How Palaeontology is unpicking the story of life on earth
Want to know how to discover a new species of dinosaur? Take up an extreme outdoors hobby? Or find out what social challenges football match officials are facing?
Life Solved seeks the answers.
The latest series of the Life Solved podcast explores subjects such as social care, cold water swimming and the economics of football, showcasing research from the University of Portsmouth.
Jeremy, a former General Practitioner, shares his inspiring story of following his passion for fossils into a new career and making a life-changing discovery on the Isle of Wight when he identified a new species of plant-eating dinosaur:
I thought, you know, no one can really argue with this. This is so different from what we know is on the island. We must have a new species here!
And from the Isle of Wight to the Saharan desert, the study of fossils and bones spreads far and wide. Excavations have seen Portsmouth palaeontologists on missions to little-explored and remote locations.
They’ve braved sandstorms, snakes and even floods, but Nizar says that palaeontology is about so much more than excavating age old bones. For him, the glamour lies in becoming a sort of ‘time traveller’ through our planet’s incredible geological and evolutionary history.
It touches on some of the big fundamental questions we have. You know, where did all of this incredible diversity we see all around us come from? What's the deep time history of our planet?
He says that the field has enabled us to understand globally significant events, such as mass extinction and evolution. Such insights build up a picture of life on earth and allow us to reflect upon our planet's current state of flux, from climatic conditions to geology and more. To Nizar, palaeontology has even been fundamental in teaching students present-day human anatomy. "It's the biggest story out there", Nizar said.
Dave Martill has been at the university for 27 years and has another exciting new breakthrough under his belt. He’s waiting to return to the field in Morocco to gather the remaining data and is staying tight-lipped until then.
He and Nizar made one of the most exciting finds of their career recently when they unearthed the most complete – and only – skeleton of Spinosaurus: a large, meat-eating dinosaur even bigger than T-Rex.
Some Spinosaurus bones had been reported and recorded in the early 20th Century but had sadly been destroyed during the Second World War. Since then, the search for another specimen has been a kind of holy grail for palaeontologists:
This animal was even weirder and stranger than we could have imagined in our wildest dreams because we found out that this animal was essentially a river monster. It had a paddle-like tail that would have propelled it through the water crocodile jaws, even webbed feet!
Moments like this are now more and more achievable, thanks to brilliant advances in technology and cross-disciplinary collaboration.
Dave hopes that incredible discoveries here at the University of Portsmouth will continue to inspire the next generation of Palaeontologists to study here and enjoy getting hands-on in the field as part of their learning.
You can listen to the full podcast and find out about some of the innovative technology that’s accelerating breakthroughs in this field from Tuesday 8 February.
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John Worsey: Welcome to a new series of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. In this podcast we’re exploring how research taking place here is changing how we live in and think about our world. This time….some big questions.
Nizar Ibrahim: What palaeontologists are doing ultimately is piecing together the most incredible, most awe-inspiring story out there the history of life on planet Earth. It's an incredible sequence of events and it is the biggest story out there.
John Worsey: From the discovery of new dinosaur species, to re-thinking life on earth, we’re finding out how Palaeontology is bringing the past to life and helping us better understand our natural world today. In the late 1970s, a stretch of cliff along the coast of Brighstone on the Isle of Wight, was crumbling. In some particularly poor weather, the soft cliffs were giving way, with clumps of rock falling into the bay below. This was part of the Wessex formation – a stretch of mudstone and sandstone found in Dorset and Southern parts of the Isle of Wight. Palaeontologists eagerly awaited the secrets it would reveal.
Jeremy Lockwood: There was quite a big cliff fall. A huge amount of bones started to appear, which were, I suppose, two animals, there was Neovenetor, a huge therapod: huge meat-eating dinosaur. And there was this iguanadontian.
John Worsey: Two collections of fossilised dinosaur bones were collected along this coastline, the crumbling geology opening up a treasure trove hundreds of thousands of years old. Amateur palaeontologists Keith and Jenny Simmonds followed up on the dig.
Jeremy Lockwood: The excavation went on for months or years because they had to sort of dig back into the cliff and there was quite a lot of overburden. And so they're almost waiting for the sea to sometimes take things back a bit, you know, in order to dig further into it. Keith Simmons sort of documented these and made detailed field notes of everything. And eventually they came to the museum with Neovenetor, the big meat eating dinosaur.
