A farm in England was the unlikely source of a Jurassic jackpot: a treasure trove of fossils 183 million years old. On the outskirts of Gloucestershire in the Cotswolds, beneath ground currently trampled by the hooves of grazing cattle, researchers have recently discovered fossilized remains of fish, giant marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs, squid, insects and other ancient animals dating from the early Jurassic period (201.3 million to 145 million years ago).
Of the more than 180 fossils recorded during the excavations, one of the most notable specimens was a three-dimensionally preserved fish head that belonged to Pachycormus, an extinct genus of ray-finned fish. The fossil, which the researchers found embedded in a nodule of hardened limestone protruding from the clay, was exceptionally well preserved and contained soft tissue including scales and an eye. The 3D nature of the pose of the specimen’s head and body was such that the researchers could not compare it to any other previous find.
“The closest analogue we could think of was Big Mouth Billy Bass,” said Neville Hollingworth, a field geologist at the University of Birmingham, who discovered the site with his wife, Sally, a fossil preparer and coordinator of the excavations. “The eyeball and orbit were well preserved. Usually with fossils they are flat. But in this case it was preserved in more than one dimension, and it looks like the fish is jumping off the rock,” Hollingworth said. Live Science.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” added Sally Hollingworth. “You could see the scales, the skin, the spine – even his eyeball is still there.”
The sight amazed the Hollingworths so much that they contacted ThinkSee3D, a company that creates 3D digital models of fossils, to create a (opens in a new tab)interactive 3D picture (opens in a new tab) fish to bring it to life and allow researchers to study it more closely.
Most of the fossils discovered by the Hollingworths and a team of scientists and specialists were behind the barn on the farm. (The farm is home to a herd of English longhorns — a British breed of beef cattle with long, curved horns — many of whom kept a close watch on the digs.)
“It was a bit unnerving to dig when you’re being watched by a herd of longhorns,” Sally Hollingworth told Live Science.
At one time, this region of the UK was completely submerged by a shallow tropical sea, and the sediments there probably helped preserve the fossils; Neville Hollingworth described the Jurassic beds as slightly horizontal, with layers of soft clays under a shell of harder limestone beds.
“When the fish died, they sank to the bottom of the seabed,” said fossil marine reptile specialist Dean Lomax, a visiting researcher at the University of Manchester in the UK and a member of the dig group. “As with other fossils, minerals from the surrounding seabed have continually replaced the original structure of bones and teeth. In this case, the site shows that there was very little or no recovery, so they have must have been quickly buried by the sediments. . As soon as they touched the seabed, they were covered and protected immediately.”
During the four-day dig earlier this month, the eight-person team used an excavator to dig 262 feet (80 meters) through the grassy shores of the farm, “removing layers to reveal a small slice of geologic time,” said Neville Hollingworth. A number of miscellaneous specimens dated to the Toarcian age (a stage of the Jurassic that occurred between 183 and 174 million years ago) and included belemnites (extinct squid-like cephalopods), ammonites ( extinct shelled cephalopods), bivalves and snails, in addition to fish and other marine animals.
“It is important that we can compare these fossils with other Toarcian age fossil sites, not only in the UK but also in Europe and potentially in America,” Lomax said. He cited Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte, an early Jurassic site in southern England, as an example.
The group plans to continue studying the specimens and is working on publishing the results. Meanwhile, a selection of fossils will be on display at the Museum in the Park in Stroud.
Originally posted on Live Science.