Written by Hilary Ketchum, Collections Manager (Earth Collections), Oxford University Museum of Natural History
A few weeks ago, I traveled down to Dorset with my fantastic volunteer Amber Wagstaffe in our very cool museum van* to take part in the 2019 Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. We were going to meet Frankie Dunn (University of Bristol, now a Research Fellow at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, OUMNH) and Dr Jack Matthews (Research fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland and OUMNH), for a weekend of fossils and fun. Frankie and Jack had recently done their PhDs on the Ediacaran biota, and they developed our activity for the weekend, entitled: “An Ediacaran Odyssey: The Dawn of Animal Life?”. On the five hour drive through nightmarish bank holiday traffic, Amber and I realised that we knew barely anything about these weird organisms that lived in the depths of the oceans 570 million years ago. Our expertise is on reptiles and mammals; by comparison, a very long way up the animal evolutionary tree. How would we engage festival goers with these strange fossils, with no teeth or claws, or indeed anything very recognisable, which on first glance might just look like rocky lumps and bumps? Could we convince people who may have been expecting dinosaurs, that these were cool too? We were going to find out.
One of the reasons I got into palaeontology was to understand evolution in Deep Time. There’s no deeper time in the evolution of macroscopic life than the Ediacaran Period, which sits between the older Cryogenian Period and the younger Cambrian Period, and spans from 635-541 million years ago. For around 3 billion years before this, life in the fossil record comprised microscopic bacteria, green algae and enigmatic acritarchs. It was during the Ediacaran that life first got big, and the fossils became possible to see with the naked eye. The Ediacaran is named after the Ediacara Hills in Australia, but fossils from this period are also found in the White Sea (northern coast of Russia), Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire, and Mistaken Point in Newfoundland.
Our activity revolved around one of the museum’s large research-quality casts of one of the fossil surfaces from the Mistaken Point UNESCO World Heritage Site. On these casts you can see a range of organisms including the frond-like Fractofusus and Charniodiscus and ‘bag-like’ (for want of a better word) Haootia. Frankie and Jack explained that these were soft-bodied organisms that lived in the deep sea, several kilometres down, and well below the photic zone; the depth to which light can penetrate the water. They were killed when a nearby volcano erupted, and buried them in ash, preserving the fine detail. Haootia is similar to modern cnidarians (e.g. jelly fish), preserving bundles of fibres, which have been interpreted as muscles. The affinities of Fractofusus and Charniodiscus are more controversial; they can’t be plants, as they live in the dark, but what are they? As Frankie, a developmental biologist explained, they can’t be fungi, because of the way they grow, and if they can’t be plants either, that really just leaves animals, and they grow in the right way for animals too. I was convinced, although Jack is still on the fence. Also on the fossil surface we could see distinctive shapes nicknamed the ‘pizza disk’ and ‘dog’s paw’; shapes that are quite common, but no one knows what they are, so they haven’t been given scientific names yet. They’re possibly the remains of rotting rangeomorphs, like Fractofusus.
The fossils are preserved in very low relief, so we decided to use low-angled lighting to pick out the detail. For it to work, we had to be in a darkened room. We were able to borrow the museum’s light boxes, normally used for events, which you can set to any colour. We chose blue, like the sea, but at one quiet point (there were only a couple), we couldn’t quite resist having an Ediacaran disco.
As visitors entered the gloom, we handed them torches, and introduced them to Frankie, a scientist who does research on these fossils. Frankie gave an overview of the age and importance of Mistaken Point, and invited children and adults alike to use their torches to find fossils on the surface. People were actually really good at finding these, and were even able to recognise that there was more than one type of fossil present, for example picking out the stalk and holdfast on Charniodiscus and pointing out how it was different to Fractofusus. This lead to conversations about how Fractofusus lived flat on the sea bed, whereas Charniodiscus was anchored to the sea floor and then protruded above it, a bit like a sea pen.
After fossil hunting by torchlight, we handed out 3D glasses, so people could see what we think they looked like before they died, using computer generated 3D reconstructions. Afterwards, children could make fossil rubbings from non-museum casts of Haootia and Charniodiscus, and were given a colouring sheet to take home, plus a special sticker to show they’d been on an Ediacaran Odyssey. Over 2 days, we engaged with 642 people. It was busy, but just the right amount, so everyone could see and have time to talk to us, and have a go at all the activities.
Palaeontology is not all about dinosaurs, and we definitely introduced a lot of people to these strange and ancient organisms for the first time, challenging them to think about what life was like before teeth, claws and skeletons evolved. Frankie and Jack’s enthusiasm was infectious. I loved going on an Ediacaran Odyssey with them, and I’m pretty sure the festival visitors did too.
You can come and find out more about the Ediacaran biota and the Cambrian Explosion at our new exciting temporary exhibition First Animals at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which opens 12th July 2019 and runs until 24th February 2020. This exhibition will bring together incredible specimens on loan from across the world, including Mistaken Point, the Burgess Shale, and the Chengjiang fossil site.
*The cool museum van…