Sunday, 31 January 2021


Stemec suntokum, a Fossil Plopterid from Sooke, British Columbia
The upper Oligocene Sooke Formation that outcrops on southwestern Vancouver Island, British Columbia is a wonderful place to collect and especially good for families.

As well as amazing west coast scenery, the beach site outcrop has a lovely soft matrix with well-preserved fossil molluscs, often with the shell material preserved (Clark and Arnold, 1923).

While the site has been known since the 1890s, my first trip here was in the early 1990s as part of a Vancouver Paleontological Society (VanPS) fossil field trip.

By the Oligocene ocean temperatures had cooled to near modern levels and the taxa preserved here as fossils bear a strong resemblance to those found living beneath the Strait of Juan de Fuca today. Gastropods, bivalves, echinoids, coral, chitin and limpets are common-ish — and on rare occasions, fossil marine mammals, cetacean and bird bones are discovered.

Back in 2015, a family found the fossilized bones from a 25-million-year-old wing-propelled flightless diving bird while out strolling the shoreline near Sooke. Not knowing what they'd found but recognizing it as significant, the bones were brought to the Royal British Columbia Museum to identify.

The bones found their way into the hands of Gary Kaiser. Kaiser worked as a biologist for Environment Canada and the Nature Conservatory of Canada. After retirement, he turned his eye from our extant avian friends to their fossil lineage. The thing about passion is it never retires. Gary is now a research associate with the Royal British Columbia Museum, published author and continues his research on birds and their paleontological past.

Kaiser identified the well-preserved coracoid bones as the first example from Canada of a Plotopteridae, an extinct family that lived in the North Pacific from the late Eocene to the early Miocene. In honour of our First Nations communities who settled the Sooke area, Kaiser named the new genus and species Stemec suntokum.

Magellanic Penguin Chick, Spheniscus magellanicus
This is a very special find. Avian fossils from the Sooke Formation are rare. We are especially lucky that the bird bone was fossilized at all.  These are delicate bones and tasty. Scavengers often get to them well before they have a chance and the right conditions to fossilize.

Doubly lucky is that the find was of a coracoid, a bone from the shoulder that provides information on how this bird moved and dove through the water similar to a penguin. It's the wee bit that flexes as the bird moves his wing up and down.

Picture a penguin doing a little waddle and flapping their flipper-like wings getting ready to hop near and dive into the water. Now imagine them expertly porpoising —  gracefully jumping out of the sea and zigzagging through the ocean to avoid predators. It is likely that the Sooke find did some if not all of these activities.

When preservation conditions are kind and we are lucky enough to find the forelimbs of our plotopterid friends, their bones tell us that these water birds used wing-propelled propulsion to move through the water similar to penguins (Hasegawa et al., 1979; Olson and Hasegawa, 1979, 1996; Olson, 1980; Kimura et al., 1998; Mayr, 2005; Sakurai et al., 2008; Dyke et al., 2011).

Kaiser published on the find, along with Junya Watanabe, and Marji Johns. Their work: "A new member of the family Plotopteridae (Aves) from the late Oligocene of British Columbia, Canada," can be found in the November 2015 edition of Palaeontologia Electronica. If you fancy a read, I've included the link below.

The paper shares insights into what we've learned from the coracoid bone from the holotype Stemec suntokum specimen. It has an unusually narrow, conical shaft, much more gracile than the broad, flattened coracoids of other avian groups. This observation has led some to question if it is, in fact, a proto-cormorant of some kind. We'll need to find more of their fossilized lineage to make any additional comparisons.

Sooke, British Columbia Shoreline
Today, fossils from these flightless birds have been found outcrops in the United States and Japan (Olson and Hasegawa, 1996). They are bigger than the Sooke specimens, often growing up to two metres.

While we'll never know for sure, the wee fellow from the Sooke Formation was likely about a 50-65 cm long and weighed in around 1.72-2.2 kg — so roughly the length of a duck and weight of a small Magellanic Penguin, Spheniscus magellanicus, chick. To give you a visual, I've included a photo of one of these cuties here showing off his full range of motion and calling common in so many young.

The first fossil described as a Plotopteridae was from a wee piece of the omal end of a coracoid from Oligocene outcrops of the Pyramid Hill Sand Member, Jewett Sand Formation of California (LACM 8927). Hildegarde Howard (1969) an American avian palaeontologist described it as Plotopterum joaquinensis. Hildegarde also did some fine work in the La Brea Tar Pits, particularly her work on the Rancho La Brea eagles.

In 1894, a portion of a pelagornithid tarsometatarsus, a lower leg bone from Cyphornis magnus (Cope, 1894) was found in Carmanah Group on southwestern Vancouver Island (Wetmore, 1928) and is now in the collections of the National Museum of Canada as P-189401/6323. This is the wee bone we find in the lower leg of birds and some dinosaurs. We also see this same bony feature in our Heterodontosauridae, a family of early and adorably tiny ornithischian dinosaurs — a lovely example of parallel evolution.

Fossil coquina, Photo: John Fam
While rare, more bird bones have been found in the Sooke Formation over the past decade. In 2013, three avian bones were found in a single year. The first two were identified as possibly being from a cormorant and tentatively identified as Phalacrocoracidae tibiotarsi, the large bone between the femur and the tarsometatarsus in the leg of a bird.

They are now in the collections of the Royal BC Museum as (RBCM.EH2013.033.0001.001 and RBCM.EH2013.035.0001.001). These bones do have the look of our extant cormorant friends but the specimens themselves were not very well-preserved so a positive ID is tricky.

The third (and clearly not last) bone, is a well-preserved coracoid bone now in the collection at the RBCM as (RBCM.EH2014.032.0001.001).

Along with these rare bird bones, the Paleogene sedimentary deposits of the Carmanah Group on southwestern Vancouver Island have a wonderful diversity of delicate fossil molluscs (Clark and Arnold, 1923). Walking along the beach, look for boulders with white shelly material in them. You'll want to collect from the large fossiliferous blocks and avoid the cliffs. The lines of fossils you see in those cliffs tell the story of deposition along a strandline. Collecting from them is both unsafe and poor form as it disturbs nearby neighbours and is discouraged.

Sooke Formation Gastropods, Photo: John Fam
We find nearshore and intertidal genera such as Mytilus (mussels) and barnacles, as well as more typically subtidal predatory globular moon snails (my personal favourite), surf clams (Spisula, Macoma), and thin, flattened Tellin clams.

The preservation here formed masses of shell coquinas that cemented together but are easily worked with a hammer and chisel. Remember your eye protection and I'd choose wellies or rubber boots over runners or hikers.

You may be especially lucky on your day out. Look for the larger fossil bones of marine mammals and whales that lived along the North American Pacific Coast in the Early Oligocene (Chattian).

Concretions and coquinas on the beach have yielded desmostylid, an extinct herbivorous marine mammal, Cornwallius sookensis (Cornwall, 1922) and 40 cm. skull of a cetacean Chonecetus sookensis (Russell, 1968), and a funnel whale, a primitive ancestor of our Baleen whales. A partial lower jaw and molar possibly from a large, bear-like beach-dwelling carnivore, Kolponomos, was also found here. A lovely skull from a specimen of Kolponomos clallamensis (Stirton, 1960) was found 60 km southwest across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the early Miocene Clallam Formation and published by Lawrence Barnes and James Goedert. That specimen now calls the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County home and is in their collections as #131148.

