Reconstructing the Cretaceous with Bones and Amber

A double window into the past

Post by Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Deputy Head of Research

Nature is wonderfully imperfect, and the data that we can gather from it is even further from perfection. Fossil localities, even those providing exceptionally well-preserved fossils, are inaccurate records of the past. Fossils can form from a variety of matter including organisms, their remains, or even traces of their activity. Yet not all of the material that can get fossilised at a particular site actually will. Among other factors, biases in the fossil record result from the nature of the materials responsible for fossilisation – usually sediments which are in the process of turning into rocks. In most cases, fossil localities offer us only a single ‘window of preservation’ – a skewed geological record of the ancient ecosystem that once existed there.


In 2012, a rich vertebrate bone bed was documented at the Ariño site in Teruel, Spain. Since then, researchers have unearthed more than 10,000 individual fossil bones, from which they have discovered new species of dinosaurs, crocodiles, and turtles. Plant fossils were also found, including pollen grains and amber, which is fossilised resin. Although amber was known to occur in this locality, this sort of material had remained unstudied… until recently.

Over the summer of 2019, I joined my colleagues to carry out amber excavations in the Ariño site – an open-pit coal mine that has an almost lunar appearance due to the dark carbonate-rich mudstone rocks and the total lack of vegetation. The scorching heat during a very hot summer was a bit maddening, but I did try to enjoy my yearly dose of sun before returning to the UK!


Resin pieces can be transported significant distances by runoff water before depositing on their final burial location, where they slowly transform into amber. However, we found amber pieces that had not moved from their original place of production. These large, round-shaped pieces preserved delicate surface patterns that would have been polished away even by the slightest transport. The resin that produced these amber pieces was formed by the roots of the resin-producing trees, and resembles sub-fossil resin my colleagues found in modern forests from New Zealand.

Large amber piece produced by roots (left) and assemblage of smaller amber pieces (right) from Ariño (Teurel, Spain).
Large amber piece produced by roots (left) and assemblage of smaller amber pieces (right) from Ariño (Teurel, Spain).

The small amber pieces from Ariño contain an unusual abundance of fossils. These pieces come from resin produced by the branches and trunk of the resin-producing trees. From the almost one kilogram of amber we excavated, we identified a total of 166 fossils. These include diverse insects such as lacewings, beetles, or wasps, and arachnids such as spiders and mites. Even a mammal hair strand was found!1


We now know that the Ariño site provides two complementary windows of preservation — a bone bed preserving a rich variety of vertebrate animals, and amber with abundant inclusions. Aside from Ariño, only three localities that preserve both dinosaur bone beds and fossiliferous amber have been reported in Western France, Western Canada, and North Central United States. However, in these cases, either the bone bed or the amber have offered a much more modest abundance and diversity of fossils. Some of the fossils from these localities also show signs of significant transport, which means that the organisms could have inhabited different, distant areas even though they fossilised together. This makes Ariño unique because it offers two valuable ‘windows of preservation’ from the same ecosystem.

Thanks to all this evidence and other data, we have been able to reconstruct an ancient terrestrial ecosystem – a 110-million-year-old coastal swamp – with unprecedented detail and accuracy.2 The inherent incompleteness of the fossil record will always remain a headache for palaeontologists… but localities like Ariño make the data that we can recover from the past a bit more complete.

Reconstruction of the coastal swamp forest of Ariño, in the Iberian Peninsula, from 110 million years ago. Author: José Antonio Peñas. Source: Álvarez-Parra et al. 2021.
Reconstruction of the coastal swamp forest of Ariño, in the Iberian Peninsula, from 110 million years ago. Author: José Antonio Peñas. Source: Álvarez-Parra et al. 2021.

If you want to learn more about amber excavations, check out this post on Excavating Amber.


1Álvarez-Parra, Sergio, Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Enrique Peñalver, Eduardo Barrón, Luis Alcalá, Jordi Pérez-Cano, Carles Martín-Closas et al. “Dinosaur bonebed amber from an original swamp forest soil.” Elife 10 (2021): e72477.

2Álvarez-Parra, Sergio, Xavier Delclòs, Mónica M. Solórzano-Kraemer, Luis Alcalá, and Enrique Peñalver. “Cretaceous amniote integuments recorded through a taphonomic process unique to resins.” Scientific reports 10, no. 1 (2020): 1-12.

The Roundup on The Great Debate – Do We Need a New Agricultural Revolution?

Post by Dr Caroline Wood


How can we meet the challenge of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 whilst simultaneously addressing climate change, impoverished soils, mass extinctions and unsustainable pollution?

