Ammonite eggs and dragonfly wings: the amazing fossils of Kimmeridge Bay

Attempting palaeontological fieldwork in December is foolish, but the mildness of southern Britain fools you.  So you head down to Dorset, and Kimmeridge Bay, hoping to rediscover the trace fossils you first saw in the summer of 2009:

Rhizocorallium, Kimmeridge Clay, Kimmeridge Bay.

The weather turns out to be surprisingly kind, but the waves of an Atlantic swell combine with a less-than-ideal tide, and the only people enjoying themselves are surfers.

Surfers clamber back towards Kimmeridge Bay.

We abandon Kimmeridge for a few days, and head to Plymouth for the annual meeting of the Palaeontological Association.  There we learn that, if we can't get at the right rocks, we should go into Kimmeridge itself, and seek out a chap called Steve Etches.  He collects Kimmeridgian fossils, we're told.

So upon returning to Purbeck when the axial tilt of our planet's polar hemisphere was almost at its farthest point away from the star that it orbits, and finding that coastal conditions were only slightly more favourable for trace-fossilling, we took the advice of our colleagues.

Kimmeridge Bay, December 2011

After a tasty lunch in Clavell's Cafe, where I missed a chance to drink Jurassic Juice, we went off to find Mr Etches, whose fossil collection was supposed to be impressive.  We were a bit early arriving, but he welcomed us in regardless, and led us through to his fossil room.

We'd been misled.  Steve's fossil collection was not impressive.  It was extraordinary.  Spectacular.  Staggering.

Steve didn't have many trace fossils, but we quickly forgot about ichnotaxa when we saw the astounding array of Jurassic body fossils he possessed.  A ray with its soft tissues.  Squid preserved three-dimensionally, internal organs and all.  A complete ichthyosaur with its last dinner still visible in its stomach.  The skull of a pterosaur.

For me, the invertebrate oddities were just as amazing.  Crustaceans fossilized inside ammonite shells, hinting at hermit-like behaviour in the late Jurassic; the eggs of the ammonites themselves, which Steve said many scientists had refused to believe could have been preserved; the solitary wing of a dragonfly.

Ammonite eggs and dragonfly wings: sounds like a Jurassic witch's recipe.  But if the fossils were astonishing, the work Steve had put into collecting, preparing and displaying them was amazing too.  The specimens were so beautifully shown as to look almost unreal.  It was like gazing on works of art, and photographs simply couldn't do them justice.

A fossilized starfish photographed unjustly

Luckily, then, there has been a recent scientific appraisal of the collection, by Dave Martill, which includes lots of excellent photos.  It can be downloaded here, and is part of a thoroughly worthy project to utilize Steve's superb collection to create a Museum of Jurassic Marine Life in Kimmeridge.

If it gets the funding it needs, the museum will enable people from all walks of life, palaeontological and otherwise, to come and marvel at the creatures that inhabited the seas of Dorset over 150 million years ago, and to pay homage to the man who brought them back to life.  I hope to be back in Kimmeridge in the spring to find out more.