Monthly Archives: February 2014

The bad cast of an amazing Iguanodon tooth

On one day a week, every week of the year, something magical happens. Twitter comes alive with beautiful remains of creatures that lived millions of years ago. The Twitter regulars know this as #FossilFriday, and no doubt salivate at the very thought that on Friday a plethora of enigmatic beasts will jaunt through their timelines with stunning perfection.

All the photos tweeted on #FossilFriday are amazing. We see photos of fossils from long, long ago (like trilobites and ammonites), and others of more recent beasts that roamed only a few tens of thousands of years ago (like cave lions and mammoths), and some of fossils of marks in the sediment made by creatures long ago. All the fossils are beautiful and each is unique. Watching the feed dance with exotic creatures that were once alive long ago every Friday is pure awesomeness.

It was one of these wonderful Fridays, amongst the incredible photographs being tweeted and retweeted, that something jumped out, which was tweeted by the Natural History Museum team (@NHM_London). At first glance they may not look like much, but these are stunningly exquisite fossils, which were actually some of the most important fossils finds of the early 1800s.

Two teeth that were to define a whole Class of unbelievable animals. Image reproduced from here.

Two teeth that were used to define a whole new group of unbelievable animals. (Image reproduced from here)

This particular photograph jumped out because I recognised it instantly with pure awe. They are two teeth of one of the first dinosaurs ever discovered and named; Iguanodon. What is even more exciting, is that we have a rather bad cast in our museum, of the tooth on the right!!

A very bad cast of a very important tooth!

A very bad cast of a very important tooth!

So for one of the most amazing fossil teeth discovered, we have this very unworthy cast! I’m still not to sure how the guys who made these casts got away with it! What’s even more frustrating is that sometimes with a specimen there is an old card record which gives a little more information; the card should have a lot of information on it, however most of the time this is what we have;

A typical card record which accompanies the fossil casts. You may like to note any lack of information about the original it was cast from, related stories, when it was cast, what it was cast from, who did the casting...Just general useful bits of information.

A card record which accompanies the fossil cast. You may like to note any lack of information about the original it was cast from, related stories, when it was cast, who did the casting…Just general useful bits of information.

The information on this card is like me saying ‘I am a human’, and not actually saying where I was born, who made me, when I grew up, where my grandparents lived…. These bits of information are key to bringing specimens alive with stories. As it stands, Mr J Gregory has a ruddy lot to answer for. (That chap and A. G. F. Gregory sold us an awful lot of bad casts back in 1906 *shakes fists*.)

Fortunately, there is a quick witted museum curator is on hand to delve into the sparkling history of this little cast.

These teeth were found by Mary Mantell along the roadside in Sussex in 1820 (or 1821 – the records are not too clear). The tale goes that she was with her husband while he was on his medical rounds. She noticed the strange rock and moved the grains with her fingertips to reveal, for the first time in over 125 million years, a shiny, dark brown tooth. The husband, Gideon Mantell, had been finding very large bones in the rocks of the Sussex Downs. These teeth, he immediately thought, could be the teeth of this unknown giant he had been finding, so he devoted the next few years to looking for more specimens.

The determined, passionate fossil hunter Gideon Mantell. (Image from here)

The determined, passionate fossil hunter Gideon Mantell. (Image from here)

Mantell had passed his fossil finds to the top leading scientists of the time, including William Buckland, Charles Lyell and the great French anatomist, Georges Cuvier. They didnt think much of the fossils, with the identifications ranging from fish teeth to rhinoceros teeth. But in 1824, the assistant curator at the Royal College of Surgeons recognised that these fossil teeth were very similar to the teeth of an iguana; but they were over 20 times as big!

More fossils came to the surface, including some nice specimens from Maidstone in Kent. With the new finds, and confidence about what he had, Mantell presented a paper to the Royal Geological Society of London in 1825, where he named his beast Iguanodon (meaning ‘iguana tooth’) 

This was quite a find. An enormous reptile, which was a herbivore (plant eater). This was only the second very large reptile to be named. The previous year, William Buckland has named a big carnivore Megalosaurus (meaning ‘great lizard’). 6 years after his paper on Iguanodon, Mantell discovered the fossil remains of another giant lizard which he named Hylaeosaurus (meaning ‘belonging to the forest’).

What were these three great lizards? Nothing living looked anything like these giants. One man took it upon himself to name the group to place these extraordinary animals in. The man was Richard Owen.

