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Brachiopod and cephalopod collections blog

Belemnotheutis antiquus. A well-preserved Upper Jurassic squid aged 160 million years.

Chances are you've found a brachiopod, ammonite or belemnite when fossil hunting in the UK so you will already recognise some of the more than a million fossil and recent marine invertebrate specimens the Museum holds from across the world.

It's my job to look after the brachiopod and fossil cephalopod collections so follow my blog to find out why specimens in our collection are particularly special, and to hear about curation projects, field work trips and more.

Fossil invertebrate collections at the Museum

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Time for a guest blog from Mike Rumsey, to tell you all what the Mineralogists got up to on the days they split up from the Palaeontologists.

 

Having another geological commitment to attend I arrived in the middle of the night a couple of days after everyone else had settled into the Morrocco fieldtrip – a long taxi drive by darkness and a rough couple of hours sleep and then it was off into the field with the other mineralogists. (We split up so the palaeo people and the min people could get as much done as possible). First up was the amazing abandoned mining town of Angil, nestled in a steep valley once mined for its copper and lead content.

 

 

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Looking over a town in the valley.


Although an incredible vista, the many hundreds of steps leading up to the top of the valley was difficult in the heat and having only had a few hours sleep – it was a real fieldtrip wake-up call! We found some representative material with our local guide and then moved onto the main important task for the day – Mibladen.

 

The Mibladen area is famous for beautiful bright red crystalline specimens of vanadinite, which are probably the best in the world, and as such Mibladen is well known to most mineralogists and it was great to visit such a famous locality. Vanadinite from here has been known for a long time, but most of the material that ends up in the UK is poorly located and is often just labelled vanadinite from Mibladen, Morocco - this is not really fit for some of the scientific purposes of the museum, so we wanted to collect material directly from a number of different outcrops, mines and workings so we could record exactly where subtly different specimens of vanadinite occurred.

 

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Vanadinite


Another feature of the material that reaches the UK on the commercial market is that it has often been heavily prepared. This might involve cleaning in acids or selective trimming or removal of other less aesthetic mineral species that get in the way of the bright red vanadinite crystals. This is unfortunate as we are losing geologically relevant information when this happens, so I wanted also to obtain some ugly, fresh material that might have all sorts of natural alterations, erosion crusts and associated minerals combined that could tell us or future geologists something a little extra about this place than the readily available specimens.

 

After a few hours of driving between localities and getting some quick representative samples the day was complete before I knew it, but I had lots of samples and was happy - we met some really interesting people and saw some incredible hand-dug mines and pits in the middle of the desert where prospectors had been searching for vanadinite.

 

On the second split day from the palaeo guys, we mineralogists visited the area of M’fis and Taouz, M’fis is a famous area for barite specimens and Taouz is another area famous for its vanadinite. Both these places were really out in the middle of the desert and it was very, (very!) hot - a specific locality called the wulfenite vein at M’fis – was so open and exposed, it felt a bit like some horror film where we might have been abandoned in a desert oven.

 

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The hot desert in M'fis


Still we got to it and collected some really interesting specimens from some more off the beaten track spots in M’fis including areas that have never really been written about or documented in any systematic fashion. At the main site of M’fis we picked up some good representative barite specimens and saw some pretty scary mining operations that I’m certain you would not see in the UK.

 

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An example of scary mining operations

 

At Taouz we didn’t collect much as I had been lucky enough to visit the locality the previous year. However, we did get some nice specimens from the local miners and we got a quick tour inside the mine workings to see some of the vandinite in situ, both of which we documented to better illustrate the geological environment of the finds from my trip to Taouz the year before.

Analysis of the minerals is still ongoing, but it seems successful so far, with a few species being identified and/or documented for the first time at specific localities and in one case, possibly the first documented occurrence in Morocco… and perhaps the first even for the planet, which considering there are only 4800 known minerals is a fairly rare occurrence.

 

Huge thanks to Mike for writing this so I could share his experiences of Morocco!

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Day three was the day I was most excited about. The Palaeontologists and the Mineralogists split up and went to separate places. You can read about what they got up to in the next blog, a guest post from Mike Rumsey. The Palaeontologists were heading to an area known as Goulmima. The reason we were heading there was primarily to explore the fish and ammonite fauna to be found (there are also marine reptiles). These animals are from the Turonian stage of the Late Cretaceous. This means that these fossils are approximately 90 million years old! Being the curator of the fossil cephalopods and a particular fan of ammonites I was very excited!


