Were going to need a bigger boat…..and more time.

Greetings to you all

So you may be thinking that myself and Chris have died or forgotten about this little spot in the giant ocean that is the internet.

Well I can tell you that we are far from either of those in fact it’s far less rock and roll. During the time I was starting my blog I was courting the women who is I am pleased to say is now my fiancé. As you can imagine this has taken up a chunk of my time but also the PhD itself, which I am near to finishing (finally!) not to mention the paid work I have to do so I can live.

Chris has also had long list of things to sort out his end as well, the point is we have not much time to blog on the wonders of fossil fish.

This however is going to change soon..ish, ok roughly by next year I should be all done and I will have more time to blog, as I have really missed it.

Also I have another blog in the works so watch this space for those of you with a cryptozoology bend….

So until the next post, All the best.

He’s my cousin…well twice removed on my mother’s side

Well here at ancient anglers we like to be at the cutting edge of fish research and on that note I will now discuss a paper from last year…yeah. So last year a paper appeared in the journal Palaeontology, entitled “Origin of the White Shark Carcharodon (Lamniformes: Lamnidae) based on recalibration of the Upper Neogene Pisco Formation of Peru”. The reason this paper is so interesting is because it looks to solve the origins of one of the Earth’s marine apex predators the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) (fig.1)


Figure 1. The White shark (Carcharodon carcharias)

also known as the “great” white shark. However I suspect the reason it made the headlines is because of the words “white shark” and “Megalodon”, as we all know the general public has always be excited and fascinated my the idea of giant sharks  see films such as the critically acclaimed Jaws and the not critically acclaimed Mega shark vs. giant Octopus (fig. 2).


Figure 2. The film you should all see!

So let’s get into it, what the paper aimed to do as already mentioned is work out the origin of the white shark however the paper also tries to constrain the age of key fossil baring horizons in the Pisco Formation using zircon Uranium–lead (U-Pb) dating and strontium-ratio analysis. So what does this involve? Well U-Pb dating is a radiometric dating method and while I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of dating, put simply as soon as a mineral forms in this case zircon the elements begin to decay and the length of time certain ones take can be used to date rocks to a rather accurate degree. Strontium-ratio analysis is used to investigate tooth enamel in archaeology as well as palaeontology, they use this to date their new species of Carcharodon to around (6-8 Ma).

So yes probably should mention the other purpose of the paper…the new species they describe C. hubbelli seen here (fig.3). Note that it’s only the teeth, jaws and some vertebrae, this is because sharks are not that hard…..well I would not say that to them in person, let me explain.


Figure 3. Carcharodon hubbelli

Sharks belong to a class of animals called Chondrichthyans these critters skeletons are not made of bone instead a softer more flexible tissue called cartilage (we do have cartilage in our bodies located in the discs between our vertebrae and parts of ears and nose). The trouble is that in life cartilage is fantastic for an aquatic as it allows for a super flexible body, but rubbish if you want to be preserved in the fossil record as it’s softer nature means it breakdowns  quickly, which is why the majority of shark fossils are represented by teeth, the only “hard parts” on a shark.

The Pisco Formation is located on the coast of Peru and has some of the best Cenozoic marine fossils like elasmobranchs (sharks) teleost’s (the most common bony fish today) Turtles , shore birds and whales anywhere on the planet. So these are excellent deposits to find and try and understand the evolution of the White shark, so let’s try and understand the two schools of thought of how these sharks evolved. The first is that “megatoothed” sharks like Megalodon are part of the Lamnidae and that White sharks are close kin. However the second states that megatoothed sharks are in their own family, the Otodontidae within the Lamniformes (the Lamniformes being the apex ocean going predators of the shark world). What this means is that white sharks are not related to the megatoothed sharks at all.

This latter is the favoured view and the one certainly that the ancient anglers support, the issue with the first theory is that as with most shark work it’s based on teeth and sadly workers in the past have thought that the teeth of White sharks were similar to Megalodon, however it seems they did not take things like not knowing where in the mouth the tooth is located or whether the tooth has pedomorphic (features that are juvenile that an adult retains) characteristics.

