Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Charles Darwin, Victorian Polymath and Fossil Fancier!

Highlights from Fossils, Finches and Fuegians, an account of Charles Darwin’s travels on The Beagle by his great grandson, Richard Keynes.

Charlie as a student:

“No pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their characters…I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw 2 rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so I popped the one I held in the right hand into my mouth. Alas,it ejected some intensely acrid fluid so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.

I was very successful in collecting and invented 2 new methods: I employed a labourer to scrape moss off old trees and place it in a large bag and likewise to collect the rubbish at the bottom of barges in which reeds are bought from the fens, and thus I got some very rare species.

No poet ever felt more delight at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing in Stephen’s ‘Illustrations of British Insects’, the magic words: ’captured by Charles Darwin, Esq’”

Resolutions at the start of the voyage:

“I am afraid I shall be quite overwhelmed with the number of subjects which I ought to take into hand. The principal objects are first collecting, observing and reading in all branches of Natural History that I can possibly manage. Observations in Meteorology, French and Spanish, Mathematics and a little Classics, perhaps not more than Greek testament on Sundays…how great and uncommon an opportunity of improving myself”


The untidy piles of fossils dumped by Charles on the spotless decks of the Beagle were wholly contrary to naval tradition: ”Wickham, the First Lieutenant -a very tidy man who liked to keep the decks so that you could eat your dinner off them - used to say, ’If I had my way, all your damn mess would be chucked overboard, and you after it, old flycatcher.’

While in the Falklands:

“I am quite charmed with Geology but, like the wise animal between two bundles of hay, I do not know which to like best, the old crystalline groups of rocks or the softer and fossiliferous beds. When puzzling about stratification etc... I feel inclined to cry a fig for your big oysters and your bigger Megatheriums. But, when digging out some fine bones I wonder how any man can tire his arms with hammering granite……

There is nothing like geology; the pleasure of the first day’s partridge shooting or first day’s hunting cannot be compared to finding a fine group of fossil bones, which tell their story of former times with almost a living tongue.”

Leaving Tahiti:

“In nothing have I been so much pleased as with the inhabitants - there is a mildness in the expression of their faces which at once banishes the idea of a savage -and an intelligence which shows they are advancing in civilization…in my opinion they are the finest men I have ever beheld.”

Leaving New Zealand:

“I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand; it is not a pleasant place; amongst the natives there is absent the charming simplicity which is found at Tahiti, and of the English the greater part are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country itself attractive.”

Leaving Australia:

“Farewell Australia, you are a rising infant and will doubtless some day reign a great princess in the south; but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect; I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.”

About coming home:

“I am in high spirits about my geology and even aspire to the hope that my observations will be considered of some utility by real geologists. I see very clearly it will be necessary to live in London for a year, by which time, with hard work, the greater part of my materials will be exhausted. Will you tell Erasmus to put my name down to the Wyndham or any other club…or to turn in his mind for some lodgings with big rooms in some vulgar part of London.”

Shortly after coming home and years before working on, ‘The Origin of Species’, he read a paper to the Geological Society about the elevation of the coastline of Chile, followed by a paper entitled: ’On the connexion of certain volcanic phenomena in South America and the formation of mountain chains and volcanoes as an effect of the same power by which continents are elevated’.

This was received with polite respect and forgotten shortly afterwards. It was not until the 1960s, when the theory of plate tectonics caused a revolution in geological thought, that it could be appreciated how accurate Darwin’s theories had been.

May you live and prosper beyond the 22nd December and enjoy a good 2013. Simon Cohen.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Sept 12

Dr Alexander Kellner of Rio de Janeiro University was arrested recently with over 200 fossil insects in his suitcase at a local airport in Brazil.

What makes this especially ironic is that this deceitful doc is one of the most militant voices shouting for possession of fossils in Brazil to be made illegal.

As soon as a test case a couple of years ago found that there were no laws covering fossils and that a law concerning artifacts had been misapplied, perfidious Prof Kellner and his chums brought in a law in Brazil specifically making ownership of fossils illegal.

After organizing a whip-round with his colleagues the abhorrent academic was able to fork out a modest sum for bail, equivalent to 10 times the minimum wage.

I am told that the way it works in Brazil is that the case will be buried for some years and then the punishment will be minimal, given his social position and ability to hire a halfway decent lawyer. (…is there such a thing as a ‘decent lawyer’?...)

Dr. David Martill of Portsmouth University fingered the blackguardly boffin years ago at a public symposium at Manchester University in the 90s.  When Dr. Besterman of Manchester held up the Brazilian model as the way forward for maintaining academic control of a country’s ‘fossil resource’, he was shot down in flames by Dr. Martill, who said he had been to Brazil to study fossils and was told by Dr. Kellner that possession of all Brazilian fossils was illegal but he would be happy to sell him anything he wanted..
Bad language was employed concerning Drs. Kellner and Besterman to the accompaniment of cheers and boos.

