Slowist.org contributor Duncan Mackay follows the epic Long, Slow and Wiggly cycling adventure with this fascinating piece about finding dinosaurs in southern England.
Main picture: part of an iguanodon jaw bone showing the distinctive tooth sockets. After a slow day fossicking with little to show and trudging slowly and disappointedly back to the beach exit, this bone sat waiting.
Isle of Wight Rock
On the southern coast of the English Channel there is a lozenge shaped island called the Isle of Wight. It’s a quieter place than the English mainland and to visit there, in part, seems quaintly like travelling backwards to more genteel times.
Nothing very exciting has happened since Jimi Hendrix played the infamous/groovy 1970 music festival. Before and after performances, Jimi stayed overlooking the sea at the calming and charming Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater Bay, the former home of Victorian photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron. Then the island rocked. Since then nothing quite as dramatic as a wailing Hendrix guitar riff, but a new form of rock began to gain prominence in island culture and now has two museums dedicated to it boosting the island’s tourist economy.
In geographical terms the island’s landscape has been rucked and buckled like corrugated cardboard by the squeezing forces of planetary spasms due to faraway Africa slowly but perceptibly crushing into Italy like a slo-mo beetle smacking a wedge.
Beneath this now becalmed, whale-backed chalk down landscape, however, there are monsters.
The impact of this languid collision created not only the Alps but rippled northwards to ruffle the great Cretaceous chalk strata of northern France and southern England. This is the stuff that makes bluebirds fly (for fans of Vera Lynn) and is the white bit of the fabled White Cliffs of Dover.
This awesome orogeny created vast chalky synclines and anticlines that cracked at the fretted margins and allowed the rising seawaters at the termination of the last northern Ice Age to maroon the Isle of Wight. Here it now sits snugly brooding on a sunny nest of south-facing retirement villas. Beneath this now becalmed, whale-backed chalk down landscape, however, there are monsters.
Trapped between the white Needles and the greensand of St Catherine’s Point is a triangle of alternating soft clays and harder sandstones of Lower Cretaceous age. These clays were once part of a tropical lagoon or delta being constantly replenished with mud, silts and sands from an eroding hinterland, prone to both harsh droughts and dramatic flash floods; a paleogeography where some of the largest herbivores and carnivores since time began held sway.
Anybody who has seen any of the scary ‘Jurassic Park’ films about dinosaurs will know what this means.
Dinosaurs in plasticine playgrounds and deltaic lagoons
Thankfully none of the c.124-132 million year old fauna that once roamed here is alive today but echoes of their footsteps still resonate; although it is safe to visit the island’s outside toilets most of the time. The clays of mottled purples, pinks and greys, in places like a plasticine playground on the foreshore, are being rapidly eroded by wind, rain and sea, cutting at the base of these motile cliffs and causing dramatic slumping along this entire southern coastline.
Such soft rock of such an age is a rarity but within its sticky embrace are the rolled and shattered fragments of dinosaur bones, battered pyrite encrusted lignites of ancient plants and trees, fish remains, bits of drowned reptiles of sea & air and very rarely, scattered remnants of the carcasses of giant dinosaurs.
The theory runs that the super destructive flash floods rafted up huge quantities of trees and plants and these also swept up some of the unfortunate and now mangled dinosaurs. Some of these rotting remains may even have been chomped at by carrion-seeking therapods attracted from afar by the smell.
Further floods then washed out the waterlogged rafts which slowly sank into these deltaic lagoons and decayed in the anoxic slime at the bottom. The pebbles of rolled bone fragments are from disarticulated dead dinosaurs swept from the riparian landscape into rivers feeding the lagoons and after many years of grinding were rounded in their fluviatile passage before entombment in the muds.
Here, in these oxygen-depleted silts they underwent a geochemical transformation but in most cases retained their physical cellular structure. This spotted appearance of off-white calcite or light brown siderite infilled bone cells gives the beach-combing bone-hunters a fighting chance of picking them out against a beach backdrop of a billion other black-brown pebbles. The local name for these dark matt (or sometimes dun or white) fragments is ‘black crunchie’. To find them, however, still requires the SLOWIST eye and a steady gait; but more of that later.
