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:

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.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021


This trackway from the Iberian Peninsula is a busy one! The theropod dinosaur tracks — and a few sauropods, too — cover the entire surface. They crossed this muddy area en masse sometime back in the Jurassic.

The Iberian Peninsula is the westernmost of the three major southern European peninsulas — the Iberian, Italian, and Balkan. It is bordered on the southeast and east by the Mediterranean Sea, and on the north, west, and southwest by the Atlantic Ocean. The Pyrenees mountains are situated along the northeast edge of the peninsula, where it adjoins the rest of Europe. Its southern tip is very close to the northwest coast of Africa, separated from it by the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Iberian Peninsula contains rocks of every geological period from the Ediacaran to the recent, and almost every kind of rock is represented. To date, there are 127 localities of theropod fossil finds ranging from the Callovian-Oxfordian — Middle-Upper Jurassic — to the Maastrichtian (Upper Cretaceous), with most of the localities concentrated in the Kimmeridgian-Tithonian interval and the Barremian and Campanian stages. The stratigraphic distribution is interesting and suggests the existence of ecological and/or taphonomic biases and palaeogeographical events that warrant additional time and attention.

As well as theropods, we also find their plant-eating brethren. This was the part of the world where the last of the hadrosaurs, the duck-billed dinosaurs, lived then disappeared in the Latest Cretaceous K/T extinction event, 65.5 million years ago.

The core of the Iberian Peninsula consists of a Hercynian cratonic block known as the Iberian Massif. On the northeast, this is bounded by the Pyrenean fold belt, and on the southeast, it is bounded by the Baetic System. These twofold chains are part of the Alpine belt. To the west, the peninsula is delimited by the continental boundary formed by the magma-poor opening of the Atlantic Ocean. The Hercynian Foldbelt is mostly buried by Mesozoic and Tertiary cover rocks to the east but nevertheless outcrops through the Sistema Ibérico and the Catalan Mediterranean System. The photo you see here is care of the awesome Pedro Marrecas from Lisbon, Portugal. Hola, Pista de baile jurásica!

Pereda-Suberbiola, Xabier; Canudo, José Ignacio; Company, Julio; Cruzado-Caballero, Penélope; Ruiz-Omenaca, José Ignacio. "Hadrosauroid dinosaurs from the latest Cretaceous of the Iberian Peninsula" Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3): 946-951, 12 de septiembre de 2009.

Pereda-Suberbiola, Xabier; Canudo, José Ignacio; Cruzado-Caballero, Penélope; Barco, José Luis; López-Martínez, Nieves; Oms, Oriol; Ruíz-Omenaca, José Ignacio. Comptes Rendus Palevol 8(6): 559-572 septiembre de 2009.

Sunday, 10 January 2021


Triassic Fossil Fish, Albertonia sp. 
Just look at these fabulous fins. I can picture this lovely sailing through Early Triassic seas with her graceful sail-like fins. She is a ganoid fish, Albertonia sp., an extinct bony fish from the East Kootenay Rockies of British Columbia, Canada.

Specimens of this beauty have been found in the Vega-Phroso Siltstone Member of the Sulphur Mountain Formation near Wapiti Lake in British Columbia and the Lower Triassic Montney Formation of Alberta.

Early Triassic fish have been described from several outcrops in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin of the Rocky Mountains. The best known and most prolific of these are from sites near Wapiti Lake in northeastern British Columbia. Here specimens of bony fish with their heavy ganoid and cosmoid scales are beautifully preserved. Four genera of Early Triassic fishes — the ray-finned actinopterygians Albertonia, Bobasatrania, Boreosomus, and the lobe-finned coelacanth (sarcopterygian), Whiteia — are found in abundance in the Wapiti Lake exposures.

This particular species is one of my favourites. Albertonia is a member of the ganoid fish family Parasemionotidae, which is amongst the most advanced and abundant of Triassic subholostean families of fish. The preservation here really shows the beauty of form of this species who likely died and was preserved in sediment at the bottom of an ocean with an anoxic environment.

These fellows lived in deep marine waters, dining on plankton & other small organisms. Most specimens are 35-40cm in length. They have a large, sail-shaped dorsal fin and rather smallish ventral fins. Their pectoral fins were incredibly long compared to the rest of the body, and they too resembled sails. The preservation here is quite remarkable with each square-shaped scale preserved in minute detail.

Richard Carr, a grad student at Fort Hays State University mentioned to me that there is a great fish taphonomy paper based on these specimens. The Sulphur Mountain Formation also has some other incredible fish fossils including 3-D articulated hybodont and eugeneodont skeletons. The latter are also among the youngest members of their order. 