So what does this mean for the overall evolution of the White shark, well think of the White shark as a beefed up Mako shark with broad teeth and when looking at them next to each other you can kind of see the similarities (fig. 4). What about the other sharks mentioned in the paper, well these turn out to be what are known as chrono-species, basically one species arose and replaced the other so in the case of the White shark and this paper it is proposed that the progression is Carcharodon hastalis-hubbelli carcharias (the White shark).


Figure 4. (Left)Short fin Mako (Isurus oxyrinchus) (right) White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias)


EHRET, D. J., MACFADDEN, B. J., JONES, D. S., DEVRIES, T. J., FOSTER, D. A. and SALAS-GISMONDI, R. (2012), Origin of the white shark Carcharodon (Lamniformes: Lamnidae) based on recalibration of the Upper Neogene Pisco Formation of Peru. Palaeontology, 55: 1139–1153. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2012.01201.x

All images taken from google images

Gone Fishin’ in the Jurassic

Is it really the end of January? Where does the time go?
It is high time I updated you on the Ancient Anglers’ antics. We’ve been fishing, sort of.
A couple of weeks ago on a bright, sunny Sunday, with a very low tide on the way, I picked up Luke (and Steve, of Mesozoic monsters fame) from Southampton station and we headed off to Dorset to visit the Jurassic coast. I’d love to tell you we were there on serious scientific business at the cutting edge of palaeontology, but the truth is we were indulging our love of fossil hunting. The plan was to visit Chapman’s Pool, a remote location about 3 miles East of Kimmeridge Bay.

Figure 1. Chapman's Pool from the cliff top.

Figure 1. Chapman’s Pool from the cliff top.

Figure 1 shows the view towards Chapman’s Pool from the top of the cliff. Unfortunately, I chose my cliff paths poorly, and the descent to the beach from where I took this photo would have been challenging to say the least! Rather than take the time to find the appropriate route to the beach, we decided to proceed to Kimmeridge Bay and park right next to the beach.
For those who don’t know this part of the world, the Dorset coast is a world heritage site with an almost complete succession of Jurassic strata exposed, getting younger as you move East. The area around Kimmeridge is late Jurassic and dates to between 155 and 150 million years ago. I won’t be speaking much of the geology in this post, but if you want to learn pretty much all there is to know about the geology and history of Kimmeridge (and many other areas) I highly recommend Dr. Ian West’s webpages.
Dr. West has spent half a century exploring, cataloguing and studying most of the South coast and his webpages are filled with amazing photos and a wealth of information covering geology, palaeontology, petrology and local history.

Figure 2 looking East along the beach.

Figure 2 looking East along the beach.

Figure 2 shows the Kimmeridge Clay Formation looking East from Kimmeridge bay. Photo taken from the wave cut platforms which are exposed at low tide.
Since fossils were first discovered in the 19th Century at Kimmeridge, a huge diversity of prehistoric creatures has been found there. Dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs and pterosaurs have all been found over the years. All very exciting and certainly of interest to us, but we were there for the fish!
Many genera of fish have been found at Kimmeridge including Aspidorhynchids, Coelacanths, Lepidotids, Pycnodonts, Thrissops and a host of other bony fish and sharks. Remains vary from isolated bones and teeth to exquisitely preserved partial and entire skeletons.
Figure 3 below shows one of the waterfalls that periodically adorn certain sections of cliff. One in particular was quite tricky to get past and is a cut-off point as the tide rises. The dark grey steps at the bottom are covered at high tide and this is a location where getting cut off is a real risk, so careful observations of tide and time is necessary. I include it here as I think it makes a nice photo!

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 4 was taken around one of the headlands looking West. Luke is waving in the distance. The entire area is underwater at high tide so we were trying to cover as much ground as possible in the available time. As well as searching for the more exciting (and predictably rare) fossils, there are some lovely ammonites preserved in the wave cut platforms. They cannot be collected as they are part of the platform, but some are very large and others well preserved. Here are a couple of examples we found (Figures 5 and 6.)

