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Press release

Giant hippos point toward unknown UK history


Rare fossilised remains of two ancient hippos have been discovered in Norfolk by scientists at the Natural History Museum and Queen Mary, University of London.

The newly found fossil bones of hippo, found alongside horse, hyena, fish and a variety of rodent remains, provide a rare glimpse of the life and landscape of East Anglia 500-780,000 years ago. The excavation site provides abundant evidence for environmental change and possibly points towards a unique find of animals existing in a warm period in the UK’s geological history that has never previously been recorded.

‘This is a rare and significant fossil find’, said Simon Parfitt, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum. ‘To find two hippopotamuses together is very unusual, but to find evidence of the land surface around them is exceptional. The excavation site provides a unique opportunity to study an environment that we believe has never been recognised before and that, if we don’t act quickly, could be lost forever.’

Initial research undertaken by scientists indicates that the site is incredibly fossil rich and could be internationally significant. However, further research and urgent action is needed to carry out a rescue excavation and recover fossil specimens before the site is redeveloped in the next few months.

The hippos would have lived at a time (early Middle Pleistocene) when Norfolk had a landscape populated by an unusual mixture of familiar plants and animals and more exotic species now found only in African savannah. It had grassland and trees, large and small mammals, including water voles and hyenas. Additionally, the presence of marine molluscs together with plant remains demonstrate the land had changed from a shallow marine environment to a warm freshwater landscape. Today, it is approximately 15 kilometres from Norfolk’s present-day coast. Insect fossils indicate the summer temperature at that time was 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer than today.

The ancient hippopotamus (Hippopotamus sp) were larger than today’s species and weighed about six-seven tonnes (compared to modern hippos that weigh up to four tonnes). They had very prominent eyes which served as periscopes when submerged in the water. It is likely the hippos discovered died through natural causes and their bones show evidence of having being gnawed by hyenas.

The excavation site reveals layer upon layer of large and small mammals, fish, molluscs, insects and plant remains. The precise location of the site cannot be revealed due to health and safety reasons.

Initial excavation work was led by Simon Parfitt, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum and Dr Simon Lewis, senior lecturer in Physical Geography at Queen Mary, University of London and was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Further research and the fossil rescue excavation will be funded by English Nature through Defra’s Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund. The remains uncovered will be held at the Natural History Museum and used in research by the Museum’s Palaeontology Department and scientists from around the world.

A selection of the fossils will be on display at The Festival of Fossils on Thursday 1 July 2004. Simon Parfitt and other scientists from the Natural History Museum will also be available to discuss their recent scientific research and the hippo excavation. Further information can be obtained from www.nhm.ac.uk .

It's hard to imagine today, but 400,000 years ago woolly mammoths, wild cats, bears, wolves, lions, horses and elephants roamed freely throughout London - all perfectly adapted to life in the Ice Age. The fossil evidence found so far includes:

  • Hippopotamus and elephant remains beneath Trafalgar Square
  • Woolly mammoth fossils down The Strand
  • Reindeer fossils at South Kensington station
  • Woolly rhinoceros remains under Battersea Power Station

London's Ice Age history was largely unknown until the late nineteenth century when an unprecedented amount of building and excavation took place. As a result, numerous fossil remains were uncovered around the city, exposing evidence of large-scale climatic change and animal development.

To coincide with the opening of The Natural History Museum's new Darwin Centre, the Museum's world-renowned Ice Age expert, Andy Currant, will be discussing these findings with the public on Tuesday 3 October, at 11.30 and 14.30. Ice Age Mammals of London is an informal discussion, open to all, exploring the environmental setting for early human activity in the London region.

Much of London is built on deposits laid down by the River Thames. The Thames was diverted to its present course through London by glacial ice over 400,000 years ago and has since left behind a complex series of gravels, sands, silts and clays, many of which contain abundant fossil remains of plants and animals, and most interestingly large, extinct mammals. Many of these fossils are held at The Natural History Museum and used in research by the Museum's Palaeontology Department and scientists from around the world, as well as being exhibited in the Museum's galleries. With state-of-the-art C14 dating techniques now available, scientists are re-investigating London's Ice Age specimens, which include samples as small as a vole's jaw, to gain a better understanding of this time period. Fossil remains of Ice Age mammals have been found all over the world and specimens are held in local museum collections across the UK. Examined as a collection, these ancient treasures could help to piece together a better picture of Britain several thousand years ago.

Andy Currant says, 'So much is still unknown about the Ice Age. We're discovering new evidence all the time. At The Natural History Museum we have the best collection of Ice Age mammal fossils in the UK and, working with experts from other institutions, we're using our fabulous resources to try and put together this piece of unwritten history.'

This year marks the first of a five-year study of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB), supported by a grant from The Leverhulme Trust of more than 1 million. Scientists from The Natural History Museum, The British Museum, Royal Holloway and other institutes are working together to examine how early humans survived and how their lifestyle may have influenced the fall of England's Ice Age creatures.

- Ends -

Event details
Event: The Festival of Fossils,
Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD
Admission: Free to all
Nearest tube: South Kensington
Visitor enquiries: 020 7942 5000
Website:  www.nhm.ac.uk

Editor's notes
The Aggregates Levy is a tax on the production of primary aggregates (sand, gravel and crushed rock used, for example, in the construction industry). Introduced in April 2002 part of the money raised is used to fund the Sustainability Fund.

This fund, the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund, aims to address the environmental and social costs of aggregate extraction by delivering environmental improvements, minimising the demand for primary aggregates, promoting environmentally friendly extraction and transport,
encouraging the use of recycled and alternative materials, and reducing the local effects of aggregate extraction.

If you would like to interview Simon Parfitt or Simon Lewis, request images or further information, please contact:

Liz Woznicki or Chloe Kembery
The Natural History Museum Science Communication PR Office
Tel: 020 7942 5278/5880
Email: l.woznicki@nhm.ac.uk (not for publication)

Issued: 30 June 2004