Wednesday 23 December 2015

Resurrecting of the Unfortunate Dragon - a plesiosaur fossil destroyed in WW2

FIGURE 1. Historical photograph of the skeleton of the holotype (BRSMG Cb 2335) of Atychodracon megacephalus (Stutchbury, 1846). Photograph taken from glass plate negative in the Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery, originally published by Swinton (1948). Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery, reproduced with permission. Length of skeleton = 4960 mm
Plesiosaurs are an extinct group of Mesozoic marine reptiles. Their fossil record ranges from the latest Triassic (approx. 200 million years ago) to the latest Cretaceous (approx. 65 million years ago), and they have a short body with four flippers, a long neck, and a head full of sharp teeth. They are unlike any modern day animal and were once described as looking like a snake threaded through the body of a turtle.

The five metre-long holotype specimen of Plesiosaurus megacephalus, from the Jurassic of Street-on-the-Fosse, Somerset, was one of several plesiosaur specimens once displayed in the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery during the first half of the 20th Century. As one of the earliest plesiosaurs to evolve it is an important species for understanding the early history of the group. Sadly, the fossil skeleton was destroyed along with many other specimens, when the museum was struck by a bomb during the Second World War. This destroyed fossil material is sometimes referred to as the ghost collection.

All was not lost, however. Moulds of some of the fossils had been taken before the war. In the case of Plesiosaurus megacephalus, multiple casts of its skull and forelimb were produced prior to its destruction, and these had been deposited in the collections of several other museums (British Geological Survey, Keyworth; Natural History Museum, London; Trinity College, Dublin).

These casts recently provided a valuable resource for Dr Adam Smith, Curator of Natural Sciences and a palaeontologist at the Nottingham Natural History Museum, Wollaton Hall. Smith used the casts to conduct a research project on the Plesiosaurus megacephalus, published this April in the open access journal Palaeontologia Electronica (18.1.20A p.1-19). The study was facilitated by The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, who provided historical photographs of the ghost collection from their archives. These show how the fossil skeletons appeared before they were destroyed (Figure 1). To assist with the project, the British Geological Survey produced three-dimensional digital laser scans of the casts as part of their JISC-funded GB3D fossil types online project. The resulting virtual models can be rotated and studied on a computer screen, and even printed with a 3D printer (Figure 2, 3).
FIGURE 2. Plaster cast (BGS GSM 118410) of the holotype (BRSMG Cb 2335) skull of Atychodracon megacephalus (Stutchbury, 1846) in ventral (palatal) view. Three dimensional scan with texture (colour) removed. Scale bar = 100 mm.

The scientific study shows that ‘Plesiosaurus’ megacephalus is distinct from all other plesiosaurs, including Plesiosaurus, and so it is given a new name, Atychodracon, meaning ’Unfortunate Dragon’. This is in recognition of the unfortunate destruction of the original fossil, as well as the colloquial name ‘Sea Dragon’, sometimes applied to extinct swimming reptiles. The project also shows that fossil casts, and 3D laser scans, provide valuable data for palaeontologists - they can be described, measured, and coded into analyses. When the original fossil material has been lost, damaged or destroyed, the scientific value of casts increases even further. This study is the first publication to make use of the publicly available repository of 3D laser scans provided by the BGS. The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery is now investigating the possibility of using physical representations of their ‘ghost collection’ in future exhibitions, to bring long lost fossils such as Atychodracon ‘back to life’.

FIGURE 3. Plaster cast (BGS GSM 118410) of the ventral surface of the right forelimb of Atychodracon megacephalus (Stutchbury, 1846) (BRSMG Cb 2335).
Guest blog written by Adam Smith

GB/3D Type Fossils Online – Highlights of 2015

The International Data Rescue Award in the Geosciences trophy 
awarded to the GB/3D British Type Macrofossils online project, April 2015

As 2015 draws towards its close, it is a time for reflection on progress and highlights for the year. Work continues on adding and updating entries. We have, for example, a number of new images to add to existing entries. We are also keen to discuss with the curators of collections not yet included how we can add their material. Provided the data is in the correct format, adding it is fairly simple and quick. We are also looking at ways to finance extending the database to include figured and cited specimens and other good representative material to make the database more comprehensive. Crowdfunding is one method under consideration. 

Graph showing monthly visits to the GB/3D website for the last two years

One highlight has been the growth through the year in visits to the GB/3D website. After a high of 72,000 visits during September 2013, immediately after the launch, monthly visits declined to 2,500 a year ago – but they have been rising steadily through 2015 and have now been over 4,000 for several months. Such behaviour is well documented in project cycles – we have been through the peak of “euphoria” and the trough of “despondency” and are hopefully entering a prolonged period of “optimism”.

Another highlight has been the coining of the first GB/3D DOIs for three casts of sections of 'Plesiosaurus' megacephalus in a recent Palaeontologica Electronica paper by Adam S. Smith - see . Adam has prepared a guest blog on the subject.

The main highlight of the year was the receipt of the International Data Rescue Award in the Geosciences, presented at EGU in Vienna, in April. 

The award was created to improve the prospects for preservation and access of research data, particularly of dark data, and to share the varied ways that these data are being processed, stored, and used. Lack of access may be due to the nature of the formatting (e.g., analogue data, magnetic tapes that lack format description) or the nature of the data curation and/or organization (e.g., no formal database repository, no backup), such that those data cannot be shared. Consequently, the progress of research suffers unless extra steps are taken to recover the data or transform them to a dependable electronic media. 

In our case, the award marked the provision of a single database to locate type material in numerous museum collections, and to facilitate access by providing high resolution images and stereo-anaglyphs, and in many cases, 3d digital models. 

Mike  Howe (National Geological Repository, British Geological Survey) – centre -   receiving the award from  Kerstin Lehnert, (Director, IEDA) and Dan Lovegrove, ( Elsevier).

GB3D winner.tif