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 6

To be honest, as you search for the characteristic black and brown glint of bone, it is easy to become blasé about the sheer number of ammonites that are there. It’s easy to forget that these once living animals had to die, be buried and fossilised, and their remains survive for 150 million years, and then be exposed and then not be destroyed by erosion for us to be looking at them.
“Ammonite, ammonite, ammonite, big ammonite…” We stopped taking pictures of them quite quickly! (I’ve been on several field trips where finding even one ammonite would have made the day!) As I said earlier we were there for the fish, and they are relatively rare.
It is here that I wish I could insert a genuine “David Attenborough moment”, unveiling a spectacular discovery, as experienced by Steve a few months ago when he picked up a piece of rock in a quarry, telling us that this is exactly the sort of piece you might expect to find a tooth on, then turn it over to reveal a tooth!! I hope he blogged about that, it was a great moment, but I digress. As well as prospecting, we were there to investigate something I had found on a recent previous trip.


Figure 5 shows a barnacle encrusted ammonite in the platform.
Figure 6 shows an impression of an ammonite, crushed flat.
Not very far East of the car park at Kimmeridge bay, about 7m from the cliff on a section of platform I found a collection of bones! It appeared to be the disarticulated remains of a partial skeleton of an individual animal! To say I was excited was an understatement. One of the reasons I love fossil hunting is the thrill of “treasure” hunting and to me that is the very definition of treasure.


The problem I had was that it didn’t seem to fit anything I’d personally seen before. Some of the bones had a definite fishy sort of look (highly scientific, I know) but the straight bones were a confusing shape to me, and with the degree of weathering it was not immediately apparent what these bones are. So I thought it prudent to bring in some more learned fellows than I to have a look and try and identify what I’d found.
I’m pleased to report that they took the task very seriously. 

After we stopped messing about, we quickly eliminated most of the possibilities, and concluded it had to be a fish of some sort, but the section of 7 vertebrae, much smaller than the other bones, must have come from another fish, preserved at the same time. On top of that, it definitely wasn’t a coelacanth, or (unsurprisingly) any of the Palaeozoic fishes that Luke studies. From the size of the bones we knew it had to be a fairly large fish, as no small fish has straight bones that large, but we had no further ideas at the time.



I include a couple of close up shots to highlight both the find itself and the difficulty in finding diagnostic bones in certain fossil assemblages. More photos are available on request.
As a significant collection of bones found in Kimmeridge bay is rare, it is important that these finds are reported. I had a fairly big clue that I was not the first person to find these bones. A 30 x 30cm (approx.) section had been buzz sawed out of the platform right next to my find, and there is only one person legally able to do this. I raised the subject when I was taking some photos of the coelacanths he found that I am studying.
Turns out my “awesome” exciting find is not museum worthy. It is a fish, it is rare, but it is not well enough preserved and not enough of it is preserved to excavate given the expense of so doing. As can be seen from the photos it is very weathered.
It has been identified as a large Pycnodont.

These are a group of fish that had dentition well adapted to crushing shells and came in a variety of sizes and body forms. A lot of them were laterally compressed and oval or circular in outline. This one was clearly a big one!


Whilst I am disappointed I didn’t find something museum worthy, I am pleased to note something that not everyone gets to see. In a few tides’ time (1-5 years at most) this will be gone forever. I encourage all of you that have an opportunity to visit the area to have a look, take some snaps. Here is a shot of the cliff directly opposite the bones.


The two cut out bits at the bottom of the cliff are quite distinctive.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable day. We prospected as far as we dared whilst the tide was low, saw some nice fossils and began and ended our trip looking at the best fossils I’ve ever found in the Jurassic. And it was a fish, so technically we were fishing, and we caught one!

That’s about all from me for this post. I’ll be in touch soon.



From Estonia…..with fish?

It has to be said that sometimes international research collaboration is underrated and if I’m being honest I was not sure what to expect from my trip to Estonia. I will return to what I got from it at the end of the post.