On 20th October, Oxford University Museum of Natural History hosted The Great Debate – an anniversary celebration of the Museum’s Great Debate in 1860, on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. During this special event, the panel and audience (both in-person and live-streamed) discussed issues, opportunities and tensions relating to the future of food production. By the end of the evening, it was clear that we won’t be able to rely on ‘quick fixes’. Instead, we will need a whole-scale revolution at multiple levels: in our fields, on our plates, and in our attitudes. 


Panel Speakers

Lord John Krebs (Chair) – Former chairman of the Natural Environment Research Committee and Adaptation to Climate Change Committee

Helen Browning – Chief Executive of the Soil Association

Professor Sir Charles Godfray – Director of the Oxford Martin School

Stuart Roberts – Deputy President of the National Farmers Union (NFU)


In our fields

With global food demand estimated to increase by 35% to 56% between 2010 and 2050, it is unquestionable that we will need to keep producing more food. Although the prospect seems daunting, Helen Browning outlined the potential of new technologies to boost yields, including hydroponics and vertical farming; robots that can perform crop care and harvesting; and genetic technologies such as gene editing. However, she warned that the UK is currently ‘way off the pace’, and would remain so until there is more investment in farmer-led research, innovation and knowledge-sharing opportunities. 

As Stuart Roberts pointed out, there are also significant opportunities to boost production simply by addressing inefficiencies and yield gaps. For instance, according to the NFU, if all the 270 million+ dairy animals worldwide were as efficient as UK dairy cows, we would only need 76 million to produce the same amount of milk. New market models, such as direct-to-consumer and digital technologies (e.g. blockchain), could also help reduce the 15% of food that the WWF estimate is wasted even before it leaves the farm

But will increased production come at the expense of damaging natural ecosystems? The new UK Agricultural Act aims to avoid this by providing farmers with a financial incentive to preserve ‘public goods’ including air quality, biodiversity, soil health, and flood mitigation. Sir Charles foresaw that the Agricultural Act will result in a ‘patchwork’ of different farming systems across the UK, each tailored to their locality, with some being highly productive and others more dedicated to public services. 

Debate Panel (Left to Right) – Lord John Krebs, Helen Browning, Stuart Roberts, Prof Sir Charles Godfrey

On our plates

Extensive research indicates that achieving net-zero carbon emissions will require a global reduction in meat consumption and a shift towards plant-based diets. But as Stuart noted, presenting consumers with only the extremes of a carnivorous diet and a vegan lifestyle is not helping this transition. Instead of focusing on binary choices, we should be more concerned with improving the meat we do eat. As consumers, we need to stop seeing food as a cheap, mass-produced commodity, and be prepared to pay a price that will compensate for the development of production systems that are more in harmony with nature. Helen agreed that only by paying more for food can we allow farmers to escape the stranglehold of contracts that pressure them to produce as much as possible, regardless of the environmental cost. However, as Stuart pointed out, to avoid higher prices leading to food poverty, it will be necessary to tackle income poverty first. To this end, he cited Food Foundation research which reveals that the poorest 10% of households would have to spend 76% of their disposable income to meet current diet recommendations.

In our minds

Farmers are critical actors in the global response to climate change, but all too often they are portrayed as villains. Stereotypes regularly cast farmers as chemical lovers who rip up hedgerows and mistreat animals. Instead, we need to recognise and celebrate the farmers who are trying to be part of the solution, including those embracing regenerative farming methods such as pasture cropping, agroforestry, no-till farming and undersowing. Overall, if we want more farmers to become innovators, we need to support them – and as consumers, we can make that choice every time we shop.


The Huxley Room at the Oxford Natural History Museum where the original Great Debate took place in 1860.

Dr Caroline Wood works as a Communications Officer for Oxford Population Health, a department at Oxford University that specialises in global health studies. She is also a freelance science writer, focusing on sustainability, food science and packaging issues. When she is not writing, she enjoys visiting museums (including OUMNH obviously!), hillwalking and painting (badly). 

Anna Gurney and the geology of the Norfolk coast

By Jenny McAuley

Here at the Museum, we are exploring the often-hidden role of women in building, curating, and researching its collections, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Supporting this project we have an invaluable team of volunteers who are helping to spotlight these women and their work. One volunteer, Jenny McAuley, has been investigating the story of geologist and philanthropist Anna Gurney (1795-1857), who donated mammoth bones and teeth from the Cromer Forest Bed in Norfolk.

Sketch of Anna Gurney by John Linnell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anna Gurney was a dedicated observer of the geology of the east Norfolk coast where she passed her life. Her personal collection of fossil specimens became an important study resource, and she corresponded with many major geologists of her day.

