Mary Anning’s Jurassic Coast: The Fossil Guys (part 3)

A gaggle of about twenty-five people and one collie with a tumor the size of a baseball on its front right leg amassed outside of the museum to partake in the day’s fossil walk. Our guides Chris and Paddy introduced themselves, then Chris, the talkative one with a ponytail, launched into a talk about the geological significance of the area. All of the Dorset coast is designated a World Heritage Site–England’s only natural rather than historical contribution. The Jurassic coast is still producing numerous significant finds to this day, and represents 185 million years of geological time. It is one of the best sources of lower Jurassic insect fossils and home to the scelidosaurus, a dinosaur species that has only been found in the British Isles.

You can tell that Chris has been doing this a while. He’s got a practiced, relaxed demeanor as he shepherds us along the walkway built as part of a retaining wall that was designed by engineers to prevent the town of Lyme Regis from slipping into the sea. He aims questions at the kids in the group while passing around samples of different kinds of fossils that are found on the beach, giving us tips on what to look for. There are four children, ranging from about six to twelve years old. I’m the next youngest of the bunch of us at thirty-two. We learned about what ammonites looked like when they were still alive, and the different forms their fossils take. Chris told us how the shell had sections that could be filled with either gas or water, pointing out the indentations where the chambers were separated.

He asks ‘What happens when you put in more gas and less water?’

The only little girl in the group, a smart, shy blonde, had correctly answered several previous questions. Chris looked to her when the boys in the group remained silent, and none of the grownups volunteered anything.

This time, she says, a serious look on her face like she’s trying to remember what her teachers have told her in science class, ‘It explodes?’

This gets a chuckle from the adults. Chris gently corrects her. ‘Not quite, but good guess. It floats higher. So what happens when you put in more water, less gas?’

‘It explodes,’ the girl replied hopefully.

I can’t help but volunteer answers when the kiddos don’t seem to know something. I’m excited to have a captive audience to show off my research, and I somehow revert to my eleven-year-old Hermione Granger self, desperately waving my hand in the air to gain some positive attention from my teachers. I unabashedly admit that I want to take the fossil corprolite that Paddy has found on the beach while we’ve been getting the identification lecture from Chris. Kids be damned, I wanted that dino poo. I claimed several other specimens when no one else voiced interest. They probably thought I was being a greedy, know-it-all American, but I couldn’t help myself. I used their very British reserve to my advantage.

With the main portion of the fossil identification lesson over, we head down the steps that mark the end of the area that has been protected against land slips onto the the beach. ‘Remember,’ Chris grins after warning us against lingering near the base of the cliffs, ‘gravity is in operation in the area.’

We stopped several times at rocks where Chris illustrates further lessons in fossil hunting. First he stops and pours water on a rock that, once wet, looks like a child’s drawing of the night sky. ‘Do you see those star shaped white bits in this rock? Those are plates from crinoid limbs. Crinoids are related to starfish and have pentadactyl radial symmetry. There’s a quiz at the end kids, so don’t forget, pentadactyl radial symmetry.’

After walking a bit farther along the beach, all of us staring eagerly at our feet, he uses another rock to draw circles around shapes in a rock and draw a few diagrams to illustrate what to look for in rocks to crack open in search of ammonites. Later, he draws a diagram demonstrating prehistoric sea worm behaviour and showing us fossilised trace evidence of their burrows.

I found a few belemnite segments, although none as nice as the one gifted to me by Paddy, and a few nice ‘beef’ ammonites. but if it weren’t for Chris and Paddy’s generosity, and my fellow fossil walk participants lack of enthusiasm for carrying home a suitcase full of rocks, my inaugural fossil hunt on Mary Anning’s territory would have been a bit of a bust. Some of the others had a bit more luck–someone found an ichthyosaur vertebrae and another person found a lovely echinoid (fossilised sea urchin) specimen. While everyone else hurried back to civilisation at the conclusion of our walk, I hung back and chatted with Paddy, Chris, and a woman from the area who is a dedicated amateur fossil hunter while they smoked and talked shop.

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Paddy, while much quieter, is just as enthusiastic about fossil hunting. His leathered skin and strong hands, grey mud embedded under the nails and in the cuticle beds, vouched for his decades of working outside in the elements.. He carries a heavy, well-used backpacking rucksack that was probably new in the 1990’s. I chat to him some more about my interest in Mary Anning when he asks me where I’m visiting from and what brought me to Lyme Regis. I admit that I’m doing research for a novel that has a bit to do with Mary Anning. He shares that he worked with Tracy Chevalier over several years while she was researching for Remarkable Creatures. He seemed quite fond of her, and talked about calling her to come and help collect an ichthyosaur skeleton one winter. ‘I knew she would want to experience it,’ he said. He mentioned that others who had written books about Anning sometimes came on his talks. One even cited him in their book without having consulted him. ‘The science is right’ in Tracy’s book, he said. ‘I can’t say the same for the others.’

I ask him if people still prepared ink from belemnite fossils like Mary Anning did, and he’s says he prepared some for Tracy to sign a few hundred special copies of her book. He also coerced David Attenborough to sign a few books with it. He smiled as he recalled Attenborough using the ink with an old-fashioned dip pen. ‘The ink is lovely, but the pen … is terrible.’ A pretty passible impression, at least to this American’s ears.

I offered to buy a round of pints in an attempt to get them to keep chatting to me, but Paddy had an injured shoulder he needed to nurse and Chris had a date. I wandered through town looking for a good place to get a beer. I felt I’d earned one after all of that hard work. Walking along the seafront in Lyme Regis it’s much more difficult to imagine being Mary Anning’s contemporary with all the Mr. Whippy signs and swanky hipster eateries.

I ironically (or not) sat down on the front patio of SWIM with a micro brew and Instagrammed about my day.

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