Thursday, 16 August 2012

Palaeontologist rises

It has been nearly a year since my last post. Too long. When I started this blog I was at the peak of my game in terms of PhD research etc. The long and short of it is I spread myself too thin and paid the price. One of the sacrifices I had to make was cutting out my bloging. But now, with over 22 views this month, 2 alone today, despite 11 months of stagnation I feel I owe the blogosphere something, if only a little.

First: I would like to plug my fellow PhD research students' new blog Ancient Anglers, they will be on my side bar from now on. They are not time specific, they just like the kind of dead fish you can't cook. However, Luke's research stream keeps him in the Silurian and Chris will be studying Late Jurassic fish. This is all worth looking at if you're wondering how monstrous fish can be, what the animals of MM ate, or indeed what ate the animals of MM.

Second: Pterosaur teeth. Wow they were pretty diverse weren't they?! We've seen that with Pterodaustro and I do believe I promised a three parter. Now, I've had the second part written up and on my desktop for about as long as I have not posted for... You see, I have not been lazy, just reluctant. The three parter shall be no more. Not to say that you won't hear plenty about teeth and diet. In fact, there might be a MM/Ancient Anglers collaboration to come on this topic.

...So what is going on in the world of palaeontology? Well, it's conference season. It's the time of year when academics stop what they're doing, relax, hang out, get drunk and somewhere in the middle tell everyone else what they have found out this year. These events are where the latest research is presented in its rawest form and where new ideas and collaborations are formed. Therefore, for active researchers this is pretty important. Personally, this year I will be attending only one conference...SVPCA Oxford. This is an important one, it's the biggest vertebrate palaeontology gathering in the UK, perhaps Europe and this year it's in the birth place of modern palaeontology and my home town. So I will be doing a post on the results of that in a month's time and in the meantime I will try and exaggerate how important Oxford is to palaeontology.

The Birthplace of Modern Palaeontology

Arguably, Oxford is the birthplace of modern palaeontology. It was the dinosaurs that sparked the Victorian imagination, leading to the golden age of palaeontology. The first dinosaur ever recorded was of course "scrotum humanum" a therepod dinosaur from the Middle Jurassic of Oxfordshire. A petition was made to the board of the ICZN to give Megalosaurus priority as a name, but it was overturned on the basis that the name scrotum was not erected (*sniggers*) properly by Richard Brookes (1763), nor was the material diagnostic. So the first ever illustrated piece of dinosaur material is now referred only as Megalosaurus cf. More material turned up in Stonesfield, Oxfordshire in the early 19th Century. It was then, with the advice of comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier that William Buckland published the material as Megalosaurus Conyberi, which was not used (Nomen Oblitum) in favour of the later binomial Megalosaurus bucklandii. It was due to the discovery and description of this animal as a giant lizard that Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum, maimer of Mantell and overlord of the Empire's palaeontology coined the term dinosaur.

So, Megalosaurus was now tied up in academic interests in Oxford, London and Paris and it is what the Dinosauria is based upon. But what has happened to it since? Richard Owen also placed Cetiosaurus from Oxfordshire, along with Iguanadon, not from Oxfordshire into Dinosauria. Modern cladistic analyses have placed Megalosaurus in the clade Spinosauroidea, in Megalosauridae, within a further clade, Megalosaurinae, sister group to the Eustreptospondylinae. By the way, Eustreptospondylus is also from Oxfordshire.

This isn't to say that since those first discoveries were the end of palaeontology in Oxford. Since then there have been pterosaurs, crocodiles, fish, mammals and other dinosaurs discovered in what is colloquially termed the Stonesfield slate. A section of Bathonian and possibly Bajocian oolites, sands, silts and limestones. Oxford was a very different place 170 million years ago. The sands and silts show that there was land very near by, if indeed drops in sea level didn't  expose land in this area full stop. The silts are thought to indicate a huge river, similar to the amazon in fact, and often turns up bits of Cetiosaurus and other goodies. The oolite indicates a high energy shallow environment, like the mangroves and long shallow beaches seen in the modern Bahamas. As mentioned before, the interesting stuff comes out of the river deposits and as the name - Stonesfiled slate - would suggest, out of the slatey oolite layers.

There has been very little work done on this material for a very long time, but recently myself and a team from UoP (Including Ancient Anglers) plus Dave Hone of Archosaur Musings went to some exposure. The locality cannot be exposed due to illegal digging that appears to be on going. If it was a case of some fancy scraps being removed there would not be a problem, but we found evidence of some articulated material, which rubs salt in the wound created by the fact that members of the general public are digging in a place protected for its geology under the rules of Natural England's SSSI. That aside, we left from the visit having found some crinoids, brachiopods, mollusks, as well as a couple of isolated crocodile teeth on oolite slabs and a chunk of bone. See Dave's Archosaur Musings post!
Crocodile tooth in situe. Steneosaurus cf.
Crocodile tooth preped out and glued. Steneosaurus cf.
Bivalve mollusk with colour banding.

Rhynchonellid brachiopod
 Tooth indet. (possible Teleosaurus)
Dinosaur bone, found by Dave Hone

So, all in all Oxford is a great place for palaeontologists. Not only is there some amazing stuff in its history and the museum's drawers, there is also some great stuff in the ground. But I must ask the ambitious amateurs out there to leave it alone, or report your finds to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Exposure and finds are so rare now that the brick pits and slating works have closed that all vertebrate material found in Oxfordshire is important to science.