Saturday, 9 April 2016

Fossil Hunting is Usually Boring

I'm about to shatter your preconceptions: looking for fossils is actually pretty boring.

Now don't get me wrong here, when you find something it is brilliant. Reactions vary from a quiet, smug sense of self-satisfaction, to air-punching glory. However, for the most part you won't be finding anything at all. You will spend 99% of the day be crawling along with your arse in the air, searching the ground like you lost a contact lens.

Roger Close takes a closer look at a boulder.
To make matters worse, fossils are best found in dry conditions. I'm not sure if you know this, but Scotland isn't famous for dry weather. In fact, it's safe to say Scotland is a somewhat damp country, and the Western Isles may be the epicentre of airborne water.

So what I'm basically saying, is that despite the glamourous image of Dr Grant and Dr Satler brushing sand off the perfectly articulated claw-festooned raptor in the hot desert sun, the truth of palaeontology (in Skye anyway, and in many other places) is a long tedious visual scouring of rocks that mostly results in nothing, or at best teensy little jaws and teeth that are important to science, but don't make a Hollywood blockbuster.

Tenacity is the name of the game, and if you have it, it pays off.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Going for a Walk in the Jurassic.

There are few places in the UK that can make you feel as clasped in the hand of the landscape as Skye. Frequently, I lift my head from the incessant search for fossils to drink in the shamelessly rich view across the Cuillins, some of Scotland's most stunning mountains.

The Cuillins (Image: Wikimedia)

But go back to the Middle Jurassic, and those sharp sgurrs wouldn't be there. Instead, you would be looking across a series of freshwater and brackish lagoons. There would still be some higher ground in the distance, and mainland Scotland's ancient rocks would be behind you. But rather than seals watching you curiously from the bays and inlets, turtles raise their heads to take a look as you walk by. Underfoot, you may flush out some little insect-eating mammals, about the size of mice or rats.

Were there dinosaurs? Well yes, including massive sauropods, stegosaurs and theropods. Instead of seagulls screeching overhead, pterosaurs arc through the sky, while out in deep waters swim ichthyosaurs and fish.

Now and then a flash flood washes debris from inland out into the water, where it would sink and preserve. This includes the bodies of animals, some of them preserving so well that we find pieces of their bodies 170 million years later.

The earth in the Middle Jurassic (Image from here)
As the Atlantic ocean continued to expand, what would become North America sailed off into the sunset, breaking away from Scotland and leaving volcanos in it's wake. These volcanos smothered the Mesozoic rocks in dark basalt pillows and sheets.

The Jurassic now pokes out along the edges of the island, like feet from under bedcovers. This means we only get a glimpse at the diversity of animals that must have existed on Skye back then; a sample of the many species and their habitats. The rest of the picture lies buried under younger rocks, or lost altogether through geological processes. Because of this, will never know everything about the ecosystem of Jurassic Skye, but as palaeontologists, we'll do our damned best to find out.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Plant or Bone?

Today was a more realistic experience of field work in Scotland: it rained, it shone, it hailed, it shone, it poured, it shone.

Davide and I hide under an outcrop during a downpour.

When searching for fossils, it can be hard to tell the difference between veins of minerals, fossil plant material, or fossil bones. Minerals are all well and good, and I'm not turning my nose up at a nice Mesozoic plant fragment, but the real stars are the bones. On field trips, a great deal of time is spent trying to tell if the intriguingly shaped rock you just came across is something to get excited about or not.

To give you an idea of how tricky it is, let's play a little game. It's called Plant or Bone? Below are some pictures I took the beach here in Skye. Can you tell which ones are fossil bone, and which are fossil plants? (Answers at the end)
1. Looks interesting, but are they bone?
2. Plant or bone? You tell me.
3. Amazing bones... Or just some plant material?
4. Black blob thing.
5. In the shadow of the limpets.
6. A jaw, some ribs, or plant junk?
It takes a while to 'get your eye in' as they say, but once you get the hang of it you start to find things everywhere. Most of it is the same old stuff, but what a palaeontologist is always hoping for is to discover those rare excellent specimens. New species, uncommon ones, something that tells us more about the elusive Middle Jurassic. Fingers crossed this trip will yield some good material to share with the world and make our picture of Mesozoic Skye a little clearer.

Answers: 1. Boring plants; 2. Stunning bone! A shark dorsal fin spine, embedded in the rock; 3. Plants, bleargh; 4. Bone! This one is probably a shark spine too; 5. Bone! Unsure what it is, but certainly bone; 6. Plant again, ah well.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Gin Catchers

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

You don't have to go "over the sea to Skye" by boat since the bridge was built linking it to Kyle of Lochalsh in the 1990s.We sped there from Edinburgh through incessant rain, finding Skye no less wonderful when damp and drizzly.

The Skye Bridge, by the wonderful Charlie Phillips.

