two further partial fragments of teeth from the same shark. Associated remains? Possibly but considering this quarry had not been worked for some years now it is hard to be sure.
After this brief moment of interest we spread out to see what else we could find. It had really turned out to be yet another nice day but it was proving difficult to find anything. A lot of the old spoil now was like concrete and had formed almost a solid crust on the surface. As you broke into it, the old shales simply disintegrated - everything was so dusty.
Eventually, one of the crew found an unusual, what appeared to be, compressed mollusc. We had seen these on occasion but only rarely and the general consensus is that they are actually the compressed remains of a nautiloid – perhaps Paracenoceras. In any event this turned out to be quite a rare fossil and now resides in the collections at the NHM in London.
Unfortunately this find turned out to be the exception rather than the rule. The ever increasing amount of vegetation (you could almost describe it as scrub) was making things really difficult and, for all our prospecting abilities we could only muster up a couple of scrappy bits of bone and couple of fish scales although there was one more interesting fossil that turned up.
From L - R Two bits of bone, three fish scales with the Asteracanthus tooth above and the coprolite at the far right.
Coprolites are extremely abundant in the Oxford Clay. Most are from fish which are small, generally a pasty off white colour and of little interest. Large ones from animals such as the marine reptiles are much rarer but these too, apart from their size, are also of little consequence.
But every now and then one turns up with inclusions which are normally representative of the animals most recent meal – and these are very interesting indeed. They normally show up as black and shiny against the pasty background of the coprolite and represent various food sources that would have passed through the food chain.
Many of these inclusions are unrecognisable but some can be readily identified. One of the more common elements found are the remains of belemnites and some of the hooklets appear as pristine today as they may have been over 160 million years ago. But, on occasion, a coprolite can reveal something extraordinary and I was fortunate enough to find just such a fossil today.
This coprolite reveals, remarkably, several pieces of fish bone including a perfect little vertebra. A couple of inclusions looked like small teeth but were revealed to be a scale and a small bone. There were other indistinguishable inclusions as well and this coprolite is the first one of its kind that I have found – maybe not as spectacular as big teeth or bones but no less of equal fascination.
In the end we decided to call it day and headed home – for me the first time I had been home in a week. All in all it had been a great week that I had spent with friends, both old and new, and I was very lucky with the weather which had been very spring-like. I had also found a good quantity of ammonites in the north east although vertebrate fossils had eluded me on this occasion but I had managed to find a nice shark tooth and coprolite on the very last day so you cannot complain about that.
Most of all I loved the fact that I had begun the week searching for fossils in the Toarcian seas of 180 million years ago and finished up looking for the creatures of the Tethys Ocean, in sediments  around 16 million years younger than where I had first started prospecting simply by driving a few miles in my car. Ancient worlds brought to life by the tools of the modern world.

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.


