Category Archives: Fossils

The bizarre beaked beast

When I first saw this bad cast, I got a little excited as I thought it was the head of a dinosaur! We have one other cast of a dinosaur fossil in the museum, but that Iguanodon tooth is really bad. I was wrong, but I would find out that I wasn’t too far off.

A side on view of a pretty big turtle dinosaur creature.

A side on view of a pretty big turtle dinosaur creature.

There was a number scribbled on the back, so a little fumble through our old accession book revealed a long name scrawled in the most appalling handwriting. It seems that 100 years ago the curators thought it would be quite funny to write things down in their most untidiest handwriting with a little smirk on their face knowing that their future replacements would struggle immensely with deciphering their lopsided lettering.

Those funny jokers had no idea that a century later a wonderful research aide, known as Google, would be around. Touché mes amis.

After a couple of attempts of searches, due to several mis-spellings firing blanks, I found the creature. The skull belonged to a rhynchosaur called Hyperodapedon gordoni.

Rhynchosaurs were a group of beaked reptiles that were closely related to crocodiles and dinosaurs. Unfortunately these were not around for as long as their 2nd cousins, and they became extinct around 230 million years ago.

The group was quite successful on their short time on Earth of around 20 million years or so. They were pretty big plant eaters (herbivores), and some could grow as long as two cars. The skull of some species, including Hyperodapedon, holds fairly varied teeth for a reptile, which is presumably why this cast was purchased: the front two teeth on the top and bottom jaws are pretty big, and curved to create a ‘beak’ at the front of the mouth, and the back ones were more flat. This was perfect for eating tough plant material – the front ‘beak’ would slice and the back teeth would grind it down.

The wonderful Hyperodapedon reptile. It was awesome and long, and could eat plants. It couldn't scale down vertical surfaces.

The wonderful Hyperodapedon reptile. It was awesome and long, and could eat plants. (Contrary to this illustration, it couldn’t scale down vertical surfaces.)

Hyperodapedon gordoni was a pretty cool plant eating reptile and it is likely that they grazed in herds of hundreds of individuals. The large two holes at the back of the head shows it’s relationship to the archosaurs (the group that includes the crocodiles and dinosaurs). These two holes are found in the skulls of animals from this groups, and a few others (including tuataras, lizards, snakes and the avian dinosaurs around today – the birds). The overarching group that holds all of these creatures with two extra holes in their heads is called the Diapsids.

View from the top. The two holes close to the front are for the eyes. The two big holes near the back are for something else.

View from the top. The two holes close to the front are for the eyes. The two big holes near the back are for something else.

In Hyperodapedon these two holes would have attached big muscles from the head, and allowed the jaw to open pretty big. This would have been very useful for slicing effortlessly through the tough vegetation it relied on.

This isn’t the greatest cast ever made. But, to my sheer delight, I have found another museum that has a similar cast and is actually worse! If you have seen some of the other posts on bad casts, you know that we have some pretty bad plaster casts of fossils. You can also imagine how I grinned from ear to ear when I saw this beauty on another museum’s website!

This cast from the Grant Museum and is most definitely a bad cast, a worst cast than mine! My victory, and smugness, is short lived. I have just realised that although their cast is pretty awful, they are actually using it. Something I am not doing.

This example from the wonderful Grant Museum of Zoology, is a lovely way of how we can use our bad casts. Perhaps we should not be ashamed of them and hide them away. Let’s be proud! Lets get them out!

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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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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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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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