Monthly Archives: January 2014

Before high definition casts

The world has seen locusts for many, many years. Long before the 8th plague of Egypt, these large juicy insects have been swarming, feasting and surviving for years. Million of years. Hundreds of millions of years. Delicately preserved fossils of these familiar little insects are known from a few sites around the world. Solnhofen, in Germany is one such site.

Solnhofen is more famously known for the discovery of the infamous Archaeopteryx, the feathered reptile that is almost a bird (fun blog post here checking out what the researchers think about Archaeopteryx). As well as the 11 specimens of this beautiful dino-bird, and a feather, the Solnhofen limestones have preserved a huge number of ancient creatures, including, starfish, fish, shrimps, horseshoe crabs, dragonflies, reptiles, pterosaurs, and locusts. (You can see a number of beautiful fossils with incredible detail here.)

150 million years ago, Solnhofen was a little bit different. It was a beautiful lagoon, surrounded by islands. The extremely high salt (or salinity) of the waters meant that life could not live there. There was also no oxygen deeper down, meaning the muds also lacked any life, including worms and bacteria that would normally eat away flesh. Because of the lack of life in this lagoon, any animals (or plants) that fell beneath the waves were slowly covered in fine sediment, and preserved in exquisite detail. The fine feathers of Archaeopteryx and the delicate wings of a locust would be preserved for eternity.

Here is what you have been waiting for, this weeks bad cast. Here she is. I was going to say, ‘She is beautiful’. But I can’t. Because she is not. Not at all. She lacks a dash of colour to brighten her up. She lacks any detail. It could easily be something you may buy for your three year old niece to paint and draw on. But it is a real cast of a fossil. Accessioned with the fossils. Embarrassingly, here it is, our  cast of a 150 million year old locust:

The cast of a fossil locust. Remember, fossil locusts are beautiful, delicate fossils. Something this cast fails to convey.

The cast of a fossil locust. Remember, fossil locusts are beautiful, delicate fossils. Something this cast fails to convey.

Such a really, really bad cast. You can kind of see why they did it back in 1906; To show how insects have been around for millions of years, and are (ahem) beautifully preserved. Fossils from Solnhofen should look like this. Unfortunately our cast doesn’t look like one of those.

I am not sure if this, or any other bad cast, has ever been on display. I quite like to think they have, back when the display cases were made of lovely wood, and the dangerously thin glass was so easy to lean on. To have purchased and actually invested in this and other casts, they surely must have been displayed.

I often wonder what people would have thought when they saw such bad casts like this. Would they have squinted to try to ‘see’ what the label says it is? Or would they have even noticed that they were bad? It may be like high definition TV today; we notice if it isn’t HD because we have it. But back when we didn’t have HD, we didn’t complain.

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That nipple-toothed beast!

Ooooohh, yeah! It is that time of the week again. And today, you are in for a treat with this bad cast. It is truly a goddarn awful cast. I don’t really know what it looks like; some kind of delicately made chocolate treat? A terrible model of a stalagmite (or could it be a stalactite?)? The bottom looks like honeycomb covered in chocolate, which is delicious. Possibly a chocolate cake horn?

Wrong, wrong, wrong and “what the hell kind of birthday party did you go to” wrong.


Go on! Try and guess what it is without reading on! If you get it right, then this cast deserves to be taken out of the 'Bad Cast' series!!!

Go on! Try and guess what it is without reading on! If you get it right, then this cast deserves to be taken out of the ‘Bad Cast’ series!

This is a cast of a really amazing creature; the tooth of an extinct amphibian called Mastodonsaurus jaegeri. You will have to take my word for it , because it took me a looooooong time to ‘see’ it. (I did have a little advantage, as the name was written on the old accession card – a rare treat to have some information!!).

The name of the Genus, Mastodonsaurus, means ‘nipple-tooth lizards’. Now, I’m no expert on human anatomy, but I would like to think I am familiar with certain areas. I am sure things were not that different 190 years ago than today, because that is one odd shaped nipple. I’m sure Mr Holl, who named it in 1828, had his own playful reasons.