John Worsey: Prior to this, for 100 years, only two kinds of dinosaur had been identified on the Isle of Wight, the plant-eating Iguanodon bernissatensis and Mantellisaurus artherfieldensis. Neovenetor excited scientists and the public alike. But what about the other skeleton? Painstakingly recovered boxes of the bones collected were safely placed in storage for the Isle of Wight’s dedicated museum, Dinosaur Isle, with key pieces placed on show to the public. The majority of the collection remained safely stowed for more than three decades. Until this man came along.
Jeremy Lockwood:My name's Jeremy Lockwood. My main interests are in dinosaurs, particularly iguanadontions on the Isle of Wight. So those are those big herbivores with the spiky thumbs.
John Worsey: Jeremy is retired GP who turned his passion for palaeontology into a PhD after moving to the Isle of Wight. The Covid-19 lockdown of 2020 meant many of us were hampered in our work. But not so for Jeremy. Embarking on his research with the University of Portsmouth and the Natural History Museum, he found himself tracing through the collections of the Dinosaur Isle Museum, intrigued by the other skeleton unearthed in Brighstone all those years ago. For a long time it had been assumed this was a specimen of Mantellisaurus. But something didn’t add up.
Jeremy Lockwood:As a researcher, I thought, I really need to go through every bone seriously, every bone of an iguanadontiun and just look at it and document it and photograph it. So I started that process and I had photographed the nasal bone of this dinosaur sometime before, but I hadn't just put it into the right position, and it was only when I was trying to reconstruct this as a skull. I suddenly thought Oh, goodness me, this is this has got a bulge on it, which was really quite significant because Iguanadon and Mantellisaurus have got straight noses and actually the nasal bone had a process and anterior ventral process.
John Worsey: Had this skeleton been overshadowed by the discovery of Neovenetor? Only by documenting in fine detail these other bones did Jeremy uncover a secret that made him sit up straight.
Jeremy Lockwood: So I looked at it and I thought, You know this, this is strange. Am I imagining this? So, I rushed out to another room where Martin Munch, who was the curator of the museum, and has to let me into the into the facility. Was doing some work on some other material. I said, come on, come on, come on, come on. I said, Look at this, look at this, does it? Does it appear to you to be a bulge on this nose? And he said, Yes, I can't see it being anything else. That's what really made it a really good day for me because I thought, you know, no one can really argue with this. This is so different from what we know is on the island. We must have a new species here.
John Worsey: That’s how in the Summer of 2020, Jeremy realised he’d identified an entirely new type of dinosaur! After several agonising months of writing up his research with photographs and detailed geological descriptions, Jeremy finally presented his findings to the world and Brighstoneus simmondsi was declared a species.
Jeremy Lockwood: You submit your paper and it goes to peer review. So this will be then looked at leading experts in the world who would have to agree or not agree that what you have, what you're saying in your paper is correct or not. So luckily for me, they came back with very nice comments, totally agreeing that this was definitely a new species. I think for me, the really nice moment was going on to ZooBank, where you registered new species and actually typing it in and clicking and thinking there is a new species there now. You know, that's that. I've actually just typed into this sort of international database that was that was great fun.
John Worsey: Jeremy’s story is all the more remarkable because it’s an example of one PhD student’s curiosity leading them straight to an amazing discovery.
Dave Martill: Lo and behold you might well find a new species just hiding in a museum drawer.
John Worsey: That’s Dave Martill. He’s Professor of Paleobiology at the University of Portsmouth and is fascinated by Pterosaurs and Dinosaurs. Dave’s been with the University of Portsmouth for 27 years. He says that museums can hold the key for students like Jeremy making incredible discoveries.
Dave Martill: One of our field trips for the undergraduate students is to take them to the Isle of Wight and also to Dinosaur Isle to see some of the pretty spectacular fossils that they have there. But we also go there because they have collections, and every now and then we find bones that we need to compare with other material. And sometimes they have in their collections specimens that have not been not been studied. And we sometimes make discoveries just simply by pulling open museum drawers, looking at material in there and going, well, this is this is unusual. This is interesting. Never seen this before. Jeremy, he collared it me. I think it was at Dinosaur Isle, on Sandown, on the Isle of Wight. And he was wondering if it might be possible for him to do a Ph.D., and I was very, very glad to take him on board.
