The exceptional early Jurassic fossils of Strawberry Bank, Somerset

The marine ecosystems of the Early Jurassic have been yielding their secrets since the days of Mary Anning (1799–1847) who excavated fossils from the Dorset coast. One might think there was little more to discover in the South of England, yet there is at least one exceptional fossil site, excavated in the 1840s, but essentially ignored since then: Strawberry Bank in Ilminster, Somerset.

An infant marine crocodile, Pelagosaurus typus, (BRLSI.M1418), just 23 cm long. Many of the marine reptiles from Strawberry Bank are juveniles. © Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

Charles Moore (1815–1881), a local geologist, made a remarkable collection of specimens from this site of exceptional fossil preservation, which he later deposited at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI). In the century following his death the BRLSI’s collection was much neglected and the Strawberry Bank fossils were ignored by all but a handful of researchers.

The preserved fauna samples an ecosystem on the margins of a warm, shallow, sub-topical, sea and combines marine ichthyosaurs, crocodiles, fishes, and crustaceans, with insects washed in from nearby land. They are exceptional in their preservation of soft parts, but also in that most are three-dimensional, allowing us unique access to anatomical details otherwise unknown from typical Early Jurassic deposits, where fossils are usually flattened.

Following on from an initial programme of conservation, preparation, and research in partnership with the University of Bristol and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the new Research Project Grant from the Levehulme Trust will allow a team composed of palaeontologists from Universities of Oxford and Bristol to make an in-depth study of these fossils. We will utilise X-ray computer tomographic scans and other analytical techniques to make a systematic study of their anatomy and function and their preservation. Other lines of enquiry and analysis will shed light on the broader evolutionary import of some of the rarely preserved anatomical features we expect to see. Furthermore we hope to better understand the ecosystem structure of Strawberry Bank and what this can tell us about the consequences of two catastrophic environmental events that preceded it: the end-Triassic Mass Extinction and the smaller, but less studied, Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (with which Strawberry Bank is contemporary, at 183 million years old).

The skull of a juvenile ichthyosaur, Hauffiopteryx typicus (BRLSI.M1399) from Strawberry Bank, and a model made from data gathered through X-Ray micro CT. © Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

As a collaboration between two of the foremost palaeontological research groups working with a museum collection of international import, we will not only be able to produce research of the highest quality, but we shall be able to present a great programme of public engagement. Through talks, workshops, and online resources we can bring a lost world to life, providing a platform to address complex issues such as evolution and deep time, topics that are frequently misunderstood by non-scientists.

Mr Matt Williams (co-applicant), Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution
Professor Michael Benton (principal investigator), Dr Matt Friedman (co-applicant), University of Oxford
Dr Jakob Vinther (co-applicant), University of Bristol