|Some parts of Lower Cretaceous Britain was subject to regular, short-lived wildfires caused by lightning strikes after long dry seasons, phenomena which played an integral role in forming the fossil-rich plant debris beds of the Wessex Formation. Here, the early tyrannosauroid Eotyrannus lengi stalks the edge of such a wildfire. Note that this Eotyrannus is based on new skeletal reconstructions presented in recent papers (e.g. Naish 2011), not the better known, original reconstruction presented by Hutt et al. (2001).|
|A slumped plant debris bed in the Wessex Formation, Brighstone Bay, Isle of Wight. Image borrowed from the UK Fossil Network forums, by one only known as 'Alan'.|
|Enormous, pyrite-riddled chunks of fossil tree trunks, like these bits of the conifer Pseudofrenelopsis, litter the beaches beneath the Wessex Formation after weathering out of plant debris horizons. The ruler in this image is 150 mm long.|
The secret ingredient
This is only half the story, however. Sediment flows do not start after most heavy rainfalls because precipitation is mostly absorbed by leaf litter, intercepted by plant canopies, and soils are bound by vegetation. We know that the Wessex palaeoenvironment was fairly well-vegetated, and it is likely that its plants prevented Wessex slopes from collapsing. The secret ingredient required to make a debris flow, it seems, was fire (above). A common component of all plant debris beds is the abundance (about 50%) of burnt plant material, suggesting they were only formed after fires - likely caused by lightning strikes after long, dry summers- had swept through surrounding areas. An absence of burnt tree trunks suggests Wessex wildfires were not particularly intense, their main effect being removal of canopy cover, low-level vegetation and leaf-litter. This left the environment denuded enough for rainwaters to directly interact with soils and underlying sediments. Modern wildfires raise soil temperatures to hundreds of degrees and alter their physical properties, reducing water capacity and increasing erodibility. The result is a perfect recipe for debris flows: unprotected, easily transportable soils and sediments are left exposed to heavy precipitation, which likely arrived in earnest during winter storms.
|Model of plant debris bed deposition on the Wessex Formation floodplain. Based on Sweetman and Insole (2010).|
It is, of course, palaeontology which benefits most from these deposits however. Ongoing examination of the debris beds fossils, largely by renowned Wealden expert Steve Sweetman, continues to reveal new discoveries. Scientists now recognise the plant debris beds as key sources of Cretaceous microfossils as well as larger, macro-scale remains. These are extracted by sieving large quantities (literally tonnes) of plant debris bed sediment, followed by many hours hunched over microscopes to analyse and identify the new finds. This hard work has certainly paid off, adding significant detail to our understanding of the Wealden palaeobiota (below). We now know that dinosaurs were only a fraction of the tetrapod fauna in these environments, with lizards, amphibians and other small animals comprising the bulk of Wessex diversity. New discoveries are still being made, and it's an exciting time to work on Wealden fossils.
|How plant debris beds changed the world. A, Wessex Formation tetrapod assemblage prior to bulk sampling and detailed study of plant debris bed fossils; B, the same assemblage after. Data from Sweetman and Insole (2010).|
Plant debris beds conservation
The exciting fossil content and accessible nature of many plant debris beds has made them a favourite source of fossils to hobbyists, private collectors and professionals for centuries. This interest has undoubtedly contributed to our detailed understanding of the Wealden fossil assemblage and will continue to do so in future. It is essential, however, that plant debris beds and other Wealden exposures are treated with care and responsibility. All too often, a walk along Wessex Formation exposures reveals depressing signs of geological vandalism: holes bulldozed into slumped cliffs in vain efforts to seek fossil-bearing horizons; messages carved into soft sandstones; dinosaur footprint casts with smashed toes, and even trackways with individual prints removed using power tools. Plant debris beds are often more conspicuous by the smashed rocks surrounding them than their lithological features. While some geological vandalism clearly reflects activities of bored, idle individuals, other types - and particularly that associated with debris beds – reflects the desires of eager individuals to discover and excavate fossil remains. We have to keep this in check. Over-enthusiasm not only risks damaging important specimens but also the surrounding sediments and other, less desirable fossils, both of which offer essential details on the depositional context of a fossil specimen. Remember that hammer blows do not only remove overburden, but also smash whatever lies beneath the surface.
The point here is not, of course, that Wealden fossils should be the sole remit of trained collectors, but that we should all be conscientious about our geological heritage. It is often far wiser, for instance, to alert local museum or university staff about an exciting find before collecting it, rather than risking damaging the specimen and it’s geological context by taking it immediately. If nothing else, contacting local professionals can provide sound advice on an appropriate manner to collect and preserve fossils. As with any fossil discoveries, accurate records must be made about the location and horizon of a new find and, if the specimen looks like it may be important, collectors should strongly consider accessioning their finds to a museum. Collectors who work with museums and scientists are frequently involved in the science that can follow a new discovery, helping to analyse and document the find in scientific papers and books. I can vouch from personal experience that this can happen relatively quickly. A new Wealden fossil accessioned to Dinosaur Isle (the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology under any other name) or the Natural History Museum seems to always get local palaeontologists buzzing, and several Wealden experts are well known for analysing new specimens within weeks of their arrival. If they are important, they end up being written up into technical papers, may be further featured in other palaeontological books and media, and may even end up on public view in museums.
|What you'll want to understand fossils from plant debris beds, or any other part of the Wealden, for that matter.|
- Batten, D. J. (ed.) (2011). English Wealden Fossils. The Palaeontological Association, London.
- Hutt, S., Naish, D., Martill, D. M., Barker, M. J. & Newbery, P. (2001). A preliminary account of a new tyrannosauroid theropod from the Wessex Formation (Early Cretaceous) of southern England. Cretaceous Research 22, 227-242.
- Martill, D. M. & Naish, D. (2001). Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight. The Palaeontological Association, London.
- Naish, D. (2011). Theropod dinosaurs. In: Batten, D. J. (ed.) English Wealden fossils. The Palaeontological Association (London), pp. 526-559.
- Sweetman, S. C., & Insole, A. N. (2010). The plant debris beds of the Early Cretaceous (Barremian) Wessex Formation of the Isle of Wight, southern England: their genesis and palaeontological significance. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 292(3), 409-424.