This is all so sad and unnecessary as the fish and insect fauna of the Crato and Santanna formations are prolific and extensive.

As long as there is no incentive to get the fossils out of the ground information is lost to science and employment opportunities in a poor part of the country are lost.

One of this country’s ‘media dinosaur experts’ sold a self collected slab of bones  from the Yorkshire Coast  to the Ulster Museum for £3000 ten years ago that he identified as Pterosaur bones.  This would have been a fair price, except that it has just been re-examined by a research student and it is quite clearly a fish and by no stretch of the imagination does it have any resemblance to a pterosaur!!!

Here is another example of a specialist straying from his area of expertise:
The head of a prestigious northern museum whose expertise is Silurian pollen and spores identified a fossil bought in by a member of the public as a Dactilioceras ammonite from Dorset despite the fact that it was found in Upper Carboniferous rocks in Yorkshire!
This crafty curator explained that the Jurassic ammonite must have been dumped in the coal measures by someone trying to pull a fast one….
The fossil was actually a Gastrioceras goniotite which is a well-known zone fossil from the Yorkshire coal measures…..and you do not get Dactilioceras from Dorset but from the Yorkshire Coast!

Shortly after the publication of the Dorling Kindersley Fossils Guide in 2000, fossils that were photographed in the book started to disappear from the Natural History Museum ‘as if they were stolen to order from a catalogue’
A foreign research student was suspected at the time but none of the missing fossils were ever retrieved.
You would think the matter would have been forgotten by now but I first heard of it earlier this year in Tucson where various collectors were discussing whether they had seen the pieces in various collections.

It was also rumoured that around the same time a front of house manager had been caught with his fingers in the till.  To avoid publicity and embarrassment, he was retired with a golden handshake.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Must see films…if you really have nothing better to do: The Boss by James Everingham ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_NeFyUEW3M )  in which my 14 year old son and some of his chums beat each other up in and around the Fossils warehouse.

T Rex loves Oranges ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pq84KESsmw ) in which a silly robotic dinosaur and a silly human have a meaningful dialogue about table manners.

Million Dollar Moon Rock Heist - soon to be on the National Geographic Channel, in which a Mormon fantasist nicks fossils and moonrock and attempts to sell them on EBay. A true story. The shelves of my warehouse double as the Utah Natural History Museum where one of the heinous crimes takes place.

Harvey Nichols, the London fashion store, are knocking out silk vests and scarves with designs taken from enlarged microscopic images of fossils and minerals. Their creator, Professor of Architecture at Cardiff University, Richard Weston, also produces BIG wall hangings and carpets and has held exhibitions of his work all over the world.   Check him out on http://www.westonearthimages.com/

Massive fossil fleas, with weapon-like serrated proboscii, have been discovered in Jurassic rocks in China. They are 8TIMES the size of their modern counterparts…nearly 1 inch long!!!  However their legs were not as developed as modern fleas so they crawled rather than hopped.  Most of the mammals of the period were shrew sized creatures so it is presumed the fleas lived off (and on) the feathered dinosaurs found in the same rocks.

Researchers at Bristol University found that a 24 foot long Pliosaur from Wiltshire suffered with painful arthritis in its massive 6 foot long jaws. The 150 million year old predator put up with a crooked bite for years before its jaw finally snapped, no doubt causing the animal’s death from hunger Palaeontologists have always been puzzled by the period between 360 and 345 million years ago, christened Romers Gap after an influential American Prof.
There was no activity on land before this period, nothing much was found anywhere during this period and then out of the blue plenty of land creatures are found.  It was suggested that low levels of oxygen during this period limited evolution on land…

Until legendary fossil finder, Mr Stan Wood, put on his waders and closed the gap by finding a large diversity of amphibians, plants, fish and invertebrates in a river bed in Berwickshire.  A selection of 20 of these fossils are now on special exhibition at the Royal Scottish museum in Edinburgh.  They are not very dramatic to look at but are of immense scientific importance, showing that animals with 5 fingers and toes appeared 20 million years earlier than previous estimates.

The exhibition is also a fitting recognition of Stan’s excellent work in finding, analysing and documenting Fossils.  Former merchant seaman and insurance salesman, Stan Wood has been a professional collector since 1968 and has upset as many academics as he has delighted by his successes. He has found over 3 dozen new species including the earliest known Tetrapod in Europe (and possibly the world) and some sharks with very strange sexual appendages. What a star.