Urban Fossil Hunting in Lincoln

If you want to satiate your desire for finding fossil remnants of long-dead organisms, where do you go? There are the obvious places such as the coast, old quarries, expensive excursions into famous fossil-bearing deserts, or if you’re fine with looking at what others have found – a museum. Exploring a city like Lincoln (UK) might not seem ideal for finding fossils without a trip into the local museum but if you know where to look, you can find yourself peering at all sorts of extinct critters which most people walk right by (or over).

Many buildings throughout the UK are made using rocks which contain fossils, some of those building stones are packed full of them. Fossil-bearing rocks are found in castle walls, cathedral columns, pavements, statues and random walls throughout city centres. This post is focusing on Lincoln as I recently visited the cathedral there, however, I’ve also found fossils whilst wandering York and London.

Unlike normal fossil hunting, you can’t take the fossils home with you when hunting for urban fossils. The pleasure is gained from discovering what most people do not see, despite it being right in front of them. And, of course, fossils are beautiful natural sculptures in their own right, capable of sparking the imagination and the drive to study what life was once like in the distant past. Plus you can always take pictures (I’d love to see what other people have found).

It’s not out of the question that you might even find something incredibly rare, even new to science. In 2016, the remains of an ancient sea cow were discovered in the paving slabs of a street in Girona, Spain. The find turned out to be one of the oldest sea cows found in Europe.

Moo

The skull of Prototherium in a Spanish paving slab. Image by: Manja Voss and Oliver Hampe, Credit: Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

A few tips (if I may be so pretentious)

My own forays into urban fossil hunting have so far been largely accidental. I didn’t travel to those places with the intention of finding fossils in amongst the architecture, nor did I even intend to find them as I travelled from place to place. In London, I simply perched on a wall whilst eating my packed lunch and realised that there were fossils around me (gastropods, if I remember correctly). In York, I saw a building made out of limestone and looked simply out of curiosity; it contained thousands of fragments of broken bivalve shells. If you plan to look for urban fossils, as I now intend to do when visiting other places, a small amount of planning could go a long way.

  1. Check the Internet. It might sound obvious, it may even take some of the fun away for you, but some urban fossils are well documented online. If you’re travelling to London in particular, the website London Pavement Geology has got you covered with over 90 localities. The site has been expanded for the rest of the country, however, that so far amounts to just five places outside of London, three of which are in Edinburgh. Check out this bone in the pavement outside St Margaret’s in Westminster as an excellent example of what can be found.
  2. Limestones are your friends. Before visiting a well-known building, or even whilst there, try to find out what it is made out of. Sometimes you can find out the exact building stone and look into whether it contains fossils. Other times, you might get no further than seeing the rock classified as simply limestone or sandstone. When information is limited, limestone is probably your best bet for finding fossils in the walls and floors of buildings. Some sandstones will contain fossils but as a quick rule of thumb, I’d personally favour limestones (I’d happily be called out on this if I’m overlooking some impressively fossiliferous sandstones used in architecture here in the UK).
  3. Marble is also your friend. Marble, to a geologist, means metamorphosed limestone. But, to a stonemason, it includes unmetamorphosed limestones. Polish up some fossiliferous limestone and it will have that nice, aesthetically appealing marble patterning. Inspect columns and statues if they appear to be marble as there is a strong chance that they are teeming with fossils.
  4. Use something to give a sense of scale. Whenever you take a picture of a fossil, always use something to show how big it is! Which is something I failed to do whilst in Lincoln, as you will see below…
  5. Don’t be afraid to look a prat. I know I did. If anything, it’s part of the fun.

Lincoln Cathedral

As already mentioned, my visit to Lincoln Cathedral was not meant to be a fossil hunting trip. Whilst on the way to the cathedral, I stopped by the temple in the gardens near the Usher Gallery and decided to have a look at the limestones used to build it, happily finding some fragments of bivalve molluscs. I stopped by the Medieval Bishop’s Palace and found myself looking at more fossils in the rocks there too. Unfortunately, I took no pictures. When I entered the busy Cathedral, I started to walk down the aisle in the centre, taking the walk slowly enough to notice a familiar shape beneath my feet; I’d found my first fossil inside the building. As you can see from the slightly blurry photos below, I found no shortage of gastropod and bivalve fossils.

So I moved onto the columns, which appeared to have a marbly look to them and the bonus that you don’t look like as much of an idiot when inspecting a column as you do when taking pictures of the floor (who am I kidding? I looked daft doing both).

I decided that I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I found some crinoidal limestone – there’s always crinoidal limestone, or so I joked. Unsurprisingly, to my surprise, I actually found some on a step:

My findings did not stop there. I also found some fossil corals in the plinth of a statue (interestingly, I remember the fossils better than the statue).

Frosterley Marble perhaps?

