Raffiella Chapman is a young actress and palaeontology enthusiast who has appeared in The Theory of Everything and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
In this edition of Raffi’s Rocks, Raffi talks about her recent visit with her family to Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast.
Lyme Regis Museum is situated in the heart of the town, with stunning views of the Jurassic Coast, and is home to a world-class fossil collection, as well as showcasing the inspiring life of my favourite palaeontologist: Mary Anning. When I visited last month, I was lucky enough to go on one of the museum’s amazing fossil walks on Church Cliff beach, led by geologist Paddy Howe.
Paddy explained it’s best to go hunting after a storm because the rain increases the mud-flow from the cliff. The fossils come out with the mud-flow and land on the beach. He showed us lots of different fossils commonly found in Lyme Regis, so we knew what to look for, and luckily I found LOADS!
Most of my finds were ammonites – huge ones we couldn’t carry, smaller ones inside rocks which we cracked open, and even tiny metallic ones formed of iron pyrites. I wasn’t lucky enough to find a whole ichthyosaur like Mary Anning but I did find an ichthyosaur vertebrae, and I’m definitely going to keep looking for a whole one! The walk was really exciting and I couldn’t believe how many fossils were just lying there waiting to be discovered.
I think Paddy has a great job so I decided to ask him more about being a geologist.
How long have you been interested in fossils and what made you want to become a geologist?
I became interested in dinosaurs and fossils at an early age, like many small boys, and never grew up really! I was four or five years old when I started getting my mum to buy me dinosaur toys. I was actually in my twenties when I decided to pursue a geological career, having had various jobs up to that point.
What’s the most interesting part of your job?
The most interesting part of my job is the fossil hunting. The moment I discover a good fossil gives me such a buzz, there’s really nothing quite like it!
Can you tell us a bit about the fossil hunts you lead from Lyme Regis Museum?
I have been leading the fossil hunting walks from Lyme Regis Museum for eighteen years now, and thoroughly enjoy each and every walk. In fact, if nobody turns up for a walk I go out anyway! We always find fossils, and as far as I know, nobody on the walks has ever come back without one.
What’s the most exciting thing someone on one of your hunts has found?
The most exciting fossil to have been found on one of our walks was a new species of starfish. It’s from the Cretaceous period, and is called Nymphaster lymensis. It’s now on display at the museum!
What’s the best fossil you’ve ever found yourself?
It’s difficult to say! The biggest fossil I’ve discovered is an ichthyosaur skeleton (known affectionately as “Kevin”), now on display in the museum. Kevin is about 5.6m in length, putting him among the larger ichthyosaurs found in the local rocks. I say ‘him’, but we don’t know if Kevin is actually male or female!
I’m guessing you have a great fossil collection! What’s your favourite fossil in your collection and did you find it yourself? If so where?
I have a large collection of my own fossils, several thousand in fact. It’s difficult to pick a favourite, but one of the ones I like best is the skull of a shark. It consists mostly of a heap of beautiful teeth, but some of the cartilage of the skull is also preserved. I found it in 2009 near Lyme Regis. Another of my favourite finds is the skull of an ichthyosaur called Ichthyosaurus breviceps. It’s really rare, and there are only nine known specimens. A lot of my collection is on display in glass cases, but I also have lots of cabinets full of drawers. My collection weighs several tons!
If you had to pick a favourite dinosaur which would it be and why?
My favourite dinosaur has to be Baryonyx walkeri, because it’s a carnivore ( I like carnivores! ), it was found in Britain, and was, I believe, the first dinosaur discovered which specialised in eating fish.
If you could go back in time to study any period during the Mesozoic era. When would it be and why?
If I could go back to any time during the Mesozoic era, it would definitely be the early Jurassic. Most of the fossils I have collected are from that time, and I would love to see them in the flesh, how they behaved, and what colour they were!
If Jurassic Park was real, which dinosaur would you bring back and why?
If Jurassic Park was real, I would probably want to bring back T. Rex. Who wouldn’t want to see one? It’s probably not a good idea though!