This year’s inaugural Fossilympics is unsurprisingly experimental. The details of the dates, events, and competitors can be found below (subject to final ratification from the Intentional Obrution Committee).
The medal table will be a load of old nonsense, lumping together modern political entities, palaeocontinents, and taxonomic groups, but what the heck. It’s no worse than any of the metrics used by the UK Government to assess higher education. Abbreviations used are explained at the end of this post.
Saturday August 1st
– (AM) Acritarchery. Archery is one of the oldest sports, and commonly one of the earliest events at an Olympic Games. Acritarchery is an even older, earlier pursuit, requiring an equally steady hand (and even higher-powered eyesight) to challenge for the medals. 2020 competitors: Leiosphaeridia (BAL), Shuiyousphaeridium/Dictyosphaera plexus (CHN), Tasmanites (AUS), Actinotodissus (BEL).
–(PM) Javelingula. This exciting field event pits four of the finest brachiopod clades in a pedicle-to-pedicle battle. For those brachiopods not having pedicles, winning the event is even tougher. 2020 competitors: Lingulids (BRC), Craniids (BRC), Rhynchonellids (BRC), Terebratulids (BRC).
– (AM) Cycling (road race). At the Fossilympics, the cycling road race is always held on an orbital route, over a distance of either 23k, 41k or 100k. Milankovitch of Serbia is the hot/cold favourite, but Croll and Adhémar should not be overlooked, and Yorkshire’s own Yoredale offers a measure of coal-powered competition. 2020 competitors: Milankovitch (SER), Croll (SCO), Yoredale (YOR), Adhémar (FRA).
– (PM) Swimming: 200 Ma. Having made it through a tough qualifying event in the late Triassic extinction, the swimmers in the Fossilympics 200 Ma must combine speed and stamina if they want to claim an Early Jurassic GSSP, let alone their place on the podium. 2020 competitors: Psiloceras planorbis (GBR) – watch it! This summer, set a biozone record that will be tough to beat! Sphenosuchus acutus (RSA) – just because it’s a crocodylomorph doesn’t mean it can swim! Ichthyosaurus anningae (GBR) – sweet Mary, this one’s got a chance! Gryphaeaarcuata (FRA) – ok, the adults are pretty disinclined to swimming, but marvel at their larval dispersal!
Monday August 3rd
– (AM) Gymnostics. Which of these gymnosperms are living fossils? Spoiler: none of them, as there’s no such thing! Which of them is in with a chance of a medal? Well, that depends on you… 2020 Competitors: Ginkgo (GKG), Wollemia (PIN), Araucaria (PIN), Cycas (CYC).
– (AM) Taxonomic Wastebasketball. Judging sporting events is always tricky, but this one is the most problematical of all. 2020 Competitors: Tullimonstrumgregarium (BIL) State fossil of Illinois, and I’ll annoy various people if I assess its medal chances, Acritarcha (PRB) surely the greatest taxonomic wastebasket of the fossil record? Thecodontia (REP) – socket to us, basal paraphyletic archosaurs! Gluteusminimus (PRB) it’s an arse to classify, but can this small but perfectly formed taxon muscle in on the big-hitters?
– (AM) Swimming – 100 Ma freestyle. The Cenomanian challengers (two vertebrate, two invertebrate) looking to chalk up a victory. 2020 Competitors: The Tethyan-derived belemnite Hibolites (MOL), The fast-moving ammonite Mantelliceras (MOL), The North African crocodilian Elosuchus (REP), The North American plesiosaur Plesiopleurodon (REP), which could win it by a short neck.
– (AM) Swimming – 375 Ma front crawl. Who can make it out onto land by the end of the event? And will they be disqualified if they do? 2020 Competitors: Ichthyostega (GRN), Panderichthys (LAT), Tiktaalik (CAN, has been training at high latitude), Acanthostega (GRN).
