A farm in England was the unlikely source of a Jurassic jackpot: a trove of 183-million-year-old fossils. On the outskirts of Gloucestershire in the Cotswolds, beneath earth currently being trampled under the hooves of grazing cattle, researchers have recently uncovered the fossilized remains of fish, giant marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs, squid, insects and other ancient animals from the early Jurassic period (before 201.3 million to 145 million years ago).
Of the more than 180 fossils logged during the excavation, one of the standout specimens was a three-dimensionally preserved fish head that belonged pachykormus, an extinct genus of ray-finned fish. The fossil, which the researchers found embedded in a hardened limestone nodule protruding from the clay, was exceptionally well preserved and contained soft tissue, including scales and an eye. The 3D nature of the pose of the specimen’s head and body was such that researchers could not compare it to any previous find.
“The closest analogue that came to mind was Big Mouth Billy Bass,” said Neville Hollingworth, a field geologist at the University of Birmingham, who discovered the site with his wife Sally, a fossil preparator and excavation coordinator. “The eyeball and socket were well preserved. They usually lie flat in fossils. But in this case, it was preserved in more than one dimension, and it looks like the fish jumped out of the rock,” Hollingworth told Live Science.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” added Sally Hollingworth. “You could see the scales, the skin, the spine — even the eyeball is still there.”
The sight so amazed the Hollingworths that they turned to ThinkSee3D, a company that creates 3D digital models of fossils, to create one (opens in new tab)interactive 3D image (opens in new tab) of the fish to bring it to life and allow researchers to examine it more closely.
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Most of the fossils unearthed by the Hollingworths and a team of scientists and specialists were behind the farm’s cowshed. (The farm is home to a herd of English longhorns — a British breed of cattle with long, curved horns — many of whom keep a close eye on the dig.)
“It was a bit unnerving to dig when you have a herd of longhorns watching you,” Sally Hollingworth told Live Science.
Previously, this region of the UK was completely submerged by a shallow, tropical sea, and the sediments there likely helped preserve the fossils. Neville Hollingworth described the Jura beds as slightly horizontal, with layers of soft clay beneath a shell of harder limestone beds.
“When the fish died, they sank to the bottom of the seabed,” said Dean Lomax, a fossil marine reptile specialist, visiting scientist at the University of Manchester in the UK and member of the excavation team. “As with other fossils, the minerals from the surrounding sea floor continually replaced the original structure of the bones and teeth. In this case, the site shows that there were very few to no scavengers, so they must have been quickly buried by sediment. As soon as they reached the bottom of the sea, they were immediately covered and protected.”
During the four-day excavation earlier this month, the eight-person team used an excavator to excavate 80 meters above the farm’s grassy banks and “pull back layers to uncover a little bit of geologic time,” Neville Hollingworth said. A number of different specimens are from the Toarcian Age (a Jurassic stage that occurred between 183 million and 174 million years ago) and included belemnites (extinct squid-like cephalopods), ammonites (extinct shelled cephalopods), bivalves and snails in addition to fish and other sea creatures.
“It’s important that we can compare these fossils to other fossil sites from the Toarcian age, not only in Britain but also across Europe and possibly America,” Lomax said. As one such example he pointed to the Strawberry Bank deposit, an Early Jurassic site in southern England.
The group plans to continue testing the samples and is working towards publishing the results. A selection of the fossils are now on display at the Museum in the Park in Stroud.
Originally published on Live Science.