Directions: From the town of Sooke west of Victoria, follow Highway 14 for about 14 kilometres. Just past the spot where the highway crosses Muir Creek, you will see a gravel parking area on your left. Pull in and park here. From the barrier, walk out to the beach and turn right (west) and walk until you see the low yellow-brown sandstone cliffs about 400 metres ahead. Look at the boulders on the beach. Check for low tide before heading out and choose rubber boots for this beach adventure.

References: L. S. Russell. 1968. A new cetacean from the Oligocene Sooke Formation of Vancouver Island, British Colombia. Canadian Journal of Earth Science 5:929-933
Barnes, Lawrence & Goedert, James. (1996). Marine vertebrate palaeontology on the Olympic Peninsula. Washington Geology, 24(3):17-25.

Fancy a read? Here's the link to Gary Kaiser's paper: If you'd like to head to the beach site, head to: 48.4°N 123.9°W, paleo-coordinates 48.0°N 115.0°W.

Saturday, 30 January 2021


This lovely chunky macroconch is Cadochamoussetia subpatruus (Nikitin 1885) from Middle Jurassic, Lower Callovian, Elatmae zone, Subpatruus subzone in a clay mining quarry near Uzhovka 2, Pochinoksky district, Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia. 

I have a thing for chunky ammonites and find their inflated shapes very pleasing. This lovely has signs of intravital damage to the edge of her shell. We see similar signs of damage on the shells of modern Nautilus. 

These lesions resemble frequently bitten edges. Perhaps damage from predation or the result of bashing up against something solid on the seafloor. There is a wee bit more damage on the mouth of the shell. Where the shell should have stopped growing upon the ammonite reaching puberty, the growth continues for another 5 cm of thinly laminated shell — perhaps signalling a shortage of resources for the ongoing construction of the usual thickness. Collection of the deeply awesome Emil Black.

Friday, 29 January 2021


An outstanding example of Douvilleiceras inaequinodum (de Grossouvre, 1894) ammonite from the Upper Cretaceous of Mahajanga Province, Madagascar. This lovely multicoloured ammonite measures 3.25 inches and is 1.75 inches wide. The ammonite displays amazing sutures and is beautifully translucent.

The genus Douvilleiceras range from Middle to Late Cretaceous and can be found in Asia, Africa, Europe and North and South America. 

We have beautiful examples in the early to mid-Albian from the archipelago of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. Joseph F. Whiteaves was the first to recognize the genus from Haida Gwaii when he was looking over the early collections of James Richardson and George Dawson. The beauty you see here is in the collection of the deeply awesome George Walter Ast.

Thursday, 28 January 2021


Douvelliceras spiniferum, Cretaceous Haida Formation
The archipelago of Haida Gwaii lay at the western edge of the continental shelf due west of the central coast of British Columbia.

They form Wrangellia, an exotic tectonostratigraphic terrane that includes Vancouver Island, parts western British Columbia and Alaska.

The Geological Survey of Canada sponsored many expeditions to these remote islands and has produced numerous reference papers on this magnificent terrain, exploring both the geology and palaeontology of the area.

Joseph Whiteaves, the GSC's chief palaeontologist in Ottawa, published a paper in 1876 describing the Jurassic and Cretaceous faunas of Skidegate Inlet, furthering his reputation globally as both a geologist, palaeontologist as well as a critical thinker in the area of science.

The praise was well-earned and foreshadowed his significant contributions to come. Sixteen years later, he wrote up and published his observations on a strange Mount Stephen fossil that resembled a kind of headless shrimp with poorly preserved appendages. Because of the unusual pointed shape of the supposed ventral appendages and the position of the spines near the posterior of the animal, Whiteaves named it Anomalocaris canadensis. The genus name "Anomalocaris" means "unlike other shrimp" and the species name "canadensis" refers to the country of origin.

Whiteaves work on the palaeontology of Haida Gwaii provided excellent reference tools, particularly his work on the Cretaceous exposures and fauna that can be found there.

One of our fossil field trips was to the ruggedly beautiful Cretaceous exposures of Lina Island. We had planned this trip as part of our “trips of a lifetime.” Both John Fam and Dan Bowen can be congratulated for their efforts in researching the area and ably coordinating a warm welcome by the First Nations community and organizing fossil field trips to some of the most amazing fossil localities in the Pacific Northwest.

With great sandstone beach exposures, the fossil-rich (Albian to Cenomanian) Haida formation provided ample specimens, some directly in the bedding planes and many in concretion. Many of the concretions contained multiple specimens of typical Haida Formation fauna, providing a window into this Cretaceous landscape.

It is always interesting to see who was making a living and co-existing in our ancient oceans at the time these fossils were laid down. We found multiple beautifully preserved specimens of the spiny ammonite, Douvelleiceras spiniferum along with Brewericeras hulenense, Cleoniceras perezianum and many cycads in concretion.

Missing from this trip log are tales of Rene Savenye, who passed away in the weeks just prior. While he wasn't there in body, he was with us in spirit. I thought of him often on the mist-shrouded days of collecting. Many of the folk on who joined me on those outcrops were friends of Rene's and would go on to receive the Rene Savenye Award. There is a certain palaeo poetry in that. 

Photo: Pictured above is Douvilleiceras spiniferum with his naturally occurring black, shiny appearance. Proudly part of my collection. He is 6 inches long and 5 inches deep, typical of the species. The genus Douvilleiceras range from Middle to Late Cretaceous and can be found in Asia, Africa, Europe and North and South America. We have beautiful examples in the early to mid-Albian from the archipelago of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. Joseph F. Whiteaves was the first to recognize the genus from Haida Gwaii when he was looking over the early collections of James Richardson and George Dawson.

As it happens, I have yet to prep most of the concretions I collected on Lina. I’ve left them intact and perfect, waiting for technology and time to advance so I can give them the love and attention they need in preparation.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021


This is a tale of friendship, tragic loss and fossil bees and an introduction to one of the most delightful paleo enthusiasts I have ever had the pleasure to know and collect with — Rene Savenye. He and I enjoyed many years of waxing poetic about our shared love of palaeontology and natural history. 

Rene was a mountain goat in the field, stalking the hills in his signature red t-shirt. He was tremendously knowledgeable about the natural world and delighted in it. For many years, he was Chair of the White Rock and Surrey Naturalists, while I was Chair of the Vancouver Paleontological Society. Together, we would plan and often co-lead field trips to many of the wonderful fossil outcrops in British Columbia and Washington state. 

In 2002, we were planning a very exciting round of field trips. I was offered a fully paid trip to India with Karen Lund to hike to the headwaters of the Ganges, a trip which I was to forgo in favour of a hike up to the outcrops of the Cathedral Escarpment and Burgess Shale and then to yummy Lower Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous, Albian, outcrops accessed only by boat in Haida Gwaii. 

Rene and I had talked about "walking in the shoes" of Joseph Whiteaves, the GSC's chief palaeontologist in Ottawa. He published a paper in 1876 describing the Jurassic and Cretaceous faunas of Skidegate Inlet and spent a significant portion of his career working out the fossil fauna of the Burgess Shale. Combining these two sites within the same field season was a fitting homage. 

John Fam, Vancouver Paleontological Society (VanPS) and Dan Bowen, Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society (VIPS), did much of the planning for that Haida Gwaii trip, they too being inspired by Whiteaves papers and the work of James Richardson and George Dawson — as a whole, we were giddy with the prospect of the year ahead.

Rene and I had planned to do both, but in the end, I had to give up the hike to Burgess that year and Rene never made it back to join me in Haida Gwaii. 

Rene Savenye
In the days before the official trip to Burgess, Rene did some solo hiking in the mountains and hills near Field, British Columbia. He was excited to test his stamina against the steep passes that protect the majestic ridges of Wapta Mountain, Mount Field and Mount Stephen — ever mindful of collecting only with his camera. 

