Category Archives: Fossils

T. rex: Generations

­Dinosaurs. Love them or hate them, they are a part of our culture. Ever since the first scientific discovery of giant reptilian bones by Gideon Mantell in the 1820s, they have captured our imagination. The fossils showed that enormous, strange reptiles once lived and breathed on our planet. And some were enormous. Bigger than a house; these giants dwarfed most living things. Some walked on four legs, some walked on two. These were creatures unlike anything seen before. The stuff of imagination: except they were real.

Richard Owen, the slightly egocentric, arrogant Victorian scientist, made these extinct reptiles even larger than they were by naming them in 1841. He grouped the three creatures then discovered (Iguanodon, Megalosaurus, and Hylaeosaurus) into a scientific Class that would become a household name: he called them Dinosauria, meaning ‘terrible lizards’. A name which was not only was easy for anyone to say, but also added to their gigantic, terrifying nature. Strangely the scientific names of dinosaurs are discussed outside of specialist circles with relative ease (think of Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, or Triceratops), whereas all other animals have a common name. Today children can pronounce dozens of dinosaur genera without blinking an eye – how many beetles or mammal genera roll of the tongue with ease?

The awesome life size sculpture of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (Photo by me)

Soon after coining the word dinosaur, Owen helped create the first life size models at Crystal Palace, putting dinosaurs in the public eye for the first time. Since then they have been hot news. The press even followed the dinosaur rush in the late 1800s between two North American palaeontologists who fought it out to find and name the most dinosaurs they could (and led to bitter rivalry between the men). Even today, at least once a month, dinosaurs are in the media.

Why are dinosaurs so popular? There is something unreal about them; something almost from legend. We can see the enormous bones on displays in museums and get a real sense of the size of these animals – they are even bigger when we gaze up at them as a child. (Not all dinosaurs were massive. Most were smaller than a human. But of course the big ones get a lot of attention.) One group of dinosaurs even survives with us today: the birds.

They are one of the few group of prehistoric animals that regularly feature in films and books. Early films used wonderful stop-start animation in films to recreate them in dramatic from, such as King Kong (1933) and 1 million years BC (1966). Recently computer animation has brought them into our homes in even more realistic detail than ever before (Jurassic Park, 1994, Dinosaur, 2000). Dinosaur books fill the shelves of book shops. A-Z of dinosaurs, prehistoric life, dinosaur fact books, and many, many more are ready for the hungry reader, young and old. At least two popular science books on dinosaurs have been published this year, and both have sold extremely well. Like sex, dinosaurs sell.

Do we need yet another dinosaur book? If it is good enough, then yes, yes we do.

And Ted Rechlin’s new book, T. rex Generations, is good enough.

Ted Rechlin’s new book, T Rex Generations, published by Rextooth Studios.

It’s a fictional story about a family of Tyrannosaurus rex living life at the end of the Cretaceous. And it’s pretty nicely done. Rechlin has created an almost graphic style comic for his story, almost resonant of Frank Miller’s graphic novels like 300 and Sin City. The artwork is faultless, with little touches that show Rechlin knows what he is talking about. The story is brought to life by his dynamic illustrations.

What is great about this fictional story, is how the latest scientific knowledge is subtly included as part of the narrative. You are reading about a fictional family of Tyrannosaurus and unknowingly learn so much at the same time. That in itself isn’t easy to do, but demonstrates Rechlin’s skill as a writer as well as an artist. You will discover other dinosaurs around at the same time as they tyrant king. You will learn about the latest scientific research on the development of Tyrannosaurus rex. And much more: whilst the story is fictional, the information is not.

One thing that this book does, where others have failed, is to show that these dinosaurs – perhaps the most famous of all dinosaurs – faced the same struggles as animals do today. The struggle of finding food, the failure of the hunt, and the infant mortality, are all weaved through the story elegantly. Reading it you can visualise these animals as real animals struggling to survive, fighting to live. It is reminiscent of the hard life on the savannah today.

There are so many dinosaur books around. Fact books. Fun books. Popular science books. They are all great and are all full of fantastic information. This is different. Adults can enjoy it as much as children. It can easily be read as a bedtime story for little ones. It’s a nice story where you are swept away into the Late Cretaceous, where monsters hunted: only these monsters were real alive 66 million years ago.

I’m a big fan of Rechlin’s art work. The animals he illustrates are somehow as real as some of the more detailed palaeoart. His illustrations are different though.. They are not full of intricate detail, yet this doesn’t make them feel less alive. It is the character he skilfully creates which brings them alive.

