Monday, 13 August 2012

The latest on the Romer's Gap Project

In May I posted about how Jenny had been successful in her application for funding for the next big project she'll be working on. 

At the end of the Devonian period, about 360 million years ago, there were quite a few tetrapods around, but they were all, as far as we know, fully aquatic.  Their legs would not support them out of water, they had internal gills, they had fishy tails and they seem to have had more than five digits, max eight so far known.

Then there was an extinction event, after which, for about 20 million years tetrapod fossils were extremely scarce, but after that, all known tetrapods conformed pretty much to the patterns we see today - lungs, not gills, no fishy fins, robust legs with five or fewer digits.

The gap has challenged palaeontologists for the last 75 years.

A few years ago, a colleague of Jenny's, Tim Smithson, started poking around in the Borders Region of Scotland, and has so far come up with five sites yielding tetrapod fossils that fall directly into that gap.  This project is to study not just the tetrapods, but the plants, invertebrates, fishes, limnology, sedimentology, paleaoatmosphere, everything we can think of.  It's a four-year project involving Cambridge, the National Scottish Museums and the universities of Leicester and Southampton, as well as the British Geological Survey.

So last week Jenny, Tim and I rented a cottage in Northumberland and visited the sites.  There were two motivating factors.   First, most of the team have never seen even the main site at Burnmouth, just north of Berwick on Tweed, so a goodly group of them turned up on Monday morning for us to show them what we knew.

The rest of the week was really for Tim to show us where the fossils have been coming from.  He said that if he falls under the proverbial bus, someone else needs to know where the sites are or they'll be lost for decades. 

This is very poignant, because another colleague, professional fossil collector Stan Wood, who was to have been part of the project, was diagnosed a year ago with inoperable lung cancer, and is dying as we speak.  He will be sadly missed, as he was an extraordinary collector who had a huge impact on the world of palaeontology over the past several decades.  I think when Tim thought about Stan's death, that was when he realised he would then be the only person who knew where those sites were.

The first day was exciting but frustrating.  There had been so much rain that our route was flooded in two places and we couldn't get to the first site.  We did manage the second, but the burn was a torrent and there was no way we could get to the actual exposure.  Then the route home was flooded in a couple of places, too, though all that required was a few diversions before we got home.

On Tuesday we collected some exciting looking fossils from Burnmouth, in a bed which Jenny and I had completely overlooked when we've been there previously.  We've been collecting fossils for 30 years, and we simply didn't see what was right in front of our eyes!

 On Wednesday we revisited the Sunday sites, of which one is on the left here, this time successfully as the water levels had fallen considerably, then went and visited Stan and his wife, Maggie.

Thursday was another Burnmouth day, then on Friday we drove a little north up the coast to look at another exposure Tim had found, though this one was not very productive at all.  Still, we needed to know where it was and what it looked like.

And although it rained on us a bit on Sunday, for the most part we had excellent weather and really enjoyed the week.  It's frustrating that for the next two weeks I'm doing jury service, so can't go into the lab to see what's actually in the rocks we collected.  Some stuff was obvious as we broke up the rock, but we also collected quite a few 'bulk samples' which didn't show anything obvious, but may have stuff hidden inside, waiting for us to crack it open.  No doubt Jenny will keep me posted.


ArcticFox said...

it all sounds rather exciting..... I wish I knew a bit more about fossil hunting..... I'm also going up Berwick way for a weeks holiday soon and am looking forward to those miles of sandy beaches and some lovely walking..... fingers crossed for the weather, and good luck with that pesky jury service!

Rob Clack said...

Enjoy your holiday when you go. It's a beautiful part of the world and we're very lucky that our fossils are located in such a wonderful area.