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

From the Toarcian to the Callovian Pt.2

The following day we decided to approach the bay from the south which was essentially the other side of the rock fall. Simon had already climbed up and around the fall to check out the other side to see if it looked fossiliferous. Simon was surprisingly quick and agile as he skipped over some extremely rough and acute terrain and never looked in danger of having an accident.
We had waited on the north side of the fall while he scouted and, after about ten minutes, he quickly reappeared and reported that the exposures looked similar to what we were looking through and suggested that there were almost certainly fossils to be found. This was good enough for us and seemed the sensible thing to do in light of their limited time in the north east.
And so, the next day, we dropped down a steep hill to the cove, about a mile south of our original bay, and prepared to head north. We believed that it would probably be a 30 to 45 minute walk along the coast to reach the desired spot although we would naturally look for fossils as we went since this whole coastline was remarkably rich in remains and decent specimens could crop out anywhere.
We had only just rounded the corner of the first promontory when we came across an exposed wave cut platform and straight away we could see several compressed ammonites and a couple of belemnites. Just beyond this was a very apparent and recent cliff fall displaying a patch of pebbles, rocks and large sandstone blocks not unlike the rock fall we had encountered the previous day. Immediately we found some bits of ammonite amongst the pebbles but as we approached the fall we could see, unsurprisingly, that other collectors had already been here and the remnants of split nodules  was indicative that the best specimens were already long gone. Or were they?
Amazingly, amongst all the debris, Simon managed to extract a large nodule that appears to have two very intact ammonites along the same bedding plane that should, if luck is with us, prepare really well and will be a superb display piece in due course. This will be almost certainly be prepared in the laboratory back at the NHM and so will have the best care and attention – fingers crossed that the ammonites are indeed as well preserved as they appear to be.
However, this was a rare find and we were soon heading off north for our intended destination. We scoured the headland as we walked but fresh exposures were not obvious and there was a growing increase in the amount of large sandstone blocks and debris we had to clamber over. We arrived at the next promontory only to be greeted by a sea of boulders and crevices that made walking tough and unforgiving. To add to our woes, the wave cut platform that was now exposed by the receding tide was extensively covered by seaweed and even getting to it was problematic.
Undaunted we pushed on over this never ending jumble of rock, mudstone and weed and, to be honest, it was physically extremely tough as well as being hard mentally since you were constantly concentrating on each and every footstep. A misplaced footfall might possibly mean a sprained ankle or even a broken leg and the weed and slime that covered the rocks and mudstones made the situation somewhat treacherous.
We decided to get to the next headland and hopefully we would be at the exposures we were aiming for. Imagine our despair as we rounded the headland to be greeted by another extensive field of rocks and boulders as bad as the field we had just negotiated, with the next headland appearing to be some distance off. Although we agreed that it was indeed likely to be our target spot we decided to call it quits and head back. This decision was not taken lightly but we had to take into account the amount of time it would take to get there, time to look for fossils and then the tide would have turned and we could not afford to misjudge our return south – especially with the terrain being so hard to negotiate.
We headed back south and began the long trudge back to the cove with our heads down to ensure we made it in one piece. Eventually we got back to where Simon had found his superb ammonite nodule and spent a little bit of time searching for more fossils but to no avail. We returned to the car and quickly back to base since Simon and Mark had to leave for London almost immediately. Saying our farewells, I immediately made preparations for the following day.
The weather deteriorated during the evening and another heavy sea mist closed in. I went for a walk along the top of the Lias cliffs and peered through the gloom but you could hardly make anything out. Only the sound of the waves broke the silence and for a moment I felt as if I was living back in the Jurassic. The great sea dragons abounded in the sea below me and pterosaurs flew all around me in the dense sea mist – the world must have been a truly awesome spectacle back in the Mesozoic.
The following day I descended down the cliffs, headed south and returned to the spot where the three of us had done well a couple of days previously. The sea mist was still pervading the atmosphere and you could not see probably a hundred metres either way but this just increased the sense of anticipation and, best of all, I had the entire cove to myself.
This time I decided to concentrate on this one area and spend a considerable amount of time on my hands and knees looking at every nook and cranny I could find. I would also check out some of the gullies and dips in the mudstone platform itself since they acted as collection points and there were many different rocks and stones that were trapped in all kinds of cavities.
Immediately this process began to pay dividends and I found a couple of nice ammonite nodules fairly quickly. When I extended the search onto the platform and began perusing the crevices for fossils I very quickly had one of those “wow” moments. As I peered around a boulder and looked down, there in a gully, just about sitting proud of the water was a wonderful pyritised ammonite glistening in the half light. It was almost as if somebody had placed it there waiting for me to find it and I took a couple of photographs of it in situ before gathering my prize.
Only fossil hunters understand the sheer buzz you get when you find such a fossil. That is not to decry the achievement of finding the vast majority of fossils but rather to celebrate that electric joy you get when you find a stunningly complete specimen, the glossy sheen of an immaculate tooth or, indeed, a gorgeous pyritised ammonite – there is no other feeling quite like it.
The platform gullies and crevices ended up being rather productive and, because they do not receive the attention that the foreshore generally receives, the fossils were often well preserved. Eventually the platform became decidedly weed covered and finding fossils problematic so I returned to the foreshore to continue looking amongst the gravels, rocks and boulders.
Throughout the rest of the session I recovered fossils including a couple of nodules that should contain complete ammonites. I know I often say this but getting onto your hands and knees and getting into spots that can seldom be seen from the standing or stooping position continues to pay dividends. One such very obvious boulder contained an ammonite nodule that must have been missed on countless occasions only because it was slightly exposed at the base and I only spotted it because I had my head stuck to the sand. Fortunately I managed to extract it safely and is another waiting for preparation.
Another fossil which I spotted in this fashion was a superb bivalve – the only example I found during the whole week. This too was secreted in a crevice and took some nifty chisel work to persuade its release from its ancient tomb. I really like this fossil and was thankful that I managed to find it. However, the elusive vertebrate fossils remained just that – elusive.
This is almost certainly due, in part, that you become focussed on finding ammonites and looking for nodules so you almost certainly miss other fossils. This is often the case in formations such as the Oxford Clay in which the sheer mass of ammonites and belemnites often preoccupies your line of vision and makes it difficult to differentiate other fossils – “noise” I call it.
However, I have no doubt that I was not missing much vertebrate material, if any, since I am very familiar with these kinds of fossils although I am nowhere near as familiar with these exposures as someone able to visit them on a regular basis. Regular prospecting at any site makes a tremendous difference to your find to visit ratio as you learn more and more about the exposures and the fossils they contain.
Gradually the mist dissipated and the sun began to shine and the day became a little warmer. I covered a very significant section of foreshore and amassed some very nice fossils indeed and I admit to being a little surprised that I was still able to glean a couple of nice ammonites quite higher up in the succession than expected.
Satiated for the day I made the long trek and climb out of the cove and did I know that I had had a good day as the weight of fossils on my back began to tell – the back pack seemed to gain more weight with every step up the steep trail. Eventually I made it back to base and took a look at my haul before washing them off and they made for a visually stunning display as they glistened with water. Soon it would be time for the next trip and I needed to decide on the location and eagerly began planning ahead.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