Friday, 8 January 2021


These delightfully friendly and super smart fellows are Bottlenose dolphins. They are marine mammals who live in our world's oceans and breathe air at the surface, similar to humans.

They have lungs, inhaling and exhaling through a blowhole at the top of their heads instead of a through their nose.

Dolphins are social mammals and very playful. You may have seen them playing in the water, chasing boats or frolicking with one another. Humpback whales are fond of them and you'll sometimes see them hanging out together. They are also quite vocal, making a lot of interesting noises in the water. They squeak, squawk and use body language — leaping from the water while snapping their jaws and slapping their tails on the surface. They love to blow bubbles, will swim right up to you for a kiss and cuddle. Each individual dolphin has a signature sound, a whistle that is uniquely theirs. Dolphins use this whistle to tell one of their friends and family members from another.

Thursday, 7 January 2021


Dolphin lumbar vertebrae, North Sea (12 cm)
A lovely 12 cm creamy orange Bottlenose Dolphin, Tursiops sp. lumbar vertebrae found in the Brown Bank area of the North Sea, one of the busiest seaways in the world.

Bottlenose dolphins first appeared during the Miocene and swam the shallow seas of this region. We still find them today in warm and temperate seas worldwide though unlike narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales, Bottlenose dolphins avoid the Arctic and Antarctic Circle regions. Their name derives from the Latin tursio (dolphin) and truncatus for their characteristic truncated teeth

We find their remains in the sediments of the North Sea. There are two known fossil species from Italy that include Tursiops osennae (late Miocene to early Pliocene) from the Piacenzian coastal mudstone, and Tursiops miocaenus (Miocene) from the Burdigalian marine sandstone.

Many waterworn vertebrae from the Harbour Porpoise Phocoena sp., (Cuvier, 1816), Bottlenose dolphin Tursiops sp. (Gervais, 1855), and Beluga Whale, Delphinapterus sp. (Lacépède‎, 1804‎) are found by fishermen as they dredge the bottom of the Brown Bank, one of the deepest sections of the North Sea.  

The North Sea is a sea of the Atlantic Ocean located between the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. An epeiric sea on the European continental shelf, it connects to the ocean through the English Channel in the south and the Norwegian Sea in the north.

The fishermen use small mesh trawl nets that tend to scoop up harder bits from the bottom. This technique is one of the only ways this Pleistocene and other more recent material is recovered from the seabed, making them relatively uncommon. The most profitable region for fossil mammal material is in the Brown Bank area of the North Sea. I've circled this area on the map below to give you an idea of the region.

Brown Bank, North Sea, Pleistocene Dredging Area
In May 2019, an 11-day expedition by European scientists from Belgium and the United Kingdom was undertaken to explore three sites of potential geologic and archaeologic interest in the southern North Sea. 

It has long been suspected that the southern North Sea plain may have been home to thousands of people, and chance finds by fishermen over many decades support this theory. 

A concentration of archaeological material, including worked bone, stone and human remains, has been found within the area around the Brown Bank, roughly 100 km due east from Great Yarmouth and 80 km west of the Dutch coast. The quantities of material strongly suggest the presence of a prehistoric settlement. As such the Brown Bank provides archaeologists with a unique opportunity to locate a prehistoric settlement in the deeper and more remote areas of the North Sea, known today as Doggerland.

Until sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, between 8-10,000 years ago, an area of land connected Great Britain to Scandinavia and the continent.  It has long been suspected that the southern North Sea plain was home to thousands of people, and chance finds by fishermen over many decades support this theory. 

Over the past decades a concentration of archaeological material, including worked bone, stone and human remains, has been found within the area around the Brown Bank, roughly 100 km due east from Great Yarmouth and 80 km west of the Dutch coast. The quantities of material strongly suggest the presence of a prehistoric settlement. As such the Brown Bank provides archaeologists with a unique opportunity to locate a prehistoric settlement in the deeper and more remote areas of the North Sea, known today as Doggerland.

Prospecting for such a settlement within the North Sea is a challenging activity.  Multiple utilities cross the area, bad weather is frequent, and visibility underwater is often limited.  Given these challenging conditions, researchers on the Belgian vessel, RV Belgica, used acoustic techniques and physical sampling of the seabed to unravel the topography and history of 3 areas chosen for the survey.  

