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Remarkably Well-Preserved Fossils Give Scientists 3D Look At Ancient Life

23 July 2015, 7:46 am EDT By Dianne Depra Tech Times
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Strange 160-million-year-old fossils reveal that the earliest mammals could glide
This perfect 3D fossil of a baby marine crocodile is one of the many specimens discovered in Somerset’s Strawberry Bank. A lot of the marine reptiles in the collection are juveniles.  ( Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution )

Researchers get a glimpse of life 190 million years ago in Somerset, a county in southwestern England, as they study remarkable fossils discovered 150 years ago.

In a study published in the Journal of the Geological Society, researchers from the University of Bristol, the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI) and the National Museum of Scotland detailed their work on the fossils, excited about what they're discovering from specimens that were originally thought of as just simple rocks.

The researchers have Charles Moore to thank for spotting a rounded-out boulder being kicked around by some school kids. He took interest in the stone, cracked it open and was astonished to discover a perfectly preserved fish in 3D. This sparked his curiosity and so he collected hundreds more of the stones in Somerset's Strawberry Bank area, a former quarry that was home to costal fauna fossils from the Lower Jurassic. The band where the fossils were located occurs as a "laterally discontinuous band of nodules, no more than 50 centimeters thick, which preserve fossils with very little compression," notes an article about the collection in the NatSCA News. Unfortunately, Moore's collection simply rested in the BRLSI museum, not examined until decades later.

Matt Williams, the collection's curator, said that there was something special about the fossils the first time he saw them. "Our stores are full of treasures, but these specimens are truly unique," he added.

Michael Benton, one of the authors for the study, recounted how surprised he was when Williams showed the collection to him. There were about 100 fossils and they featured large fish known as Pachycormus, two ichthyosaurs species, five to six tiny marine crocodiles, early squid with preserved ink sacs and soft tissues and hundreds of insects that used to call warm shallow seas of the past home.

"Unlike other fossil sites of similar age, the 3D preservation at Strawberry Bank provides unique evidence on palatal and braincase structures in the fishes and reptiles," explained the researchers.

The fossils have had to wait their turn for attention but are now well on their way to being cleaned and curated, thanks to $400,000 in grant funding provided by the Leverhulme Trust. With enough resources, the researchers can now 3D-scan the fossils to further study them. A portion of the grant will also go into financially supporting young scientists to encourage them to work in Oxford and Bristol alongside Dr. Matt Friedman, an expert on fish fossils.

Andrew Ross joined Williams and Benton on the research team.

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