He walked through the hallowed footsteps of Joseph Whiteaves and Charles Doolittle Walcott over ground that should have been named La Entrada de Dios, The Gateway of God, for each footfall brought him closer to meeting the big man. While a naturalist, Rene held to the belief that once his days were done on this Earth, he would be breaking bread in heaven above. 

Rene started with clear skies and a pack full of geology hammers, maps and chisels — the hillside a sea of white and pink flecked wildflowers in the sunlight. As the day went on, the skies filled with rolling clouds, then thunder. Grey sheets of rain covered the landscape. Seeing the danger of being solo in darkening weather, he started down the slope back to his car — his shadow long and thin striking out before him in the fading light — but he never made it. On the afternoon of July 28th, he was struck and killed by lightning — a tragic loss. 

I take heart that he lived and died doing what he loved most. I got the news a few days later and cried for the loss of a great friend. I am sharing my memory of him with you so that you can remember him, too, and share in the delight and loss of one of the loveliest men to ever walk our planet. His years of teaching, mentoring, encouragement and generosity have helped shape natural science and those who have gone on to make it their passion or career — or happily, both.   

Rene's name will not be forgotten to science. His namesake, H. Savenyei, is a lovely fossil halictine bee from Early Eocene deposits near Quilchena, British Columbia — and the first bee body-fossil known from the Okanagan Highlands — and indeed from Canada. 

As a school teacher, Rene once taught the, then student, now SFU biology instructor, Rolf Mathewes. Rene passed his scientifically valuable specimen to Mathews, knowing it was important to science. Mathewes brought it to the attention of Bruce Archibald and Michael Engel, who described Rene's bee in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. Their work is a lovely legacy to a wonderful man and a specimen from one of his favourite collecting sites — Quilchena — a small road-cut exposure of the Coldwater beds of the Princeton Group, one of several depositional basins in the Merritt region of south-central British Columbia.

Rene is also remembered in spirit by the British Columbia Paleontological Alliance (BCPA) Rene Savenye Award. It was established in 2003 to honour those who have demonstrated outstanding service to the science of palaeontology or to palaeontological education in British Columbia. 

Notable past recipients are a veritable who's who from the Pacific Northwest — Graham Beard of Qualicum in 2005, Charles Helm of Tumbler Ridge in 2011, Pat Trask of Courtenay in 2014, Rod Bartlett in 2016, and Joseph "Joe" Haegert in 2018. I'll share a link to the award below so you can read more at your leisure about Rene and those who bear the award with his name.

About H. Savenyei, (Engel & Archibald, 2003): The type specimen is a fairly well preserved complete adult female preserved with portions of the fore-wings and hind-wings. The specimen is 7.04 millimetres (0.277 in) long with the possibility of alteration in length during fossilization. The sections of the forewing which are preserved are approximately 4.8 millimetres (0.19 in) long and show dark brown to black colouration. The presence of a pygidial plate bordered by setae on the fifth metasomal tergum supports the placement into the Halictidae subfamily Halictinae. Placement into the tribe Halictini is based on the lack of a medial cleft in the fifth tergum.


Archibald, B. & R. W. Mathewes. 2000. “Early Eocene Insects from Quilchena, BC, and their Paleoclimatic Implications.” Canadian Journal of Zoology, Volume 78, Number 6: pp 1441-1462.

Grimaldi, D. 1999. “The Co-radiations of Pollinating Insects and Angiosperms in the Cretaceous.” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 86: 373-406.

Photo: Halictidae sp.; Archibald and Mathewes 2000: 1453.

Rene Savenye Award:

Tuesday, 26 January 2021


A very pleasing example of the Ammonite Acanthohoplites bigoureti (Seunes, 1887). Lower Cretaceous, Upper Aptian, from a riverbed concretion, Kurdzhips River, North Caucasus Mountains, Republic of Adygea, Russia. 

Geologically, the Caucasus Mountains belong to a system that extends from southeastern Europe into Asia and is considered a border between them. The Greater Caucasus Mountains are mainly composed of Cretaceous and Jurassic rocks with the Paleozoic and Precambrian rocks in the higher regions. 

Some volcanic formations are found throughout the range. On the other hand, the Lesser Caucasus Mountains are formed predominantly of the Paleogene rocks with a much smaller portion of the Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks. 

The evolution of the Caucasus began from the Late Triassic to the Late Jurassic during the Cimmerian orogeny at the active margin of the Tethys Ocean while the uplift of the Greater Caucasus is dated to the Miocene during the Alpine orogeny.

The Caucasus Mountains formed largely as the result of a tectonic plate collision between the Arabian plate moving northwards with respect to the Eurasian plate. As the Tethys Sea was closed and the Arabian Plate collided with the Iranian Plate and was pushed against it and with the clockwise movement of the Eurasian Plate towards the Iranian Plate and their final collision, the Iranian Plate was pressed against the Eurasian Plate. 

As this happened, the rocks that had been deposited in this basin from the Jurassic to the Miocene were folded to form the Greater Caucasus Mountains. This collision also caused the uplift and the Cenozoic volcanic activity in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains.

The preservation of this Russian specimen is outstanding. Acanthohoplites bigoureti are also found in Madagascar, Mozambique, in the Rhone-Alps of France and the Western High Atlas Mountains and near Marrakech in Morocco. This specimen measures 55mm and is in the collection of the deeply awesome Emil Black.

Monday, 25 January 2021


This beautiful slab of well-preserved Triassic, Carnian, upper Tuvalian ammonoids hails limestone outcrops near the salt-mining town of Hallstatt, Salzburgerland, Austria.

This area of the world boasts one of the richest deposits of Triassic ammonite units — more than five hundred magnificent ammonite species are found here along with a diversified selection of cephalopod fauna  — orthoceratids, nautiloids, ammonoids — we also see gastropods, bivalves (esp. halobiids), brachiopods, crinoids and a few corals. For microfauna, we see conodonts, foraminifera, sponge spicules, radiolaria, floating crinoids and holothurian sclerites —  polyp-like, soft-bodied "wormy" invertebrate echinozoans. On the left, you can see two specimens of Jovites bosniensis MOJS. The ammonoid in the middle of the plate is Juvavites sp. The right side of the block shows two Hypocladiscites subtornatus MOJS.

The larger specimen (15cm) is a phragmocone. Within its badly crushed body chamber (removed during prep) there are two washed in specimens of Disotropites plinii (MOJS.) You can see them visible in the side view on the top right. The Disotropites plinii subzone is the lower ammonoid subzone of the Tuvalian III.

The second picture here shows Hypocladiscites subtornatus from when it was first described as Arcestes subtornatus, in Mojs, 1873.

In the North American literature (after Tim Tozer) the Tuvalian is split into three Zones; starting with the Dilleri Zone, then the Welleri Zone and finally the Macrolobatus Zone on the very top.

The Dilleri zone is characterized by the rise of the genus Tropites sp. together with later members of the genus Neoprotrachyceras sp.

In the Welleri zone, Neoprotrachyceras sp. disappears and Tropites becomes a very common faunal element. The Macrolobatus zone is named after Klamathites macrolobatus, an endemic ammonite of the North American strata. Other genera of this zone are comparable to the time frame of the latest Tuvalian and the earliest Norian of the Alps. In the Hallstatt (Tethys) realm the following Division is made:

Dilleri Zone= Tuvalian I (literature gives little evidence for this zone). Subbullatus Zone = Tuvalian II — corresponding in most parts to the North American Welleri Zone. These are followed by the Anatropites Zone or Tuvalian III — corresponding in part to the North American Macrolobatus Zone.