During the survey, the team used a novel parametric echosounder from the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ). This uses sonar technology to obtain images of the sub-bottom with the highest possible resolution and was combined with the more traditional “sparker” seismic source to explore deeper sediments.  On the Brown Bank, the Belgica also deployed a grab and a Gilson dredge for sampling near-surface stratigraphy. Video footage was collated using VLIZ’s dedicated video frame and a simpler GoPro mounted on the Gilson dredge. A video showing the equipment in operation on the expedition can be seen at

Additional reading:

Wednesday, 6 January 2021


Back in the 1880s, a large fragmentary skull of an ancient toothed dolphin was described that would later be known as Ankylorhiza tiedemani

The newly named genus Ankylorhiza is derived from the Greek word "ankylo" meaning bound, stiff, or fused, and "rhiza", meaning root — meaning fused roots, and referring to the mostly single-rooted condition of the teeth — a surprisingly toothy grin for an early dolphin. 

We think of dolphins as the gentle, squeaky darlings of the ocean but back in the Oligocene, they were formidable predators. Picture a mug full of sharp teeth and a body designed for speed. Ankylorhiza tiedemani was the largest member of the Odontoceti, a parvorder or suborder of cetaceans that includes dolphins, porpoise and our toothed whale friends and includes all the whales which eat prey larger than plankton. This toothy group includes sperm whales, beaked whales, river and oceanic dolphins, pilot whales and their cetacean brethren with teeth rather than the baleens we find in Mysticeti whales.

More bits and pieces of this brute were unearthed in the 1970s and 1990s. We usually find just the skulls of our aquatic friends but the nearly complete skeleton that found its way to the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College of Charleston included a well-preserved skull, the ribcage, most of the vertebral column and a lone flipper. These additional bits of the skeleton provided the information necessary to truly tease out this ancient tale. Together, the bones tell the story of a 4.8 m predator who would have diverged from baleen whales — but continued to evolve convergent similarities — about 35-36 million years ago. 

This beast of a dolphin hunted our ancient seas some 24 million years ago. He was a fast swimmer with a narrow tailstock, some added tail vertebra and a shorter humorous — upper arm bone — in his flippers. Some dolphins can exceed speeds of 50 km/h, a feat accomplished by thrusting the flukes while adjusting attack angle with their flippers. These movements are driven by robust axial musculature anchored to a relatively rigid torso consisting of numerous short vertebrae and controlled by hydrofoil-like flippers. 

Eocene skeletons of whales illustrate the transition from semiaquatic to aquatic locomotion, including the development of a fusiform body and reduction of hindlimbs, but the rarity of Oligocene whale skeletons has hampered efforts to understand the evolution of fluke-powered, but forelimb-controlled, locomotion. Modern whales and dolphins are superbly adapted for marine life, with tail flukes being a key innovation shared by all extant species. Did ancient dolphins have these modifications for speed? Most thought not. We have the benefit of modern species to make tentative comparisons but need ancient specimens to confirm the hypothesis. 

Kudos to Robert Boessnecker and team for their paper in the journal Current Biology. In it, they report a nearly complete skeleton of the extinct large dolphin Ankylorhiza tiedemani comb. n. from the Oligocene of South Carolina, previously known only from a partial rostrum. Its forelimb is intermediate in morphology between stem cetaceans and extant taxa, whereas its axial skeleton displays incipient rigidity at the base of the tail with a flexible lumbar region. 

The position of Ankylorhiza near the base of the odontocete radiation implies that several postcranial specializations of extant cetaceans, including a shortened humerus, narrow peduncle, and loss of radial tuberosity, evolved convergently in odontocetes and mysticetes. Craniodental morphology, tooth wear, torso vertebral morphology, and body size all suggest that Ankylorhiza was a macrophagous predator that could swim relatively fast, indicating that it was one of the few extinct cetaceans to occupy a niche similar to that of killer whales.

If you fancy a read, here's the reference:

Robert W. Boessenecker et al. Convergent Evolution of Swimming Adaptations in Modern Whales Revealed by a Large Macrophagous Dolphin from the Oligocene of South Carolina. Current Biology, published online July 9, 2020; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.06.012

Sunday, 3 January 2021


Diplomoceras sp.
This gorgeous cream and brown big beast of a heteromorph, Diplomoceras (Diplomoceras) sp., (Hyatt, 1900) was found within the 72 million-year-old sediments of the upper Nanaimo Group on the northern Gulf Island of Hornby in southwestern British Columbia, Canada. 

The site is known as Boulder Point to the locals and it has been a popular fossil destination for many years. 