Fossils were even to be found near the little courtyard bit:

Anyway, that’s all for now. I’m intending to make this a bit of a thing whenever I travel anywhere new, which could be London next, and will attempt to get better quality photos (my phone is rubbish), use something for scale (when not blocking off pathways), and go through the effort to identify the fossils beyond the basic “these are fossils”.

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I have a Twitter account!

Despite not making regular use of this blog, I’ve decided to create a Twitter account to go alongside it. Naturally, if I get round to writing more regularly (I have a couple of half-written posts on the go), I will be posting them on the Twitter account, and it will also function as a place to quickly share science news which piques my interest, as well as sharing the tweets/links of researchers.

I’ve never used Twitter before so I’m getting used to it at the moment. Give me a follow and I’ll try to keep it up to date with some fascinating palaeo-related babble. Seeing as I don’t find time to write, yet I waste a lot of potential writing time browsing social media, this may well be a bit of a remedy. Check it out here: https://twitter.com/palaeobabbler

It was a rushed job, to be honest

It looks something like this.

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MyOneScienceTweet – my top two

Over on Twitter (where I’m not a member), the hashtag #MyOneScienceTweet has been trending amongst scientists. The science side of the site was asked, “If you could have the entire world know just one thing about your field of study, then what would it be?” It’s a goldmine filled with interesting soundbites, frustrations and humour, from which I have selected two which stood out for me.

The first is this one, particularly as social media is full of posts being shared declaring to have a cure or treatment for cancer, whilst the print media is little better whenever they report on cancer treatments.

 

The second is this one, simply because it highlights the often amusing side of science.

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Blue Planet II is smashing the viewing figures

In one of the most reassuring signs this year, the cutting edge nature documentary series Blue Planet II, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, is dominating in the ratings here in the UK. On the night of the season premiere on the 29th of October, Blue Planet II was watched by an average of 10.3 million live viewers, compared to 9,6 million for the Strictly Come Dancing viewers (which was on before), and 4.3 million for X-Factor. I end up watching the show on a Monday, whilst many others watch it through the week, apparently bringing the figures up to 14.01 million.

For the second episode, set in the darkest depths of the oceans, 10.8 million watched live – a figure which will rise when the full viewing figures come in. Last year’s Planet Earth II never dipped below 11 million viewers per episode, peaking at 13.14 million, so Blue Planet II looks to be surpassing it already. I’d love to know how much of the audience is young people potentially being inspired both to study and protect their planet. I’d also like to review each episode, but that’s not going to happen.

If you’ve not managed to watch the show already, enjoy the trailer.

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Jurassic Park – the most important fan theory and the franchise future which never was

Let me get one thing out of the way first: I hate Jurassic World. My opinion on the film is often dismissed due to the assumption that I hate it because of scientific inaccuracies, when really I think it is a terrible film which failed to understand what was good about the original Jurassic Park film. Worse than that, it was a success, meaning that we now have no chance of getting a better version of the franchise and have to suffer through more sub-par films. Admittedly, I did have some accuracy-related criticisms before the film came out and since then I added a few more (bloody inaccurate stegosaurs), but mostly I hated it as a piece of cinema, to the point where I have several draught posts which went on and on critiquing the film that I doubt I will ever publish.

At around the same time as I was becoming increasingly despondent about the franchise, I was rereading the books. I couldn’t help but think that the franchise would slot right in with the modern move towards the big budget, gritty, serialised TV shows. Jurassic Park was a brilliant family film, whereas Jurassic Park the TV show could be much more adult watching (with a better name, naturally). The films do not follow the books, leaving a lot of unseen events which could be pilfered from the writings of Crichton whilst adding a lot more. I wanted to see more about the business side of things, the ruthless industrial espionage which jeopardises everything. The show would be about people, not dinosaurs, much in the same way that The Walking Dead is about people rather than zombies – they just happen to be people living through a zombie apocalypse.

My idea faces some major obstacles, not least that Jurassic World did well and its sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, is out next year (I will still try to stay optimistic). The other major problem is that a series with similar themes has recently done brilliantly: Westworld. Also from the mind of Michael Crichton, Westworld has many of the same philosophical themes, lots of intrigue surrounding business, and some fascinating characters. It’s what Jurassic Park could have been.

I will still fantasise about what could have been and a recent fan theory has plugged some gaps in my ideas. Originating on Reddit, this fan theory has found a wider audience thanks to Cracked covering it in one of their videos. Watch for yourself:

Why do I love it? Well, firstly it makes quite a lot of sense and takes care of some inaccuracies. It also takes care of one of the major scientific inaccuracies in Jurassic Park which I don’t have a big problem with for the original film – the technique for extracting DNA just would not work. This never particularly bothered me as it was wild speculation at the time which made the film work, it’s only really since then that scientists have been able to say that it is inaccurate. So is the new technique mentioned in Jurassic World, by the way. Rebooting the series would have us relying on a well known inaccuracy, whereas this fan theory suggests that us film-watchers have been misled in the same way that many of the major characters were misled.