With many dinosaur fact books there are illustrations of the dinosaur complimented by dozens of fascinating facts. For me, these are great to see what these extinct reptiles looked like, but they lack something else. They lack that living connection. Through his character filled illustrations, Rechlin manages with ease to portray these animals as real, living things. Reading his book you are immediately transported back to a time when these iconic animals struggled in life.

Visit Rextooth Studios for more about Ted’s art, and cool up to date information about the topics he writes about. Here are links to this book and two of my favourites:

T rex: Generations is available here.

Tyrannosaurus rex is available here.

End of the Ice Age is available here.

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The flamboyant cast

Another Bad Cast for your pleasure. Here we have a pretty small cast of a trilobite. You can just make out the outline of this specimen.

Just. But it is a trilobite.

There is a cast of a trilobite on this image. There really is.

There is a cast of a trilobite on this image. There really is.

Unfortunately, as is a recurring theme with these bad casts, this specimen does not convey the true flamboyance of this type of trilobite. It is a cast from the extravagant trilobite family Thysanopeltid. Species in this family of these extinct arthropods are noted for their big gabella (which is the bulging bit in the centre of the head). They also have very elaborate pygidiums (the ‘tail’ segment): almost as long as the main body in some species.

A beautifully preserved (Image from here)

A beautifully preserved Scabriscutellum sp. from Morocco. Note the very elongated tail section (towards the left of the image). (Image from here)

As with all trilobites, they lived in the marine environment. With their large eyes, and relatively flat, streamlined bodies, these unusual trilobites likely lived in the shallow coastal areas where there was light. Staying close to the sandy or muddy floor, they would have scurried along feeding on the tiny organisms in the water as they went.

These were creatures of the Devonian. From around 410 to 358 million years ago, several species from this family were swimming in the warm seas. From Morrocco, North America, and South England, this was a successful family.

The land was slowly being colonised by plants in the Devonian, with some primitive insects scuttling through these alien forests. The seas were different: they were rich, full of diverse life.  With giant armoured fish longer than me, coral reefs, and hundreds of different types of trilobites, this was a world owned by the marine creatures. Stepping barefoot into shallow Devononian waters, you would feel the tickle of trilobites running furiously over your feet, while others swimming would accidently bump into your legs. It was a wonderful world.

Towards the end of the Devonian the fossil record shows that there was a huge extinction event, with numerous families of trilobites, ammonites, corals, and some land animals vanishing forever. Around 22% of families had gone, and 75% of species. The causes may have been due to a meteorite impact, or the changing atmosphere due to the spread of the land plants. It was, and still is, a very fragile planet where slight changes have extremely dramatic effects.

Around half of the bad casts at the museum are trilobites. I get why. Plymouth is on very hard, tough limestone. What fossils have survived 400 million years of crushing, burial, heat and uplift, are fragments of corals or sea shells. When the museum opened, like all museums, they wanted to represent life past and present. Without real fossils to purchase, casts were the next best thing. Apparently.

Did they have to be so bad? We will never know why someone, 100 years ago, spent many shillings on so many bad casts. What is worse for this particular cast, is that species from this wonderful family, Thysanopeltid, have been found in Newton Abbot. Rocks, which are only 40 minutes away. 40 minutes away. Instead of looking for the real thing, we have ended up with this bad cast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The beauty of the beast

I will admit it. I am fond of this weeks bad cast. The cast is not unique or unusual. Nor is it particularly striking. The beauty of this beast is unseen.

A familiar cast? It is of course, the wonderful Archaeopteryx.

A familiar cast? It is of course, the wonderful Archaeopteryx.

You will immediately recognise this cast: Archaeopteryx. A cast of one of the most famous fossils in history. Preserved almost perfectly for around 150 million years, this is a truly beautiful creature. The preservation on the real fossil is so incredible even the feathers have been fossilised. This is down to the exquisite limestone they have been encapsulated for an immense period of time: the Solnhofen Limestone.

The limestone in Solnhofen, Germany, has been quarried for centuries. Forming around 150 million years ago this was once at the edge of the now extinct Tethys Sea. Here, there was a beautiful, sparkling lagoon. Beautiful but deadly. With the salinity so high, no organisms could live here. This was good news for future palaeontologists, because no organisms in the lagoon means there is nothing to eat anything that falls into it. Added to this was the incredibly fine carbonate mud falling to the bottom. So not only was anything that fell into the lagoon protected from scavengers, their bodies were covered in extremely fine sediment. The result – exquisitely gorgeous fossils including plants, insects, pterosaurs, and of course Archaeopteryx.