Our first day fossil prospecting started out in similar drizzle, but we were rewarded for our perseverance by a beautiful sunny afternoon - and multiple fossil finds. It began with a fossil bone I found when we reached the beach, and by noon we had all discovered something encased in rock, from shark spines to random bones.

Now before you set out for Skye with a hammer in your hand, bear in mind that these fossil beds are part of Scotland's natural heritage, and rightly protected from indescriminate fossil hunting. For our work on Skye - as for all palaeontological digs around the world - we've got permission to extract fossils from the local authorities, in this case SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage). This permission comes with caveats to ensure we leave as little trace as possible, share our finds, and visit local schools and communities to let them know what we are up to on their beautiful island.

If you do happen upon fossils when out walking on Skye or elsewhere, remember the Fossil Code - leave them in place, take photos and mark where they are so that they can be examined and extracted professionally. If you damage them, or remove and keep them, they are lost to science (and the world!). Ideally you want to get them to a museum or university - you might just end up having a new species named after you. Brian Shawcross did; his ichthyosaur from the Isle of Skye was described by a team from the University of Edinburgh and named Dearcmhara shawcrossi in his honour.

Dearcmhara shawcrossi, ichthyosaur from Skye named after the man who found it.
We started out with a trip to Dugald Ross's wonderful Staffin Museum, where we got an idea of the amazing fossils that lie in Skye's rocks. As well as the theropod footprints and sauropod limb bones, the museum houses historical items including a terrifying mole trap for catching moles, which was next to a gin trap... for catching gin?

Yi admires the collection at the Staffin Museum.
Mole trap - eek!
Some of the dinosaur footprints at the Staffin Museum.
Down on the beach, we worked our way along the shore looking for specimens. Dugald shared stories of his various finds over the years, then showed me some of the best spots to prospect. In the afternoon we moved further along the coast where Tom knew there were good fish bone beds. Perhaps there may be mammals there too? I searched, but no luck so far.

Davide, Dugald and Tom examine rocks on the foreshore.
As the sun fell low on the horizon, we headed back to the hostel for a shower and dinner. A great first day on the Isle of Skye.

Hiking back from a good days field work.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Palaeontology on the Island of the Mist and Wings

The Isle of Skye has a mystique about it. In Gaelic either the winged isle, or island of the mist, it lures tourists to explore the mountains and beaches, taking advantage of unique wildlife watching opportunities. This is where I saw my first golden eagle; as a wee girl in the back of the car, staring out the window as we sped back to our home on the Scottish west coast.

Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), by the fantastic Scottish photographer, Charlie Phillips.
Although I've never lived far from the island, like most people I didn't know about the Mesozoic secrets under my feet. It was only as an adult that I became aware of Skye's fossil heritage (see my blog: Taking to the Skye). I couldn't have guessed I'd be lucky enough to return a couple of years later as a palaeontologist, in search of internationally important Jurassic fossils.

Many of Scotland's famous geologists admired the rocks of Skye. In his fabulously multi-titled
The Cruise of the Betsey or a Summer Ramble Among the Fossiliferous Deposits of the Hebrides with Rambles of a Geologist or Ten Thousand Miles Over the Fossiliferous Deposits of Scotland (catchy), Hugh Millar described arriving in Kyle of Lochalsh in the 1840s "...the hills of Skye seem leaning against those of the mainland: and the tide buffeted steamer looked this morning as if boring her way into the earth like a disinterred mole..." Millar recognised fossil reptile and fish bones on the Isle of Eigg, which lies south of Skye. In 1878, John Wesley Judd named these rocks, which span several Inner Hebridean islands, The Great Estuarine Group.

Check out Scottish Natural Heritage's guide to Skye for a taster of the islands' geology.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the mammal palaeontologist Robert Savage visited Skye with teams of geologists and palaeontologists from various UK universities. He uncovered fossils from different groups, including fish, marine reptiles, crocodiles, turtles and mammals. His stunning mammal finds - as yet undescribed - are the basis of my PhD. But of course Skye has been spitting out bits of Mesozoic fauna for years, as the locals will attest as they show you their beachcombed hauls. Some of the most impressive Skye fossils are at Dugald Ross's Museum in Staffin, the largest collection of dinosaur footprints and bones in Scotland. Dugald found many of the dinosaur remains on Skye, including a sauropod femur. He is also a fellow member of Pal Alba.

Dugald Ross with theropod footprints on Skye
This week I'll be part of two teams on their quest to uncover the Jurassic past in Scotland's Inner Hebrides. To begin with, I'll travel with the University of Edinburgh team to scour the beaches of the North. For the second half of the week I'll journey to the South of Skye to meet up with researchers from the National Museum of Scotland, the University of Oxford, and University of Birmingham; searcing the rocks that yielded previous Mesozoic mammalian marvals. 

Join me here on this blog to find out more about our field work on this stunning Isle. 

Dunskeath Cattle, another amazing image from Charlie Phillips.