Tag Archives: fossil

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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A pretty darn good bad cast

There. I have said it. This may be the only time I say it, so I will say it again. This is actually a pretty darn good bad cast. Two casts actually.

Can I say it? Go on. A rather beautiful cast of the top and bottom of a trilobite.

Can I say it? Go on… A rather beautiful cast of the top and underneath of a trilobite.

Apart from a few scuffs where the paint has rubbed off, and a little pink crayon where someone has used this for some children activity as a fossil rubbing, they are actually quite beautiful. (Please don’t use accessioned museum specimens for crayon rubbings. You can buy cheapish casts from fossil suppliers, then place a piece of paper over it and rub a crayon on top. It comes out with a lovely rubbing of the fossil.)

The previous bad casts have been awful. Shocking. So terrible that I have had to really look into what they are supposed to represent. But these are good. Really good in comparison!

What has me even more excited is that there is information written on the back! Can you imagine! A bad cast with information!

Striking gold! Information about a specimen with a specimen! A true rarity in itself!

Striking gold! Information about a specimen with a specimen! A true rarity in itself!

The information tells us what the fossil was, where it was found and who made it. It is a cast of a trilobite, which were pretty successful marine creatures living from around 520 million years ago until the whole group became extinct around 250 million years ago. From species smaller than a finer nail to the big Welsh beasts that would have terrified us paddling in the shallows, trilobites were amazing creatures. Some could roll up into balls for protection, like a woodlouse might today. Others had exquisite spines and spikes growing out of their hard external skeletons.

This cast is of the beautiful trilobite Triarthrus eatoni which lived around 440 million years ago (the Upper Ordovician Period). These casts are actually casts of models of this trilobite. But why the models themselves were made is wonderful is all part of their story.

The Ordovician sediments at a small site in Rome, New York, preserved trilobites and other creatures in unbelievable detail. They were discovered in 1892, and came to the attention of Mr Charles Beecher who was working at Yale University. Beecher noticed that almost everything of this trilobite was preserved, the antennae, and even the gills on the legs.

Gorgeous, almost perfect, pyrite fossils of the little trilobite.

Gorgeous, almost perfect, pyrite fossils of the little trilobite. Image from here.

The specimens themselves were about as long as my thumb. To truly show them off, Beecher made larger brass models with this new understanding of trilobite anatomy. The models are not exactly the same as the fossils, but Beecher appears to have been given a little artistic licence.

These casts are of Beechers models. They show a lot of detail of these extinct creatures. Long antennae coming out from under the head can be seen. These would have been used to sense movement and chemicals in the water. Feathery gills attached to each leg let us see how trilobites were able to breathe under the water. Such soft tissue preservation is very rare in the fossil record, because it decays so quickly.

This will be the only time we get excited about a rather good bad cast. There are a few shockers to come. Lets enjoy this one.

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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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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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