Reading our last issue of Time to Inspire, over breakfast, I flicked the page and was greeted by a pair of large, almost cartoon-like eyes staring up at me. These, of course, belonged to Kapes bentoni, a rather intriguing Triassic reptile that was recently found on the Jurassic Coast.

Discoveries like this, to me, are what the Jurassic Coast Collection stands for – fossils from the World Heritage Site making a recognised contribution to leading palaeontological research, coupled with an exciting opportunity to engage and inspire a wider public audience through its exceptional and diverse fossil record.

The Triassic ‘red’ rocks, and the ancient environments they allow us to glimpse are often considered inhospitable, akin to the sweeping deserts of the continental interior. However, whilst this is true for much of the Triassic, it wasn’t always the case – as shown in the fossil record of the Otter Sandstone, East Devon.

Life flourished here in the Middle Triassic, supported by a large network of meandering rivers that supplied water to this arid, dry environment. Plants and conifer trees began to flourish on the riverbanks, whilst small lakes and seasonal bodies of water dotted the landscape. From a source, high in the distant mountains, water allowed a diverse ecology to flourish.

 

Sidmouth Triassic landscape, Otter Sandstone

Sidmouth Triassic landscape, Otter Sandstone. Illustration © Neil Rogers

 

Fossils in the Triassic strata of East Devon are not abundant and sadly, many of the specimens we find, have been badly damaged and disarticulated following transport and erosion in these same river systems. Interpreting the fossil record here requires detailed reconstructions that draw upon comparisons with modern animals, analysis of traces left behind (such as footprints and burrows) as well as data collected from bones, teeth and occasionally coprolites! Rarely, a lucky collector finds a more complete, articulated specimen that reshapes our understanding of these long-extinct creatures.

The local Triassic fossil record contains a host of extraordinary creatures unlike anything you’re likely to see roaming around today. Some of the most bizarre groups include temnospondyls – giant, almost frog-like amphibians that lived a semi-aquatic lifestyle, returning to water to breed; rhynchosaurs – herbivorous reptiles that potentially moved in herds, roaming the river banks for food; and archosaurs – predatory reptiles recognised from a few, rare bones and the footprints they left behind.

 

Chirotherium footprint Sidmouth

Footprint of a Chirotherium on the beach near Sidmouth.

 

Life too was evolving in the rivers and lakes; the remains of freshwater sharks and fish have been found in the Otter Sandstone, although these are usually rare and fragmentary, broken apart by the high energy waters in which they lived. Crucially, the Triassic saw the recovery of vertebrate life following the astronomical Permian/Triassic mass extinction event that wiped out much of the life on our planet at the time. The weird and wonderful array of creatures found in the Triassic rocks would eventually evolve, over millions of years, into the Mesozoic dinosaurs, reptiles and  mammals that we’re more familiar with on our coastline.

Rob Coram, the collector responsible for the discovery of the aforementioned Kapes bentoni, is not new to making scientifically important discoveries on the Jurassic Coast. Collecting extensively in the Triassic over many years, Rob has made some incredible contributions to our understanding of this period, and many of his fossils are now in the collections of Bristol University where they are studied and curated.

Over the last few months, Rob has shared some of his remarkable discoveries with the Jurassic Coast Collection, which we’re lucky to be able to present to you.