A 200 year old hunt for dinosaurs
There is a 200 year old history to this hunt that began with the very eccentric Dean William Buckland (he had a bear and jackals roaming in his house). Buckland described a large pedal phalanx of an iguanodon as the first ‘dinosaur’ bone found on the island in 1829, although he didn’t know it as ‘dinosaur’ at the time because the term was not created until 1842 by Richard Owen.
Among these more academic illuminati was the Reverend William D Fox (1813-1881). He was one of those curious country curates with time on his hands between the composition of Sunday sermons, odd eulogies and chats with fellow islander Lord Alfred Tennyson, the poet.
He got a reputation on the island for being inattentive to his parishioners because he was so often out on the beach below his Brighstone parish searching for dinosaur bones. This ‘bones first’ philosophy eventually got him the sack despite his eminent palaeontologist friend Richard Owen’s letter to the Prime Minister of the time, William Gladstone, pleading for the errant curate’s post on the coast to continue.
Although Fox patiently amassed a collection of over 500 dinosaur bones from the beaches and cliffs of the Isle of Wight (and eventually sold them for 300 guineas to the new Natural History Museum in London), he was strictly an amateur. However, despite this lack of professional status, he discovered more species of dinosaur than any other Englishman and has several named in his honour by his scientific contemporaries who often relied upon his bones for their scientific papers and, in part, their resulting reputations.
There are currently 21 genera of dinosaur known from the Isle of Wight from the largest herbivores and carnivores to the tiniest chicken-sized pterodactyls. Many of the species associated with these genera are unique to the island’s geological situation.
Bones of the following are found: Iguanodon (Iguana-tooth), Hypsilophodon (Hypsilophus-tooth), Neovenator (new hunter), Valdosaurus (Weald lizard), Yaverlandia (discovered at Yaverland), Polacanthus (many spikes), Oplosaurus (armed or weapon lizard), Pelorosaurus (monstrous lizard), Ornithopsis (bird-likeness), Pleurocoelus (hollow-sided (vertebrae)), Eucamerotus (well-chambered (vertebrae)), Chondrosteosaurus (cartilage and bone lizard), Iuticosaurus (Jute lizard), Titanosaurus (titanic lizard), Baryonyx (heavy claw), Ornithodesmus (bird link), Aristosuchus (bravest, best, noblest), Calamospondylus (quill vertebrae), Thecocoelurus (sheath/hollow tail (vertebrae)), Calamosaurus (reed lizard), and Eotyrannus (dawn tyrant).
There will be more discoveries in the future without doubt as not only are bones being continually washed out of the cliffs in the present but those that fell out when the beaches were closed during the Second World War were swept unseen out to sea. The storms of the current era are now returning some of these bones (encrusted white with marine bryozoans showing that they have been in the water for decades) for forensic examination.
The patch of coast that Fox searched is of global significance because this particular period of time has left little geological trace anywhere else in the world. There is not a better site for collecting such a diversity, profusion and preservation of dinosaur remains anywhere in Europe.
However, it is not an easy place for the unwary to tread. The cliffs are constantly crumbling with frequent land slips and dislodged lumps of rock and clay tumbling to the shore. Except in very low tide conditions the shore is narrowly defined and the possibility of tidal entrapment by a rising tide or a strong onshore wind is a risk to prepare for whilst beach-combing for old bones. I say this because this is a search modus specifically geared for those with a slow approach to life.
There are billions of pebbles on this coastline, sea-winnowed by weight and shape to a degree but bigger cobbles and larger boulders (including preserved dinosaur footprint tracks) and also almost whole tree trunks are madly wrenched around by the more significant storms and surges.
Most of the pebbles are hard-wearing fragments of variably toned flints but there are many different coloured sandstones some darkly rich in iron, white lumps of chalk, once shiny globules of pyrite, pieces of blackened lignite or fossil wood, sometimes glacial erratics and thin hard bands of shelly limestone.
a… visual smorgasbord of rock fragments
Amidst this visual smorgasbord of rock fragments is a very tiny percentage of the much treasured dinosaur bone, ‘black crunchie’; albeit that it is not always black. You cannot walk this beach quickly; it needs a slow mind, a slow philosophy and a slow gait.
Critically important is visual acuity because your eyes do the sifting and sorting by scanning within your field of downward view. Black or brown things are your main target but also biological form can spring out if you are lucky enough to find a spine, a tooth, a vertebra or jointed bone.
