The discovery of a prehistoric site containing the remains of animals that lived in a tropical sea has been made in a farmer’s field

The discovery of an exceptional prehistoric site containing the remains of animals that lived in a tropical sea has been made in a farmer’s field in Gloucestershire.

Discovered beneath a field grazed by an ancient breed ofEnglish Longhorn cattle, the roughly 183-million-year-old fossils are stunningly well preserved like they were frozen in time.

Contained within three-dimensionally preserved limestone concretions, the remains of fish, ancient marine reptiles, squids, rare insects and more have been revealed for the first time by a team of palaeontologists. The fossils come from an inland rock layer that was last exposed in the UK more than 100 years ago and represented a unique opportunity to collect fossils from a time when this part of the country was deep underwater.

The newly found site is at Court Farm, Kings Stanley near Stroud, Gloucestershire and was discovered by Sally and Neville Hollingworth, avid fossil collectors who recently uncovered the remains of mammoths in the nearby Cotswold Water Park which was featured in the BBC One documentary “Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard” in 2021.

Sally and Neville explained: “These fossils come from the Early Jurassic, specifically a time called the Toarcian. The clay layers exposed at this site near Stroud have yielded a significant number of well-preserved marine vertebrate fossils that are comparable to the famous and exquisitely preserved similar fauna of the Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte from Ilminster, Somerset – a prehistoric site of exceptional fossil preservation. Excavations at Kings Stanley over the last week have revealed a rich source of fossil material, particularly from a rare layer ofrock that has not been exposed since the late 19th Century.”

The team of eight scientists spent 4 days with a digger clearing a stretch of around 80 metres of a grassy bank, digging out several hundred limestone nodules, splitting them by hand and logging the fossils they contained on a database prior to preparation and conservation. About 200 kg of clay from around the concretions was collected and sieved in a state-of-the-art sediment processing machine to extract microvertebrate fossils – small teeth and bones.

Many of the specimens collected will be donated to the local Museum in the Park, Stroud, where they will form a significant part of the museum’s palaeontology collections. One of the team members, Alexia Clark, who is the museum’s Documentation and Collections Officer said: “We’re excited to expand our knowledge of the geology of the Stroud District and we are looking forward to a time when we can share these amazing finds with our members and visitors. Being part of the excavation team has been a real privilege and I can’t wait to share details of that experience through our members’ newsletter”.

Among the best finds were several fossil fish with excellent details of their scales, fins and even their eyeballs. One of the most impressive discoveries was a three-dimensionally preserved fish head, belonging to a type of Jurassic fish called Pachycormus. The fish looks as if it is ‘leaping off the rock’ that it was contained inside.

Dr Dean Lomax, a palaeontologist and a Visiting Scientist at The University of Manchester, who recently led the excavation of the Rutland ichthyosaur that also dates to the Toarcian geological age, was part of the team and said: “The site is quite remarkable, with numerous beautifully preserved fossils ofancient animals that once lived in a Jurassic sea that covered this part of the UK during the Jurassic. Inland locations with fossils like this are rare in the UK. The fossils we have collected will surely form the basis of research projects for years to come.”

Neville added, “Using the latest fossil preparation and imaging techniques to understand this unique fauna in more detail will create a rich repository. Also, we will leave a permanent reference section after excavations have concluded. Given the location and enthusiasm from the landowner and local community to be involved it is hoped to plan and develop a local STEM enrichment programme as there will be opportunities for community groups and local schools to be involved in the research, particularly from the Stroud area with a focus oftargeting audiences in areas of low STEM capital.”

The landowner, Adam Knight, said: “I’m delighted that after the initial work that Sally and Nev did over three years ago we now have a full-scale dig on the farm involving a range of fossil experts from The Natural History Museum, University ofManchester, University of Reading and The Open University. On Friday we were also joined by Emily Baldry (16) on a day’s work experience before she goes to University to study palaeontology – it’s wonderful to see her enthusiasm for her chosen profession. It has been a real pleasure to host the dig and I’m excited to see the results of what has been found.”

Dr David Ward, a research scientist at the Natural History Museum, London and veteran of numerous international geological field expeditions said: “My job was to collect and concentrate all the small creatures that lived alongside the fish and marine reptiles at this site. We do this by collecting the silty clay alongside the fossil-bearing concretions and washing it through a fine sieve.  He was assisted by his wife, Alison, who has a remarkable aptitude for spotting tiny fossils.  Alison said: “My specialism is surface picking. This involves finding areas where fossils, particularly small bones and teeth, are naturally concentrated on the surface. Here, once I had collected them, I dug up the surrounding clay and fed it into David’s clay washing machine. The result is a fine concentrate of tiny fish bones and shells which we sort under a microscope.”

Emily Swaby, a PhD student at The Open University and excavation team member said: “My PhD research is focused on how insects were affected by a period of extreme environmental change that occurred during the Toarcian. To do this, I’ve been studying fossilised insects from rocks of this age that have been collected over the past 200 years and are now in museum collections. Although insect fossils at Court Farm are seemingly rare, further research at this site and surrounding Gloucestershire localities might help us to work out the abundance and diversity of insects during this time and help us to understand how this environmental change influenced insects”.


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