This terrible cast hides a wonderful story. The teeth may have looked (to some) like nipples, but they were no lizards. These were enormous amphibians which were dipping and diving in the swampy waters around 240 million years ago, during the Tirassic Period. Amphibians are a group of animals that share common features. For example frogs and newts are amphibians, and spend most of their lives in the water, having slimy skin to keep them moist if they venture out on land. Eggs are laid in water and the young will spend their lives swimming in the water; it is only when they are adults when they can use the land.

The tooth is massive, over 20 centimetres long in a head which was 1.2 meters long, the same length as a Tyrannosaurus rex head! The full length of the entire animal varied, but some of the largest specimens discovered so far could be as long as an African elephant (around 6 metres long). That is one mother of an amphibian!

This was like no other amphibian you know today. Frogs are fruit-flies compared to this creature! It belonged to an extinct group of animals called ‘Temnospondyls’ (say: tem – nos – pond – di – lis) – lets call them ‘Temnys’ (say: Tem – knees). Much bigger than amphibians around today, Temnys looked a little like a terrifying cross between a crocodile and a salamander. One feature uniting all Temnys is the triangle shaped skull. They also had very small arms and legs, with four toes on the arms, and five toes on the legs.

A lovely old artist interpretation of Mastodonsa

A lovely old artist interpretation of Mastodonsaurus (the creature with it’s head raised). This picture was drawn a while ago, and palaeontologists now believe that the Mastodonsaurus would have lived almost permanently in the water. (Image from wiki)

It was an amazing animal. Its eyes were mid-way down its head, on the top; so the body could be below the water surface. The huge mouth was packed full of peg-like teeth. And this is where our terrible cast comes in. On the bottom jaw, were two large teeth, bigger than the others, which slotted through holes in the top jaw. These could have been for grabbing prey, as these big beasts were predators. Although a difference between sexes (called sexual dimorphism) hasn’t been noticed yet, these could be in males and used for fighting during the mating season.

For such enormous amphibians, what would they have eaten? We can look at clues in other animals. Today dolphins have peg like teeth which they use for catching fish; there would have been plenty of succulent fish living in the swamps. There is evidence of them attacking land animals, probably through ambush; some smaller Temny fossils have tooth marks on them made by these nipple-toothed beasts.

What a creature! An enormous salamander-crocodile-newt thing! This animal lived 240 million years ago and had cousins which it ate, and others which were bigger than he was! Fossils bring to life the awesomeness of these extinct animals. It is a bit of a shame that this terrible cast doesn’t.

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A terrible cast of an awesome extinct shark

This isn't a trilobite. It's not a marshmallow. Read on to discover how amazing this bad cast really is!

This isn’t a trilobite. It’s not a marshmallow. Read on to discover how amazing this bad cast really is!

Do not fear. I’m not tricking you! This isn’t a lump of your finest Plaster of Paris. This is a cast of a real fossil. Sweet goodness me, this is one mother of a bad cast.

The nearest thing this looks like that could be a fossil is a scallop shell. In fact, it belongs to a creature that would have fed on scallops for lunch.

Some of you may have recognised that this is a cast of a very old type of shark tooth. Dont worry if you didn’t. I didn’t until I read the old label. It was purchased on April 10th 1901. (Yes – this cast has some information with it!). The card also says “plaster cast of tooth (white)”. I’m pleased they wrote that extra bit of useful information on the old label. I wouldnt have known otherwise.

I still do really wonder why some of these casts in museum collections were never painted. (Mind you, as we have seen, the ones that were are bloody awfully painted!)

There was a little more information on the label. The tooth is from an ancient shark called Ptychodus, and it says from the Cretaceous Period of Kent. That’s quite a lot of information for this terrible cast. It is actually a bizarre tooth that you wouldn’t think of as a shark (click here for nice images of real fossils!).

