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Thrilling tales of the Jurassic Coast and Dorset dinosaurs

PUBLISHED: 14:17 04 May 2018 | UPDATED: 14:17 04 May 2018

This is Mark's interpretation of a Purbeck swamp at dusk. Durlstodon perches on a twig. A number of Durlstotherium run for cover. Behind are some sauropod dinosaurs.

This is Mark's interpretation of a Purbeck swamp at dusk. Durlstodon perches on a twig. A number of Durlstotherium run for cover. Behind are some sauropod dinosaurs.

Archant

Sam Scriven of the Jurassic Coast Trust shares thrilling tales of Dorset dinosaurs and reveals what this coastline looked like millions of years ago with the help of paleoartist Dr Mark Witton

Stretching 95 miles along the Dorset and East Devon coast, the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site is an iconic landscape enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people each year. However, many are unaware of the fascinating heritage that lies hidden in its rocks, cliffs and beaches. Taking a bone or shell of a creature that once called this place home - I want you to leap back in time with me to long-vanished deserts, seas and swamps of the Jurassic Coast. Our fossils provide access to the landscapes of the Mesozoic Era – the age of reptiles. Spanning 186 million years of Earth History, the Mesozoic is made up of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, each hosting wonderful examples of evolution.

The Great Dying

Before the dinosaurs came the Great Dying – the greatest mass extinction event ever known. The reasons for this momentous event are complex, but not as interesting as what happened afterwards. The Great Dying happened at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic Periods, around 252 million years ago. Some 95% of marine species and 70% of land species were wiped out. Such a huge loss of biodiversity radically altered the make-up of Earth’s ecosystems, opening up opportunities for those creatures that survived.

Incredibly rare Triassic fossils from the sandstone cliffs of East Devon offer a glimpse of those survivors. Fragments of bone and teeth point to a group of reptiles known as rauisuchians. These extinct creatures, related to crocodiles, could grow to several metres long. Some had magnificent sails on their backs and collectively they may have occupied the top of the food-chain in the post-extinction deserts of Triassic Devon. In certain layers, munched and broken fragments of prey animals lie strewn amongst the splayed, five-toed footprints the rauisucians left behind. The fossilised remnants of a reptile buffet lunch. However, other more agile three-toed reptiles were appearing to compete with them. These began a legacy that would last for 170 million years – dinosaurs.

This recreation of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus by Mark Witton shows how they could use their four graceful fins to help them fly through the water This recreation of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus by Mark Witton shows how they could use their four graceful fins to help them fly through the water

A Realm of Marine Reptiles

By the end of the Triassic period dinosaurs and other giant reptiles dominated land, sea and air. The early Jurassic rocks around Lyme Regis are a treasure trove of fossils that reveal life in the marine realms of this reptile empire. Giant marine reptiles such as ichthyosaurs have had their ecological role re-filled by dolphins and other cetaceans.

Plesiosaurs on the other hand have no modern counterpart. Palaeontologists are still baffled by their defining feature, a long, graceful neck. Did they use it to ambush prey in murky water, or for sweeping their needle-tooth jaws through shoals of fish? The fact that plesiosaurs were first discovered over 150 years ago and scientists still haven’t cracked it shows how even familiar fossils can stubbornly withhold secrets about their enigmatic past.

An Era of Jurassic Giants

By the end of the Jurassic period some plesiosaurs had evolved into terrifying beast that would make even a tyrannosaurus shudder. Pliosaurs are descendants of plesiosaurs and are amongst the largest and most powerful reptiles that ever lived. In the late 2000s the Jurassic Coast yielded one of the largest and best preserved pliosaur skulls ever discovered. It’s on permanent display in the Dorset County Museum and has helped scientists to understand more about the biology of these magnificent marine predators. The skull has revealed the bite force could reach over 11,000 pounds, one of the highest in the fossil record. A detailed CAT scan of the skull revealed a network of channels and pits that would have been part of an extra sense, like a dolphin’s echo location. Pliosaurs were sophisticated hunters capable of killing anything up to half their size. With pliosaurs in the sea and dinosaurs like Allosaurus and Diplodocus on land, the late Jurassic was an era of giants, when reptiles were at the height of their powers.

The 2m long skull of 'Kevan' the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur at Dorset County Museum - it could have swallowed a human in a couple of bites! The 2m long skull of 'Kevan' the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur at Dorset County Museum - it could have swallowed a human in a couple of bites!

Diversify and thrive

The thrilling spectacle of huge dinosaurs, marine reptiles and pterosaurs (flying reptiles) should not distract us from another important event taking place during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods – the diversification of mammals. By the end of the Jurassic period mammals had evolved to become a successful part of Mesozoic ecosystems and were fairly widespread. True, they tended to be fairly small and superficially resembled rodents, but size isn’t necessarily a sign of failure to thrive. Many are thought to have preyed on dinosaur eggs and young dinosaurs.

In 2017 the tiny fossilised teeth of two new mammal species were recovered from the earliest Cretaceous rocks of the Jurassic Coast. The surprising thing was that these teeth belonged to a group directly related to all modern mammals, including human beings. Their names are Durlstotherium newmani and Durlstodon ensomi, recognising the place of their discovery – Durlston Bay - and two individuals who have contributed much to the study of Purbeck’s geology and fossils, Paul Ensom and Charlie Newman.

The Extinction of the Dinosaurs

Death starts and finishes the extraordinary geological story of the Jurassic Coast. Beginning 252 million years ago with the Great Dying, we finish with the extinction of the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago. This event would likely have been visible in our strata, as a thin layer of sediment rich in the rare element iridium. Sadly, the rocks of that precise age were eroded away in our part of the world. The concentration of iridium, abundant in asteroids, is considered to be evidence of a major meteorite impact and subsequent environmental catastrophe. Around 75% of species, including dinosaurs, pterosaurs, giant marine reptiles and ammonites did not survive. But let’s not be too maudlin.

Without the ecological opportunity created by the Great Dying there would not have been the dinosaurs and their relatives. Without their ultimate demise mammals might never have realised their own potential for dazzling diversity. As homo sapiens we can explore this incredible shared history. Evolution has armed us with powerful brains capable of imaginative speculation and contemplation. All we need from this unique World Heritage Site is a handful of rocks and fossils and their promise of a journey into the sublime.

6 ways to explore 95 miles of a Mesozoic Masterpiece

The Jurassic Coast is so rich in fossil stories you’d need several lifetimes to explore them all. Here are some bite-size suggestions to help you start your journey.

1. Sidmouth Museum: See fossilised fragments of Triassic Devon’s desert denizens. A short walk away, to the western end of the seafront, is Chit Rocks where you can see geological clues hidden in the cliff face. devonmuseums.net/sidmouth-museum

2. Lyme Regis Museum: Find out what happened when the Triassic Deserts became a Jurassic Sea, then join one of the museum’s guided fossil hunting walks lymeregismuseum.co.uk

3. Bridport Museum: Admire their plesiosaur skeleton and delicate fossil starfish. bridportmuseum.co.uk

4. Dorset County Museum: See the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur in all its terrifying glory. dorsetcountymuseum.org

5. The Etches Collection: A world class collection of Jurassic marine life in Kimmeridge curated by fossil expert Steve Etches. theetchescollection.org

6. Keates Quarry: Preserved on the rock surface of this disused quarry are dinosaur tracks from the beginning of the Cretaceous period. Access by foot via ‘Priest’s Way’ trail, head west beyond Acton, look for gate with ‘Dinosaur Tracks’ sign.

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