Jeremy Lockwood: At the weekends, I would certainly at the half terms beetle down to the Isle of Wight to start collecting fossils. When I visited the Isle of Wight, it just. I just found these at Hanover Point, these huge dinosaur footprints, and it just sort of relit this, this fascination that I had is when I was a child for palaeontology. So we kept coming down here and I started off from a charity to support the local museum and the Friends of Dinosaur Isle Museum.
John Worsey: Museums play an absolutely crucial role in connecting amateur enthusiasts, the general public and academic researchers to cutting-edge discoveries just like this one here in the Isle of Wight.
Dave Martill: Here at Portsmouth, we use the Isle of Wight, both the museum and all its field localities for teaching. It's a very, very important locality for us, with very fortunate that the Isle of Wight is on our doorstep and we involve students in dinosaur digs, but particularly we have dinosaurs being worked on by our students.
Jeremy Lockwood: Because of marine erosion. These fossils are just falling off the cliff, probably as we're speaking now. There are big fossils falling onto the onto the foreshore. So we've got a huge tide and some really big waves and these are the people who are collecting them and bringing them in. And it's so important that we have a museum, a focal point for the public to actually know they can bring things in to get them identified. And hopefully if they're important to science, to donate them and also to have a wonderful experience for the children and for education. So yes, the Isle of Wight is yes, linking with universities like Portsmouth just that just over the water is an absolute perfect example of how the public, museums and academics should, should all work together.
John Worsey: As a leading light in the field of Palaeontology, The University of Portsmouth carries out excavation work around the world. Nizar Ibrahim thinks it’s one of the most exciting and evolving fields you can work in.
Nizar Ibrahim: I think in the public's perception palaeontology sometimes comes across a little bit like stamp collecting, right, you read about a new dinosaur found there and then your pterosaur and you kind of click like, OK, so if they found another one, now what? Right? What I think is often not conveyed in media articles is that really what palaeontologists are doing ultimately is piecing together the most incredible, most awe-inspiring story out there the history of life on planet Earth. It's an incredible sequence of events and it is the biggest story out there.
John Worsey: Nizar is a palaeontologist and anatomist and a Senior Lecturer in Palaeontology here at the University of Portsmouth.
Nizar Ibrahim: It touches on some of the big fundamental questions we have. You know, where did all of this incredible diversity we see all around us come from? What's the deep time history of our planet? How did fluctuations in climate affect life and ecosystems on our world? And this is, of course, very relevant today. Extinction event is another one, right? There's a lot of talk today about us being in the middle of a mass extinction. The only reason we even know what a mass extinction is because palaeontologists identified these extinction trends in the fossil record and identified so-called mass extinctions. So palaeontology is really a very relevant to the present and also helps us plan for the future.
Dave Martill: Also, it not only lets you look at the history of life on Earth, which I think Nizar pointed out is the best story that can be told and the story that we keep building on as well. We keep adding to that story, but also it helps us understand the nature and the dynamics of the planet. For example, it was palaeontology that led people like Vigna realised that the continents that actually split apart. It also helps build, certainly for the last 600 million years, a really good guide to the evolution of the planet itself and the position of the continents, for example.
Nizar Ibrahim: I spent quite a lot of time teaching anatomy. So, you know, my background really is more on the biological side of things. And I also used to teach human anatomy so we would dissect human bodies for the students. I would tell them about the ancient origins of major anatomical structures in the human body, right? So, you know, a lot of the soft tissue I'm using right now to talk to you can be traced back all the way to ancient fish right there. You know, if you want to understand our back pain, you know you have to understand the origins of bipedalism, you know, walking on two legs. And you know, there are just so many things. Nothing in our body makes any sense unless you really view it in this big picture. And so, palaeontology, you know, really informs a lot of things, including, you know, our own anatomy. So I think it's a really powerful and humbling experience.
John Worsey: When you put it like that, studying fossils can seem like the most living and up to the minute job there is! Nizar joined the team after years of working with Dave through other organisations, and has been leading some incredible projects around the world. So is it a glamorous job?
Dave Martill: It can be very, very glamorous. You go to some exotic locations where the cultures are very, very different from us, certainly working in Africa. It's a very different experience to working on the Isle of Wight, without a doubt.
