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Identification

September 20, 2010
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We get interesting, funny and beautiful fossils brought in for ID all the time. But now and again, we see something really special - better preserved or more complete than those in the museum's huge collections, or even completely new to science.

 

Here are some of the best from the last six months, and because their owners kindly agreed donate them to the Natural History Museum, they can be preserved, studied and maybe even named and published.

 

New insect family?

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This insect was flying around the heads of the dinosaurs in the lower Jurassic period. It then got a bit tatty floating far out to sea before finally sinking, and against all the odds being fossilised in marine sediments. 190 million years later it was found by the donor on Charmouth beach in Dorset and you can still see the spots of colour on the wing. It was sent to us for ID and kicked off a debate between fossil insect experts around the world.

 

Opinions are divided about whether it belonged to a bush cricket or a lacewing. Bush crickets and lace wings aren’t closely related and don’t look very similar, but with fossils like this all you have to work with is the pattern of veins on the wings. This may be not just a new species, but a completely new family of fossil insect.

 

Ancient horse bone

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When this fossil haul from the Isle of Wight was brought in, we had no idea that the most interesting fossil would turn out to be the small bone that the red arrow is pointing to. Two avid teenage collectors brought us tons of fossils from the Isle of Wight, mostly bones of Eocene and Oligocene vertebrates around 55 to 25 million years old, including turtles, crocodiles, fish and mammal bones.

 

This one bone turned out to be another mystery – experts looked through the mammal, bird and reptile collections before realising it is the left radius (front lower limb bone) of a tiny 35 million year old dog-sized fossil horse called Plagiolophus minor. This bone from this species is a first in our collection and it will probably be figured and published.

 

Rare Cretaceous starfish

 

This starfish was brought in to us at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival (http://www.fossilfestival.com/ again the Lyme Regis connection!). We saw a lot of cool stuff that weekend, including some stunning ammonites and ichthyosaur skull fragments. This particular enquiry didn’t look like much (hence no picture!), just a star shape the size of a 5 pence on a huge sandy coloured slab that had been sitting outside in its owner's garden for many years!

 

But fossil starfish are rare, espcially if they’re complete. Cretaceous starfish are especially rare, particularly from the Upper Greensand Formation (around 115 to 110 million years old) like this one. An expert also identified this as the rare species Comptonia sp. Future research may include dissolving the fossil with acid and pouring silica into the hole left behind to create an artificial cast. When removed, the silicon rubber cast will show the detail on the underside of the specimen that has been lost through weathering on the surface.

 

Exceptionally preserved ammonites

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The donor of these ammonites got in touch when he realised that they were better preserved than any pictures of specimens of Pavlovia pallasoides from the Kimmeridge Clay (Upper Jurassic, 155-150 million years ago) he could find. We have few complete examples of this species in the collections and this is better preserved. It will help to build up our comprehensive ammonite collection and is a potential source for future research.

 

Well preserved fossil lobster

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Another find from Charmouth! After hundreds of years of people looking for fossils around Lyme Regis since the time of Mary Anning (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/science-of-natural-history/biographies/mary-anning/), it’s still one of the best places in the UK to find new and exciting stuff. This one was brought in to the Charmouth Heritage Centre: http://www.charmouth.org/chcc/ by a family who just happened to split this soft rock on the beach while fossil hunting and there it was!

 

It was brought to us for expert ID and belongs to the species Coleia brodei. We have other specimens in the collection but this one is beautifully and unusually preserved in strange way. The preservation in a soft shale means left alone this species will crack and disintegrate, but now the specialist Palaeontology Conservation unit will be able to consolidate and preserve it for future research.

 

Thanks to everyone who offered these and other donations! If you’ve got a fossil knocking about the house somewhere, bring it along for ID or post a pic – we’d love to see it, whatever it turns out to be!