Figure 1. Location of Estonia

So first off where is Estonia and why did I go out there, Estonia is just below Finland on the map (fig.1)


Figure 2. Dr Tiiu Märss

and the capital Tallinn is located on the coast of the Baltic sea. I went there for a very simple reason….knowledge, you see I have been at this PhD for a year and bit now, and all my knowledge about the fish in my bone bed is self-taught. The reason for this is that although the University of Portsmouth has experts in both vertebrates and the Silurian neither have worked on Agnatha, so this is why I have had to teach myself.  Now luckily for me, my supervisors know all sorts of researchers including Dr. Tiiu Märss (fig.2)

who for a number few years has worked on Palaeozoic fish so she was going to give me first-hand knowledge on these groups so that I could identify the disarticulated material in my bone bed. So the way I’m going to do this post is tackle each day and what I got up to.


BEEP BEEP BEEP, oh god its 3am I didn’t even know this time existed! So two trains and a 2 hour and 45 minute flight and I find myself in Estonian….Tallinn to be exact and once I have located my bag I headed for the door, where I was met by Tiiu (holding up a sign saying “LUKE” very rock & roll).

After a bus ride across the city I reached my home for the next four days the Academic hostel, which was very good and I would highly recommend it, any who so after a spot oflunch we made it to the department which as you can see in (fig.3) is located next to a


Figure 3. no it’s not Narina

forest! The first thing we did was chat in her office about my project and I showed her my samples I brought from the UK.  After this I was shown to my work area (fig.4) which was all very swish and I started going through her UK material.


Figure 4. The office and my work place for the four days


So day 2 begins with where I left off the previous day, sat at the binocular microscope (fig.5) and as mentioned looking through the loose samples that Tiiu has collected over the years and this was useful as I could get a sense of what certain scales look like and ask Tiiu questions about the material. I felt very lucky to be looking at all these different localities that I have read about in papers and places I know are historically important like some of the Scottish sites. Another interesting point was the variety of preservation in the denticles, browns, blacks and whites colours, and of all qualities. While looking, every so often I would stop and draw a denticle of interest and identifying them, I had a great many slides to through at least 60 so this was going to take some time. It was also great to know that the denticles in my sample which I had already identified as Paralogania ludlowensis was correct as Tiiu confirmed this (this is not surprising as this is expected to be the most common genera in my bed…but time will tell).


Figure 5. My set up with Microscopes and note pad oh yeah and the samples (far left)


Now Wednesday was an interesting one as I was able to look at a large number (some 20 drawers) of articulated agnatha and gnathostomes (that’s animals in this case fish with jaws). Before that I did finish off looking through those disarticulated specimens….partly because I had not finished looking through them as there were so many and well partly because I had over slept on the Tuesday oops!

So I descended into the basement of the institute (the natural home of the palaeontologist) where their fossil collection is located, then as with the disarticulated material I sat down with a microscope and slowly went through each one stopping to draw ones of interest. Now one thing some of you readers may not realised is that there is a very good reason why they call people like myself a micro-palaeontologists and that’s because you spend most of your time strapped to a microscope of one type or another and this certainly was the case in Estonia. In term of the material it was a mixed bag some of the specimens were to be honest a little grotty while others were insanely beautiful, of particular note was the Canadian artic specimens which I was told by Tiiu were the “rubbish” bits that Wilson did not want when they were collecting in the 1990’s. So I know at this point I would normally saying here “see fig.1” I will be 100% honest folks I did have a chance to take pictures at this point, however this photo taken in Tiiu office (fig. 6) shows an articulated specimen of Phlebolepis elegans and the coolest part of this is that I have seen this actual specimen in the flesh….or denticles I guess.


Figure 6. A photo of a photo of Phlebolepis elegans

After that there was a quick coffee and cake break, the coffee was great and served in their own mug! (fig.7) How cool is that, the poppy seed and chocolate bun was lovely as well. Back to work and I was looking at a “small” section of a mass mortality bed from one of the Islands of Estonian (Saaremaa in particular) and to describe it, well think of those Green River Formation slabs covered in fish it’s like that except with Phlebolepis elegans in the Silurian!


