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Over the last week we've all enjoyed having Nicholas and Olivia with us on work experience in the Angela Marmont Centre, and as one result of their work I've now got loads of great specimen photographs for future blogs, so watch this space! If you fancy doing work experience or maybe volunteeing at the museum, you can find out all about it on our website: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/jobs-volunteering-internships/index.html So thank you to Olivia and Nicholas for your work and now it's over to you:

 

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We have been lucky enough to work behind the scenes in the Angela Marmont Centre with the UK Biodiversity Team as part of our work experience. Working in the centre has been wonderful for both of us, not only in the fascinating people that we have met but also in the wide range of activities and tasks we have been able to participate in.

 

On arrival we were shown round the collections and were astonished by the sheer volume of specimens in the archives. We were also thrown into several meetings which were lucky to be able to attend and learnt a lot about how the museum functions, along with scientists time keeping abilities… they tend to get caught up in intellectual discussions.

 

Throughout the rest of the week we had many other opportunities to get involved. In the laboratories we extracted plant DNA and analysed along with a tour of the lab, only witnessing a fraction of their hugely impressive facilities and machines. We undertook several outdoor activities including surveys in the wildlife garden for the OPAL Project and enjoyed being a part of the Nature Live show.

 

We were given a hard task of pinning insects and bugs. The specimens were quite old and brittle so our attempts seemed futile as bits of leg and antenna flew across the room. The reason for attempting this was so that the insects looked more alive when it came to setting them in resin for demonstration purposes.

 

Throughout our week numerous artefacts and creepy crawlies were sent or brought in for identification. We were able to witness and taken part, from beginning to end on the process. For us the most interesting was a fossil brought in by a small boy. To the untrained eye it looked remarkably like stacked starfish, however within seconds the expert Luanne identified it as a stem of a sea lily which lived around 200 million years ago in the Jurassic period.

 

Perhaps how we spent most of our time was taking photographs of some of the bug and fossil specimens brought in and making sure they had a number for the ease of the system here in the AMC. Of course whilst doing this we saw and photographed some amazing things. There were fascinating and beautiful fossils and minerals, among which was a mammoth tooth trawled in by a fisherman in the North Sea, a necklace made of teeth and tusks and some stone tools found in the Niger.

 

This is part of the intriguing reply to the person who brought in the stone tools below;

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I’ve had a look at the stone tools that you left in the museum. They are all ground and polished stone axeheads apart from one which is roughly fractured stone [...] I believe that ground stone tools first became important in the Neolithic period, which began around 12 000 years ago. [...] However, this does not mean that these specimens are prehistoric in age at all, as ground stone tools are still quite commonly made around the world, both as tourist objects and as working tools for some groups.’

 

Finally on our last day, in our final hours, we were privileged enough to be shown some of the amazing historical collection, dating as far back as the sixteen hundreds. Sloane was amongst them and we were able to witness his great plant collections, which contain drawings and the first specimens brought back from Jamaica, China and, at the time many other remote unexplored countries of the world. It was very unique experienced and we feel privileged to be among the few who have gained an insight into the histories of natural science and art.

 

Overall it has been a marvellous week filled with variety and no hour was the same, we only wish it was possible to stay longer.

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You only have to browse through the Fossils and rocks forum to see how many of the suspected fossils put on there turn out to be something completely different! Fossil eggs, bones, turtles, ferns, footprints, you name it, natural rock and mineral processes can mimic it. We call these natural rock and mineral specimens that resemble or are mistaken for fossils "pseudofossils". This post doesn't seek to go through the most common look-a-likes, but if you google "pseudofossil" you will find many excellent guides out there.

 

This post is just some of my personal favourites from the last year. Fun and amazingly co-incidental pseudofossils are one of my favourite parts of my job in Earth Sciences identification.

 

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"Fossil bird head"

 

It's got everything - neck, beak, even an eye. But this shape is created by the growth of a mineral upon the rock surface.

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"Fossil shark"

 

This shark shape, silhouetted in white against the dark background, would have me swimming for my life if I saw the silhouette peaking out of the sea. But it is just a chance area of cleaner white Chalk against a backdrop of Chalk discoloured by dirt and moss.

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"Fossil fish"

 

I can see what they mean, it looks like a guppy with a long flowing tail and fin. But this is a type of the rock flint known as banded flint. Banded flints form a series of roughly parallel lines such as this, which can create all sorts of misleading shapes. The cause is still not fully understood but the movement of water and silica through the flint is thought to be involved.

 

The rock flint can mimic any kind of fossil you can think of - bones, eggs, whole heads and bodies, you name it. Look out for a blog all about the wonders of flint coming soon!

 

2011-0058 dinosaur head pseudofossil 001.jpg"Fossil dinosaur head"

 

If this were a dinosaur, I can even see what kind it would be - one of the duck-billed hadrosaurs I reckon. Sadly, this is just the shape of the lump of rock, that had probably been exaggerated by weathering.

 

 

While writing this I've realised that these pseudofossils do have something in common after all. They all demonstrates one of the key things to appreciate when looking for fossils: don't look for the overall shape of an animal. This is because the soft parts of animals like muscle and skin only fossilise very rarely and in unusual conditions. You can assume you won't come across soft part preservation without knowing what to look for and where to look. To find fossils, look for the hard parts such as bones and shells, and bear in mind these are most often broken, mixed up and/or isolated.

 

Although we can say what these aren't, the hardest question to answer is, so why did the rock or mineral form or weather into exactly that shape? There are millions of rocks out there and so even if such coincidental resemblences are rare, there will still be plenty of pseudofossils. And of course those are the rocks that are going to catch your eye and get picked up.

 

So what should you look for? This page on our website has some good information and links for fossil hunting advice. And of course we will be happy to see whatever you find, whether rock, mineral or uncannily-vegetable-shaped-rock on the rock and Fossil forum here.

 

Happy fossil - and pseudofossil - hunting!

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A beginner's guide to how we identify a surprisingly common enquiry: mammoth and elephant teeth.

 

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This tooth above was a family heirloom brought in for ID this week. Many elephant and mammoth teeth that are brought in are heirlooms that have been knocking about the house for a couple of generations. This is an Asian elephant tooth. It is a molar, so it's a grinding tooth.

 

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The grinding surfaces of an Asian elephant tooth (left) and an African elephant tooth (right) in the Museum's Mammals gallery. The African elephant tooth has a more diamond shaped pattern to the grinding surface.

 

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And the elephants themselves in the Mammal gallery - African (left) and Asian (right). Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and their teeth are smaller on average too.

 

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On the left, a mammoth tooth. On the right, a modern Asian elephant tooth.

 

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Mammoth tooth. This was dredged up by a fisherman from the North sea and brought to us for ID. Mammoth teeth have a similar grinding surface to the Asian elephant, so look different to the grinding surface of the African elephant. And mammoths are indeed more closely related to Asian elephants than African elephants!

 

Mammoth and elephant teeth can be very fragile and tend to crack downwards as you can see here. This can leave isolated plates instead of the whole tooth.

 

Hopefully you can now begin to identify elephant and mammoth teeth!

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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!