Chris joined the Jurassic Coast Trust team in November 2019 as the Jurassic Coast Collection Development Officer, although his passion for the Jurassic Coast, and its fossils, dates back to childhood.
As a young boy, Chris spent weekends with his parents exploring the coast close to his home, at Barton-on-Sea – a short journey east of the World Heritage Site. The Eocene clay here is much younger than many of the rocks on the Jurassic Coast and is packed full of shells and shark teeth, from a time when southern England was warm and tropical. Regular family trips to Lyme Regis and Charmouth saw Chris exploring the local fossil shops as much as the beach, marvelling at the recent discoveries made by local fossil hunters, many of whom he now regards as close friends.
Pursuing a career in earth sciences, Chris studied for a degree in geology at Cardiff University, and upon completion, was offered the opportunity to undertake a PhD on the palaeontology and geology of the Jurassic Coast. This research explored the taphonomy of Dorset’s Jurassic mudrocks – the process of fossilisation – to investigate the exceptional preservation of fossils found on the coast. He quickly developed an intrigue for the process of pyritisation and the geochemical influence of burial and fossilisation. This shaped his scientific research, investigating the pyritic ammonite moulds, often found in abundance, between Lyme Regis and Charmouth. Many of the fossils that Chris studied have been registered for the Jurassic Coast Collection.
A well as a large collection of researched specimens, Chris has registered the geochemical datasets that accompany them, as a resource for scientists and early career researchers to use for the progression of scientific research on the World Heritage Site. ‘Continued recognition of the Site as a globally important locality for geology and palaeontology is essential to our sustainability’, Chris remarks, hoping, in the future, to encourage similar interaction, from other scientists, to develop the Jurassic Coast Collection as an accessible, and scientifically important, resource for everyone to enjoy.
Chris says he owes a lot of his collecting successes to lessons he has learnt from other fossil collectors; fossil collecting is about so much more than cold wet days and time spent on the beach, it’s about sharing knowledge, personal experience and skills for the benefit of everyone. Regularly collecting with James Carroll – another contributor to the Jurassic Coast Collection – Chris claims it was inevitable that he picked up some of James’ collecting habits and yes, that means insect fossils! James’ experience with these difficult to recognise ‘smudges’ means that he is often asked, by many collectors, to share his expertise.
Chris has registered over 100 insect fossils over the past few months, a diverse representation of Jurassic insect fauna that are so often overlooked. He explains that although this small insect collection will never rival other similar entries, it’s a great example as to how, through this project, different collections, that complement one another, can be brought together to provide a much greater context and demonstrate the Outstanding Universal Value of Jurassic Coast palaeontology.
When asked about his experiences, Chris had this to say:
“As I grew up, I had an appetite for sharing my passion with those around me, and I have many fond memories of my friends and I regularly departing Bournemouth at 6am every Saturday morning, come rain or shine, to search for fossils, favouring the beaches between Lyme Regis and Charmouth. The next few years, we made many friends on the beach, sharing stories, laughter and sandwiches in the pouring rain – a great way to build bonds and create memories.
I’ve been lucky over the last few years to have found some really interesting fossils on the Jurassic Coast, but my favourite have always been crinoids. In the Jurassic mudrocks around Lyme Regis we’re very lucky, fragments of these enigmatic fossils, often easily recognised on the beach by their pentaradial (star-shaped) symmetry, are very common. However, to find a complete colony is a very different matter indeed. These often measure several metres in length and can be preserved in the most outstanding golden pyrite. Moreover, they give us a glimpse into the bizarre lives of these wonderful organisms.
Crinoids are filter feeders, they look almost plant-like (although not related) with a thick central stem supporting a net-like structure, used to trap and filter food. Typically, crinoids would live attached to the seafloor similar to modern-day seaweed however, in the Jurassic, the seafloor was often not hospitable – there was very little oxygen and so even less food! These creatures evolved a remarkable strategy to cope with the hardships of the Jurassic sea and would attach themselves to large logs drifting at the surface and hang down into the water column. As the log was pushed around in currents, and by the wind, the colony could collect food and nutrients with ease.
But life is not always that easy and the success of their strategy was often their downfall. As the crinoid colony grew it became heavier and heavier and, the raft they were attached to became increasingly waterlogged, until eventually it would sink to the bottom. Coming to rest on the seafloor, the crinoid colony was starved of oxygen and eventually died. I was lucky enough two years ago to find one of these remarkable fossils, the crinoid lens was only 5 mm thick but stretched over 1 metre in length. This fossil came out like a huge jigsaw puzzle that had to be put back together slowly over time. It’s now finished and takes pride of place in my collection.”
We’ll be sharing more fossils from the Jurassic Coast Collection over the next few months on this, the Jurassic Coast Collection webpage, and on our social media pages. If you’re interested in learning a little more about the collectors and museums that have contributed to the Jurassic Coast Collection, and the fossils that contribute to the Outstanding Universal Value of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, then stay tuned.