Figure 7. Yes the institute has thir own mugs!


The last day before flying home on the Friday was mostly made up of three things, looking through the Estonian material like I did with the UK material, which was excellent, seeing the differences between the two areas….oh I should probably explain, ok so back in the Silurian Earths continents looked rather different (fig.8.) The UK was known as Avalonia a series of small islands…not Scotland though as it was part of America….until it slammed into Wales and England while Estonia was part of the continent known as Baltica. The second thing was getting a load of papers……some in Russian…..still the pictures are nice the translation will come later I think. Finally, what I like to think as a bit of a highlight is some thin section photography I did with my thin sections on her microscope and camera (that’s the one on the left in fig.5) and as you can see in (fig.9) the results were excellent with all manner of details seen.


Figure 8. Map showing the Silurian paleocontinents of Avalonia and Baltica

So what are my final thoughts about my first international research trip, well overall excellent it was really good chatting to a fellow thelodont researcher and gives me a real sense of what I need to do and how to do it. I recommend to my fellow researcher if you can go out to another part of the world and learn from others and to see other stuff to very much go and do it, as it’s so very useful. Also a final note I am stood in down town Tallinn and waiting for a bus to the airport when who should I bump into but my friend Charlotte from my local college back in my home town…..it truly is a small world.



Figure 9. A denticle from cut through horizontally, you can see the dark borwn in the centre which is the pulp cavity and the thin brown lines which are the dentine tubules and the ornimentation on the sides of the denticle

Well there you are I hope you have enjoyed this first year of Ancient anglers we are very sorry we have not posted more but we hope this will change next year. To all our readers, followers and causal browsers Merry Christmas and a happy new year.

from the Ancient Anglers

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Figure 2 is from http://www.gi.ee/index.php?page=30&staff_id=36 and figure 1 and figure 8 comes from Google images.

The Difficult first post

So hello and welcome to the blog, as it says in the about section the reason for myself and Chris creating this blog is that if you look out there on the internets you’ll find all manner of blogs on fossil organisms from dinosaurs to mammals and everything else if you go on Tetrapod zoology!

But you will find very few on fish, yes that’s right those extremely common vertebrates (representing some 27,977 of the 54,711 known vertebrates, that’s over one-half!!!) represented by some 515 families both extinct and extant. They are possibly the most morphologically diverse group of vertebrates; I mean think about it look at a Knightia alta, a Plaice (Pleuronectes platessa), a white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) and a Alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula) figure.1 (I haven’t even mentioned seahorses!), they are all extreme shapes, it seems a little unkind to say “well fish are fish shaped” too such a fantastically diverse group. They also inhabit a wide range of habitats from the polar oceans to the muddy banks of mangrove forests. Not to mention exhibiting a huge range of bizarre and fascinating behaviours.

Fig. 1 (Top left) Knightia, (Bottom left) White shark, (Top right) Plaice, (Bottom right) Alligator gar.

Now some of you cladistics fans will be shouting “but what are fish?” and “Fish don’t exist” and yes it is true that fish are a paraphyletic group this is because they are “basal” their characters can be found in a wide range of vertebrates making it hard to identify them as an actual group, “fish” is a colloquial term, however I think we’re going to have to write a blog post about this topic all on its own.

Now if we take the wonders of extant fish, we can only imagine what fossil fish over the last 500 ma must have been like, and this is the plan of the ancient anglers to inform and entertain about fossil and at times extant fish topics that interest us, important papers and cool things about fish.

Anyway that’s about it from the this first post thanks for staying for the ride hope this gave you a flavour for what is to come from myself and Chris, the posts may be a bit sporadic for the first few months as we find the time to write these but hopefully we should have at least a couple a month.


Nelson. J. S, 2006. World of fishes, John Wiley & sons inc, Hoboken, New Jersey. pp.601

Long. J.A, 2010. The rise of fishes: 500 million years of evolution, Johns Hopkins University Press. pp.304

All images are from Google images