In the Alps, the strata are divided between Tuvalian II and Tuvalian III. It is up for debate if all three North American zones can be included in these two alpine zones. It has been postulated by Spatzenegger that there is little evidence for a time gap in the lower Tuvalian of the Alpine strata.

Discotropites sandlingense is in the North America zone — a clear Dilleri faunal element. In the Alps, it is ranged into Tuvalian II (Welleri Zone). The same is true for the genus Traskites sp. — corresponding to alpine Sandlingites sp. Some ammonites of the upper part of the Macrolobatus zone are also placed within the alpine Norian stage. The correlation between the North American and Alpine zones is problematic and matching up the Tuvalian fauna is a tricky business.

Sirenites sp., Upper Triassic, Lower Carnian Julian Zone
Tuvalian 1 is recognizable in the Alps by the composition of the faunal spectrum — the quantity of some special genera. We see more of some, less of others, and this gives us a general sense of time.

In some strata, Trachysagenites sp. Sagenites inermis, Sandlingites sp. occur frequently together, with scarce Tropites sp. and Sirenites sp. and (very rarely) Neoprotrachyceras cf. thyrae.

The transition from Tuvalian to the Norian is confirmed only in one location in the Hallstatt limestone. Clustered onto blocks, the ammonoids show us the faunal mix and allow us to place them in time. The bedded profile of Tuvalian fauna (which is overlain by a Norian fauna) hails from the Feuerkogel near Hallstatt. Here we also find the lower transition of Julian to Tuvalian. Not far from this site are limestone outcrops that show the transition between the Carnian and Norian. Here the latest Tuvalian and lowermost Norian are confirmed only by the microfossil fauna.

The Hallstatt Limestone is the world's richest Triassic ammonite unit, yielding specimens of more than 500 ammonite species. Along with diversified cephalopod fauna — orthoceratids, nautiloids, ammonoids — we also see gastropods, bivalves (esp. halobiids), brachiopods, crinoids and a few corals.

Along with an amazing assortment of macrofossils, we see microfauna that are incredibly helpful in teasing out the geologic history of the area. Fossil conodonts, foraminifera, sponge spicules, radiolaria, floating crinoids and the bizarre holothurian sclerites — polyp-like, soft-bodied invertebrate echinozoans often referred to as sea cucumbers because of their similarities in size, elongate shape, and tough skin over a soft interior — can be found here.

Eduard Suess, Gondwana / Tethys Sea
Franz Ritter von Hauer’s exhaustive 1846 tome describing Hallstatt ammonites inspired renowned Austrian geologist Eduard Suess’s detailed study of the area’s Mesozoic history.

That work was instrumental in Suess being the first person to recognize the supercontinent of Gondwana (proposed in 1861) and the existence of the Tethys Sea, which he named in 1893 after the sister of Oceanus, the Greek god of the ocean.

Suess Land in Greenland, as well as the lunar crater Suess and Suess crater on Mars, are named after him.

The Hallstatt-Meliata Ocean was one such back-arc basin. As it continued to expand and deepen during the Triassic, evaporation ceased and reefs flourished; thick limestone deposits accumulated atop the salt. When the Hallstatt-Meliata Ocean closed in the Late Jurassic, the compression squeezed the low-density salt into a diapir that rose buoyantly, injecting itself into the Triassic limestones above.

This area has a rich and interesting geological and human history. I'm sure more studies will be done on the fossil marine fauna to untangle and standardize the Carnian subdivisions. For now, we'll muddle along with regional stratigraphies employing a two-substage subdivision, the Julian and Tuvalian. Others will continue to employ a three-substage organization of the stage: Cordevolian, Julian and Tuvalian. As I've pieced together this interesting Tuvalian tale, I have to thank Andreas Spatzenegger from Salzburg, Austria for his insights, work and amazing photos of the area. Kudos to you, my friends. I'd be mesmerized but still well confused about the Carnian subdivisions if not for you!

The genus Hypocladiscites ranges from the base Carnian to the lower Norian stage of the Upper Triassic. Photos and collection of the deeply awesome Andreas Spatzenegger of Salzburg, Austria.

Superfamilia: Arcestaceae MOJSISOVICS, 1875; Familia: Cladiscitidae ZITTEL, 1884; Subfamilia: Cladiscites GAMSJÄGER, 1982; Genus: Hypocladiscites MOJSISOVICS, 1896

Photo: A spectacular example of Sirenites sp., Upper Triassic, Lower Carnian, Julian Zone of Trachyceras aonoides. From Hallstatt Limestone of Austria. This specimen is about 5cm. Photo and collection of the deeply awesome Andreas Spatzenegger.

Photo: Eduard Suess (1831–1914), lithograph by Josef Kriehuber (1800–1876) c. 1869 by Josef Kriehuber - File:Eduard Sueß.jpg (cropped), Public Domain

Sunday, 24 January 2021


Hallstatt Salt Mines, Austria / Permian Salt Diapir
The Hallstatt Limestone is the world's richest Triassic ammonite unit, yielding specimens of more than 500 ammonite species.

Along with diversified cephalopod fauna  — orthoceratids, nautiloids, ammonoids — we also see gastropods, bivalves, especially the late Triassic pteriid bivalve Halobia (the halobiids), brachiopods, crinoids and a few corals. We also see a lovely selection of microfauna represented. 

For microfauna, we see conodonts, foraminifera, sponge spicules, radiolaria, floating crinoids and holothurian sclerites —  polyp-like, soft-bodied invertebrate echinozoans often referred to as sea cucumbers because of their similarities in size, elongate shape, and tough skin over a soft interior. 

Franz von Hauer’s exhaustive 1846 tome describing Hallstatt ammonites inspired renowned Austrian geologist Eduard Suess’s detailed study of the area’s Mesozoic history. That work was instrumental in Suess being the first person to recognize the former existence of the Tethys Sea, which he named in 1893 after the sister of Oceanus, the Greek god of the ocean. As part of the Northern Limestone Alps, the Dachstein rock mass, or Hoher Dachstein, is one of the large karstic mountains of Austria and the second-highest mountain in the Northern Limestone Alps. It borders Upper Austria and Styria in central Austria and is the highest point in each of those states.

Parts of the massif also lie in the state of Salzburg, leading to the mountain being referred to as the Drei-Länder-Berg or three-state mountain. Seen from the north, the Dachstein massif is dominated by the glaciers with the rocky summits rising beyond them. By contrast, to the south, the mountain drops almost vertically to the valley floor. The karst limestones and dolomites were deposited in our Mesozoic seas. The geology of the Dachstein massif is dominated by the Dachstein-Kalk Formation — the Dachstein limestone — which dates back to the Triassic.

Hallstatt and the Hallstatt Sea, Austria
There were several phases of mountain building in this part of the world pushing the limestone deposits 3,000 metres above current sea level. The rock strata were originally deposited horizontally, then shifted, broken up and reshaped by the erosive forces of ice ages and erosion.

The Hallstatt mine exploits a Permian salt diapir that makes up some of this area’s oldest rock. 

The salt accumulated by evaporation in the newly opened, and hence shallow, Hallstatt-Meliata Ocean. This was one of several small ocean basins that formed in what is now Europe during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic when the world’s landmasses were welded together to form the supercontinent Pangea. 

Pangea was shaped like a crescent moon that cradled the famous Tethys Sea. Subduction of Tethyian oceanic crust caused several slivers of continental crust to separate from Pangea, forming new “back-arc basins” (small oceans formed by rifting that is associated with nearby subduction) between the supercontinent and the newly rifted ribbon continents.