Admittedly it is not the most detailed cast ever produced. Made with a rather thick, powdery Plaster of Paris, you can only just make out the outline of the wings. Today, fine resins make much more detailed casts of fossils, often reproducing the smallest of details.

This cast is certainly not rare. Almost every museum in the UK will have a copy of this famous specimen. So confident that you are guaranteed to see this cast, my chum at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, Mark Carnall, included it in his slightly tongue-in-cheek, ‘Museum Bingo’. Here you take the Museum Bingo card into a museum and cross off the specimens you see. More often than not, you will shout ‘Bingo’!

And it is true. There are plenty of them about. I have seen an Archaeopteryx proudly displayed in a case right next to the front doors welcoming all visitors. In another museum, a quirky ‘real life’ model of an Archaeopteryx is perched valiantly next to the cast. One museum goes one step further and boldly places the cast on the wall to explain bird evolution: it is the only specimen on the wall and I am really sure it works.

So why, if nearly every museum in the UK has a copy, do I have such a secret crush on this bad cast?

True beauty is not in what something looks like. Something that appears beautiful can actually be quite the opposite. I have known a couple of people whom many would say are beautiful. They have strong features, soft skin, big eyes. But to me, they were not beautiful. They lacked personality, humour, empathy, kindness, or warmth. These are the features that make someone (or something) beautiful. The ability to make someone smile; to have interesting, engaging chats; to understand others and to have that warmth of kindness in their eyes. There are so many truly beautiful people in the world. And it is their beauty that really shines.

This Archaeopteryx cast is beautiful. There are only 12 specimens of Archaeopteryx in museums in the world. Twelve. Being so rare, not every museum can hold a specimen. But that doesn’t stop every museum from wanting one. Because these were amazing animals.

Archaeopteryx is one of those ancient animals that have caused heated debate ever since it was first discovered. It is incredible because it has gorgeously preserved feathers; real, long, asymmetrical feathers, which are used in birds today for flight. But there are traits in this creature that cannot be seen in birds today:

  • Archaeopteryx had fingers: birds today have three fingers (digits ii, iii, and iv) which have shrunk or fused to form an extra one in the wing.
  • Archaeopteryx clearly has teeth: birds today lack teeth in their beaks. Some chicks have an ‘egg tooth’ to help them get out of the egg when they hatch.
  • Archaeopteryx had several bones in its tail: birds today have a small number of 5 or 6 tail bones fused together (called the pygostyle).

A strange creature indeed. And it clearly shows a very close relationship between dinosaurs and birds. Although maybe not a direct ancestor for modern birds, this was a very early type of bird which had wings for flying.

And even after 150 years after it was first discovered, we are still learning new things about this ancient bird. In 20122 a team used the incredibly powerful Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to look a feather of Archaeopteryx. Zooming in at such a high magnification brings out features that have not been seen before, including structures of melanosomes: the cells which store the colour of the feather. The team compared the structures to many other bird melanosomes, and it showed this feather was very likely black. Another study looking at more feathers indicated that some were dark and light. Each new fascinating bit of research adds a little extra detail to this enigmatic bird.

Using the bad cast. I like to use Archaeopteryx at events. This week I have been running an event for Science Week. School shave been learning about bird anatomy, plus a little bit of evolutionary history.

Using the bad cast. I like to use Archaeopteryx at events. This week I have been running an event for Science Week. Schools have been learning about bird anatomy, plus a little bit of evolutionary history.

All of these great features, and the historical tales of great debates of Archaeopteryx, make this a wonderful fossil to have a cast of. Does it matter that it is a cast? Not really, no. It was cast from the original fossil. And the cast can be used in many different ways. Many museums have it on display. I don’t. I actually use it for talking to schools or families about anatomy, evolution, adaptation, fossils, history of science…This is one of my regulars I get out for events. And it never fails to impress.

The beauty of this Archaeopteryx cast is it’s ability to inspire. Talking to people of all ages and letting them get up close to this fossil, give a real sense of awesomeness. It may not be the most perfect cast, but goodness me, it really is the most beautiful.

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Hidden beauty

They are back. After a little break, mainly to digest their pure awfulness, bad casts are back. This plaster cast of a real fossil is as bad as you would expect. (And I must remind you, that all the casts in this series are real casts.)