– (AM) Beach molleyball. It’s #MolluscMonday, and we need to know your most arenaceous shallow marine taxon of the Phylum Mollusca! 2020 Competitors: Polyplacophora (MOL), Gastropoda (MOL), Cephalopoda (MOL), Bivalvia (MOL).
– (AM) 50 Ma Butterfly. A pretty small Eocene pool, and one of the competitors has already been dead 100 million years, but the fossil record of butterflies (and moths) is always sensitively dependent on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. 2020 Competitors: Protocoeliadeskristenseni (DEN: late Palaeocene, Fur Formation); Praepapilio colorado (USA: middle Eocene, Colorado); Prodryas persephone (USA: late Eocene, Colorado); Archaeolepis mane (GBR: Jurassic, Dorset). Might be quite hard for A. mane to win the butterfly, as it is very old, only has one wing, and is a moth, but one thing the Fossilympics can guarantee is surprises.
– (AM) Synchronized swimming. The final event in the pool, and things are bound to heat up as biostratigraphic usefulness gets put to the test, and synchronicity scrutinized. Sure to be fiercely contested by these most widespread of taxa. 2020 Competitors: Ammonites (MOL), Foraminifera (RHZ), Graptolites (HEM), Dinoflagellates (ALV).
– (PM) 4 x 10 Ma relay. The final event in the Fossilympics, and speed doesn’t matter here; it’s teamwork and survival that’s the key. Can your quartet pass on the evolutionary baton successfully enough to win the vote? 2020 Competitors: The gryphaeids (FRA/GBR: Gryphaeaarcuata [first 2 legs, even though it doesn’t have any], G. maccullochi, G. gigantea); The equidsHyracotherium–Mesohippus–Merychippus–Equus (USA, galloping across the line); the dino-birds (Archaeopteryx and friends (GER/CHN), flying round the bend); the cetaceans Pakicetus-Ambulocetus-Kutchicetus-Rodhocetus (PAK, making a swim for it).
Friday August 14th
– Final medal table and Closing ceremony.
NOTE. Normally, morning events begin at 0900 BST and run for 24 hours, and evening events begin at 1700 BST and run for 24 hours. However, these are subject to change.
ABBREVIATIONS: ALV – Alveolata, AMP – Amphibia; ARG – Argentina; ART – Arthropoda; AUS – Australia; AVA – Avalonia; AVE – Aves; BAL – Baltica; BEL – Belgium; BIL – Bilateria; BRC – Brachiopoda; BRY – Bryozoa; CAN – Canada; CHL – Chalcogens; CHN – China; CNI – Cnidaria; CRB – Carbon Group; CYA – Cyanobacteria; CYC – Cycadophyta; ECH – Echinodermata; EGY – Egypt; FRA – France; GBR – Great Britain & Northern Ireland; GER – Germany; GKG – Ginkgophyta; GRN – Greenland; HEM – Hemichordata; ICH – Ichnotaxa; INA – Indonesia; LAT – Latvia; LAU – Laurentia; MOL – Mollusca; MON – Mongolia; PAK – Pakistan; PIN – Pinophyta; PLA – Plantae; PNI – Pnictogens; PRB – Problematica; PRF – Porifera; PRT – Protista; REP – Reptilia; RHO – Rhodophyta; RHZ – Rhizaria; RSA – Republic of South Africa; RUS – Russia; SCO – Scotland; SER – Serbia; USA – United States of America; YOR – Yorkshire.
With neither the Yorkshire Fossil Festival nor the Olympic Games able to happen this year, and with my academic career coming to an end this month, I’ve decided I might as well do something daft to while away the summer weeks, and have created…the Fossilympics!
Starting on Saturday August 1st 2020, the Fossilympics will run on Twitter, through the Yorkshire Fossil Festival account (@yorksfossilfest). It will feature 13 days of top-strat competition, pitting Ginkgo against Wollemia, stable isotope against stable isotope, and Mesoproterozoic Problematicum against Mesoproterozoic Problematicum.