The Hallstatt-Meliata Ocean was one such back-arc basin. As it continued to expand and deepen during the Triassic, evaporation ceased and reefs flourished; thick limestone deposits accumulated atop the salt. When the Hallstatt-Meliata Ocean closed in the Late Jurassic, the compression squeezed the low-density salt into a diapir that rose buoyantly, injecting itself into the Triassic limestones above.

The Hallstatt salt diapir and its overlying limestone cap came to rest in their present position in the northern Austrian Alps when they were shoved northward as nappes (thrust sheets) during two separate collision events, one in the Cretaceous and one in the Eocene, that created the modern Alps. It is from the Hallstatt salt diapir that Hallstatt, like so many cities and towns, gets its name.

Deposits of rock salt or halite, the mineral name of sodium chloride with the chemical formula of NaCl, are found and mined around the globe. These deposits mark the dried remains of ancient oceans and seas. Names of rivers, towns and cities in Europe — Salzburg, Halle, Hallstatt, Hallein, La Salle, Moselle — all pay homage to their connection to halite and salt production. The Greek word for salt is hals and the Latin is sal. The Turkish name for salt is Tuz, which we see in the naming of Tuzla, a salt-producing region of northeastern Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the names of towns that dot the coast of Turkey where it meets the Black Sea. Hallstatt with its salt diapir is no exception.

The salt-named town of Hallstatt sits on the shores of the idyllic Hallstätter Sea at the base of the Dachstein massif. Visiting it today, you experience a quaint traditional fishing village built in the typical upper Austrian style. Tourism drives the economy as much as salt as this area of the world is picture-perfect from every angle.

Space is at a minimum in the town. For centuries, every ten years the local cemetery exhumes the bones of those buried there and moves them to an ossuary to make room for new burials. The Hallstatt Ossuary is called Karner, Charnel House, or simply Beinhaus (Bone House). Karners are places of secondary burials. They were once common in the Eastern Alps, but that custom has largely disappeared.

Hallstatt Beinhaus Ossuary, Hallstatt, Austria
A collection of over 700 elaborately decorated skulls rest inside the ossuary. They are lined up on rows of wooden shelves that grace the walls of the chapel. Another 500 undecorated skulls, bare and without any kind of adornment, are stacked in the corners.

Each is inscribed and attached to a record with the deceased's name, profession and date of death. The Bone House is located in a chapel in the basement of the Church of Saint Michael. The church dates from the 12th century CE. 

Decorating the skulls was traditionally the job of the local gravedigger and an honour granted to very few. At the family's request, garlands of flowers were painted on the skulls of deceased as decorative crowns if they were female. The skulls of men and boys were painted wreaths of oak or ivy.

Every building in Hallstatt looks out over the Hallstätter Sea. This beautiful mountain lake considered one of the finest of Austria's Salzkammergut region. It lies at the northern foot of the Dachstein mountain range, sitting eight-and-a-half kilometres long and two kilometres wide. The shoreline is dotted by the villages of  Obertraun, Steeg, and Hallstatt.

The region is habitat to a variety of diverse flora and fauna, including many rare species such as native orchids, in the wetlands and moors in the south and north.

Linked by road to the cities of Salzburg and Graz, Hallstatt and its lake were declared one of the World Heritage sites in Austria in 1997 and included in the Hallstatt-Dachstein Salzkammergut Alpine UNESCO World Heritage Site. The little market village of Hallstatt takes its name from the local salt mine.

Hallstatt, Salzkammergut region, Austria
The town is a popular tourist destination with its quaint shops and terraced cafes. In the centre of town, the 19th-century Evangelical Church of Hallstatt with its tall, slender spire is a lakeside landmark. You can see it here in the photo on the left.

Above the town are the Hallstatt Salt mines located within the 1,030-meter-tall Salzburg Salt Mountain. They are accessible by cable car or a three-minute journey aboard the funicular railway. There is also a wonderful Subterranean Salt Lake.

In 1734, there was a corpse found here preserved in salt. The fellow became known as the Man in Salt. Though no archaeological analysis was performed at the time — the mummy was respectfully reburied in the Hallstatt cemetery — based on descriptions in the mine records, archaeologists suspect the miner lived during the Iron Age. This Old Father, Senos ph₂tḗr, 'ɸatīr 'father' may have been a local farmer, metal-worker, or both and chatted with his friends and family in Celtic or Proto-Celtic.

Salt mining in the area dates back to the Neolithic period, from the 8th to 5th Centuries BC. This is around the time that Roman legions were withdrawing from Britain and the Goths sacked Rome. In Austria, agricultural settlements were dotting the landscape and the alpine regions were being explored and settled for their easy access to valuable salt, chert and other raw materials.

The salt-rich mountains of Salzkammergut and the upland valley above Hallstatt were attractive for this reason. The area was once home to the Hallstatt culture, an archaeological group linked to Proto-Celtic and early Celtic people of the Early Iron Age in Europe, c.800–450 BC.
Bronze Age vessel with cow and calf

In the 19th century, a burial site was discovered with 2,000 individuals, many of them buried with Bronze Age artefacts of amber and ivory.

It was this find that helped lend the name Hallstatt to this epoch of human history. The Late Iron Age, between around 800 and 400 BC, became known as the Hallstatt Period.

For its rich history, natural beauty and breathtaking mountainous geology, Hallstatt is a truly irresistible corner of the world.

Salzbergstraße 1, 4830 Hallstatt.

Photo: Bronze vessel with cow and calf, Hallstatt by Alice Schumacher - Naturhistorisches Museum Wien - A. Kern – K. Kowarik – A. W. Rausch – H. Reschreiter, Salz-Reich. 7000 Jahre Hallstatt, VPA 2 (Wien, 2008) Seite 133 Abbildung 6. Hallstatt Village & Ossuary Photos: P. McClure Photography ca. 2015.

Bernoulli D, Jenkyns HC (1974) Alpine, Mediterranean, and Central Atlantic Mesozoic facies in relation to the early evolution of the Tethys. Soc Econ Paleont Mineral Spec Publ 19:129–160

Bernoulli D, Jenkyns H (2009) Ancient oceans and continental margins of the Alpine-Mediterranean Tethys: deciphering clues from Mesozoic pelagic sediments and ophiolites. Sedimentology 56:149–190

Saturday, 23 January 2021


These colourful beauties are sea anemones. They are familiar inhabitants of rocky shores and coral reefs around the world — though many of their species can be found at very low depths in our oceans. They are one of the wonderful examples of the diversity that radiated out of the Cambrian Explosion.

At first glance, they look like beautiful and delicate marine flowers. If you've discovered them in tidepools, you'll know that they retract or pull into themselves with the lightest touch. These would-be flowers are predatory marine animals of the order Actiniaria that have graced our oceans for over half a billion years. 

They are named after anemones — Anemonastrum, a genus of flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae — because of their colourful flower-like appearance. Sea anemones are classified in the phylum Cnidaria, class Anthozoa, subclass Hexacorallia. 

As cnidarians, sea anemones are related to corals, jellyfish, tube-dwelling anemones, and Hydra. Jellyfish have a complex life cycle which includes both sexual and asexual phases, with the medusa being the sexual stage in most instances. 

A typical sea anemone is a single polyp attached to a hard surface by its base, but some species live in soft sediment and a few float near the surface of the water. The polyp has a columnar trunk topped by an oral disc with a ring of tentacles and a central mouth. 