I’m not really sure what this bad cast looks like. But I do know that is looks nothing like the fossil it was cast from. This is another trilobite. Paying homage to the ghost in the rock, this rather blurry replica, gives little detail for the viewer to drool over. Which is a shame, because it is actually from a really cool group of trilobites.

 

A squashed bug you say? Nope. That's a cast of a trilobite.

A squashed bug you say? Nope. That’s a cast of a trilobite.

 

This rectangular slab of plaster does have an museum number with it, and an accession card! That is pretty exciting, because the accession card is a record of all the associated information with that specimen. (Today we have computer databases, but 100 years ago, there were wonderful accession cards.) Very exciting. Well, it would be, if the accession card had any information on it!

Written on the card is ‘Plaster cast white slab’. Yep. Got that.

Then it gives the measurements ‘5 ¼ x 4 ¾’. Pretty pointless.

Finally, the card tells us that this specimen was given by the crooksters Gregory and Gregory. (See previous posts. Several of these bad casts have been sold by those two.)

Accession cards should have information about where the specimen came from, who collected it, when it was collected and any other information. That is standard for museum objects. Without that information, the object may be pretty fro display or education, but scientifically useless.

My trilobite identification skills are not amazing. So I sent an image of this (and several other bad casts) to colleagues at the Natural History Museum, London. They were awesome and identified them as best they could, despite the fact that they were so bad. This trilobite was placed in the Family Cheiruridae. This was a fairly large family with around 83 different Genera, and numerous different species. These are a pretty cool Family of trilobites. With elaborate head spines, and extra large spines growing from the bottom, they are a distinctive group.

Trilobites are sadly now extinct, but they were a very successful group of invertebrates. The first fossils of them can be found at the very beginning of the Cambrian Period (around 520 million years ago), and they evolved to live in a huge number of marine environments. A hard, but thanks to the segments on the thorax, flexible outer shell protected the creature from most predators. Some groups grew elaborate spines from their backs, adding a little extra protection. Others we happy to be incredible simple looking. What a great group of animals. Hidden under the tough outer shell were two dozen or so little legs, each with gills on, furiously kicking giving the illusion of an animal elegantly gliding through the water.

The Family Cheiruridae first appear around 485 million years ago, and vanished around 360 million years ago. That is a long time for a Family to be on the planet. (The Family to which humans are in, along with the great apes, the Hominidae, have only been around for around 14 million years.) And they were are pretty stunning Family too.

A beautiful fossil of Paraceraurus exsul, from Russia. This little beast would have been swimming int eh waters (Image from here)

A beautiful fossil of Paraceraurus exsul, from Russia. This little beast would have been swimming in the waters around 460 million years ago.(Image from here)

Unfortunately we only got the Family for this trilobite cast. Such a terrible reproduction means a positive identification is very tricky. But I do know more than I did about this cast than I did before. These were beautiful animals. Scanning images online of the fossils (here), the detail in the preservation is incredible. Over 400 million years old, and they are exquisite.

It is such a shame that this cast is just so bad. It tells a tale of the beauty and diversity of trilobites. But to look at it, one would never know.

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The croc in the rock

Number 16 of this series of bad casts is another shocker. All the casts are actually really bad (possibly apart from that pretty darn good bad cast, but this is a cast of a model, not a real fossil). It is amazing how truly bad these casts are and nobody seems to have ever questioned them!

This week’s specimen fails to excite, as you would expect by now.

Another terrible bad cast. A head of a crocodile and a few vertebra. Remember, these bad casts actually belong in a museum. Why?!

Another terrible bad cast. Remember, these casts actually are in a museum collection.

 

The ‘rock’ for this cast is fairly good for a change. Normally, the ‘rock’ (the block the fossil sits on) is just splattered with one colour where you can see the enormously clumsy brush strokes. This one has a little shading, and even a couple of ‘cracks’ thrown in. Nice touch.

The ‘rock’ looks pretty real. This (momentarily) takes your eyes away from what you are supposed to be looking at; the tennis racket in the middle of the slab.

The tennis racket is, of course, the cast of the fossil crocodile head. There are a few other bones included; two vertebrae and a leg bone. Presumably these were on the original fossil.

‘Presumably’, ‘probably’, ‘may have’, are words that often come up in this series of posts, because there is very little information with the specimens. With this cast there is a faded number but no information.

We can make educated guesses about what it is and why the museum possibly has it.

Looking at the snout, I know it is a crocodile skull. Alligators have wider snouts, whereas crocodiles have long thin snouts. It is quite a small specimen, but why have one?

