Amateur Fossil Hunters Make Rare Find in U.K. Using Google Earth

Amateur Fossil Hunters Make Rare Find in U.K. Using Google Earth
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Amateur Fossil Hunters Make Rare Find in U.K. Using Google Earth

Amateur Fossil Hunters Make Rare Find in U.K. Using Google Earth

LONDON – Millions of years before the Cotswolds in western England became a popular holiday destination, fictionalized for its ancient forests, honey-colored stone villages and medieval abbeys, it was a warm and shallow sea, home to a Jurassic marine ecosystem.

Over 167 million years later, two amateur paleontologists, Neville and Sally Hollingworth, discovered fossils there in a limestone quarry, the largest find of Jurassic starfish and their relatives ever made in Great Britain. Brittany.

More than 1,000 specimens of scientific importance were unearthed in an undisclosed location during a three-day search in June, the Natural History Museum in London said in a statement last week. The site is not revealed for security reasons.

The Discovery of the Hollingworths, a husband and wife team, includes three new species and an entire ecosystem of echinoderms – a group of animals that includes starfish, brittle stars, feathered stars, water lilies, cucumbers from sea ​​and echinoids. The fossils of these animals are extremely rare because they have fragile skeletons which are not often preserved.

The exquisite details of the fossils collected capture the last moments of the creatures before they were buried by what experts say could have been an underwater mudslide.

Mr. Hollingworth, 60, is not new to fossil hunting. He discovered his first fossil – a small opalescent ammonite – in Somerset, southwest England, at the age of 12, which sparked a passion for paleontology and led him to obtain a doctorate. in the subject.

“I went to collect fossils every day,” he says. “A lot of my friends thought I was strange.”

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The Hollingworths met in 2016 at a local science festival under the skeleton of a gorgosaurus, perhaps foreshadowing the couple’s great discovery. While many have turned to sourdough and banana bread recipes to stay occupied during three pandemic lockdowns in England, the couple scoured Google Earth to locate the site of their next dig.

The location identified by Mr. and Mrs. Hollingworth last August was a private limestone quarry surrounded by beds of Jurassic rocks. The site had been mentioned in research papers published over a century ago as a place where specimens of marine fossils had been found. Lockdown restrictions, however, meant the couple were unable to visit the quarry until November.

Mr Hollingworth was already familiar with the geology of the Cotswolds – he discovered a five-foot mammoth skull there in 2004. And in November, after digging less than two feet into the clay at the quarry, he said, he “immediately recognized” evidence of fossils.

“In 10 minutes,” said Mr Hollingworth, he was like, “‘There is something really special here.'”

“If he stayed fair,” he added, “he would be lost.”

His wife was more skeptical. “We found very small fragments of fossils the size of a fingernail,” said Ms. Hollingworth, 50, who works in the accounts of a construction company.

“I was going to have a cup of tea,” she laughs. “It was a bit boring.”

But Mr. Hollingworth would not be disheartened. While he didn’t expect much from the excavated clay slabs, he said, he still spent hours in his garage removing layers of sediment, grain by grain, with a micro-sandblaster. Then he saw a water lily fossil.

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“The whole neighborhood came to life,” Ms. Hollingworth said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“They have this lovely ornate crown cup and little feather-like projections protruding from it,” Mr. Hollingworth said, describing the sea lily fossil. “Every detail is beautifully preserved. “

He quickly contacted a senior curator of the Natural History Museum with whom he had met during previous excavations. Mr Hollingworth invited curator Tim Ewin to visit the dig site, emailing him in with photographs of the fossils.

“To my delight and surprise, these were beautifully preserved fossils – truly rare sea urchins, starfish and feathered stars,” Mr. Ewin said.

“In the collections of the Natural History Museum,” he added, “we don’t have complete specimens of these types of fossils, so I instantly knew that was important. “

Winter confinement and inclement weather causing flooding at the quarry delayed excavation of the site by the museum until June. But the importance of the discovery was quickly recognized.

“The museum’s collection previously only numbered 25 incomplete specimens,” Ewin said. Now there are around 150 complete specimens from the Cotswolds site alone.

Among the echinoderms found at the excavation site, feathered stars – marine invertebrate crinoids with feathery arms – were the rarest.

“This gives you an idea of ​​how rich this site is in abundance,” Ewin added.

In January, on a beach in Wales, a 4-year-old girl came across a 200-million-year-old footprint of an unknown herbivorous dinosaur that lived during the Upper Triassic period. The fossil is now on display at the National Museum Cardiff.

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Although the Natural History Museum has no immediate plans to exhibit its most recent treasures, the preservation work will likely provide new information on their evolutionary histories. Experts “can 3D scan them,” Hollingworth said.

“This will bring a lot of new information on the evolution and geological history of this truly iconic group,” he added.

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