More than Digging in the Dirt
One of the most exciting areas of palaeontology is fieldwork – of course! I’ve travelled to many unusual and often remote locations to hunt for and collect dinosaurs and other fossils. A large chunk of my fieldwork is based in the UK, working at inland sites as well as coastal exposures, but I’ve led and have been part of expeditions in North America, South America, and Europe.
In particular, I have spent many months in the American West, in the states of Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Utah. A significant portion of my time has been spent excavating dinosaurs in the famous Late Jurassic Morrison Formation, primarily working with the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. I have also spent time in the field in Florida, Illinois and Alberta, Canada. Such projects have included the excavation and research of numerous dinosaur (and other fossil) digs. I have also been involved with the re-excavation of historical sites, such as the original site of the large, Late Jurassic pliosaur Megalneusaurus rex.
Fieldwork in Europe has primarily been spent in France and Germany, although I have spent time working in Jurassic quarries in Poland. In 2011, for example, I was the manager and site palaeontologist overseeing the collection of fossils from a rare Lagerstätte (a site of exceptional preservation) in Central France. Called Menat, this site is one of very few exceptionally preserved Palaeocene-aged Lagerstätten in the world. This work included the creation of a reference collection of fossils and the management of visiting groups from France, Germany and England.
Working with colleagues from The University of Magallanes, Chilean Antarctic Institute and Stuttgart Natural History Museum, in April 2022 I joined a month-long expedition in Chilean Patagonia led by palaeontologist, Dr Judith Pardo Perez, to help to collect “Fiona”, Chile’s first complete ichthyosaur – a pregnant mother recovered from a glacier in Patagonia. The expedition also included finding and studying additional ichthyosaurs all within the boundaries of the Torres del Paine National Park. The ichthyosaurs are exposed in the remote location of the Tyndall Glacier which requires a 10-hour-hike or horse ride to reach the site. Coupled with the complex logistics, the difficulties of camping and moving around in a rocky area with wildlife including puma, along with the extremely icy weather conditions and 90 km/h winds, made this journey a major, complex challenge. The team, however, collected “Fiona” with the aid of a helicopter and found 23 new ichthyosaurs (on average, we found two ichthyosaurs every day). I was fortunate to discover the best-preserved, most complete skull of an ichthyosaur found there to date.
Excavating One of the Greatest Finds in British Palaeontological History
In 2021, I led the excavation of the ‘Rutland Sea Dragon’, a remarkable 10-metre-long ichthyosaur. This Jurassic giant represents the most complete skeleton of a large prehistoric reptile ever found in the UK. It was discovered by Joe Davis on January 20, 2021, at the Rutland Water Nature Reserve, following some routine maintenance in one of the reserve’s lagoons. Just a day later, I received photos of this chance find and immediately recognised the potential importance of what would later become a monumental discovery.
A few weeks later, as part of an exploratory one-day dig, I led a mini team of palaeontologists to the site where we partially revealed what appeared to be a complete, gigantic skeleton unlike anything ever found in Britain before. As conditions were damp and wintery, and the fact that this was an active nature reserve where the water levels of the lagoon had to be imminently raised for the wildlife, we had to return to the site later in the summer to undertake a full-scale excavation. Leading a superb team of palaeontologists and experienced volunteers alongside specialist conservator Nigel Larkin (who led on the conservation side of the dig) and fellow marine reptile expert Dr Mark Evans, the entire excavation took 14.5 calendar days (working up to 12 hours each day), spread over three weeks. My team uncovered a practically complete, almost fully articulated skeleton, preserved from the huge, nearly 2-metre-long skull right down to the penny-sized vertebrae at the very tip of the tail. The team recovered the entire skeleton, which is currently being cleaned, ready for us to study and formally describe over the next few years, before going on display. You can watch my TED talk about the discovery and excavation of this sensational find.
When the Rutland ichthyosaur was formally announced on January 10, 2022, the discovery went viral. Joe and I appeared on the BBC Breakfast sofa to share the find with the world. We received a truly overwhelming response, reaching millions and millions of people around the world, featuring on a multitude of media platforms, on TV, radio, newspapers – and all across social media.
If you're eager to uncover more, I wrote a brief article summarising the excavation, which can be found here. Similarly, Nigel Larkin also wrote an overview of the dig, which you'll find here. Both reports provide much more detail about the dig, the science, and the incredible team and the generous funders who supported the excavation.