I have a tingly feeling that all of these bad casts may have once been used to illustrate life through time. The collection of casts includes some trilobites, some ancient fish and even a dinosaur tooth. There are some mammals as well (which will come in the next few weeks). This crocodile ‘fossil’ may well have been used to show the people of Plymouth in 1910 a selection of different creatures that lived millions of years ago. Although the fossil is pretty bad, the choice of animal pretty good.

True crocodiles evolved around 200 million years ago. Before these, the ancestors lived on land and looked a little different. In the skull you can see four holes;

Another terrible bad cast. A head of a crocodile and a few vertebra. Remember, these bad casts actually belong in a museum. Why?!

The crocodile skull has four holes on it’s head.

The front two holes are for the eye sockets. The two holes at the back are shared with many other animals, including, birds, snakes, lizards, dinosaurs, rhynchosaurs and others. These two holes (found in diapsids) would have attached muscles to the head. Because they are present in all these animals (including some other extinct ones), it shows that they are all closely related. But crocodiles and birds are even more closely related.

Crocodiles, dinosaurs and birds all belong to the group called archosaurs. This group is defined by the animals within it having two extra openings in the front of the skull (below the eye sockets). Sharing a similar feature like this means that the animals in this group all shared a common ancestor which split apart and evolved into some incredible forms!

Around 250 million years ago, during the Triassic Period, the dinosaurs were becoming the dominant land animals. The ancestors of crocodiles (known as crocodylomorphs) had evolved to take advantage of a number of food sources, including insects, meat, plants and fish. These land loving ancestors felt the pressure of the successful dinosaurs, and around 50 million years later, during the Jurassic Period, crocodiles were living solely in the water.

It was at this time, around 200 million years ago, that crocodiles began to look like crocodiles. Before then they were strange reptiles, some with nostrils on the tops of their heads (rather than at the end of their snouts), and others walks on two legs. They waited patiently in the rivers while large dinosaurs were taking sips of water, and some grew to enormous sizes to tackle this larger prey. The enormous Sarcosuchus was almost as long as a basketball court (around 20m), and would have enjoyed a dinosaur for dinner.

There is more information behind a bad cast than would first appear. A lot of information can be told around this bad cast and we can work out why the museum purchased it.

I may be trying to make this bad cast look extremely good with all the exciting information. Our educated guesses may actually be nothing more than an old Christmas present to a previous curator who left it in the office by mistake. I will never know.

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The king lizard whale

This weeks bad cast doesn’t really look like a fossil, yet it may be from a creature you might recognise.

 

A very very poor quality cast. Those pesky fossil cast dealers.

A very very poor quality cast. Those pesky fossil cast dealers. Doesn’t look like much, does it?

 

I nearly took the photo this way by mistake;

 

Has someone made a cast of a banana?

Has someone made a cast of a banana?

 

Even worse, I almost took the photo this way;

 

Well. Good job I didnt take the photo this way.

Well. Good job I didnt take the photo this way. Otherwise, this could have been mistaken for a cast of something unimaginable. 

Shocking. Not the shape of the fossil (which is a little), but the quality. How can this be sold as a cast of a ‘real’ fossil? It has. Frustratingly it was 108 years ago, so the dealers cannot be challenged by trading standards. There is no time travelling ombudsman. (Now there’s a cool job.)

This is actually a cast of a fossil tooth! The tooth does exist somewhere, but you wouldn’t be surprised to know that there is no information with this specimen about the original fossil. That would be giving us too much!

The label names the tooth as belonging to Zeuglodon cetoides. This extinct beast is actually one you may recognise; Basilosaurus cetoides. It’s an amazing creature, with an interesting history.

In the earl-1800s, huge fossil bones had been discovered in the sediment of the American South. Huge, and fairly common, these had been used as furniture! A couple of bones were sent to the American Philosophical Society for identification. (The American Philosophical Society was set up in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram and early members included three presidents of the United States of America).

The anatomist who looked at the bones (mainly the bones from the spine; the vertebra), Richard Harlan, compared them to the (then) recently discovered dinosaur bones of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon. Harlan thought they looked very similar, but bigger. So he named the creature ‘Basilosaurus‘ meaning ‘king lizard’.

Was this another type of giant extinct lizard? Another new dinosaur discovered? Nope.

