Fossil hunters walk through 200 million years of history along the Jurassic Coast

Some of the best fossils in the world have been found along a 95-mile coastline in Britain. Known as the Jurassic Coast, it has found the world’s first fossilized ammonite eggs, more belemnites than you can shake a stick at, and a giant sea monster that lived 150 million years ago.

It was a pliosaur, the apex predator of its time, and one of the largest marine predators to ever swim in Earth’s oceans. Since the largest species was about 40 feet long, there wasn’t much on the menu, and they used their enormous teeth to grab and dismember prey like ichthyosaurs.

Not everyone visiting the Jurassic Coast can expect to see such a prehistoric beast, but finding a fossil? That’s almost a guarantee, because it’s not without reason that this rock formation is known as one of the most productive fossil locations in the world.

Fossils for everyone

Retrieving the sea monster involved a treacherous weeks-long expedition halfway up a cliff, where it turned out that most of the skull was hiding after Philip Jacobs found the snout simply on the beach. It’s a story that sums up the Jurassic Coast quite perfectly, because it really is a place where fossils can be found by just about anyone, just about anywhere.

an ammonite on the Jurassic Coast

Ammonites are a common find along the Jurassic Coast.

Image credits: Arjen de Ruiter / Shutterstock.com

Why? Because nature keeps carving them out of the rock face for us.

“Fossils have been collected along this coast for hundreds of years, from the famous Mary Anning who collected on the other side of Dorset, about 50 miles away. [80 kilometers] gone,” fossil expert Chris Moore told IFLScience. “ [It used to be] a shallow warm sea [that was] very rich in life. [The area is] continuously eroded by the English Channel as it is located in the south west of Britain. We get big storms that wash away the soft clay and reveal new fossils all the time.”

Composition of the cliff

Moore worked with fossil expert Steve Etches MBE, owner of the Etches Collection where the pliosaur skull will be on display, on the treacherous excavation and recovery of the fossil. As they discovered during the dig, the composition of the Jurassic Coast cliffs explains why so many fossils are dropped on the beaches before being reclaimed by the sea.

mudstone on the Jurassic Coast

A stretch of mudstone along the Jurassic Coast.

“The entire cliff is made up of what we call mudstone, and mudstone is actually a very compressed, hardened clay,” Etches told IFLScience. “So when it’s fresh, it’s very difficult for us to dig into that. But if you leave it for a few months, you get wet, dry effects and it starts to revert back to clay. That slimy, sticky clay. So it erodes very, very quickly.”

Etches compares the significance of the Jurassic Coast by making it comparable in importance to the Grand Canyon. It may be hard to fathom, as it is a third of the length of the canyon, but when you look at its history it starts to make sense.

Traveling through geological time

Future time travelers could do worse than taking a weekend break to the Jurassic Coast, as the country’s unique history means you can explore different times in Earth’s history simply by putting one foot in front of the other.

“From West Dorset to East Dorset you walk through the entire Jurassic range of rocks,” Etches explains. “You go through 200 million years to actually 140 million years, and as you go east you go through time. All the rocks dip this way and are cut off so you can see every set of rocks from the Jurassic range.

Part of the cliff face along the Jurassic Coast, where the layers are visible

Part of the cliff face along the Jurassic Coast, where the layers are visible.

Image credits: Josie Elias / Shutterstock.com

To put it into context, Moore explains that the region is a bit like a sponge cake that has been tilted and cut, so that the rock face provides a window into all the layers between which life is sandwiched like delicious fossil jam. If you hunt past that pie to the east, you’ll be looking at the youngest rock layers and heading towards the oldest as you go further west.

Find old animals

Do you feel inspired to go fossil hunting? It takes dedication, but as the Etches collection is proof, the rewards can be rich and varied.

ammonite eggs

Anyone have any ammonite eggs?

Image credit: Rachael Funnell

“[We’ve found] The world’s first ammonite eggs, flying reptile remains, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, fish! I mean, we have a huge variety of fish,” Etches said. “I’m mainly interested in vertebrates, but my main goal is to collect the very diverse assemblages of what lived during the Kimmeridgian.”

Starting with a visit to the Etches Collection demonstrates the rich diversity of ancient life found here, and with the team’s workshop on site you may be able to catch a glimpse of the fossil preparation taking place first-hand. It doesn’t take a fossil expert, though, and the Jurassic Coast has and will yield its treasures to anyone with a keen eye.

“People can go all the way down the Jurassic Coast and pick up a fossil almost anywhere along its length,” Moore added. “You know, whether it’s a broken ammonite, a piece of fossil squid, an oyster, there are fossils everywhere.”

Good hunting! And as for fossils, did you know that it’s been 200 years since a dinosaur was first named?

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