The rather sinister looking Richard Owen. It's the eyes. (Image reproduced from here)

The rather sinister looking Richard Owen. It’s the eyes. (Image reproduced from here)

Owen was a brilliantly intelligent anatomist in the mid-1800s. Owen was a genius; he could identify extinct creatures from a single bone. However, he also ruffled many feathers, include Darwin and Huxley. And Gideon Mantel.

Owen gave a lecture to a large audience at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Plymouth about these massive lizards. It was in this lecture that he first used the name ‘Dinosauria’ (meaning ‘terrible lizards). He coined this term based on the three animals that had been discovered. Their size and forms were unlike anything known living or extinct, and were distinguishable enough to place them into a completely new group of animals; the Dinosaurs.

These amazing teeth played a vital role in the naming of one of the most familiar species of animals that live on Earth; Iguanodon. The teeth, which had caused so much debate about what they actually were, were also important in coining the name of the most familiar group of animals on the planet; the dinosaurs. This group started off with three know species, and has grown enormously into well over 1000 species identified in the fossil record (not including the birds).

This cast represents one of the most important palaeontological discoveries ever made. It is such a shame it is so bad.

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A truly awful cast

Words cannot describe this weeks Bad Cast. Really they can’t. Last weeks bad cast was just so bad it was actually pointless (here). This week’s is just bloody awful.

One of the worst casts you are ever likely to see.

One of the worst casts you are ever likely to see.

This is very bad. It lacks any detail.  It is incredibly, unprofessionally finished with child-like precision. Looking closely at the lighter grey part (which, remember is supposed to represent rock), brush marks are shown without embarrassment.

The maker of this cast presumably was not a child. Casts in museums were made by professional companies wanting to add wonderful specimens to make museums collections more exciting. I don’t know how this one ended up in the museum, but sweet mother of moulds, the company must have given some great selling talk!

There is no information with this cast. But I do know it is supposed to be a trilobite (I wrote a little about trilobites here). The original fossil did have eyes (look closely at the top and there are two round bits poking out). It was pretty flat, which meant that this trilobite was very likely a swimming one (a flatter body would make it more streamline). It could have also been a burrowing trilobite; it may have buried itself in the sediment, as a flat bodies would have made it pretty easy to slide into the soft mud.

I don’t know if it was a beautiful, elegant swimmer, or a more cowardly diver into mud. I do know this is a really terrible cast. There are some pretty bad ones I have already written about. And goodness me, more to come. For the moment however, this is up there in the top five bad casts ever made.

There isnt much you can say about something that is just simply awful.

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The most pointless cast?

This is actually one of the worst bad casts I have seen. It is not the worst. I am saving that one. That’s a beauty which you have to see to believe.

Back to this bad cast. It is bad. Really bad. What makes it so bad is that it is actually pointless. This is a cast that doesn’t even need to be here. That may sound harsh, but it will make sense soon (plus, it is just a plaster cast, not a pet).

I’ve said it before, casts of fossils are great. There are not enough of the beautiful rarities for each museum in the world to have one. Real dinosaurs bones are too heavy to mount in museum display spaces, so casts are used. (The infamous Dippy, the Diplodocus skeleton at the Natural History Museum, is a cast. When I volunteered there many moons ago, the tail was slouched down on the ground and people used to help themselves to the tail bones. [This is stealing, and is not recommended] More casts of the tail vertebrae were taken out to replaced those stolen ones.)

So casts of fossils are useful. Even some of the bad ones had a reason. This one, however, baffles me. Why did they…? Who even…? What the …?

One of the worst fossil casts in my museum. And truly pointless.

One of the worst fossil casts in my museum. And truly pointless.

If you don’t recognise it, dont worry – that is probably due to the fact that it is a really gawd awful cast than your palaeontological skills. It is the cast of a Crinoid (a fossil of a sea lilly). (Click here to see what they should really look like.)

Crinoids are beautiful marine animals which have ‘arms’ that float upwards, grabbing their food to bring to their mouth. They have a long ‘stalk’ which attaches them to the marine sediment. Just imagine an upside-down starfish held to the sea floor by a long thin stem out of the sea floor! In fact, that is not really too far off, because Crinoids are closely related to starfish, and belong to the same group, the Echinodermata.

The earliest fossils of these creatures have been found in rocks that are very old, around 480 million years ago (during the Ordovician Period). These beautiful animals are still around today. Their vibrant, colourful forms brighten up the seas where they were found. The ancient Crinoids were just as likely to be as colourful as well.