From the Toarcian to the Callovian Pt.1

The next few posts are really a light review of some recent fieldwork that myself and some colleagues undertook at the back end of April into early May. Don’t expect a technical treatise here nor are there any earth shattering developments or reviews – rather this is a very personal, almost diary-like, look back at what was some very welcome respite from what has been a very hectic period since January. I hope you enjoy them. 

At the back end of 2013 I had decided to plan a week’s fieldwork back in the north east to essentially chill out doing what I love but without the usual constraints of fieldwork and research under the auspices of our group. That does not mean I do not enjoy what we do but sometimes it is good to amble, looking for fossils as you go and smelling the hops along the way…..
So after Christmas I decided to look for accommodation in a fairly central location to the sites that I was quite keen to visit. I was fortunate that one of the first places I checked out was exactly where I wanted and looked ideal. I looked at the dates and settled for a late April excursion which appeared to me to be a fairly sensible time as it was after the Easter holidays and before summer really kicked in. Without further ado I booked the place up and I was all set.
Despite the fact I was booked to go on my own I let the other members of the group know of my plans and asked if anybody was interested in coming. It was unfortunate that so many members of the group were busy but in the end my colleagues Simon and Mark, from the Natural History Museum in London, said they would like to join me for the weekend and this was duly arranged.    
Eventually it was time to go and soon I was winging my way up the A1 headed northward with a car full of gear – mainly field gear it has to be said. Is there anybody that does not take more gear than is needed when field work is about to start? To be fair, I have rationalised my gear a great deal now and take a largely reduced set of kit for prospecting these days although it has to be said that the heavy duty gear and other equipment needed for a larger excavation remain in the vehicle in reserve. Well you just never know and I would hate going into the field under prepared – hate it.
As journeys go it was about as hassle free as it could get and I arrived in Whitby at lunchtime and stopped to pick up a few supplies and then grab a drink and a bite to eat. I noticed that I had a message on my phone from Mark and when I listened to it I was surprised to hear that they were already in the field getting a sneak preview – surprised because I was expecting them much later in the day.
I rang him back but there was no answer so I left him a message and duly went for some refreshment as planned. Whitby was rammed with people and it was a struggle to get parked but I did manage it eventually and walked into the old harbour. As I looked around I realised I had arrived bang in the middle of one of the major Goth Festivals that Whitby hosts twice a year. It was a great atmosphere as so many Goths dressed in their darkest finery mixed with everyone chatting away and posing for photographs. I was really taken in by it – it was wonderful fun!
Eventually I caught up with Mark and Simon in Whitby and, as we sat down for a coffee, they told of their brief field trip – brief because the tide was almost in and they had to beat a hasty retreat before it was too late. But even in this brief period they told they had picked up a few fossils and so the prospects looked good.
At this point it might be worth pointing out our aims for the trip – there weren’t any! This may sound a little surprising since our group is concerned with the recovery and research of marine reptiles but this was really a case of getting away from the intensity of our routine work and actually enjoying some time out with the added bonus of a fossil or two. We were not expecting to find any vertebrate fossils but we would certainly be looking for them but we would also be collecting ammonites as well.
The ammonite fauna of the north east is well known and they are incredibly abundant – at the right times. The local collectors are fortunate that they can be instantly on the scene whenever there is a fresh cliff fall or when there are storm conditions or when the big autumnal and spring tides scour the Lower Lias platforms to reveal their hidden treasures. I don’t blame them – so would I if I lived locally and exactly the same thing takes place in that mecca of British fossil hunting – Lyme Regis and Charmouth.
But this should not put anybody off searching for fossils at these locations. The local collectors certainly do not get all the best fossils and, with ammonites, they are often only interested in nigh on perfect specimens and ignore or discard those that are not as near as possible perfect. So there should always be a few fossils to be found – provided we look in the right spots.
After we settled in to our accommodation, which was spacious, well equipped and comfortable, we spent the evening in one of the local inns where we ate and drank and discussed all things palaeo. As usual, all of the talk focussed on the fossils found during the past and those we might find in the future. Topics included further field trips, especially a couple of large scale affairs abroad, what we could do to increase the chances of unearthing more marine reptile remains  and the importance of the public to palaeontology – watch this space!