Over the duration of competition, there will be separate events each day, one in the morning and one in the evening, from Acritarch-ery and Gymno-stics to the Charnio-discus and Decapod-athlon, giving extinct critters more than 20 chances for gold. Far more importantly, though, the #Fossilympics aims to promote as wide a variety of fossils as possible, from right across the biological spectrum, and from throughout geological time. It’s the taking part that counts, after all.
Each event will be run as a 24-hour Twitter poll. As these only allow 4 options, each event only has four competitors, meaning the lucky quartet have a 75% chance of getting a medal. What medal that is, though, will depend on how people decide to vote. And this is where the fossil knowledge of palaeo-Twitter comes into full force, as people – hopefully! – serve up support to enable the crowd to get behind their favourite fossil and cheer it on to gold!
The full Fossilympic schedule can be found below, and I’ll be using the hashtag #Fossilympics20 to provide all the latest updates on Twitter. There might even be a medal table. And we’ll start with the Opening Ceremony, live from Yorkshire, next #FossilFriday, July 31st.
So, for the first vote, what should the #Fossilympics motto be? I’ve come up with two candidate slogans, and am abrogating responsibility to a public vote. Will it be “Tardius, durius, diutius” or “Animale, vegetabile, mineralis”?
Fossilympics 2020 schedule
Saturday August 1st – (AM) Acritarchery; (PM) Javelingula
Sunday August 2nd – (AM) Cycling (road race); (PM) Swimming – 200 Ma
Monday August 3rd – (AM) Gymnostics; (PM) Charniodiscus
Tuesday August 4th – (AM) Stable tennis; (PM) Rowing – single skulls
Wednesday August 5th – (AM) Noderm Pentathlon; (PM) Weightlifting
Thursday August 6th – (AM) Cycliing (track); (PM) Decapodathlon
Friday August 7th – (AM) Taxonomic Wastebasketball; (PM) 444 Ma Hurdles
Saturday August 8th – (AM) Swimming – 100 Ma freestyle; (PM) 100 Ma
Sunday August 9th – (AM) Swimming – 375 Ma front crawl; (PM) 1500 Ma
Monday August 10th – (AM) Beach molluscball; (PM) Pole vault
Tuesday August 11th – (AM) Triathlon; (PM) 800 Ma
Wednesday August 12th – (AM) 50 Ma Butterfly; (PM) Marellathon
Thursday August 13th – (AM) Synchronized swimming; (PM) 4 x 10 Ma relay
Friday August 14th – Final medal table and Closing ceremony.
The Fascinatingly Fortuitous Fossilization of Farts
There are people out there who don’t think palaeontology is astonishing, and they are quite wrong. To prove this, here is a 20 million-year-old cockroach fart, fossilized in amber:
The late lamented Dr WHO once told me “serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the famer’s daughter.” I think my version is now “looking for an expert on fungal nodules and finding the world’s oldest fossilized fart.”
Over on Facebook, though, Leyla was swift to reply, and this cranked my excitement levels up to 11. “Termites eat dead plants,” she said. “To be able to digest dead plants, you need masses of gut microbiota. As the dead plants are digested by the gut microbiota, gases are produced. What you are seeing are lots of termites with clear fossilized farts…”
Sorry, hold your fossilized termites one moment, Dr Seyfullah. Did you just say FOSSILIZED FARTS?
“…as their gut microbiota kept breaking down food after the termites got stuck in the resin. Sometimes the termites ripped themselves a bit as they struggled in the sticky resin, so the gases escaped through any exit out of the termite.”
She added that, despite termites being ‘notoriously gassy’ not *all* the bubbles were of digestive origin (plenty could just be trapped air bubbles), but by that point I was miles away, in paroxysms of resinated guffery, searching for ‘fossilized farts‘ on Google.
