A farm in England was the unlikely source of a Jurassic jackpot: a treasure trove of 183-million-year-old fossils. On the outskirts of Gloucestershire in the Cotswolds, beneath soil currently trampled under the hooves of grazing cattle, scientists have recently uncovered fossilized remains of fish, giant marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs, squid, insects and other ancient animals dating to the early part of the Jurassic period ( 201.3 million to 145 million years ago).
Of the more than 180 fossils logged during the dig, one of the standout specimens was a three-dimensionally preserved fish head belonging to Pachycormus, an extinct genus of ray-finned fish. The fossil, which researchers found embedded in a hardened limestone nodule protruding from the clay, was exceptionally well preserved and contained soft tissue, including shells and an eye. The 3D nature of the pose of the specimen’s head and body was such that the researchers could not compare it to any other previous find.
“The closest analogue we could think of 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 preparer and the dig’s coordinator. “The eyeball and socket were well preserved. Usually, with fossils, they lie flat. But in this case, it was preserved in more than one dimension, and it looks like the fish is jumping 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 contacted ThinkSee3D, a company that creates digital 3D models of fossils, to create a (opens in a new tab)interactive 3D image (opens in a new tab) of the fish to help bring it to life and to allow scientists to study it more closely.
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Most of the fossils Hollingworths and a team of scientists and specialists uncovered were located behind the farm’s barn. (The farm is home to a herd of English Longhorns—a British breed of beef cattle with long, curved horns—many of whom kept a close eye on the excavation.)
“It was a little nerve-wracking digging when you’re being watched by a herd of longhorns,” Sally Hollingworth told LiveScience.
At one time this region of Britain was completely submerged by a shallow, tropical sea, and the sediments there probably helped to preserve the fossils; Neville Hollingworth described the Jurassic beds as slightly horizontal, with layers of soft clays beneath a shell of harder limestone beds.
“When the fish died, they sank to the bottom of the ocean floor,” said fossil marine reptile specialist Dean Lomax, a visiting researcher at the University of Manchester in Britain and a member of the excavation team. “As with other fossils, the minerals from the surrounding ocean floor continuously replaced the original structure of bones and teeth. In this case, the site shows that there was very little or no scavenging, so they must have been quickly buried by the sediment. As soon as they hit the ocean floor , they were immediately covered and protected.”
During the four-day dig earlier this month, the eight-person team used a digger to dig 262 feet (80 meters) across the farm’s grassy banks, “pulling back layers to reveal a little piece of geological time,” Neville Hollingworth said . A variety of specimens dated to the Toarcian age (a stage of the Jurassic that took place between 183 million and 174 million years ago) and included belemnites (extinct squid-like squids), ammonites (extinct cephalopods with shells), clams and snails, as well as fish and other marine animals.
“It is important that we can compare these fossils with other fossil sites of Toarcian age, not only in Britain but also across Europe and potentially sites in the Americas,” Lomax said. He pointed to the Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte, an Early Jurassic site in southern England, as one such example.
The group plans to continue studying the samples and is working towards publishing the findings. In the meantime, a selection of the fossils will be on display at the Museum in the Park in Stroud.
Originally published on Live Science.