Imagine incorporating this fan theory into a rebooted TV series. Dodgson’s company, BioSyn, would desperately be trying to copy InGen’s cloning technique and failing miserably, having to resort to espionage and theft in an attempt to find out just how Hammond was doing it. Meanwhile, Hammond was taking more of a Jack Horner-esque approach by manipulating the genetics of extant animals, putting him over a decade ahead of BioSyn. It was all a show but he needs experts to sign off on the park and establish that these theme park monsters are convincing as dinosaurs. At the same time, we would be seeing many of the park issues which are found in the book, particularly escaping dinosaurs (a friend of mine suggested a Predator-style film as a worthwhile sequel, which would make an excellent focused episode) and we would have some resolution on the sick Triceratops (which is a Stegosaurus in the book).

In Jurassic World, the Masrani company owns the park and it is they who are responsible for abominations such as the Indominus rex. I’ve disliked the idea of hybrids since the original Jurassic Park 4 concepts came out, so basing a film around them was unlikely to ever really appeal to me, however, in the context of my imaginary series, the Masrani company might be a competing company who have managed to see through the InGen ruse and are making their own dinosaurs, even looking at bizarre hybrids which tend to fail (in a castle in Switzerland?).

There is plenty of source material available too. There were a number of comics which, if I remember correctly, did look at escaping dinosaurs having to be tracked down. There was also a planned animated series set after the first film – Escape From Jurassic Park – aimed at adults and which had some decent ideas. Some of the artwork is available and a full rundown of the individual episodes too, see here. I particularly like the duplicity of Hammond, deceiving the others into thinking that he intends to set up a biological preserve when he plans to reopen the park, the introduction of new characters, the development of BioSyn’s Dinoworld resort in Brazil using stolen InGen dinosaurs, issues arising for BioSyn due to the rapid growth of InGen dinosaurs, raptors hunting marines, escaped dinosaurs spreading through South America causing opportunist hunters, poachers and scientists to try to stake their claims; all ideas which could be used.

Admittedly, a Jurassic Park reboot series could go very wrong. I don’t hate the series Terra Nova, but that is nowhere near the quality I would want even though it was a dinosaur series produced by Spielberg.

Alternatively, Cracked also did a video about how to improve Jurassic World through a simple tweak:

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This year’s worst science headline was an obituary

In September this year, palaeontologist Mike Getty sadly died whilst out in the field, a man whom a friend of mine described as the best field palaeontologist they had ever met. The Daily Mail website, surprisingly, had some rather well-researched information about his life which would have made for a good obituary, however, there was one big problem. They decided to go with a headline stating that Getty’s colleagues have denied that he died from exposure to ancient bacteria. They didn’t simply pull this headline out of their arse, which is where they got the whole idea about ancient bacteria in the first place, they also went through the effort of pestering his grieving friends and colleagues for soundbites to confirm their egregious speculation. I did a search back when this article first came to light and found nothing to suggest that this bizarre idea came from anywhere but the messed up minds of the Daily Mail staff. (Part of me does not want to link to this because I don’t want to increase traffic to the site, but here it is anyway.)

I don’t expect accuracy from the Daily Mail but I am shocked that they would post such bullshit when someone has died. Someone has perhaps watched too much Fortitude and studied very little palaeontology.

For a much better article written after his death, see here.

RIP Mike Getty

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The best headline about Dickinsonia, ever?

Dickinsonia is one of those pesky Ediacaran mysteries which persistently defies classification. Think of an animal group and someone has suggested that Dickinsonia belongs to it. Think of a group outside of Animalia and there’s a decent chance that Dickinsonia has been placed there too. In more recent years, there has been a tendency to see it as a potential placozoan – the simplest of animals – often in a very cautious manner, or at least that it is at the same grade of complexity (for an example of the case for a placozoan affinity, see here, for insight into just how difficult it has been to classify Dickinsonia, see here). A recent study into the development of Dickinsonia claims to provide strong evidence that it is indeed an animal, though without assigning it to any particular group. It effectively states that Dickinsonia is an animal, so let’s put aside the claims that it is not and focus on where it fits on the animal evolutionary tree. See for yourself, here.

This gained a lot of press coverage back in September, though one, in particular, stood out to me. The Week decided to go with the brilliant headline “550-million-year-old thingamajig determined to actually be an animal”. I honestly can’t express how much I love that Dickinsonia has been labelled a “thingamajig” as it is perfect. Dickinsonia is head-scratchingly confusing, it is rightly considered to be a Rorschach Test for palaeontologists, it is, quite simply, a baffling thingamajig. It’s just a shame that the term has no taxonomic value.

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