Many of the fossils found at this locality are discovered in concretions rolled smooth by time and tide. The concretions you find on the beach are generally round or oval in shape and are made up of hard, compacted sedimentary rock. 

If you are lucky, when you split these nodules you are rewarded with a fossil hidden within. That is not always the case but the rewards are worth the effort. 

These past few years, many new and wonderful specimens have been unearthed — particularly by members of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society. 

And so it was in the first warm days of early summer last year. Three members of the Vancouver Palaeontological Society excavated this 100 cm long fossil specimen over two days in June of 2020. The specimen was not in concretion but rather embedded in the hard sintered shale matrix beneath their feet. It was angled slightly downward towards the shoreline and locked within the rolling shale beds of the island. 

Diplomoceratidae (Spath, 1926) are often referred to as the paperclip ammonites. They are in the family of ammonites included in the order Ammonitida in the Class Cephalopoda and are found within marine offshore to shallow subtidal Cretaceous — 99.7 to 66.043 million-year-old — sediments worldwide. 

I was reading with interest this morning about a new find published by Muramiya and Shigeta in December 2020 of a new heteromorph ammonoid Sormaites teshioensis gen. et sp. nov. (Diplomoceratidae) described from the upper Turonian (Upper Cretaceous) in the Nakagawa area, Hokkaido, northern Japan. This lovely has a shell surface ornamented with simple, straight, sharp-tipped ribs throughout ontogeny, but infrequent flared ribs and constrictions occur on later whorls. Excluding its earliest whorls, its coiling and ornamentation are very similar to Scalarites mihoensis and Sc. densicostatus from the Turonian to Coniacian in Hokkaido and Sakhalin, suggesting that So. teshioensis was probably derived from one of these taxa in the Northwest Pacific during middle to late Turonian.

Much like the long-lived geoducks living in Puget Sound today, studies of Diplomoceras suggest that members of this family could live to be over 200 years old — a good 40-years longer than a geoduck but not nearly as long-lived as the extant bivalve Arctica islandica that reach 405 to 410 years in age. 

Along with this jaw-dropper of a heteromorph, the same group found an Actinosepia, gladius — internal hard body part found in many cephalopods of a Vampyropod. Vampyropods are members of the proposed group Vampyropoda — equivalent to the superorder Octopodiformes — which includes vampire squid and octopus.

The upper Nanaimo Group is a mix of marine sandstone, conglomerate and shale. These are partially exposed in the Campanian to the lower Maastrichtian outcrops at Collishaw Point on the northwest side of Hornby Island.

Along with fossil crabs, shark teeth, bivalves and occasional rare and exquisite saurodontid fish, an ambush predator with very sharp serrated teeth and elongate, torpedo-like body — we also find three heteromorph ammonite families are represented within the massive, dark-grey mudstones interlaminated and interbedded with siltstone and fine-grained sandstone of the upper Campanian (Upper Cretaceous) strata of the Northumberland Formation exposed here: Baculitidae, Diplomoceratidae and Nostoceratidae. 

A variety of species are distinguished within these families, of which only three taxa – Baculites occidentalis (Meek, 1862), Diplomoceras (Diplomoceras) cylindraceum (Defrance, 1816) and Nostoceras (Nostoceras) hornbyense (Whiteaves, 1895), have been studied and reported previously. 

Over the last decade, large new collections by many members of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society and palaeontologists working at the Geologic Survey of Canada, along with a renewed look at previous collections have provided new taxonomic and morphometric data for the Hornby Island ammonite fauna. This renewed lens has helped shape our understanding and revamp descriptions of heteromorph taxa. Eleven taxa are recognized, including the new species Exiteloceras (Exiteloceras) densicostatum sp. nov., Nostoceras (Didymoceras?) adrotans sp. nov. and Solenoceras exornatus sp. nov. 

A great variety of shape and form exist within each group. Morphometric analyses by Sandy McLachlan and Jim Haggart of over 700 specimens unveiled the considerable phenotypic plasticity of these ammonites. They exhibit an extraordinarily broad spectrum of variability in their ornamentation and shell dimensions. 

The presence of a vibrant amateur palaeontological community on Vancouver Island made the extent of their work possible. Graham Beard, Doug Carrick, Betty Franklin, Raymond Graham, Joe Haegert, Bob Hunt, Stevi Kittleson, Kurt Morrison and Jean Sibbald are thanked for their correspondence and generosity in contributing many of the exquisite specimens featured in that study. 