Before we left our hotel we visited the fossil and mineral shop they had to have a look and see what there was. There were some very impressive large items but I was most impressed by the heteromorphic ammonites and spiny trilobites.

 

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Some of the wonderful ammonites on sale at the hotel.


We left our hotel and drove south, heading towards Goulmima. On the way we stopped in a town called Rich, where we visited another fossil shop. The owner of this particular shop knows the Goulmima area which we were interested in very well, he also had a lot of fossils from the sites there.  Knowing that we wouldn’t be spending very long at the site at Goulmima, and also that the Museum is working to expand its collection of ammonites from the region I spent some time having a look for the rarer species not represented in our collections. In the end we came away with some very nice ammonites.

 

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Me searching through a pile of ammonites.


After our detour we continued on the way to Goulmima. The drive there was filled with spectacular scenery as the landscape became more filled with the typical desert scenes you would expect from Morocco.  As we got closer we were driving along a river bed with spectacular cliffs and lush vegetation. On arriving we had lunch in the shade under a date tree (more fantastic tuna sandwiches!).  During our 300km drive south it had gotten noticeably hotter, I was definitely grateful for my sun hat and factor 50 suncream!

 

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Magnificent landscapes we travelled through on our way south through Morocco. 1 of 3

 

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Landscape 2 of 3

 

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More of the wonderful geology we passed on our drive south 3 of 3.

 



Once we had eaten our lunch we went to the first of two sites in the Goulmima area known as Asfla 1 (another town nearby). The more adventurous of the group scrambled up a very steep cliff to investigate what could be found. Lower down we found evidence of shell beds containing  lots of bivalve shells. After half an hour or so there we had found a few scrappy bits of ammonite and no fish so we got back into the jeeps and headed off to the second site; Asfla 2.

 

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View of site Asfla 1.

 

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The view from site Aslfa 1. Photograph courtesy of Martha Richter.

 

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Can you see my collegues on the cliff at Asfla 1?


On reaching Asfla 2 we hopped out of the jeeps and headed up towards the site. On the way up we found pieces of plesiosaur. Martin found a lovely specimen of an ammonite genus known as Mammites at this site.

 

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Site Asfla 2.

 

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Me and Emma Bernard at Asfla 2.


Our next stop before heading towards a place called Erfoud and our hotel was a small settlement near Goulmima. We were taken here by our guides as the local people make living excavating fossils from the area. We made a couple of stops, one of which being to a man who specialised in collecting the ammonite fauna. I spent another happy few minutes having a look through a pile of ammonites. In the end I came away with a good selection of specimens, some very rare which may never have been found here before!

 

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The village we visited. Photograph courtesy of Martha Richter.


The last stop before our hotel was a brief stop in another fossil shop. As we were now in Erfoud an area with much older Palaeozoic rocks, this was starting to be seen in what the shop was selling, with goniatites and trilobites which are much older alongside the more recent Cretaceous fauna.  While we were here Mike, Emma and Helena; the mineralogists met us so we could head to our hotel and a comfortable bed after a long and busy day.

 

Keep an eye out for the vertebrate perspective on day 3 from Emma Bernard, and a guest post here from Mike Rumsey about what the mineralogists were up to.

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The introduction to this trip and day 1 are covered here by Emma Bernard as we're both taking you through our adventures in Morocco.

 

 

Friday 20 September started out very sedately, we got into the jeeps and began our 235km drive to Arzou. However, about an hour into the drive we started to smell something terrible. In the rear of the jeep we assumed it was something being burnt somewhere, it was only when we saw the middle jeep pull over we realised different.

 

Out leapt the passengers from the smoking jeep. Luckily we were near a town with a garage where the driver managed to take the stricken jeep. We all crammed into the remaining two vehicles, with the luggage on the roof rack and continued our drive. The plan upon reaching Arzou was to split the group, with mineralogists going to a volcano and the palaeontologists going to Bakrit to search for sharks teeth. However, just before we got to the volcano we had a quick stop in a cedar forest to visit the monkeys that live there.