The tentacles can be retracted or pulled back inside the body cavity or stretched out and expanded to catch passing prey. They are armed with cnidocytes or stinging cells. In many species, additional nourishment comes from a symbiotic relationship with single-celled dinoflagellates, zooxanthellae or with green algae, zoochlorellae, that live within the cells. Some species of sea anemone live in association with hermit crabs, small fish or other animals to their mutual benefit.

Most actinarians are sessile; that is, they live attached to rocks or other substrates and do not move, or move only very slowly by contractions of the pedal disk. A number of anemones burrow into sand, and a few can even swim short distances, by bending the column back and forth or by "flapping" their tentacles. In all, there are about 1000 species of sea anemone in the world's oceans.

Sea anemones breed by liberating sperm and eggs through their mouth into the sea. The fertilized eggs develop into planula larvae which, after being planktonic for a while, settle on the seabed and develop directly into juvenile polyps. Sea anemones can also breed asexually, by breaking in half or into smaller pieces which regenerate into polyps.

They are sometimes kept in reef aquariums; the global trade in marine ornamentals is expanding and threatens sea anemone populations in some localities, as the trade depends on collection from the wild. 

Most Actiniaria do not form hard parts that can be recognized as fossils, but a few fossils of sea anemones have been found. The bag-like — almost sea cucumber-like — Mackenzia, from the Middle Cambrian, Stephen Formation in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia and Alberta, is the oldest fossil identified as a sea anemone. These ancient sea anemones attached themselves to hard surfaces, such as brachiopod shells. 

Mackenzia costalis, Walcott 1911
Fourteen specimens of Mackenzia costalis are known from the Greater Phyllopod bed, where they make up less than <0.1% of the fossil community. Mackenzia was originally described by Charles Walcott in 1911 — but as a holothurian echinoderm, which was a reasonable assumption at the time. Once additional specimens had been found and studied, Mackenzia costalis was reclassified as a cnidarian and the great grandparent of our modern sea anemones.

Some fossil sea anemones have also been found from the Lower Cambrian of China. The new find lends support to genetic data that suggests anthozoans — anemones, corals, octocorals and their kin — were one the first Cnidarian groups to diversify.

Photo: Charles Doolittle Walcott - Charles D. Walcott: Middle Cambrian Holothurians and Medusae. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections Volume 57, Number 3 (Publication 2011). City of Washington. Published by the Smithsonian Institution. June 13, 1911. 


Caron, Jean-Bernard; Jackson, Donald A. (October 2006). "Taphonomy of the Greater Phyllopod Bed community, Burgess Shale". PALAIOS. 21 (5): 451–65. doi:10.2110/palo.2003.P05-070R. JSTOR 20173022.

 Durham, J. W. (1974). "Systematic Position of Eldonia ludwigi Walcott". Journal of Paleontology. 48 (4): 750–755. JSTOR 1303225.

Conway Morris, S. (1993). "Ediacaran-like fossils in Cambrian Burgess Shale–type faunas of North America". Palaeontology. 36 (31–0239): 593–635.

Thursday, 21 January 2021


Lotus Flower Fruit, Nelumbo
This beauty is the fruit of the lotus, Nelumbo. This specimen was found by Green River Stone (GRS) in early Eocene outcrops of the Fossil Lake Member of the Green River Formation. 

The awesome possums from GRS are based out of North Logan, Utah, USA and have unearthed some world-class specimens. They've found Nelumbo leaves over the years but this is their first fossil specimen of the fruit.

And what a specimen it is! The spectacularly preserved fruit measures 6-1/2" round. Here you can see both the part and counterpart in fine detail. Doug Miller of Green River Stone sent copies to me this past summer and a copy to the deeply awesome Kirk Johnson, resident palaeontologist over at the Smithsonian Institute, to confirm the identification.

There is another spectacular specimen from Fossil Butte National Monument. They shared photos of a Nelumbo just yesterday. Nelumbo is a genus of aquatic plants in the order Proteales found living in freshwater ponds. You'll recognize them as the emblem of India, Vietnam and many wellness centres.

Nelumbo Fruit, Green River Formation
There is residual disagreement over which family the genus should be placed in. Traditional classification systems recognized Nelumbo as part of the Nymphaeaceae, but traditional taxonomists were likely misled by convergent evolution associated with an evolutionary shift from a terrestrial to an aquatic lifestyle. 

In the older classification systems, it was recognized under the biological order Nymphaeales or Nelumbonales. Nelumbo is currently recognized as the only living genus in Nelumbonaceae, one of several distinctive families in the eudicot order of the Proteales. Its closest living relatives, the (Proteaceae and Platanaceae), are shrubs or trees.

Interestingly, these lovelies can thermoregulate, producing heat. Nelumbo uses the alternative oxidase pathway (AOX) to exchange electrons. Instead of using the typical cytochrome complex pathway most plants use to power mitochondria, they instead use their cyanide-resistant alternative. 

This is perhaps to generate a wee bit more scent in their blooms and attract more pollinators. The use of this thermogenic feature would have also allowed thermo-sensitive pollinators to seek out the plants at night and possibly use the cover of darkness to linger and mate.

So they functioned a bit little like a romantic evening meeting spot for lovers and a wee bit like the scent diffuser in your home. This lovely has an old lineage with fossil species in Eurasia and North America going back to the Cretaceous and represented in the Paleogene and Neogene. Photo Two: Doug Miller of Green River Stone Company

Wednesday, 20 January 2021


Crocus — the plural of which is crocuses or croci — is a genus of flowering plants in the iris family comprising 90 species of perennials growing from corms. Many are cultivated for their flowers appearing in autumn, winter, or spring. The spice saffron is obtained from the stigmas of Crocus sativus, an autumn-blooming species.

Each crocus flower plucked gently by hand yields three vivid strands of saffron with an acre of laborious work producing only a few pounds.

The challenge of harvesting saffron from crocus and it's high market value dates back to 2100-1600 BC as the Egyptians, Greeks, and the Minoans of Crete all cultivated crocus not as a spice, but as a dye. Roman women used saffron to dye their hair and textiles yellow. The crocus corm has a history of trade throughout Europe that a few pounds of corms served as a loan of gold or jewels. It made it's way into the writing of the Greeks as early as 300 BC where it originated. The precious flower travelled to Turkey and then all the way to Great Britain in the 1500s before making it's way to the rest of the world.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021


Natural dyes are dyes or colourants derived from plants, invertebrates, or minerals. The majority of natural dyes are vegetable dyes from plant sources — roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood — and other biological sources such as fungi and lichens.

Archaeologists have found evidence of textile dyeing dating back to the Neolithic period. In China, dyeing with plants, barks and insects has been traced back more than 5,000 years and looks to be our first attempt at the practice of chemistry.

The essential process of dyeing changed little over time. Typically, the dye material is put in a pot of water and then the textiles to be dyed are added to the pot, which is heated and stirred until the colour is transferred. Sometimes, we use workers with stout marching legs to mix this up.

Traditional dye works still operate in many parts of the world. There is a revival of using natural indigo in modern Egypt — although their indigo dye is mostly imported. The same is true further south in Sudan. They've been importing cloth from Upper Egypt as far back as we have written records and continue the practice of the cloth and dye imports today. Clean white cotton is more the style of western Sudan and Chad, but they still like to throw in a bit of colour.

Traditional Dye Vats
So do the folk living in North Africa. Years ago, I was travelling in Marrakesh and saw many men with noticeably orange, blueish or purplish legs. It wasn't one or two but dozens of men and I'd wondered why this was.

My guide took me to the top of a building so I could look down on rows and rows of coloured vats. In every other one was a man marching in place to work the dye into the wool. Their legs took on the colour from their daily march in place in huge tubs of liquid dye and sheared wool. This wool would be considered textile fibre dyed before spinning — dyed in the wool — but most textiles are yarn-dyed or piece-dyed after weaving.