Harlan visited England and took some of his newly described Basilosaurus specimens with him to show to the great Richard Owen. (Richard Owen was an incredible British  comparative anatomist who was able to identify an extinct animal by one bone. He was brilliant, but he was also very arrogant, egotistical and deceitful.) Owen looked at the fossils and there were traits that looked like a mammal, and lots of similarities to whales. He renamed the giant ‘Zeuglodon‘ and the American anatomist agreed.

However, there are rules when we name animals and plants (and bacteria). Them rules are there for a reason. The rules of taxonomy are there to make sure that an organism doesn’t have five different scientific names. It also gives priority to the first name given. So in the case of this big whale, it was scientifically described as Basilosaurus before it was called Zeuglodon, so Basilosaurus takes precedent.

This tooth belonged to this whale that lived during the Eocene (around 40 million years ago). About as long as 4 double decker buses, it was a heft animal! As you can’t really see, the teeth were quite chunky and pointy; the shape, and that one fossil had a stomach full of fish indicate that they fed on fish in the oceans. Closely related to modern whales, the Basilosaurus were not their ancestors; this group and the group of modern whales shared a common ancestor that lived around 50 million years ago.

A delightful little sketch of two Basilosaurus. Big, long, whales. Lovely. (Image from here)

A delightful little sketch of two Basilosaurus. Big, long, whales. Lovely. (Image from here)

Beneath this shockingly bad cast is the tale of an whale that once swam in the oceans millions of years ago. Fossils, and potentially casts of fossils, reveal such awesome clues to forgotten worlds. Many of the bad casts in this series do not give the original fossil any thing to get excited about. This bad cast is no exception.

 

 

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The road kill fossil

Yes, this is another cast of a real fossil. No, before you ask, I don’t know why it was allowed to be made.

Not a pancake, but an extremely bad cast of the belly of a tortoise.

Not a pancake, but an extremely bad cast of the belly of a tortoise.

The label with this specimen says “Tortoise. Plaster cast on rectangular slab” (‘Tortoise’ has been written in pencil, possibly after the specimen was donated). The label then mentions those two chaps I am beginning to loath; “Presented by Mr J. R. Gregory, per A. G. F. Gregory. April 10 1906”. There is more information about those two fraudsters on these labels than the actual specimen they took a cast of.

It would be ever so splendid to jump back in a time machine to April 1906 and accidental bump into Gregory and Gregory knocking their briefcase full of bad casts over, accidental breaking them all so they never ended up in the museum. If that happened though, these posts would never exist, so I would never have gone back in time. Love a time travel paradox.

Or they could have just sent some more really bad casts in May 1906.

As it is, we are stuck with these bad casts and must do what we can to get them out there.

This ‘rectangular slab’ holds a cast of a tortoise or a turtle. The belly of one in fact. I admit, this is far from the greatest belly ever to be posted on a blog. I also admit that this looks like something that has been flattened by a lorry. A road kill fossil.

The only story I can think this bad cast is trying to tell is that these reptiles have been around for a long time, and fossils of them have been found.

I am inclined to say this is a cast of a turtle. It appears more turtle-like than tortoise. Turtle or tortoise, the story begins a long, long time ago in the Triassic Period, around 220 million years ago.

The origins of turtles is a little murky, but becoming clearer with new finds each year. One current contender for a turtle ancestor is a rather bloated looking reptile called a Eunotosaurus discovered pretty recently in 2008. A funny potential ancestor you might say. You would be right, but fossils of this creature show really thick ribs which curved around its back. This is possibly how the first turtle shells evolved.

The pot-bellied Eunotodaurus. The potential ancestor of turtles (and tortoises and terrapins).

The pot-bellied Eunotodaurus. The potential ancestor of turtles (and tortoises and terrapins). (Image from here)

From this pot-bellied, long-tailed reptile came the wonderful turtles. The ribs fused together to form a hard, protective shell around the turtle. Something strange happened with these animals; these fused ribs grew to a dome like shape, but also fused with some kind of hard amour on the outside of the skin.

Turtles had an advantage by moving to live in the water; their shells. This protected them from predators (although not entirely). They could also swim huge distances, so spread around the world fairly quickly, where some groups stayed and adapted to their little local environment. Some moved back onto the land where they adapted to have tougher harder shells to minimise water loss.

From this pretty awful cast is a fascinating tale, drastically reduced here. Turtles and tortoises are amazing creatures and very close to people hearts. For some strange reason we have an empathy and fondness towards this scaly beast. Their slow lumbering gait along with their old, wise faces both make us all warm inside.

Unfortunately this terribly cast doesn’t quite have the same effect.

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