Because they are still around today, we know quite a lot about these fossils. The young (larval) stage free float in the water for a few days before settling to the bottom and attaching itself to a hard surface. Here, it will spend the rest of its life, feeding and producing more sperm or eggs. They feed by using their fine feathery arms to filter tiny plankton (tiny organisms that float in the water).

This is actually a pretty cool animal. And this fossil cast we are very lucky to own, can tell quite a detailed story, from its origins around 480 million years ago, to floating with the warm currents today. it’s a big shame that it is too terrible to ever bring out and tell that story! Am I being too harsh to say we never even needed this cast? No.

Along the Jurassic Coast, in the South West of England (around 2 hours drive from Plymouth), you can find loads of Crinoid fossils which lived around 150 million years ago. We have quite a few very bad ammonites from Lyme Regis, countless belemnites from Dorset and even a fossil crab from Dorset. But for some reason we do not have any Crinoids from Dorset!

Perhaps this cast was an afterthought. The museum was about to open, and panic set in, we forgot to get a Crinoid fossil to show the diversity of life on Earth. So they ordered a cast. A truly pointless, bad cast. At the time someone was laughing as they made this cast. Little did they realise, that 102 years later a curator would be weeping as he tried with all his might to compliment this cast in his little office under the stairs. And probably failed miserably.

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The Pterodactylus that never was

Those guys and gals who study fossils to make sense of life on our planet have a tough job. These scientists (palaeontologists) often have a few small fossils to work from to recreate creatures and environments from millions of years ago. Luckily the bones shapes are unique to individual species, so by comparing the fossils they find with identified ones they can work out what creature it was. Sometimes, however, even with more than one bone, it can be difficult to identify the fossil. Which leads nicely to this weeks bad cast.

Surely a most elegant cast. Or perhaps an etching in an old clay tile?

Surely a most elegant cast. Or perhaps an etching in an old clay tile?

 

It is impressively difficult to see what this is. The ‘pyramid’ is actually the reamins of bones; the arm and finger bone of a flying reptile called a pterosaur. These amazing creatures were flying in the skies above the great dinosaurs; but they were not dinosaurs.

You can just about make out two(?) fingers coming off at the tip of the pyramid. This is a classic pterosaur arm; a long arm bone leading to small fingers with an extra long bone (an elongated ‘little’ finger). This odd arm is the pterosaurs adaptation for flight and supports a flexible skin for their wing;

The beauty of evolution. A different solution to a familiar problem; how to fly.

The beauty of evolution. A different solution to a familiar problem; how to fly. (‘digit’ = finger).   Image from here.

 

Now those two diagrams are together, of course you can see that this crap cast was taken from a pterosaur wing. Maybe not. Dont worry, I wondered what the heck this was when I came across ten drawers full of these ‘beautiful’ casts.

What species did the wing come from? Luckily, the museum accession card tells us. A species called Pterodactylus longicollum was named after a discovery in 1854 by the German palaeontologist, Mr Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer. Great! This identification was based on a better fossil than this cast is.

Lovely sketch of the Pterodactylus longicollum holotype. Image from here.

Lovely sketch of the Pterodactylus longicollum holotype. Image from here.

 

But all was not well. For this creature was no Pterodactylus longicollum. A re-examination of this pterosaur has compared it to lots of other fossils and shows that this flying reptile doesn’t even belong in the same Genus as Pterodactylus; it is a completely new Genus called Ardeadactylus (meaning heron-wing). The species name was kept, so now this enigmatic flying reptile (not a dinosaur) is called Ardeadactylus longicollum.

There is always a reason behind the scientific name of an animal or plant. Ardeadactylus was so named because it may have been heron-like; this pterosaur had a long neck, which could have been used to grab fish from the water. Unlike herons, Ardeadactylus had rather big and very sharp teeth; perfect for gripping slippery, slimy fish.

For a short while there existed a non-existent species.  Due to the rarity of animals and plants being preserved as fossils, this sometimes happens in palaeontology. With new research and new fossil discoveries, old ideas are debated and sometimes pushed aside based on new evidence. Taxonomy (the naming of animals and plants) is a tricky business. Even species around today are being moved from one group to another with more detailed genetic comparisons. Fossils, often just a few scraps of bones, are meticulously analysed and using the evidence they are assigned a scientific name. This can be updated depending on more discoveries.

Only two specimens of Ardeadactylus survive  after many original fossils labelled as Pterodactylus longicollum were destroyed during the Second World War. Could this bad cast be one of the last surviving replicas of one of the original ‘Pterodactylus longicollum‘ fossils discovered? I sincerely hope not.

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