However, many different rocks are black and brown, so black flints need to be ignored, dark brown sandstones discarded and particularly, all lumps of jet black lignite entwined with iron pyrites require close examination. The latter can be quickly tested for wrongness by scratching them on another piece of rock as they will leave a black carbon streak.
Sadly, despite the high potentiality for discovery the chances of finding dinosaur boneyard lumps are slim. There are small scraps to be found in the most accessible parts of the beach where small businesses now deploy bone-hunting tourist parties to scour the beaches and learn about the geology but you are unlikely to find a toothy skull grinning at you out of the tumbled clays.
However, if you make a silent plea to the genius loci you might be in luck. I always do this and the results have been frankly spectacular. Obviously it helps if you can clear your mind of mental clutter and believe in fairies but I have found part of an iguanodon jawbone and even more strangely a red jasper gastrolith by invoking these nebulous hyper-dimensional powers. Keep it in mind instead of a geology hammer.
The shiny red jasper gastrolith has its own peculiar story to relate. A gastrolith was an aid to dinosaur digestion and utilised as a churning crushing tool much like a wet cremolator inside the belly of these bulky beasts. During an internalised lifetime rolling about in a mix of digestive stomach acids and other gastroliths these former rocks attain a very high degree of polish and rounding. When the dinosaur died and decayed they were released back into the environment.
So, when I saw a shiny and very polished, rounded red jasper pebble sticking out of the dinosaur-bone bearing Cretaceous clays I knew exactly what it was (just in case I was wrong I checked the possibilities with the Natural History Museum in London who checked with the local experts at the Dinosaur Farm and Dinosaur Isle museums).
Now for the intriguing bit: I would moot that this pebble reflects the apparent psychology of a dinosaur brain. I would contend that the process of selection strongly indicates that it needed to visually pick out a pebble of a suitable size with its eyes and swallow with its teeth and oesophageal parts but also that it had an acute sense of colour and, dare I suggest, an intuitive sense of ‘beauty’.
This gastrolith is a beautiful mottled red and, therefore, highly attractive to the eye of the beholder. I’m guessing that when required, picking out an appropriate and beautiful pebble was a slow process of selection. Maybe we should also not be surprised that human Slowist pebble collectors have a similarly disposed dinosaur-esque brain? Who knew? From brains to brawn…
The HELL HERON
The dinosaur bone that I most want to find on the Isle of Wight is that of the spectacularly named ‘Hell Heron’. This beats the previously spectacular flying lizard found here by a wee slip of a 5-year old local lass called Daisy Morris in 2009. Her young beachcomber’s curiosity led her to find part of the fossilised remains of a whole new species of hell chicken-sized pterosaur, which as scientific convention has it, now includes her name, the Vectidraco daisymorrisae.
So, if my thinking is right and Miss Morris does believe in fairies then more dinosaur discoveries are sure to follow.
And, if Daisy can do it then so can you.
As if by magic and almost in answer to my own prediction, two new species of dinosaur were discovered here on this coast in September 2021. Both were c.125 million year old fearsome spinosaurids nicknamed ‘riverbank hunter’ and ‘hell heron’ respectively.
I am perversely attracted to the peculiarities of the bony parts of Ceratosuchops inferodios: the ‘horned, crocodile-faced Hell Heron’. Although I’m unlikely to want to meet one anytime soon. This mighty 9 metre long beast had a metre long skull covered in horned bumps and long crocodile-like teeth.
It is conjectured to have lain in wait in the margins of lagoons and water bodies, much like a crocodile, or stood motionless, like a heron, before lunging at large lung fish and was capable of eating both fish, and chips off any dinosaurian species straying too close to the water’s edge.
In the fashion of all things slow, this new species was discovered like a jigsaw of bits over a period of five years; a bone here and a bone there gathered into a ghostly-bones image of a total monster by a retired doctor and a bloke from Yorkshire.
The Reverend Fox, whose own bones lie in the local graveyard, would surely have been delighted to know that the Hell Heron was discovered right here, on his parish beach at Brighstone.
If you want help to discover your own inner hell heron then do let me know.
(For other pictures; please see my Instagram site @institute_of_beachology)