Monday, 15 February 2010

Palaeontological pastimes: fossicking for all the family

What do the Isle of Wight, the Dorset coast and a park in south-east London have in common? Answer: they are all popular stomping grounds for amateur fossil hunters, adults and children alike. Discovering fossils in Britain has a long pedigree, as shown by the antiquity of common names for popular species such as the Jurassic oyster Gryphaea: the Devil's toenail. Equally telling are the museum specimens of ammonites with snake heads carved on them, which were sold over the centuries as 'petrified serpents'. Whilst carving heads doesn't exactly do much for fossils in scientific sense, it is at least an improvement on the Chinese folk tradition of grinding up 'dragon bones' to make medicines!

Fossicking as a popular activity has grown enormously over the past few decades, both in the UK and elsewhere. During the first half of the nineteenth century talented British amateurs such as Mary Anning and Gideon Mantell pioneered techniques to respectively excavate and examine Mesozoic fossils, but since then the field appears to have almost wholly dominated by professionals. So why is it that over the past few decades fossil hunting has become a widespread activity for both children and their parents?

It's probably best to start with two books concerning those ubiquitous prehistoric beasts, the dinosaurs. Until the 1980s most books portrayed them as lumbering, frequently swamp-dwelling animals: slow, simple-minded, and boringly monochrome. Then in 1986 American palaeontologist Robert Bakker wrote The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction, which promoted a more active, bird-like metabolism. Bakker's research (in many aspects now considered more mainstream than heretical) had the good fortune to be published at the same time that research into the 65 million year old iridium layer was gaining attention. In 1990, Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park became a bestseller shortly before the publication of a flurry of articles and papers discussing the Chicxulub crater in Mexico. For a while this enormous impact crater was combined with the worldwide iridium layer to offer a definitive solution to the dinosaurs' demise via asteroid impact, although the hypothesis has becoming increasingly untenable since. In the meantime, Steven Spielberg's 1993 film adaptation of Crichton's book became the highest-grossing film in history, confirming that dinosaurs were back in the public imagination on an unprecedented scale.

The continual development of computer-generated graphics has since led to numerous dramas and documentaries featuring these and other extinct ecosystems, often courtesy of the Discovery Channel and the BBC. Museums have also got in on the act, with dynamic, frequently animatronics exhibits ranging from the three-quarter sized Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Natural History Museum in London to the tiny hatchling at Oxford's equivalent. There have also been some international theatrical exhibitions featuring full-size reconstructions, including the £10 million Walking with Dinosaurs show at the O2 and Wembley Arena, as well as the new temporary exhibition at Parklife Oxford Street in London. Dinomania and then some!

Although these commercial enterprises have only been made feasible by the advances in animatronics and computer graphic technology, they appear closely tied to the flood of new finds and resulting theories. Many specialists now speak of a golden age of dinosaur discovery, supported by the recognition of a new species every few months and computers used to rapidly produce life-like reconstructions. The number of exciting finds, especially from China, supports the idea of a dinosaur renaissance, although hasty speculation on the dino-bandwagon often seems to drown out sober fact. One recent key discovery is the feathers and protofeathers found on various species: current research of their microscopic melanosomes has led to a claim of multi-coloured, possibly striped dinosaurs; a far cry from the bland grey and brown illustrations I remember from the 1970s. With embryo-containing eggs and nests also being found around the world, many aspects of dinosauria are becoming as well known as species alive today. Perhaps it is the increasing familiarity of some of these animals (as in their resemblance to giant proto-birds) which helps generate a feedback loop between scientific exploration and media exposition. The day of the dull dinosaur is over.

As for the British Isles, the popularity of dinosaurs has been used to generate enormous interest in amateur fossil hunting, with the Isle of Wight, home to the earliest ancestor of T-Rex, often considered the best location in Europe for finding dinosaurs. The island contains the Dinosaur Isle and the Dinosaur Farm Museum attractions, which combined with Norfolk's Dinosaur Adventure Park show there's no shortage of family-oriented 'edutainment'.

Of course there are many other genera to be found in the UK: the three-volume set of British fossils published by the Natural History Museum runs to over 500 pages. The main groups I have found whilst fossicking around the country are echoed by the limited choice of native specimens available in fossil shops, namely belemnites, ammonites, shark's teeth, and to a lesser extent, trilobites. Whilst these are mostly small specimens (anything large tends to be discovered by commercial operators after winter storms), there are still occasional finds showing the potential for amateurs. These include the 600,000 year old elephant found at West Runton beach in Norfolk; and Baryonyx, a 9.5 metre long fish-eating dinosaur that was discovered in a Surrey clay pit.

Many locations offered organised walks, including some just for one family at a time. Herein lies another reason for the popularity: many fossil-bearing strata are found in extremely accessible locations such as the coastline of popular holiday resorts, so it's far easier to combine a beach holiday with a fossil hunt than at equivalent, frequently remote sites in Australia or the USA. There is even a Family Fossil Hunt course on the Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales, aimed at introducing families to the joys of fossicking. For those who come away empty-handed (often the adults, since children usually have better eyesight and are closer to the ground), numerous gem shops and websites sell fossils in addition to paraphernalia such as geology hammers, goggles, and magnifiers. Again, many items are clearly aimed at children, including party bags (some with chocolate ammonites) and starter sets containing items such as dinosaur coprolites (fossilised dung).

By and large, fossil hunting is a fairly harmless activity. As long as you keep an eye on the tide and don't dig into cliff faces, there's not much that can go wrong with a leisure pursuit that can cost nothing more than some ziplock bags to contain your finds. If fossils are not extracted when exposed, the weather or wave action will soon erode or fragment them. As long as any unusual specimens are reported it's doubtful scientific information is being lost (unlike with metal detectorists, where archaeological context is everything). Without sounding too much like a public information film from the 1950s, fossicking is a healthy pursuit for all the family that can help promote interest in biodiversity and evolution (although if it is anything like what can be overheard at the Natural History Museum, the pre-teens often know more about it - Greco-Latin species names included - than their parents). And after all, in many locations as soon as you get bored you can always go back to building sandcastles!

Technorati Tags: , ,