These generous individuals, along with many other members of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society (VIPS), Vancouver Paleontological Society (VanPS), and British Columbia Paleontological Alliance (BCPA), have contributed a great deal to our knowledge of the West Coast of Canada and her geologic and palaeontological correlations to the rest of the world; notably, Dan Bowen, Rick Ross, John Fam and Pat and Mike Trask, Naomi & Terry Thomas. Their diligence in the collection, preparation and documentation of macrofossils is a reflection of the passion they have for palaeontology and their will to help shape the narrative of Earth history.

Through their efforts, a large population sample of Nostoceras (Nostoceras) hornbyense was made available and provided an excellent case study of a member of the Nostoceratidae. It was through the well-documented collection and examination of a remarkable number of nearly complete, well-preserved specimens that a re-evaluation of diagnostic traits within the genus Nostoceras was made possible. 

The north-east Pacific Nostoceras (Nostoceras) hornbyense Zone and the global Nostoceras (Nostoceras) hyatti Assemblage Zone are regarded as correlative, reinforcing a late Campanian age for the Northumberland Formation. This builds on the earlier work of individuals like Alan McGugan and others. McGugan looked at the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian and Maastrichtian) Foraminifera from the Upper Lambert and Northumberland Formations, Gulf Islands, British Columbia, Canada.

The Maastrichtian Bolivina incrassata fauna (upper part of Upper Lambert Formation) of Hornby Island (northern Comox Basin) is now recognized in the southern Nanaimo Basin on Gabriola and Galiano Islands. The Maastrichtian planktonic index species Globotruncana contusa occurs in the Upper Northumberland Formation of Mayne Island and Globotruncana calcarata (uppermost Campanian) occurs| in the Upper Northumberland Formation of Mayne Island and also in the Upper Lambert Formation at Manning Point on the north shore of Hornby Island (Comox Basin).

Very abundant benthonic and planktonic foraminiferal assemblages from the Upper Campanian Lower Northumberland Formation of Mayne Island enable paleoecological interpretations to be made using the Fisher diversity index, triangular plots of Texturlariina/Rotaliina/Miliolina, calcareous/agglutinated ratios, planktonic/benthonic ratios, generic models, and associated microfossils and megafossils. 

Combined with local geology and stratigraphy a relatively shallow neritic depositional environment is proposed for the Northumberland Formation in agreement with Scott but not Sliter who proposed an Outer shelf/slope environment with depths of 300 m or more.

References & further reading: Sandy M. S. McLachlan & James W. Haggart (2018) Reassessment of the late Campanian (Late Cretaceous) heteromorph ammonite fauna from Hornby Island, British Columbia, with implications for the taxonomy of the Diplomoceratidae and Nostoceratidae, Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, 16:15, 1247-1299, DOI: 10.1080/14772019.2017.1381651

Crickmay, C. H., and Pocock, S. A. J. 1963. Cretaceous of Vancouver, British Columbia. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, 47, pp. 1928-1942.

England, T.D.J. and R. N. Hiscott (1991): Upper Nanaimo Group and younger strata, outer Gulf Islands, southwestern British Columbia: in Current Research, Part E; Geological Survey of Canada, Paper 91-1E, p. 117-125.

McGugan, Alan. (2011). Upper Cretaceous (Campanian and Maestrichtian) Foraminifera from the Upper Lambert and Northumberland Formations, Gulf Islands, British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. 16. 2263-2274. 10.1139/e79-211. 

Scott, James. (2021). Upper Cretaceous foraminifera of the Haslam, Qualicum, and Trent River formations, Vancouver Island, British Columbia /. 

Sliter, W. & Baker, RA. (1972). Cretaceous bathymetric distribution of benthic foraminifers. Journal of Foraminiferal Research - J FORAMIN RES. 2. 167-183. 10.2113/gsjfr.2.4.167. 

Spath L. F. 1926. A Monograph of the Ammonoidea of the Gault; Part VI. Palaeontographical Society London

Sullivan, Rory (4 November 2020). "Large squid-like creature that looked like a giant paperclip lived for 200 years — 68 million years ago". The Independent. Archived from the original on 4 November 2020.

Urquhart, N. & Williams, C.. (1966). Patterns in Balance of Nature. Biometrics. 22. 206. 10.2307/2528236. 

Yusuke Muramiya and Yasunari Shigeta "Sormaites, a New Heteromorph Ammonoid Genus from the Turonian (Upper Cretaceous) of Hokkaido, Japan," Paleontological Research 25(1), 11-18, (30 December 2020).

Photos: Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society, Courtenay, British Columbia, Naomi and Terry Thomas.