Thursday, August 03, 2006

Dinosaur Island

Femur of Iguanadon, vertebrae of stegosaurus, jaw of diplodocus...The Isle of Wight is sometimes called 'Dinosaur Island' and a tour around the dinosaur museum which is stuffed full of locally-found fossils shows you why.

The display is enthusiastic, rather than professional - with models, maps, and... dung

and lots of fossil molluscs (or ammonites) which I believe are the snails' close cousins.

Both types of animals died alongside each other in the great mass extinction that occurred 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous. 'Mass extinction' - I remember hearing the term at university - it seemed alarming and oddly thrilling at the same time. Another name for it is the K/T boundary. 50 % of all lifeforms was wiped out. And there hasn't been just one mass extinction, but several - one at the end of the Cambrian, another at the end of the Ordivician and another really bad one, the worst at the end of the Triassic. During each one the conservative animals tended to survive, our lecturer told us - the ones that hadn't evolved very much and stayed exactly as they had been for millions of years. As Hodmandod Senior maintains - laziness always wins out in the end.

According to Wilkipedia the latest theory is that a comet, such as the Schumaker-Levi comet that hit Jupiter a few years ago, was a possible cause. The comet fragmented as it entered the atmosphere and hit the earth in several different places. This may have caused a large amount of volcanic activity in India known as the Deccan Traps and a lot of dust. This would have blocked out the light of the sun and caused the earth to cool - affecting especially those animals dependent on photosynthesising plants. Since the mammals of this time ate mainly dying and decayed food they survived, but the dinosaurs and ammonites did not. These animals had evolved into many different sorts - just looking at the ammonites found in the Ilse of Wight shows the variety at the end of the Cretaceous. Some of these were huge, some were unfurled, some were coiled into a sort of helix like modern day snails. They had become specialised, able to live in only certain conditions, so when the conditions changed they died out.

We wondered around the museum for an hour. It was a fairly primitive structure - a great metal-rooved barn packed with display cabinets and notices, and on the ceiling a model of an archopteryx flapped languidly like an over-large seagull.

When it was almost closing time we encountered the curator - easily identifiable with a small ammonite hanging on a a chain round his neck. I asked him which fossil he was most proud of finding and he showed us a piece of flint with a tiny shark's tooth embedded on one side. Apparently this small object could change how geologists believe flint is formed. Up until now flint is thought to have been formed by a great liquefaction of marine organisms seeping into the existing rock and solidifying. It replaced what was there already with stone, but the tooth embedded in this flint is stilll a tooth - the original material. It is still waiting to be examined by professionals and if it is found to be what the curator thinks it is it will cause a small geological revolution.

We had an interesting chat, but the most exciting thing we discovered was out on the beach. I had read about the dinosaur footprint and the curator told us exactly where and when to go. The tide had to be out so that the wave-cut platform at Hanover Point was exposed. It was slippery, covered in green weed and slimy mud, but we got there. The place was easy to find because next to it a square-shaped piece of rock containing another print has been carefully cut away.

Here is dinosaur's three-toed print and my hoof beside it. I like the idea of the two feet standing in the same spot 65 million years apart.

Then, as we turned back to shore we saw the remains of the petrified forest. As the temperature dropped all those millions of years ago the trees died too. They toppled into the rivers, floated downstream and the resulting log-jam is preserved here.

It was the end of the Cretaceous and the forming of the white cliffs, but the start of the history of the Isle of Wight so I thought I'd write about that first.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darwin had a decent theory, didn't he?

Dear Clare, your "hoof" may be 65 million years apart, but both look good and both leave a lasting memory on current civilisation.

Did we really evolve from a "hoof" so large?

Fri Aug 04, 12:40:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, and sorry I forgot to ask - have you ever been to Lyme Regis?

Fri Aug 04, 12:42:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Femur of Iguanadon, vertebrae of stegosaurus, jaw of diplodocus..." all sauteed together with just a dash of Worcester sauce. That's why they died out- just too tasty.