Nizar Ibrahim: People think of, you know, Hollywood movies and, you know, going too far flung corners of the world and, you know, going on these expeditions and on a treasure hunt and so on. I always tell people that the reality is far more exciting than any Hollywood movie it could possibly be because it's all real, right? It's you know, we you do experience sandstorms and you have close encounters with snakes. And, you know, they're not CGI snakes or rubber snakes like on a film set. They're real, right? And you know, we had we experienced flooding in the in the desert. I also did some fieldwork in a very remote part of the Sahara in Niger, where we were completely off the grid, right? And there it's like, you know, good luck with your phone or, you know, you go out there, you have an armed escort of 30 or so armed guards. And it's, you know, those are experiences that very few people have, right? And even in Morocco, we often go and work in military zones, which are just off limits to everybody. So it's just us and the soldiers and you get to explore these magical, incredible, seemingly timeless places, right? The Sahara feels like a timeless place, but it's not one of the things I really like about the Sahara. It offers this amazing contrast. It offers this overwhelming sense of deep time because you're in the desert, it's really dry and hot and you know you're always reaching for your water bottle. But then you pick up a little fossil off the ground and it's a massive fish scale, right? And you realise that 100 million years ago, which is how all these fossils are. This was a very different kind of place. And then you pick up another thing and it might be the tooth of a Spinosaurus big predatory dinosaur. And then you find an armoured plate of a crocodile like hunter. And all of a sudden in your mind, you recreate this incredible, you know, lost world and you see this massive river system and we called it the river of giants. And that's a pretty magical experience. So even if you just find something like a tiny little scale, it's, you know, it's really humbling and takes you on this, you know, you essentially become a real-life time traveller, right?
John Worsey: And it was here in the Sahara that Nizar and Dave had one of the most exciting discoveries of their careers.
Dave Martill: We excavated an animal that had been lost to science because it was destroyed. The only specimen existed was in was in Munich and it was destroyed in World War Two. And so, scientists had some books with some pictures and some text about this dinosaur, but no real material.
Nizar Ibrahim: One of the big treasures were hunting in the Sahara was Spinosaurus. It's kind of the holy grail of dinosaur palaeontology. We just had a brief glimpse of what this animal looked like. A few bones were described by a German palaeontologist as well. And those bones were destroyed in World War Two. So we just had this, you know, we just have a few drawings of the bones. Descriptions of the bones. We know that this animal had big, tall spines on its back, forming an incredible sail and long, narrow snout, bit like a crocodile. And that was about all we knew, right? And we knew it was very big. So the bones suggest that this was an animal as big or even bigger than T. Rex. And so I always wanted to find a Spinosaurus, but you know, people have been trying to find a new skeleton spinosaurus for decades, right? Um, but as Dave just mentioned, you know, we have now and are still excavating the most complete skeleton of Spinosaurus. It's the only one in existence in the world, and it's absolutely incredible. And this animal was even weirder and stranger than we could have imagined in our wildest dreams because we found out that this animal was essentially a river monster. It had a paddle like tail that would have propelled it through the water crocodile jaws. It probably even had webbed feet, really dense bone for buoyancy control. And that made this discovery even more exciting because, you know, yes, it was a giant predatory dinosaur, the biggest of them all. In fact, it was bigger than T. Rex. But the most interesting thing about this animal is that it was a river monster because it was doing something that no other dinosaur was doing, and that is invade the aquatic world, we used to think the dinosaurs were, you know, land animals and never really did water, essentially. And here we are. So that was a really, really amazing moment when we realised what we had on our hands.
John Worsey: That’s just one expedition of many that palaeontologists have been making to little excavated treasure troves around the world. So how have advances in technology allowed the science to accelerate our understanding of natural history?
Dave Martill: Technology has helped in so many ways, just a very simple thing. The invention of the CT scanner, which was first of all, became routine in medical science, has now been applied very, very widely to palaeontology and a lot of palaeontology departments. University of Portsmouth, for example, have a couple of CT scanners. We no longer have to prepare the fossils. What was a very, very time-consuming job, if you had a very hard nodules and a delicate fossil inside, you needed a preparator, a very skilled preparator to extract that fossil before you could even start to study it. But now you can watch it through a CT scanner, and the next day you've actually got an image of the fossil that was in there at a very high resolution, as though you were looking at it down a microscope and you can see it in 3D. And it's a digital image manipulated on a computer, and you can rotate it in the computer and you can look at all aspects of it. And that has revolutionised the way we look at fossils and the speed with which we can look at fossils as well. Some of the more delicate fossils would take a year to prepare out before you could seriously start studying it. Now you know you've got the data within a day or two.