 

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The Monkeys near Arzou


As I've never been to a volcano and collected scientific samples, I asked whether or not I would be able to disband from the palaeontologists and go with the mineralogists. Luckily, this request was granted and I was whisked off with Dr Emma Humphries-Williams, Mark Graham (a fellow palaeontological deserter!) and the Ores Curator. Emma was looking for mantle xenoliths as part of her research on understanding how volcanoes form.

 

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Team Mantle Xenolith.

From left to right: Emma Humphries-Williams, Me (Zoe Hughes), Mark Graham and the Ores Curator.

 

Both groups arrived at the volcano and we had an initial wander about with a quick description of how it had formed. Then back to the jeeps for a field work spread of tinned tuna, the most amazing olives and a traditional Moroccan flatbread (since arriving back to the UK I have been missing these simple but fantastic lunches!)

 

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The quarry dug into the side of the volcano. You can see our jeeps in the distance and some of the group in the centre. The cone itself is off to the right, beyond the edge of the photograph.

 

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The quarry from a different angle. Behind me (I took this photo) is the crater.

 

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This is the crater, constructed from a series of photos. The quarry above is now behind me.

 

After lunch the rest of the palaeontologists got in their jeeps in order to go to Bakrit to search for sharks teeth. We descended into the quarry next to the volcano. We hunted for xenoliths, with Emma instructing us on which rocks were likely to contain them (the heavy ones). When we had a pile we all took in turns to break them open to (hopefully) reveal the green xenolith inside. There were some small lava flows present that we took samples from for Emma’s research into the volcano.

 

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Mark Graham and me taking some rock samples.


Mantle xenoliths are fragments of rock from deep below the Earth’s surface (up to 70 kilometres deep!). These fragments have been picked up by the magma as it ascends from the mantle. Explosions fragment the surrounding mantle and allow it to be carried in the magma to the Earth’s surface within a matter of days. Emma is interested in these fragments because they tell us about how the magma travels to the Earth’s surface and also where the magma comes from. She does this by using lasers and acid (not together) in the lab to reveal the chemistry of the minerals within the rock.

 

Most mantle xenoliths are made of olivine, clinopyroxene, orthopyroxene and spinel; garnet can be present depending on the pressure present when the xenolith was extracted from the mantle.

 

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What a mantle xenolith looks like and the minerals it contains. This one was found at the volcano in Arzou on this trip. It has been cut and polished since we returned to the Musuem.

 

With the xenoliths we found in Morocco, Emma hopes to find out whether or not there are any unusual minerals present which will tell her about any processes that may have changed the mantle composition and therefore may result in volcanoes forming in the area more easily. This is particularly interesting in this area of Morocco as most volcanoes normally form at the edges of tectonic plates, where either the plates are moving apart (like at the mid-Atlantic ridge) or where one plate is colliding with another creating a subduction zone. However Morocco is far from the edge of a tectonic plate (The closest active one is the mid-Atlantic ridge or the East African rift). Emma is using the mantle xenoliths to work out why there are (extinct) volcanoes in Morocco (and Africa as a whole).

 

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The tectonic plates outlines in black. The arrow shows the approximate location of the volcano at Arzou and its location at the centre of the plate.


While we were at the volcano it started to rain rather heavily. As my rain coat had been driven off in the jeep with the palaeontologists, I had to use my imagination to keep warm and dry by fashioning a bin bag into a coat.

 

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My high fashion attempt to keep dry in the rain.

 

When our time at the volcano was drawing to an end, Emma had a final sort through of her samples for the best ones to bring back to the Museum. As each xenolith takes some time to process and they are rather heavy, only really good xenoliths are particularly useful.

 

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Emma happily sorting out her haul of xenoliths.

 

Off we went to meet the palaeontologists so we could drive to our hotel in convoy for the night in Midelt...

 

Don't forget to check the Fossil Fish blog and come back here for more as Emma and I are writing about each day in turn. Many, many thanks to Emma Humphries-Williams for helping me to write this post (making sure I got the science of xenoliths correct because it is not my field of expertise) and providing the lovely xenolith images!

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Over the weekend as you may have noticed if you follow my Twitter feeds (@NHM_Brachiopoda and @NHM_Cephalopoda) I have been on the Isle of Wight. We arrived on a very wet afternoon on Friday 8 November.

 

The main reason for our trip was to participate in the Dinosaur Isle Museum's "Blast from the Past" event which gathers local collectors, universities and museums together to talk to the public about palaeontology, fossil collecting and metal detecting.