Many natural dyes require the use of chemicals called mordants to bind the dye to the textile fibres; tannin from oak galls, salt, natural alum, vinegar, and ammonia from stale urine were staples of the early dyers.

Many mordants and some dyes themselves produce strong odours. Urine is a bit stinky. Not surprisingly, large-scale dyeworks were often isolated in their own districts.

Woad, Isatis tinctoria
Plant-based dyes such as Woad, Isatis tinctoria, indigo, saffron, and madder were raised commercially and were important trade goods in the economies of Asia and Europe. Across Asia and Africa, patterned fabrics were produced using resist dyeing techniques to control the absorption of colour in piece-dyed cloth.

Dyes such as cochineal and logwood, Haematoxylum campechianum, were brought to Europe by the Spanish treasure fleets, and the dyestuffs of Europe were carried by colonists to America.

Throughout history, people have dyed their textiles using common, locally available materials, but scarce dyestuffs that produced brilliant and permanent colours such as the natural invertebrate dyes. Crimson kermes became highly prized luxury items in the ancient and medieval world. Red, yellow and orange shades were fairly easy to procure as they exist as common colourants of plants. It was blue that people sought most of all and purple even more so.

Indigofera tinctoria, a member of the legume or bean family proved just the trick. This lovely plant —  named by the famous Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus, the father of formalized binomial nomenclature — grows in tropical to temperate Asia and subtropical regions, including parts of Africa.

The plants contain the glycoside indican, a molecule that contains a nitrogenous indoxyl molecule with some glucose playing piggyback. Indigo dye is a product of the reaction of indoxyl by a mild oxidizing agent, usually just good old oxygen.

To make the lovely blue and purple dyes, we harvest the plants and ferment them in vats with urine and ash. The fermentation splits off the glucose, a wee bit of oxygen mixes in with the air (with those sturdy legs helping) and we get indigotin — the happy luxury dye of royalty, emperors and kings.

While much of our early dye came from plants — now it is mostly synthesized — other critters played a role. Members of the large and varied taxonomic family of predatory sea snails, marine gastropod mollusks, commonly known as murex snails were harvested by the Phoenicians for the vivid dye known as Tyrian purple.

While the extant specimens maintained their royal lineage for quite some time; at least until we were able to manufacture synthetic dyes, it was their fossil brethren that first captured my attention. There are about 1,200 fossil species in the family Muricidae. They first appear in the fossil record during the Aptian of the Cretaceous.

Their ornate shells fossilize beautifully. I'd first read about them in Addicott's Miocene Gastropods and Biostratigraphy of the Kern River Area, California. It's a wonderful survey of 182 early and middle Miocene gastropod taxa.


George E.Radwin and Anthony D'Attilio: The Murex shells of the World, Stanford University press, 1976, ISBN 0-8047-0897-5

Pappalardo P., Rodríguez-Serrano E. & Fernández M. (2014). "Correlated Evolution between Mode of Larval Development and Habitat in Muricid Gastropods". PLoS ONE 9(4): e94104. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094104

Miocene Gastropods and Biostratigraphy of the Kern River Area, California; United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 642  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.

Monday, 18 January 2021


You may recall the eight-metre Type Specimen of the ichthyosaur, Temnodontosaurus crassimanus, found in an alum quarry in Yorkshire.

The Yorkshire Museum was given this important ichthyosaur fossil back in 1857 when alum production was still a necessary staple of the textile industry. Without that industry, many wonderful specimens would likely never have been unearthed.

These quarries are an interesting bit of British history as they helped shape the Yorkshire Coast, created an entirely new industry and gave us more than a fixative for dyes. With them came the discovery of many remarkable fossil specimens and, oddly, local employment in the collection of urine.

In the 16th century, alum was essential in the textile industry as a fixative for dyes. By the first half of the 16th century, the clothing of the Low Countries, German states, and Scandinavia had developed in a different direction than that of England, France, and Italy, although all absorbed the sobering and formal influence of Spanish dress after the mid-1520s. Those fashions held true until the Inquisition when both politics and fashion underwent a much-needed overhaul to something lighter.

Fashion in Medieval Livonia (1521): Albrecht Dürer
Elaborate slashing was popular, especially in Germany. In the depiction you see here, an artist pokes a bit of fun at Germanic fashion from the time. Bobbin lace arose from passementerie in the mid-16th century in Flanders, the Flemish Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium. Black was increasingly worn for the most formal occasions.

This century saw the rise of the ruff, which grew from a mere ruffle at the neckline to immense, slightly silly, cartwheel shapes. They adorned the necklines of the ultra-wealthy and uber-stylish men and women of the age.

At their most extravagant, ruffs required wire supports and were made of fine Italian reticella, a cutwork linen lace.

16th Century Fashion / Ruff Collars and Finery
In contrast to all that ruff, lace and cutwork linen, folk needed dyed fabrics. And to fix those dyes, they needed Alum. For a time, Italy was the source of that alum.

The Pope held a tidy monopoly on the industry, supplying both alum and the best dyes. He also did a nice trade in the colourful and rare pigments for painting. And for a time, all was well with dandy's strutting their finery to the local fops in Britain.

All that changed during the Reformation. Great Britain, heathens as they were, were cut-off from their Papal source and found themselves needing to fend for themselves.

The good Thomas Challoner took up the charge and set up Britain's first Alum works in Guisborough. Challoner looked to paleontology for inspiration. Noticing that the fossils found on the Yorkshire coast were very similar to those found in the Alum quarries in Europe, he hatched a plan to set-up an alum industry on home soil. As the industry grew, sites along the coast were favoured as access to the shales and subsequent transportation was much easier.

Alum House, Photo: Joyce Dobson and Keith Bowers
Alum was extracted from quarried shales through a large scale and complicated process which took months to complete. The process involved extracting then burning huge piles of shale for 9 months, before transferring it to leaching pits to extract an aluminum sulphate liquor. This was sent along channels to the alum works where human urine was added.

At the peak of alum production, the industry required 200 tonnes of urine every year. That's the equivalent of all the potty visits of more than 1,000 people. Yes, strange but true.

The steady demand was hard to keep up with and urine became an imported resource from markets as far away as London and Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England. Wooden buckets were left on street corners for folk to do their business then carted back to the south to complete the alum extraction process. The urine and alum would be mixed into a thick liquid. Once mixed, the aromatic slosh was left to settle and then the alum crystals were removed.

I'm not sure if this is a folktale or plain truth, but as the story goes, one knows when the optimum amount of alum had been extracted as you can pop an egg in the bucket and it floats on its own.

Alum House. Photo: Ann Wedgewood and Keith Bowers
The last Alum works on the Yorkshire Coast closed in 1871. This was due to the invention of manufacturing synthetic alum in 1855, then subsequently the creation of aniline dyes that contained their own fixative.

There are many sites along the Yorkshire Coast which bear evidence of the alum industry. These include Loftus Alum Quarries where the cliff profile is drastically changed by extraction and huge shale tips remain.

Further South are the Ravenscar Alum Works, which are well preserved and enable visitors to visualize the processes which took place. The photos you see here are of Alum House at Hummersea. The first shows the ruin of Alum House printed on a postcard from 1906. The second (bottom) image shows the same ruin from on high with Cattersty Point in the background.

The good folk at the National Trust in Swindon are to thank for much of the background shared here. If you'd like to learn more about the Yorkshire area or donate to a very worthy charity, follow their link below.