Nizar Ibrahim: CT scanning is fantastic. We use it a lot. It has really transformed our discipline. And in fact, Portsmouth played a pivotal role in the early use of CT scanning for dinosaurs. I think what's really exciting is that we can now use technology to answer questions. We thought we'd never be able to answer, right? So, for example, some of my colleagues, led by Yasmina Vimont, was then at Yale University, determined the colour of a range of dinosaur eggs, right? So, they were able to identify, you know, bluish eggs and animals similar to Velociraptor, you know, then somewhere speckled, you know, with. And that's pretty amazing. What they did is they used micro spectroscopy. So essentially, they were bouncing a laser off eggshell fossils and that allowed them to analyse the molecular composition. And then they were able to look for four pigments that I found in modern egg shells, right? And that's just amazing, right? So, because there are things that we thought we'd never be able to figure out, and here we are, you know, using cutting edge technology, we can do it.
John Worsey: Where Covid-19 has definitely caused setbacks for advancing some projects, Dave says that being able to collaborate easily with colleagues around the world has also meant that modern research can benefit from international talent and expertise.
Dave Martill: On our last one field trip to Morocco, we made an incredibly exciting discovery. But in order to write it up, we needed a lot of field data and that field data. We have not been able to get for two years, and it's getting really very, very frustrating. It's not that I don't have anything to do. I've got lots and lots of fossils to write about, and my students have got plenty of material to work on, even though they don't get the full Moroccan fieldwork experience that this one discovery that we've made is so spectacular that we just are itching, itching to get it written up and tell the world about it. I reckon I'm four Morocco trips down, I should be in Morocco now because my teaching for this academic year doesn't start until the beginning of February, and I had pencilled in being in Morocco with my Masters students for January. I'd also pencilled in a trip in November, but every time I've just been about to leave, Morocco has closed its borders and restricted foreign travel. There's a perception that palaeontology was done by the richer nations and the poorer developing nations were losing out. But that's changing. And for example, we work in Morocco with Moroccan palaeontologists, and they're an integral part of the team. And Morocco is getting more and more palaeontologists, and I'm sure that the future for palaeontology in Morocco is very, very bright.
John Worsey: Dave and Nizar are staying tight-lipped about their exciting discovery until they can get back into the field. But Jeremy on the other hand, was perfectly placed to carry out his research during the pandemic.
Jeremy Lockwood: It's forced me to actually just sort of go into a museum store facility and spend days and days and days. And I think because there's been there's been very little distraction. It really came to the forefront for me. It just sort of, you know, I had a sketchbook and pencil, some callipers, a ruler and a tape measure and just sort of just looked at things and drew them and recorded them and photographed them. And I think just by doing that with hundreds of bones, literally, it sort of taught me what the anatomy was in huge detail and allowed me to start identifying differences which ultimately came out with recently with the new species for me of Brighstoneus simmondsi.
John Worsey: So what’s next for our Isle of Wight time traveller?
Jeremy Lockwood: Well, my what we're trying to look at on the Isle of Wight is diversity. So there's been a lot of work done looking at how diversity has changed over time. And it appears that in the Early Cretaceous, around about one hundred and twenty-five, two hundred and forty million years ago, there seemed to be a very low diversity. And on the Isle of Wight, we had this flood plain with and we were looking at the iguanadontions, and it was predominantly taken up by two iguanadon and Ma ntelliaurus. When we find a bone on the Isle of Wight, you know, 90 percent of the time, it's going to be one of these two animals. And this struck us as unusual because in the Late Cretaceous and exactly similar floodplains undergoing increasing marine transgression, we were finding in the in Alberta, in Canada, in the Dinosaur Park formation, they could see that the herbivores, the iguanadontians were changing very rapidly. On the Isle of Wight, we've got six million years of terrestrial deposits that was supposedly only being occupied by these two or predominantly occupied by these two herbivores. And it really doesn't sound likely that that's the case.
John Worsey: That’s certainly a mystery to crack and the team think the answer lies in better understanding the stratigraphy – that is the timescales of different types of rocks – that exist here. It’s clear there’s many millions of years of natural history yet to be uncovered. What secrets might be revealed? And who knows how those discoveries might deepen our understanding of planet earth today? You can follow the team, and more fascinating research at the website port.ac.uk/research. On our next episode of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth, we’re out at sea again, this time with cold water swimming. Follow this podcast on your favourite app so you don’t miss it. And if you liked this episode of Life Solved, why not share it with a friend and start a conversation. See you next time.