Fri Aug 04, 07:18:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

CF:Yes, Darwin was quite a man - I love these scientific revolutionaries - and thank you for your kind words about my hoof! It is indeed my best feature.

Never been to Lyme Regis, but would love to - is that part of the Jurassic Coast?

Anon: heh, heh - yes, I was kind of thinking of a witch's brew when I wrote that.

Fri Aug 04, 07:59:00 pm  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Welcome back Clare. Thanks for the comments.

Fascinating, this. It's prompted me to look up information on the trails of human footprints which are being washed up in the north-west. A short intro is here:

Not as old as your dinosaurs, of course, but a very direct and personal link with the ordinary lives of long forgotton communities. It's possible to tell their sex, approximate ages, how much they weighed (even whether a woman was pregnant) and how fast they were travelling, all from these prints.

Fri Aug 04, 10:00:00 pm  
Blogger texbrit said...

A most interesting article. One of my fascinations as a child was Fossils and I spent many days along the coast and especially at Lyme Regis, where ammonites and other creatures lay as fossils in the rocks along the beach. and new ones almost fall out from the cliffs after storms.
My Wife's maiden name is Anning and of course Mary Anning found the first full skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus in 1821 and then a Plesiosaurus in 1823.

Fri Aug 04, 10:25:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Clare,

I'm glad that Texbrit came in with a comment on Lyme Regis as he knows far more than I do.

Swept away by the romanticism of Fowles's "The French Lieutenant's Woman" in my teens; the lasting memory meant I had to go to Lyme Regis at some point. A decade or so later, finding myself in Devon, working at a small quarry for a few months, (yes, really - how does one value and account for "chippings"?), I stayed there over one weekend in order to make the trip.

In addition to my fascination with the cob, (and thoughts of sweeping capes), I'd never before visited a beach which had fossils embedded in the sand. Neither had I ever come across a shop selling fossils and pieces of amethyst. Not that I bought anything, I felt uneasy. Afterall, why should they plunder and profit from pieces of history that were available to all? I loved Lyme Regis, though, perhaps because Fowles led me there and I found more than I thought, as a result.

As for the Isle of Wight, a next door neighbour went there for a week's holiday when I was but a wee child. She came back talking about Osborne House and gave me a stick of rock. These days, until now and your post, I've thought of the Isle of Wight as associated with Cowes week; a place of refuge for Queen Victoria and her consort, Albert; as well as it being the home of a prison, similar to Alcatraz. So thank you Clare for enlightening me. There's more to the Isle of Wight than meets the immediate eye. Well mine anyway.

And perhaps one day, I'll take the ferry to see what it's really like and to get another stick of rock...

Sat Aug 05, 06:40:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeremy. I actually did a post on Sefton here (at least I think I did - is Sefton the same as Formby?) But your comments and link has prompted me into thinking that I should check the tides and look again - because I think it tells me exactly where to look! So thanks a lot for that.

Textbrit: Thanks for the info on Lyme Regis - I think that could well be next year's holiday. We had such a great time in the Isle of Wight I'd really like to explore a bit more of the coast. It's very interesting about your wife's name - I wonder if they are related - I've never heard that name before.

CFR: I love your description of Fowles - good enough reason to go on its own - and I've always felt that about shops selling fossils and stones - but only in the back of my mind - your comment made me realise. We did Osboren House too. I have lots to say about that!

Sat Aug 05, 11:06:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

re Lyme Regis:

This picture sums it up for me:

But not a fossil in sight!

I have to admit that I still think of Lyme Regis as dark, forboding and tormenting, even on a fine sunny day!

Sun Aug 06, 12:53:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

CFR: 'Dark,foreboding and tormenting' - that does it - I'm on the next train down. Just my sort of place - and that photo is tremendous. Thank you.

Sun Aug 06, 11:38:00 am  

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