Morning came and we set off early to make the most of the low tide. Our accommodation was situated rather well since we were only a matter of minutes from our first port of call. It had been raining and we were careful as we made our way down to the shore – conditions were very slippery. When we got to the bottom we headed north around some headland and aimed for some large boulders that were strewn across the shore since it was here that there was meant to be the chance of finding the odd bone and some fine ammonite specimens.
When I was last here there were lots of nooks and crannies that were holding areas for various rocks, nodules and fossils we collected some nice fairly intact nodules that clearly had ammonites inside them. But it was so different this time and it is no understatement that there were no nodules to find at all – indeed even ordinary rocks were conspicuous by their absence.  
Just why this should be the case is not known. I suspect that there have been no recent cliff falls to replenish the foreshore and it looks to me that there must have been several scouring tides since even the sand was missing. In any event we discussed the issue and decided not to waste any more time in the north and we duly headed south to the spot where Mark and Simon had picked up a few fossils during the previous day.
As we walked along the shore we could see that there had been an extensive rock fall further around the headland. Even at a distance we could see a great yawning chasm in the side of the cliff and, at the base of the cliff, huge sandstone boulders piled up on top of each other with a mixed covering of clay, shale, ironstone and other scree. We would have to have a look at that shortly.
Eventually we arrived at the spot where the fossils were found previously. It was a stretch of shoreline that was strewn with a mixture of mudstone boulders, sandstone and all sorts of other rocks and pebbles all intermixed with sand – this was much more like it. Ahead of the shore the exposed wave cut platforms of the Lias stretched out before us of which the platform exposed higher up on the coastline was free from the sea weed that covered the vast majority of it elsewhere.
We began to search and instantly began to find fragments of ammonites of which some were heavily eroded and others were pristine. We naturally spread into a line of three – Mark at the top of the line, Simon in the middle and I took the base of the unit where the shore abuts the platform. Mark found a couple of likely nodules straight away of which one he found by turning a likely looking nodule over with his boot. As he turned it over he uttered that gasp of pleasure as, displayed before him, was a superb example of the ammonite Dactylioceras commune which will clean up really well.
Encouraged by this we continued the search and we all found some nice examples. I was particularly struck how I managed to find three nodules that were exposed in one tight little section almost as if they had been placed there. As we progressed we decided to get a little pickier with what we collected since our collecting bags were starting to get a little heavy. As Mark and I continued to be engrossed Simon decided to push on and aimed for the rock fall zone determined to take a look.
After a while we looked up to where Simon was and we could see that he had already scaled the sandstone blocks and was busy looking through the spoil. Eventually Mark and I walked up to join him where we could see what had appeared to have happened. A lot of the sandstone was covered in seaweed which suggests the main fall must have happened some time ago but there had been a much more recent fall here which was evident by the amount of manmade quarrying mining there had been.
There were ammonite nodules in the shale and those that did not make the standard or had been damaged were left strewn all over the place. Simon had done well though and had managed to find a couple of decent specimens of which one looks particularly nice. Mark and I had a brief look although I felt that the two of us were not as comfortable as Simon was working in a spot which you could easily term as vulnerable to a further fall.
As we worked our way down and away from the rocks Simon decided to take a look on the other side of the rock fall to see what the exposures were like there. He soon bounded off, was very light on his feet and disappeared – “The Goat” Mark called him. While he was doing this we had a look at the wave cut platform below us while we could for the tide had turned. This platform is patchy as far as fossils go but we could see ammonites and belemnites in situ although these ammonites were nothing more than imprints but the belemnites were well preserved.
Eventually Simon caught up with us and suggested that the exposures on the other side were better accessed from the bay further south and so we formulated a plan to do that on the following day. It was now time to walk back with our spoils which was no mean feat. The climb out of this bay is one of the steepest you can encounter and we were really happy to make it to the top – good job we are all fit *cough*.
Soon it was time for food and drink and refining our plan for tomorrow because who knows what that might bring?