 

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Me with our display of cephalopods.


Me and my collegues - Dr Martin Munt, Dr Lorna Steel, Dr Christine Stullu-Derrien, Dr Ria Mitchell and Zuzanna Wawrzyniak - had a stall showing the diversity of fossil cephalopods through time and the plant and arthropod fauna of the Rhynie Chert. Lots of people came to talk to us, asking questions about the specimens and bringing their own fossils for us to identify.

 

On Monday Christine came back to the Museum as she's very busy at the moment but the rest of us stayed on the Isle of Wight to do some fieldwork. We wrapped up warm with lots of layers and waterproofs and braved the weather on Yaverland beach near Sandown. I found some dinosaur ribs and a fish vertebra.


When we went up to Dinosaur Isle that is close by for lunch, we realised our waterproofs had failed and we were all utterly soaked so instead of going back out into the dire weather we were invited to visit the Isle of Wight off-site store to have a look at their collections.

 

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Our group on Yaverland beach getting rather wet and windswept.

 

Alex Peaker and Martin New of Dinosaur Isle showed us lots of wonderful fossil plants, dinosaurs and invertebrates while Lorna took the opportuinty to have a look at their fossil crocodiles.

 

On Tuesday the weather was much better and we took a trip to a Pleistocene mammal locality on the east of the island called Saltmead Beach, which is near Newton. Luckily the military firing test zone was not in action that day as we had to cross it in order to get to the beach. After a long walk across a water-logged field and down the beach we finally made it to the site. Lots of bone fragments were found, most likely from bison. These will be passed along to our fossil mammal curator.

 

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Left: Lorna and Zuza looking for Pleistocene bones.

Right: The beach at Saltmead near Newtown.

 

 

After lunch we visited an Eocene site known as the insect limestone. Here there were pieces of the limestone strewn on the beach which you can then break open with a hammer. If you are lucky you may find insects such as ants and beetles or even fossil plant remains. In our case, Zuzanna was the lucky one as she found a lovely beetle that our arthropod curator was very excited to recieve for the collection.

 

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Left: Ria breaking up the limestone. Centre: Looking carefully for tiny insects.

Right: The insect limestone.

 

When we got back to the house Zuzanna started the process of removing the salt from the bison bones we had found. She did this by soaking them in tap water overnight to draw the salt out. In the process, however, a small shore crab emerged from one of the bones! We put it in a tupperware tub (with no lid) with some seaweed from the bone and sea water from the sample bag. In the morning on the way back to the ferry we released him in a suitable pebbly location with seaweed.

 

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Left: The crab we rescued
Right: I'm about to release him!

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On Saturday 7 September my colleague Dr Tim Ewin and I travelled down (rather early in the morning) to Lyndhurst in Hampshire, where we were participating in the Hampshire Fossil and Mineral show. On arriving with Barry, the department’s trusty Baryonyx, we joined forces with the final member of our team, Dr Martin Munt.

 

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Tim Ewin adding the finishing touches to our stand, under the watchful gaze of Barry.

 

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The Hampshire Fossil and Mineral show poster.

 

Alongside Barry we had a selection of lovely new acquisitions, which Tim has collected from trips to Oklahoma and New York State. I was telling people about our planned trip to Morocco and what we hoped to collect while there (come back soon for blog posts on this from me and Emma Bernard).

 

The show itself had lots of stalls selling some beautiful fossils and minerals. There were also people selling books, and I bought myself a slightly battered copy of “A manual of mollusca” by Samuel Pickworth Woodward from 1880!

 

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Some of the stalls selling beautiful minerals and fossils.

 

Alongside us there were stands from other museums and local councils, including Dinosaur Isle on the Isle of Wight and Christine Taylor from Hampshire County Council who had a wonderful patchwork quilt showing the geology of Hampshire!

 

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Martin New and Alex Peaker from Dinosaur Isle showing off their fossils.

 

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Christine's stunning Hampshire geology quilt (complete with fossils in pockets!).


After speaking to lots of people about all sorts of fossils and doing some identification we packed Barry back up and drove home to London.

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About the author

Zoe Hughes

Zoƫ Hughes is the curator of fossil cephalopod and recent and fossil brachiopod collections in the Department of Earth Sciences.

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