This somewhat modest cast hides a much more exciting history of this strange animal. Ptychodus is an Genus of shell crushing sharks, which are all now extinct. Yes. Shell crushing. Not all sharks were ferocious hunters who prey on surfers, or run down old fishing boats with three drunk men singing ‘Show me the way to go home’. Good times.

Sharks are cool creatures. There are over 400 species of sharks in the waters today, and there were some incredible ones which have lived in the past. They are the epitome of the perfect predator. Their stealth, their terrifying teeth and jaws, and apparent ruthlessness sums them up for many people, and will account for our unreasonable fear of these majestical animals. Sharks have their origins a long, long time ago, during the Silurian Period (around 420 million years ago). Since then, they have evolved into massive predators, such as the enormous and infamous Carcharodon megalodon (popularly known as Megalodon) to strange species that swam around eating and crushing shells.

The owner of this beautiful cast was swimming around in the waters while Tyrannosaurus rex was stomping around on land with his colourful feathers trying to woo a mate. There were quite a few different species of Ptychodus sharks, (A lot of lovely information about the different species can be found here.)

This was a big shark. It could grow as long as two Black Cabs (around 10m long!). It is more than likely that this shark stayed along the coast line where it could easily find shellfish in the shallow depths. It’s enormous, ribbed teeth would have ground up a scallop or an oyster with ease!

There is no evidence it ate vertebrates (animals with backbones). But there were bigger things in the seas during the Cretaceous Period (145-65million years ago), including the large mosasaurs, and the fast and elegant ichthyosaurs. These marine reptiles may have fed on these shell loving sharks.

This cast doesn’t really give us much to look at. It doesn’t jump out and tell you what it is. It’s a strange ball of plaster, with a couple of ribs on the top. It is amazing to think, that it was cast from a real fossil tooth. An extinct shell crushing shark tooth! Pretty awesome! Just a shame the cast is so darn bad.

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Size is important for these bad casts

A nice circular cast of  a lovely trilobite. Its a bit trilobite, one of the biggest, and if you look close enough you might be able to make out its body. Just.

A nice circular cast of a lovely trilobite. Its a bit trilobite, one of the biggest, and if you look close enough you might be able to make out its body. Just.

For one of the biggest species of trilobites ever to have lived, you would expect a spectacular cast. I don’t want to disappoint; it wouldn’t be a bad cast if it was spectacular, would it?

This oversized trilobite* was first found in the early 1860s at St David’s in Pembrokeshire. The smallest city in the UK held one of the largest trilobites ever to have swam in the seas. It’s species name provided immortality to the place it was discovered; Paradoxides davidis. (Click here for some very nice images of real big fossils.)

This is a big specimen. Almost half a metre in length, as long as my fore-arm. It is badly painted (as we would expect by now) and very chipped. Being so chipped may indicate lots of use for displays and talks about this fossil; it is more likely that people didn’t really think it was important, so didn’t handle it well. You can just about make out the axial ring (what looks like the spine running down the middle of the trilobite) and possibly a few ‘rib’ like things coming off the axial ring. Nothing else is very clear.

You can see it is a trilobite, but I doubt you would use this specimen to examine the anatomy of these extinct creatures.

Luckily for us, there is a second cast of this beast. (Obviously, we use ‘luckily’ rather loosely.)

A trimmed Paradoxides davidis. The 'trilobite' is shinier than the 'rock'.

A trimmed Paradoxides davidis. The ‘trilobite’ is shinier than the ‘rock’.

It is another stonker of a specimen at almost half a metre long! This second cast of P. davidis looks intriguingly as though it has had its back and sides trimmed. The hairdresser went by the name of Plate Tectonics. The particular rocks this trilobite was preserved in had been heated and crushed causing fractures cutting through the rock in a thousand different directions when it eventually cooled. When the original fossil of this cast was excavated, it is likely that there were fractures running through the fossil. I have found similar fossils which have crumbled away in my hand. A fossil can be lost in a hundred fragments; after surviving for millions of years it is lost forever in an instant. Sometimes though, we may be more lucky and some of the fossil does survive the fractures.

