So I thought I'd retouch on British palaeontology for this post, specifically the area of Hastings, on the south coast of England. The area is mostly known for being the location of the famous 'Battle of Hastings' in 1066, between King Harold and the Duke of Normandy.
However, not only is the area something quite close to me from a research standpoint, it is one of the best areas in the UK for fossil findings, having been combed and studied since the early 19th century. The geology of the area is part of what makes up the Wealden strata and contains what is informally known as 'the Hastings group'. The area immediately within Hastings is made up mostly of clays and sandstones from the Cretaceous. The strata as a whole has been extensively researched over the past 170 years or so.
In this area you'll find a very wide array of fossils, including fossilised wood, various plants, dinosaurs ranging from theropods to sauropods to ornithopods and trace fossils (also referred to as 'ichnites' from the term describing the study of trace fossils, 'ichnology') belonging to shallow marine burrowing organisms and dinosaurs.
It is the last one here that is most famed in the area. Dinosaur footprints have been exposed here since humans first discovered that dinosaurs were even a thing. There are footprints here from Iguanodontids, Ankylosaurs, sauropods and theropods, with some track-ways being up to 100 metres long!
This particular picture is of some previously described trackways (Davies and Shilito, 2018) in which I expanded upon in a recent study. In this particular area, these babies are all over the place! If you would like to know more of this study, the post is coming soon!
Originally, the particular unit from which these fossils are found were from the Berriasian to Aptian stages of the early Cretaceous and was a sub-tropical environment (average annual temperatures were between 20-25ºC). This environment was originally a flood plain, full of meandering rivers and lakes, with seasonal rainfall similar to the Mediterranean. This meant that, much like many areas in Africa, the area would seasonally flood then dry up (it was even partial to the odd bush fire!). Surrounding these bodies of water were vast forests, supporting cycads and ferns as well as animasl varying from bugs, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and, of course, dinosaurs and pterosaurs. There were sauropods, ankylosaurs, ornithopods, smaller forest-dwelling hypsilophodonts and various predators such as spinosaurs, carnosaurs (Neovenator and Altispinax, smaller relatives of Giganotosaurus) and dromaeosaurs (or as some know them better as, raptors)
Neovenator salerii. Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Neovenator.jpg
Since 1834, the likes of Richard Owen and Gideon Mantell have been combing this particular beach for findings, discovering a rich natural history and attributing an incredible amount of what we know to this area. In fact, to this day, many people take hikes along the beach and come away with either having collected a fossil or seeing a huge one! So why, after nearly two centuries of exploring and collecting from scientists and the public, is it not completely derelict of fossils? Well...it's a beach.
Beaches are very high energy environments, being completely exposed to the crashing waves and coastal winds. This means that the environment is changing, quite literally, on a day to day basis. Tides move around the sediment and bring shingle far into the beach, snatching away or covering up fossils that were there and bringing in new ones. Larger specimens are eroded down over time, whilst the elements nibble away at the cliffs, breaking them apart. It is within these cliffs that fresh fossils that haven't seen daylight for millions of years fall from, showing new material.
In fact, the picture shown of the footprints from here are a good example of this. In the picture, you can see I had to stand on top of some rocks to have a close look at them (the boulder is around 5 foot tall). I came back the next day at low tide and around half a foot of the boulder was buried into the beach! I then came back a few months later and the beach was so low I could crawl between supporting boulders and look at the underneath!
On a quick side note, I would like to point out that there is a danger to this. Cliffs especially are somewhat volatile and many areas of the beach have been cautioned to the general public due to constant cliff falls. Whilst exploring these areas can be a fruitful experience, you should take caution and know what signs to keep an eye on for the best safety (points I will cover in the aforementioned future post).
So, not only can people walk along the beach and discover something new, we actively should. On beaches, there is a smaller window than most environments that fossils can be found and studied. Something you saw in the same spot yesterday could be gone tomorrow and it would be an awful shame if we didn't find out as much as we potentially could from an area like this:
What a typical lagoon from this area would have likely been like. Image credit: Artwork by Mark Witton. Steven C. Sweetman, Grant Smith, and David M. Martill https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Purbeck_lagoon.jpg
So, if you ever find yourself in the South of England, remember that not just the Isle of Wight has some amazing areas for dinosaurs! Be sure to explore Hastings, both in the field and in its museum!
Until next time!