Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Week 2 in Scotland – a ‘geology cat’ and museum visits

During week 2 of my fieldwork in the Scottish Borders I continued my sedimentary log (see blog 5) and got up to 320 metres. The weather stayed fine but the tides had turned, with only a low tidal range making much of the succession inaccessible even at low tide.  Late one afternoon as I was examining the conglomerate featured in blog 5 I was joined on the beach by a friendly local cat. It seemed to like geology and jumped around all over the rocks! 



The ‘geology cat’ jumping around on the sandstone and conglomerate rocks.

To make the most of time during this week I went to the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) and the British Geological Survey (BGS) in Edinburgh. I was studying the museum specimens of ostracods and Spinicaudata (clam shrimps), both of which are small aquatic arthropods that lived in the Carboniferous (and are still alive today). 

At the NMS, as well as a fantastic museum (http://www.nms.ac.uk/our_museums/national_museum.aspx) they also have an extensive fossil collection that researchers can use. All the fossil collections and many of the museum’s other collections (ranging from zoological specimens to industrial machines) have been re-housed in specially built stores in Granton, on the north side of Edinburgh. The palaeobiology collections occupy part of one of the new warehouse-like store buildings which are climate controlled (constant humidity and temperature) to ensure that the fossil specimens do not degrade over time. There are about 250,000 specimens in total, many of which originate from Scotland. The specimens are curated by a team of expert palaeontologists, who each specialise in different fossil groups. For example, curator and Tweed team member at the NMS Andrew specialises in fossil insects and other arthropods. 
 
Left: Palaeontology curators at the NMS Andrew Ross and Sarah Stewart stand outside the new store. Right: What the store looks like inside, some of the thousands of fossil-filled drawers.
 
Among the collections are Carboniferous specimens of fish, plants, shrimps, bivalves, scorpions … the list goes on. I examined the ostracod collection and made note of what species were present and where they came from. I found some specimens of the genus Carbonita which are thought to be non-marine ostracods, and arranged to loan some of this material for further study.

 
Left: ostracods from the NMS collections, a sample with hundreds of individuals on the surface, each is approximately 1mm in length. Right: a living ostracod that I photographed under a microscope, before putting it back in the pond it came from. You can clearly see some of the appendages such as the antenna and limbs used for crawling.

I was also privileged to see the specimen of Ribbo, collected by Stan Wood, the reconstruction of which you can see in Blog 2. In the image below you can see half of the specimen, with the ribs showing. The animal is over a metre in length.


Left: Rock with the torso part Ribbo the tetrapod. Right: a reconstruction drawing of Ribbo (by Mike Coates, University of Chicago).

At the British Geological Survey I discussed my progress in the field with Tweed team members Dave Millward and Tim Kearsey. Then I examined some of the clam shrimp fossil collections from the Carboniferous, helped by curator Sally Wild. We think that some of the clam shrimps were adapted to living in lakes and pools, and these are the specimens that I was particularly interested in, as they can co-occur with the tetrapod fossils. While I was there it was great to meet some whose papers I had read during my PhD and thought were fantastic. It was Peter Brand, who had worked as palaeontologist for the BGS for most of his career and is a world expert in non-marine bivalves of the Carboniferous. He helped me track down some hard to find literature, as there are an awful lot of old publications that are still only available as a paper copy. I also bumped into a fellow Palaeozoic fossil enthusiast Tom Challands who is working on an educational project about Devonian fossil fish found in Edinburgh’s paving slabs; see his BGS blog about it here (http://britgeopeople.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/hospital-appointment-for-fossil-fish.html). 

The best thing about visiting collections in museums is that you can chat to the experts, examine a lot of material, see the best material (type specimens or exceptionally preserved specimens) and you might be able to arrange a loan it to study it in detail back at your institution. So it’s like a national centre of knowledge as well as a store for fossil material.
In my next blog I will give an update on Scotland week 3, the group sampling week.

Until next time
Carys

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