Melissa Stewart’s Blasts of Gas then mentioned that Lynn Margulis had analysed the chemistry of fossil termite farts in 2002, so I had to dig out that scientific paper. ‘Spirochete and protist symbionts of a termite (Mastotermes electrodominicus) in Miocene amber’ by Wier et al. (2002) focusses primarily on the micro-organisms preserved in the termite’s gut. The Dominican amber fossilization is exceptional, extraordinary.
The authors do, however, mention that the amber termites are ‘invariably preserved with bubbles that emanate from thoracic or abdominal spiracles’ and that the bubbles contain ethylene, methane, and carbon dioxide.
“We propose that these gases were generated in large quantity by the unique hindgut microbial community, and exuded as the insect was immersed in the viscous resin” (Wier et al., 2002). I never doubted Leyla for a moment, of course, but it’s always handy to have a precedent: fossil farts from a 16-18 million year-old termite!
But yes, it’s only 16 to 18 million years old. The Baltic amber termites are at least 7 million years older, and more likely at least 16 million years older. The oldest fossil fungal farm? The oldest termite ? The oldest fossil fart? The possibilities are effervescent.
In conclusion, a Facebook reply to a Twitter post about an Instagram photo confirms that palaeontologists should definitely use social media, because the most amazing things can bubble up as a consequence. I just wish I’d know about fossil farts when I wrote this article for the Conversation.
We immediately found ourselves thinking: “That would be cool with dinosaur feet!”
Then we thought “Actually, it would be cooler with correctly sized dinosaur feet that could produce some sort of trackway…”
So this is what we did…
1) Get together all the kit you might possibly need (different sized tubes for rolling, cardboard for making feet with, pens and pencils, tape measures, scissors, cocktail sticks/kebab skewers to attach the feet to the rolling tube).
All the kit you need to make a rolling dinosaur foot trackmaker!
2) Decide that the smallest tube needs to be an ornithopod, the medium-sized tube a theropod, and the largest tube a sauropod. Measure the diameters of the tubes to work out the ‘hip height’ of the dinosaur (the fully extended length of the leg when the foot hits the ground), and divide that number by 4 to come up with a proportional size for the foot.
Tube diameter (leg length) = 45 mm, so foot length = 11.25 mm
Tube diameter (leg length) = 94 mm, so foot length = 23.5 mm
2b) Then remember that sauropods aren’t quite the same as ornithopods or theropods, and consult a paper by Bernardo J. Gonzalez Riga to come up with some better-looking numbers. Decide to save the sauropod rolling trackway making for next time.
3) For a bit of ancestral accuracy, use the feather of an extant theropod to colour in the tiny feet of your rolling theropod trackmaker.
4) Cut out the feet, tape each of them onto a short bit of cocktail stick, then tape them to the inside of the rolling tube. Then realize they’re not thick enough to touch the ground when the tube rolls, so take them off again and add more card until they are. We did this for the ‘ornithopod’ on the small tube, though the challenge of cutting out small cardboard feet accurately means they are best described simply as tridactyl.
5) Find a reasonably large tray and cover with some kind of soft sediment. In this case, I used gardeners’ silver sand, but I’m sure flour or salt or sugar could work.
6) Roll the foot-bearing tube across the sand to see if it works, and – hey presto! – a dinosaur trackway. Yes, ok, it’s a one-legged dinosaur with an implausibly wide gait, but this is a work in progress!
A dinosaur trackway made in fine-grained sand by a rolling tube on my kitchen table. Fossilization potential: low.
7) To work out how fast the dinosaur was moving, measure the stride length. Here it was 150mm, give or take:
Trackway stride length, measured from heel to heel.
(I’m not aware of any evidence from the trace fossil record of tiny, wide dinosaurs hopping at high speed, but at least now we know what kind of trackway we’re looking for.)
Another – probably more genuinely ichnologically useful – thing is that, even with just two footprints made by the same cardboard foot in uniform dry sand, we can see that there is variation in track morphology. The second footprint is a much more accurate representation of the cardboard foot than the first one.