The world these giants were living in was very different from today. They were swimming in ancient seas around 510 million years ago, during the Cambrian Period. 510 million years! Amazing! These remains have survived scavengers, being crushed by tonnes of rocks on top of them, being heated and deformed, being thrust up onto land, and exposed to the elements! And we can see them!

510 million years ago, life had really just begun. Well, complex life had; single celled organisms had been around for at least 3 billion years before. In the Cambrian Period, there was no life on land; it was a barren, desolate place. The seas, however, were teeming with life; trilobites swam below the water’s surface, while others buried themselves in the sediment. Our big friend was very likely to have been a hunter. Although you cant see from these casts, they had big eyes, most likely used for hunting. They would most probably hunted small invertebrates (animals without a backbone) in the seas.

These were some of the largest trilobites to have lived. There were bigger ones, such as the enormous Isotelus rex which was longer than a cat (up to 70cm long). These extinct creatures open up a world long vanished. Long vanished, but not forgotten.  

This giant is worthy of two casts. They may not be very clear, and were most likely painted by unskilled painters, but they are big. And it seems that the size of these casts compensates for other less satisfying features.

*A bit of background to trilobites can be found on the first bad cast post: The ghost in the rock.

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Who is the greatest: Magnum or MacGyver?

One question has remained unanswered for decades. Almost two decades. It is a question that has been hotly debated in the 1990s (mainly in the school playgrounds) and has even been known to continue today (after an ale or two).

There are only two possible answers to the question. Both sides stand strongly by their favourite, with the well-kept moustache or soft, shiny mullet being their symbol of belief. Debates often get fairly heated. Neither backs down. The heart pounds. Sweat forms on the brow. Their hero stands proud. Until today.

Through a little Twitter poll, we will hopefully find out the answer to one of the most ancient of feuds (#tashormullet). It comes down to this: Who is the greatest: Magnum PI or MacGyver?

Both were superheroes for children and adults. Magnum PI and MacGyver were the action series of the 80s and 90s. There was the rather short lived and, in my opinion, forgetful TV series The Fall Guy (with 5 series). The memorable theme tune of Airwolf was the only exciting thing about this rather repetitive action series with the same plot-line in every episode (with 4 series). Even The A-Team, with its extremely big and over the top explosions, only had 5 series.

Magnum PI had a very long run of 8 series, and MacGyver had 7 successful series and two feature length films. Both had fast moving, earworming  theme tunes, exciting plots, and excellent leads. What made these two shows better than the others? More importantly, who was cooler?

Thomas Sullivan Magnum (Tom Selleck) was a private investigator, who lived a luxurious life in a millionaire’s mansion, which came with cars and the famous, strangely loyal, butler Higgins. The mansion was not Magnum’s; he was looking after it for someone whom he worked for a few years previously. So he lived the millionaire lifestyle without being a millionaire. There is a Wiki page all about Thomas Sullivan Magnum (here)– amazing someone got this together with incredible amount of detail.

Tom Sellek playing Magnum. The gorgeous moustash and beautigul Hawwaina shirt were trademarks of this private investigator.

Tom Selleck posing in his shiny red Ferrari, as Thomas Magnum. The gorgeous moustache and tasteful Hawaiian shirt were trademarks of this private investigator. (Image from Wiki)

Selleck plays the role perfectly; cool, smooth and frivolous, he portrays the rather lazy life of a PI with the expensive luxuries and never-ending women which were, I presume, most male viewers dream. As well as the trademark moustache, Magnum was well known for his obvious lack of fashion sense; Hawaiian shirts. ‘It was the 80s’ I hear people cry – 80’s or not, there is no excuse for those blindingly awful oversized short-sleeved shirts.

Incidentally, Magnum PI ran for 8 series, not because it was amazing, but because the finale of series 7, which was supposed to be the final series, was terrible. It left with Magnum as a ghost. Viewers complained, forcing a more satisfying end to this legend.

