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Brachiopod and Cephalopod collections blog

3 Posts tagged with the palaeontologist tag

At Science Uncovered this Friday I will be putting on my brachiopod hat. I will be showing off a selection of brachiopods from the Museum's collection, ranging in age from 0.5 billion years old to modern specimens still alive in the oceans today.



Lingulid brachiopods alive and well today.


Visitors will be able to see how little some animals have changed in such a huge period of time. I will also have a selection of extinct brachiopods to show the extent of diversity in the Palaeozoic era before the 'great dying' at the end of the Permian period in which around 96% of all marine species were wiped out.


Among the specimens I will have on display will be my favourite brachiopod Torquirhynchia inconstans. Find out why it’s my favourite! I will also bring out the largest brachiopod in our collection and demonstrate the anatomical features that make a brachiopod a brachiopod.



Torquirhynchia inconstans. My favourite brachiopod, but why?


My activity is borne very much from the realisation that many people have no idea what a brachiopod is or quite how amazing they are, so I aim to make people more 'brachiopod aware!' I think that many people have never heard of a brachiopod because they live in environments that most people will never visit.


I will be manning my stand in the Extinction Zone between 17.30 and 19.00. Come and say hello and talk to me about brachiopods!


The cephalopods won’t be ignored though. Sevtlana Nikolaeva will be talking about her research and work with ammonites between 16.00 and 17.30, also in the Extinction Zone.



Come and talk to Svetlana about ammonites this Friday.


The week before last (30 June - 4 July 2014) I had two enthusiastic work experience students working alongside me in the collections. Below are two short passages that I asked them to write about their time in the Museum.


Zechariah Francis


On my first day I was given a tour of the Museum, including the palaeontology building. The people that work here are very friendly. On my second day I learnt about type and figured specimens and then counted how many of each were in the Davidson collection of type and figured brachiopods. This was so Zoë had an accurate idea of how many were there, and to help her put together a bid for funding for a digitisation project.


An excellent experience being at the Museum was having a tour of the fossil mammal collection. The bones were massive and I was left speechless when I had the privilege to see a fossilised rhino-like animal.


My experience at the Natural History Museum has been memorable; it is an experience I will never forget. I have met dedicated scientists who have helped me understand the world of palaeontology. They have helped build a road which I will follow.


Thomas Miller


Over the past week I have been working in the palaeontology department with the Curator of Fossil Cephalopods and Brachiopods, Zoë Hughes. During this time I have been assigned many interesting activities that have given me a very good idea of what being a curator is like. These included counting the Davidson collection of brachiopods for a project, and cataloguing a large number of Ordovician nautiloids in preparation for a potential visiting researcher. I was particularly privileged to be able to work with the Jim Craig collection of Gault ammonites; photographing them for the Museum – it was also very useful to be able to learn how to use the brand new camera and stand.


craig 6.jpg

One of the Photographs taken by Thomas of a Gault Clay ammonite.


Aside from working, I was also given a tour of the fossil mammal collection by Pip Brewer - this was very enjoyable and also let me see some different specimens to what I am used to working with.


Working in the museum showed me the scale of the collections and also the scale and importance of the work that goes on here. I am very grateful to Zoë and also Martin Munt for giving me this wonderful opportunity.


Huge thanks to both Zechariah and Thomas for all their hard work during the week! 


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.



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.


team xenolith.jpg

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!)


quarry 2.jpg

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.



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


crater montage.jpg

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.



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.



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).



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.


Bag dry shot.jpg

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.


emma with xenoliths.jpg

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!