Footprint 1 of the tiny rolling dinosaur trackway.
Footprint 2 of the tiny rolling dinosaur trackway.
I will write this up as an activity sheet in due course, and get back on with chalking those dinosaur trackways, like I promised.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t speculate reasonably about what might have made the big Burniston footprint. The evidence presented by Whyte et al. (2006) suggests strongly that the footprint is that of a large theropod, and Middle Jurassic rocks in Oxfordshire have yielded fossils of exactly that:
Megalosaurus was big, but its legs don’t appear to have been 2.2 metres long, even in the largest specimen (image from Wikimedia Commons).
So, is Megalosaurus not big enough? Did Yorkshire have a mega-Megalosaurus, or is there a possibility our calculations might be awry? Could the foot length obtained from the big Burniston footprint be an over-estimate?
To investigate this further, we need to stay in Oxfordshire, and combine the body fossils of Megalosaurus with the trace fossils of Ardley Quarry, and the research of Julia Day and colleagues, published in 2002 and 2004. And to really annoy you all, I’m going to save that for Chalking With Dinosaurs, part 5, when we can also work out how fast a large Middle Jurassic theropod dinosaur might have been able to run…
On Saturday May 9th 2020, as promised, I chalked a load of dinosaur footprints onto my driveway.
Two cardboard cut-outs of Yorkshire dinosaur footprints, and some chalk.
My video below explains what I did, and what a single footprint can tell us about the tracemaker. WARNING: this video features some low-quality singing.
If you want to go chalking with dinosaurs, here’s my checklist:
1. Choose a footprint you want to chalk. I decided to start with the big Burniston footprint described by Martin Whyte and colleagues in 2006. However, you might want to chalk a completely different dinosaur footprint, or your own footprint, or invent the footprint of a creature even more fantastical than a dinosaur.
2. Draw the footprint onto a piece of card and cut it out, to keep your footprint chalk drawings consistent.
My cardboard version of the big Burniston footprint (Whyte et al. 2006), with the interpreted size of the dinosaur foot highlighted, and my left foot shown for scale.
3. Get your chalks, work out where you want your footprint to go, and start drawing. If you don’t have a driveway, an alleyway or a yard will do just as well. If you don’t have outdoor space for chalking, draw the footprints onto paper indoors.
4. Measure the footprint. Is it the same size as the tracemaker’s foot? This can be quite hard to determine from a trace fossil, but the answer is often no. Martin Whyte and colleagues decided that, although the large Burniston footprint was 0.61m long by 0.49m wide, the squidgification* around the edges of the footprint suggested that the dinosaur foot itself was probably 0.55m long by 0.40m wide (hence my annnotation in the figure above).
5. From the size of the tracemaker’s foot, you can then estimate the size of its leg. How? Well, take some measurements of your own leg. My foot is 0.265m long, and my hip height is 0.91m, so that gives a ratio of hip height (h) to FL (Foot Length) as follows:
h = 3.43FL
If that ratio was true for the Burniston dinosaur, its foot length of 0.55m would yield a hip height of 1.89m (which is taller than me!).
A Tyrannosaurus rex and a 1.8m tall human (image from Wikimedia Commons). I am 1.8m tall.
That would make the hip height of the big Burniston tracemaker 2.2 metres, which is taller than most humans.
7. Unsurprisingly, then, the big Burniston footprint was made by a big beast, but what kind of beast exactly? The three-toed (tridactyl) print with a V-shaped heel and distinct claw marks strongly suggests it was a theropod (hence the title of Whyte and colleagues’ 2006 paper). However, there are no Burniston bones to confirm this, and no skeletons of Middle Jurassic theropods are known from Yorkshire. So what kind of theropod was it?
Examples of some of the largest theropod dinosaurs (image from Wikimedia Commons).
For that, you’ll have to wait for Chalking With Dinosaurs, part 4!
A chalk-outlined theropod footprint from Utah, with my left foot for scale.