MacGyver first aired in 1985 and was a clear competitor for Magnum PI. It followed the close shaves of a special agent, Angus MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson) on his many missions. The classic MacGyver trait was to use his charm and wit to get out tough situations instead of guns and violence. Often a little bit of chewing gum, a paper clip and his watch was all he needed! There is of course a Wiki page for MacGyver too (here).

The more serious looking MacGyver. His classic brown leather jacket, and memorable hairstyle stood out against other TV characters. (Image from Wiki)

The more serious looking MacGyver. His classic brown leather jacket, and memorable hairstyle stood out against other TV characters. (Image from Wiki)

Richard Dean Anderson is MacGyver and makes the role*. Following along the lines of Magnum PI, MacGyver narrates certain scenes, where he reminisces about his childhood effortlessly linking to how he gets out of the current trouble he is in. His missions were exciting, nail-biting and the ending to every episode was just another ingenious solution to escape from a close shave.

Many TV series that are released on DVD just have the name of the show and the series. MacGyver, however, added a little extra. A little slogan was included.^ You may argue that Magnum PI needed no such slogan to sell its series. Neither did MacGyver but these were slogans people knew MacGyver for. Perhaps Magnum PI should have had slogans too (but then, nothing catchy, or positive, springs to mind apart from ‘His brains were in his moustache’).

Series 1: “Always prepared for adventure.”

Series 2: “His mind is the ultimate weapon”

Series 3: “Saving the day is all in a day’s work.”

Series 4: “He acts fast, he thinks faster”

Series 5: “The right man when things go wrong.”

Series 6: “Braver than most. Smarter than the rest.”

Series 7: “Back in action. Ready for danger.”

So back to the Twitter Poll. Was it the Magnum’s manicured moustache or MacGyver’s meticulous mullet?

The results from the short poll didn’t actually settle the debate. There were 6 Retweets (for Magnum) and 4 Favourites (for MacGyver). There were two people who did not favourite, but replied in favour of MacGyver. The results were;

Magnum – 6 votes

MacGyver – 6 votes

So, it seems, the debate continues.

Personally, MacGyver was a thousand times cooler. He was awesome. He went on real adventures, with booby traps in temples, top secret military labs, and breaking out political prisoners!  I remember episodes when I was younger where he would show kindness to the bad guys, destroy killer robots with a roll of newspaper and his watch to reflect the laser beams, and use anything he got around him to help!

I was proud when I fixed my watch strap with by manipulating an single staple to hook the links together. Mac (to his friends), didn’t have wads of cash, or a butler. He used his common sense, wits and knowledge of science to get out of trouble! His adventures, were real adventures which everyone wished they could be a part of.

*I wonder if on some subconscious level, this is why I really enjoyed Stargate SG-1? Whereas I didn’t find the character ‘Richard’ in the timeless comedy Friends remotely funny.

^That’s the dream. To have one of those slogans as your signature on your work email;

Best wishes,

Jan Freedman

Curator of Natural History

His mind is the ultimate weapon.


Kind Regards,

Jan Freedman

Curator of Natural History

Back in action. Ready for danger.

Maybe one day I will. One day, when I am as cool as MacGyver.

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An ichthyosaur paddle with a terrible paint job

A little cast of a paddle of a big ichthyosaur.

A little cast of a paddle of a big ichthyosaur.

A new year. A new bad cast. It looks quite good. But it is not. Not at all. Especially when we remember that this is a reproduction taken from a real fossil.

The cast is of a rather perfect paddle (or flipper) of an ichthyosaur. These were enormously successful marine reptiles which were the top predators in the waters while the great dinosaurs were stomping the land. The Order, Ichthyosauria, were on Earth for over 180 million years, spanning the entire Mesozoic Era (which includes, the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods).

