A new home for old fossils

Paleoniscum, a fossil fish from County Durham
Palaeoniscum, a fossil fish from the Upper Permian of County Durham

By Hilary Ketchum, Collections Manager, Earth Collections

A few weeks ago Eliza Howlett (Collections Manager, Earth Collections) and I travelled to Wales to pick up an exciting collection of fossils that had been given to the museum.

The collection was kindly donated by Mr Phil Bennett, who has been finding fossils for over 20 years. In 2004, Phil won the Mary Anning Award for his outstanding contribution to palaeontology by making his collection available for researchers to study. He has an excellent eye for spotting new and interesting things, and thanks to this has a species of trigonotarbid (a spider-like animal) and crustacean named after him.

We had a fantastic day in Wales. After a delicious lunch we looked through the collection, and Phil told us all about the different specimens, pointing out some of his best finds.

One of his favourite specimens is a beautiful fossil fish called Palaeoniscum, from the Upper Permian of County Durham, which is approximately 270-250 million years old.

While Palaeoniscum is instantly recognisable as a fish, some of the older vertebrate fossils in Phil’s collection would look a bit out of place in a modern ecosystem. These fossils, from the Old Red Sandstone in Wales, date from the Lower Devonian period, approximately 410-420 million years ago.

An osteostracan from the Lower Devonian of Wales with a semi-circular head shield (left). The specimen is about 6 cm long from head to tail.
An osteostracan from the Lower Devonian of Wales with a semi-circular head shield (left). The specimen is about 6 cm long from head to tail.

Featuring heavily in Phil’s Old Red Sandstone collection are fossils of strange, fish-like vertebrates (animals with backbones) called osteostracans. Their bodies were covered in large scales and they had massive bony head shields, but they didn’t have jaws or teeth.

The head shields of osteostracans have a mysterious structure called a ‘cephalic field’ (shown in red in the image below). Palaeontologists do not know for sure what the cephalic field was for. Some think that it was a sensory organ that was used to pick up vibrations in the water or changes in electric fields, helping them detect prey or predators.

Image credit: Philippe Janvier
Image credit: Philippe Janvier

Phil had very carefully packed all the fossils into cardboard boxes before we arrived, so it didn’t take long for us to load the specimens into the back of the car and drive them safely back to their new home. We have now begun the process of incorporating the fossils into the museum’s permanent collections. The specimens will be taken out of their boxes and put into museum trays, ensuring that all of Phil’s labels are kept so that no information is lost. Over the next few months, the specimens will be catalogued on the museum’s electronic collections database. Each specimen will be given a unique museum number so it can always be easily identified.

It’s a fantastic collection, and we are really excited to have it in the museum. They can be used for display and teaching, and will be available for researchers to study for years to come.

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More than a Dodo

I'm Public Engagement Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I look after permanent displays and other interpretation. I do a bit of social media on the side, too.

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