As GeoWeek 2020 starts on Saturday May 9th, so does Chalking With Dinosaurs. And since we can’t all go to the Dinosaur Coast this weekend and hunt fossilized footprints, let’s bring the dinosaurs to our streets, our driveways, and our houses.
My video below gives an introduction to Chalking With Dinosaurs, and the science of ichnology. The Jurassic rocks of Yorkshire really are among the world’s best for finding dinosaur footprints!
Where exactly can you find footprints (once the Covid-19 travel restrictions are lifted, of course)? This is explained in my second video, below, but from Port Mulgrave in the north to Yons Nab in the south, the North Yorkshire coast has loads of places where dinosaur tracks have been discovered.
But if you want to get some dinosaur footprints chalked on your street, and then learn how we interpret such fossils and work out how dinosaurs might have behaved, you’ll have to follow the hashtag #ChalkingWithDinosaurs over the next few days, mostly on Twitter.
All together now: “Open the door, get on the floor, everybody chalk a dinosaur…”
The Yorkshire Coast is one of the best places in the world to walk with dinosaurs. The Jurassic rocks exposed between Staithes and Scarborough have yielded huge numbers of fossil dinosaur footprints, and scientists from all over the world come to North Yorkshire to better understand how dinosaurs lived and behaved.
My left foot, standing on a Middle Jurassic dinosaur footprint on the North Yorkshire Coast.
In the absence of being able to go and look at the rocks ourselves, I will be leading an online activity called “Chalking with Dinosaurs” during GeoWeek 2020, which runs from Saturday May 9th to Sunday May 17th 2020.
The activity will begin at 1530 BST on Saturday May 9th, and aims to tell people more about the rocks and fossils of Jurassic North Yorkshire, describe a few of the fossil footprints that have been found there, and – using some pavement chalk on my own driveway – explain how to make your own dinosaur trackways, and then interpret them. That way, when we’re finally able to get back out onto the coast, you’ll be able to give those Jurassic beasts a run for their money.
Oh yes, and if you have a go at #ChalkingWithDinosaurs yourselves, I have some prizes for the best entries received during GeoWeek 2020!
This Thursday, March 5th, Professor Kathy Cashman FRS of the University of Bristol will give the 4th annual John & Anne Phillips Lecture at the University of Hull. Professor Cashman’s talk will focus on “Mapping lava flows from the ground, air and space” and introduce the audience to her ground-breaking research into how volcanoes work.
Mauna Loa from the air (image from WIkimedia Commons).
Maps of lava flow age, extent and morphology have long been an important source of information for anticipating future flow hazards. Recent advances in technology, however, are providing new ways to image and map lava flows in real time. Professor Cashman will review some of these techniques and demonstrate ways in which these new data aid interpretation of past events, management of ongoing eruptions and forecasts of future lava flow hazards.
Kindly supported by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, the John & Anne Phillips Prize is awarded each summer to the final-year Geology Hull student producing the best geological mapping dissertation. Alongside this, the annual John & Anne Phillips Lecture sees an invited speaker come to Hull to talk about their research on a geological mapping topic. Previous speakers have included Professor Sanjeev Gupta (Imperial) on mapping the geology of Mars, and Dr Kathryn Goodenough (British Geological Survey) on mapping mineral resources in Africa.
John and Anne Phillips were the nephew and niece of William ‘Strata’ Smith, pioneer of geological mapping. Both John and Anne built on their uncle’s legacy, with significant contributions to geology of their own. John is quite well-known, as the first Keeper of Geology at the Yorkshire Museum, later Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford, and as the person who formalized the concept of the Palaeozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras. Anne is much less-celebrated, but was integral to her brother’s successes, and carried out fieldwork of her own in the Malvern Hills, proving that the then Director of the British Geological Survey’s interpretation of the geology was wrong. Her work has been celebrated as part of the Trowelblazers project: https://trowelblazers.com/anne-phillips/