With long snouts, streamlined bodies and paddles, they superficially resembled dolphins. They would have even swam to the surface to breathe air, just as dolphins and other marine mammals do today. These extinct marine reptiles are an excellent example of convergent evolution; where different animals independently evolve similar adaptations for similar environments. Convergent evolution works with what is already there, so you can’t evolve an ichthyosaur from a mammal, or an ichthyosaur from a dolphin ancestor. These two groups of animals have lots of differences; dolphins are mammals, whereas ichthyosaurs are reptiles; dolphins swim with their backbone up and down, ichthyosaurs swim with theirs side to side; dolphins only have paddles at the front (pectoral fins), ichthyosaurs have both front (pectoral) and back (pelvic) paddles.

Ichthyosaurs were an awesome group of reptiles. They evolved into at least 77 genera that have been discovered to date (there are 17 genera of dolphin alive today). Some species were as small as an otter, and others could be enormous; one species was as long as two Double Decker buses! Most of the species had sharp pointy teeth to feed on squid, belemnites and fish. Some had much thicker teeth used to crush shellfish, ammonites and other hard food to feast upon. Others had even bigger, thicker teeth for eating other reptiles. Some actually had no teeth, which was a possible adaptation for suction feeding (sucking in small fish in their short snouts).

The strong tail, with a powerful side to side motion, would have been used to push these amazing creatures through the water. The paddles were were for steering the ichthyosaur in the direction it wanted to go. With a smooth streamlined body, the strong tail propelled the big beast through the water, and moving quite fast  little tweaks with its paddles to quickly change direction. It would have been a very quick and active swimmer.

A little cast of a paddle of a big ichthyosaur.

A little cast of a paddle of a big ichthyosaur.

This cast is a pretty big one; 70cm long. The animal it belonged to must have been a big beast too. Looking at the specimen from the top to bottom of the picture we can see quite a lot quite clearly. The first big bone at the top is the humerus (the bone in our arm that joins our shoulder to our elbow). Moving down the picture, we see two more bones, the radius and ulna (these are the two bones in our arms connecting our elbow to our wrists). We then see some of the wrist and hand bones and then the finger bones. What is lovely about this cast is that it clearly shows how the ones of this reptile have adapted for life in the water. The bones have shrunk over time and one piece of flesh surrounds them to form a paddle. Beautiful. Same bones as you and I, just a little bit different.

Specimens as good as this are quite rare. A quick Google search shows a few examples of gorgeous ichthyosaur paddles. They can be found, but not enough of them have been found for each museum in the world to have their own. Enter the cast.

We have a few ichthyosaur specimens at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery; a couple of vertebrae, a tail, a small specimen folded back on itself, and a paddle. The paddle isn’t good, so it’s quite likely that the museum acquired the cast when it opened a hundred years ago to go along side this real fossil so it was clear what they looked like.

A real fossil of an ichthyosaur paddle. From Lyme Regis, this specimen was purchased when the museum opened in 1910. Not the most perfect specimen, but a beautiful one.

A real fossil of an ichthyosaur paddle. From Lyme Regis, this specimen was purchased when the museum opened in 1910. Not the most perfect specimen, but a beautiful one.

Clearly, compared to the real fossil, the cast is dreadful! The cast does tell  the story of evolution simply and clearly; it shows how the bones, the same bones in our arms, have evolved to become adapted for steering an ichthyosaur effortlessly and elegantly through water.

But, and a really big but, (and to paraphrase those legendary, classical lyrics, I do like big buts and I can not lie); it is a pretty naff cast. It fails to do what casts are really supposed to do. Surely the point of a fossil cast is to create a reproduction of the real specimen so it looks as good as the real thing? Maybe I am missing the point of fossil casts.

The cast is simple, lacking the intricate detail in casts we may see today. The finishing touches of paint ‘to bring the cast to life’ fail to do just that. These things make the cast look fake. Of course it is fake, because it is not a real fossil. But a cast should not look so fake. Painting something brown on a grey background unfortunately doesn’t make it look like a fossil. Perhaps tastes have changed in a hundred years, maybe we expect too much. But really? Am I wrong in thinking a few artistic shades of brown may create more of a realistic finish? This cast is bad. It looks fake, and this is where it fails straight away.

It’s not as bad as the ghost in the rock, but it is bad.

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