Sunday, 17 January 2021


Temnodontosaurus crassimanus
This big beastie is the ichthyosaur, Temnodontosaurus crassimanus, who graced our ancient oceans 180 million years ago. The species was originally named by Richard Owen, the first superintendent of the Natural History Museum. Owen lived at the height of the gentleman scientist and it was Owen who first coined the name dinosaur. Dean Lomax did some work with this specimen as part of his research leading up to his PhD.

The fellow you see here is the Type Specimen for the species and he lives on display in the Yorkshire Museum. As the reference specimen for the species, all hopeful specimens that may belong to this species are checked against the Type Specimen to see if they share diagnostic features.

The Yorkshire Museum was given this important ichthyosaur fossil back in 1857, albeit in bits and pieces. The first bits of fossil bones were found near Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast by workmen quarrying alum. They recognized the bones as belonging to a fossilized reptile and alerted local authorities who in turn alerted the good Master Owen.

It was quite an undertaking to recover as it was found in more than fifty pieces in massive shale blocks and the alum quarry was active at the time. Alum quarrying helped share the Yorkshire Coast as an important staple of the textile industry going back to the 16th-century. By the 1860s, alum quarrying was slowing down. The ability to manufacture synthetic alum by 1855 had shifted the industry and it died out entirely by 1871. Lucky for us, the last years of alum production gifted us this well-preserved eight-metre specimen, one of the largest ichthyosaurs ever discovered in the UK.

Paleo-coordinates: 54.5° N, 0.6° W: paleocoordinates 42.4° N, 9.3° E

Saturday, 16 January 2021


Sheer beauty — a beautiful Euhoplites ammonite from Folkstone, UK. I've been really enjoying looking at all oil-in-water colouring and chunkiness of these ammonites.

Euhoplites is an extinct ammonoid cephalopod from the Lower Cretaceous, characterized by strongly ribbed, more or less evolute, compressed to inflated shells with flat or concave ribs, typically with a deep narrow groove running down the middle.

In some, ribs seem to zigzag between umbilical tubercles and parallel ventrolateral clavi. In others, the ribs are flexious and curve forward from the umbilical shoulder and lap onto either side of the venter.

Its shell is covered in the lovely lumps and bumps we associate with the genus. The function of these adornments are unknown. I wonder if they gave them greater strength to go deeper into the ocean to hunt for food. 

They look to have been a source of hydrodynamic drag, likely preventing Euhoplites from swimming at speed. Studying them may give some insight into the lifestyle of this ancient marine predator. Euhoplites had shells ranging in size up to a 5-6cm. 

We find them in Lower Cretaceous, middle to upper Albian age strata. Euhoplites has been found in Middle and Upper Albian beds in France where it is associated respectively with Hoplites and Anahoplites, and Pleurohoplites, Puzosia, and Desmoceras; in the Middle Albian of Brazil with Anahoplites and Turrilites; and in the Cenomanian of Texas.

This species is the most common ammonite from the Folkstone Fossil Beds in southeastern England where a variety of species are found, including this 37mm beauty from the collections of José Juárez Ruiz.

Friday, 15 January 2021


This lovely wee 2.6 cm ammonite is Anahoplites planns from the Cretaceous Folkstone Gault Clay, county of Kent, southeast England. Joining him on this bit of matrix is a 3.2 cm section of Hamites sp

This matrix you see here is the Gault Clay, known locally as the Blue Slipper. This fine muddy clay was deposited 105-110 million years ago during the Lower Cretaceous (Upper and Middle Albian) in a calm, fairly deep-water continental shelf that covered what is now southern England and northern France.

Lack of brackish or freshwater fossils indicates that the gault was laid down in open marine environments away from estuaries. The maximum depth of the Gault is estimated 40-60m a figure which has been reached by the presence of Borings made by specialist Algal-grazing gastropods and supported by a study made by Khan in 1950 using Foraminifera. Estimates of the surface water temperatures in the Gault are between 20-22°c and 17-19°c on the seafloor. These estimates have been reached by bulk analysis of sediments which probably register the sea surface temperature for calcareous nanofossils.

It is responsible for many of the major landslides around Ventnor and Blackgang the Gault is famous for its diverse fossils, mainly from mainland sites such as Folkestone in Kent.

Folkestone, Kent is the type locality for the Gault clay yielding an abundance of ammonites, the same cannot be said for the Isle of Wight Gault, however, the south-east coast of the island has proved to be fossiliferous in a variety of ammonites, in particular, the Genus Hoplites, Paranahoplites and Beudanticeras.

While the Gault is less fossiliferous here on the island it can still produce lovely marine fossils, mainly ammonites and fish remains from these muddy mid-Cretaceous seas. The Gault clay marine fossils include the ammonites (such as Hoplites, Hamites, Euhoplites, Anahoplites, and Dimorphoplites), belemnites (such as Neohibolites), bivalves (notably Birostrina and Pectinucula), gastropods (including the lovely Anchura), solitary corals, fish remains (including shark teeth), scattered crinoid remains, and crustaceans (look for the crab Notopocorystes).

Occasional fragments of fossil wood may also be found. The lovely ammonite you see here is from the Gault Clays of Folkstone. Not all who name her would split the genus Euhoplites. There’s a reasonable argument for viewing this beauty as a very thick form of E. loricatus with Proeuhoplites being a synonym of Euhoplites

Jack Wonfor shared a wealth of information on the Gault and has many lovely examples of the ammonites found here in his collections. If you wish to know more about the Gault clay a publication by the Palaeontological Association called 'Fossils of the Gault clay' by Andrew S. Gale is available in Dinosaur Isle's gift shop.

There is a very good website maintained by Fred Clouter you can look at for reference. It also contains many handy links to some of the best fossil books on the Gault Clay and Folkstone Fossil Beds. Check it out here:

Thursday, 14 January 2021


Naomichelys speciosa, a new Helochelydrid turtle from the Trent River
Helochelydrids are a group of poorly known turtles from Late Jurassic to Late Cretaceous deposits in North America and Europe. It is the only known North American member of Helochelydridae.

Naomichelys is known numerous remains from western North America, most notably the holotype partial shell from the Early Cretaceous Cloverly Formation of Montana and a complete skeleton from the Antlers Formation of Texas.

The Cloverly Formation includes a number of vertebrate fossils including a diverse assemblage of dinosaur fossils. the site was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1973.

Naomichelys is a member of the family Helochelydridae. We find their fossilized remains in Late Jurassic to Late Cretaceous deposits in North America and Europe. Within North America, only the species Naomichelys speciosa is known from relatively complete material which makes comparisons between specimens from other localities challenging. Phil Currie along with co-authors Matthew J. Vavrek, Derek W. Larson, Donald B. Brinkman and Joe Morin described a new species of Helochelydrid terrestrial turtle found on the Trent River near Courtenay, British Columbia.

The new genus and species of helochelydrid turtle was based on a relatively complete shell from the marine Haslam Formation (Santonian) of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

The new species is characterized by several distinctive shell features, notably a forward curving process on the anterior portion of the hyoplastra, strongly distinguishing it from N. speciosa. The shell is relatively small but does appear to be from a fully grown individual, suggesting that the species was generally much smaller than other known helochelydrids.

Previously most records of helochelydrids in North America had been assigned to N. speciosa, regardless of actual diagnosable characters. The presence of an additional species of helochelydrid from North America indicates that a greater diversity of the taxon was present than was previously recognized. While the interspecific relationships of helochelydrids remain difficult to fully assess, due to the lack of well-preserved specimens, this new species provides additional geographic and phylogenetic data that aids our understanding of this enigmatic group.