As rain plopped onto our jackets, my tour group huddled against the side of the Lyme Regis Museum on the southwest coast of England, struggling to hear our fossil-hunting guide over the sound of wind and waves.
“This is really the weather you want for fossil collecting,” said marine biologist Chris Andrew, the museum’s education director. “It lets the fossils wash down from the cliffs.” And, he explained, “a bit of rain keeps everyone else at home.”
A friend and I spent a week hunting fossils along the Jurassic Coast, a 150-kilometer stretch of English coastline just a few hours by train from London. In the 18th and 19th centuries, geologists came to the region to study the neatly stacked layers of rock, which date to 250 million to 65 million years ago and provided evidence that the Earth was much older than the 6,000 years many thought at the time. But it’s the fossils that have proved the long-term draw. Now, science tourists find not only some of the easiest fossil hunting for beginners, but one of few places where they will be encouraged to take fossils home.
On Monmouth Beach, just west of the center of Lyme Regis, amateur and professional collectors have been making discoveries for more than two centuries. The rocks are some 200 million years old and hold the remains of an ancient deep sea. Ammonites are the most common finds, their coiled, nautilus-like shells easy to spot on the rocky shore. There’s even an ammonite graveyard, where hundreds of large coils are still buried in the rock. These invertebrates were once at the base of the marine food web, providing meals for large vertebrates such as plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs, Andrew explains to our group.
Famed fossil hunter Mary Anning discovered the world’s first complete plesiosaur along this coast in 1823, a dozen years after her family uncovered the first ichthyosaur. The region holds the remains of more than just sea life, though. Among Anning’s other discoveries were an early Jurassic pterosaur, called Dimorphodon. And the bones of an armored dinosaur called Scelidosaurus were discovered washing out of the cliffs near Charmouth in the 1850s. The cliffs are still releasing important finds, such as a new 130-million-year-old crocodile species named for Rudyard Kipling in 2012.Andrew and his co-leader, geologist Ben Brooks, show examples of what to look for: the pointed tips of belemnites, semicircles or bathtub shapes that indicate bivalve shells and the starfish-shaped stems of sea lilies. Round or hexagonal black rocks, indented on both sides, are ichthyosaur vertebrae. But before we could look for fossils, Brooks gave a lesson on safety and the fossil code. There are dangers, such as cliff falls and tides. Most collecting from the beach is legal because whatever isn’t picked up just washes into the sea. Yet it’s not quite a free-for-all, and digging directly into the cliffs requires permission. “We don’t want scientifically important specimens disappearing,” Brooks said.
Only the children were guaranteed fossils on this guided trip, courtesy of Brooks and Andrew. But that afternoon and the following ones, my friend and I tested Andrew’s best piece of advice: “You’re looking for regular patterns in the rock,” he told us. We quickly met success along the beaches at Lyme Regis and nearby Charmouth, finding dozens of ammonites, pieces of belemnites, bits of ichthyosaur rib and sea lilies, and even a globelike sea urchin. The prize find went to my friend, now the proud owner of a coprolite: a piece of fossilized excrement.