The weathered bone pictured above sits on my desk as a treasured memento. It is the centrum of a plesiosaur vertebra. I found it in the Faringdon Sponge Gravels (Lower Cretaceous) of Oxfordshire, England, during my first research leave (1985). I was working on a project involving encrusters, borers and nestlers (now called sclerobionts) on and in cobbles in this marine gravel (Wilson, 1986). This bone rolled out of the gravels at my feet during a particularly rainy field day.
But why do I say in the title that this vertebral fragment is Jurassic if it is found in a Cretaceous deposit? Because it is what paleontologists call a remanié fossil, a fossil reworked from an earlier deposit into a later one. During the Early Cretaceous, tidal currents worked on an exposure of Jurassic claystones in what will become southern England, eroding bones and other Jurassic debris and transporting them into a gravel-filled channel.
This gravel consisted of bones, shells, quartzite pebbles and claystone cobbles. It was tossed around under marine conditions, with many of their surfaces encrusted and bored by invertebrates. If you look closely at the end-on view above, you can see some lighter-colored patches that represent little calcareous sponges. When I collected this bone these sponges were the important parts. Now I’m impressed more by the fact that it is a bit of plesiosaur.
Plesiosaurs (the name means “near-lizard”) were magnificent marine reptiles of the Jurassic and Cretaceous. They were extraordinary predators on a variety of animals, and despite their bulk were highly maneuverable because of their four large paddle-like appendages. My little bone is too weathered to place in the complex plesiosaur skeleton, other than to say it is probably from the back rather than the neck or tail. Rather than me wax poetic on the Plesiosauria, you might want to visit Plesiosaur.com.
The first plesiosaur (Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus) was found by one of the most famous paleontologists of the 19th Century: Mary Anning (1799-1847). Anning was a spectacularly successful fossil collector along the “Jurassic Coast” of southern England. She had a tough life, selling fossils to support her family. She discovered many Jurassic fossils, from ammonites to ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. The paleontological establishment at the time often bought fossils from her, but they didn’t always give her credit for her work.
Little known fact: Mary Anning was the inspiration for the classic tongue-twister, “She sells seashells on the seashore. The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure. So if she sells seashells on the seashore, then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.” I’m sure she’s proud!
To Mary Anning and her magnificent plesiosaur!
Conybeare, W.D. 1824. On the discovery of an almost perfect skeleton of the Plesiosaurus. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, Second series; 1 p. 381-389.
Goodhue, T.W. 2002. Curious Bones: Mary Anning and the Birth of Paleontology (Great Scientists). Morgan Reynolds.
Wilson, M.A. 1986. Coelobites and spatial refuges in a Lower Cretaceous cobble-dwelling hardground fauna. Palaeontology 29: 691-703.