Born in Keswick, Norfolk into a prominent and intellectual Quaker family, Gurney became a literary scholar and philanthropist. She joined the Church of England in 1826, but remained committed to ideals of independent enquiry – stemming from her Nonconformist upbringing – in an era when geological discoveries were unsettling orthodox religious assumptions about the evolution of organic life.

At ten months old, Gurney became infected with poliomyelitis (polio), which paralysed her lower limbs. Although needing a wheelchair for most of her life, she still enjoyed travelling to sites of geological interest around Europe. Educated at home by family members, she demonstrated a prodigious talent in languages, and began her career as a (mostly anonymously) published scholar aged 22.

For her geological researches Gurney focused on local portions of the Cromer Forest Bed Formation, a deposit of gravel, clay, and sand exposed in cliffs along the east Norfolk coast. The formation is rich in fossil mammal remains, and in 1821 she presented to the Geological Society ‘various bones of the fossil elephant, found on the coast of Norfolk between Cromer and Happisburgh’, according to the Bury and Norwich Post, 14 December 1821.

Gurney’s private collection was listed among those worth the attention of visiting scientists in Samuel Woodward’s 1833 Outline of the Geology of Norfolk. Its later highlights included a mammoth’s humerus obtained at Bacton in 1836 and described in eminent palaeontologist Richard Owen’s account of her collection in A History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds (1846).

After Gurney’s death, her fossil collection passed to the Norwich Museum, but throughout her life she donated items elsewhere. Here at the Museum ‘Miss Gurney’ is named as the collector of three milk molars and the head of a femur found at Cromer, all possibly of the Pleistocene species Archidiskodon meridionalis, or southern mammoth.

Anna Gurney’s 1835 letter to William Buckland refers to an ‘old woman in my employ’ (highlighted)

In 1835 Gurney wrote to geologist William Buckland at the University of Oxford, who had accepted some ‘bones’ from her, explaining how she obtained specimens with the aid of ‘one old woman in my employ who goes fossil gathering on the shore, in spectacles’. Gurney’s employment of ‘poor inhabitants of the coast’ as paid specimen-collectors was also noted approvingly by Richard Owen.

As a specimen collector, Gurney operated within an international network of scientists. Her 1835 letter to Buckland mentions having visited his ‘fossil room’ in Oxford, and indicates some acquaintance with Louis Agassiz (1807-73), the Swiss-born biologist and geologist (and later promoter of white supremacist theories as a Harvard professor).

Gurney’s personal studies in natural history are documented in her archive in the Norfolk Record Office, and in letters from her in other scientists’ archives. And her legacy as a collector and donor of specimens may be traced through the records of museum collections all around Britain.

Horn belonging to a Bos (cattle) species from the Pliocene. Collected in Cromer, Norfolk by Miss Gurney. Donated by Miss Gurney.

Milk molar from a mammal from the Pleistocene, possibly Archidiskodon meridionalis (Nesti 1825). Collected in Cromer, Norfolk by Miss Gurney. Donated by Miss Gurney.

The Geology of Oxford Gravestones

By Duncan Murdock, Earth Collections manager

A cemetery may seem like an unusual location for a geology fieldtrip, but for rock hounds from beginner to professor there’s a treasure trove of different rock types in gravestones. Whether it’s shells of oysters from the time of the dinosaurs, or beautiful feldspar crystals formed deep within the Earth’s crust, rocks are uniquely placed to tell the story of the history of our planet.

This incredible resource is elegantly celebrated in a new temporary exhibition in the Weston Library in Oxford. Compiled by two of the Museum’s Honorary Associates, Nina Morgan and Philip Powell, The Geology of Oxford Gravestones brings together the geological and human history of Oxford’s cemeteries.

The exhibition is illustrated with artefacts including undertakers’ trade cards and ‘rules of burial’, rock samples from the Museum’s collections, and photographs of headstones from Museum luminaries such as Henry John Stephen Smith, our second Keeper, and Henry Acland, one of our founders.

The Geology of Oxford Gravestones exhibition poster

Although compact, the exhibition is full of fascinating snippets for fans of geology and social history alike, even bringing the science right up to date with a study using lichen on gravestones to understand our changing environment. The text and objects on display are enhanced by rolling digital displays that give more insight and colour to the story.

As the exhibition says, “visit a cemetery with a hand lens and you’ll be amazed at what you can see, you’ll never look at cemeteries in the same way again”. Just make sure you visit the display in the Weston Library first!

The Geology of Oxford Gravestones, is in the Blackwell Hall foyer of the Weston Library in Broad Street, Oxford and runs from 17 July to 12 September 2021. You can also find out more about Gravestone Geology here and in our previous post Celebrate science in a cemetery.
A golden sphere sitting on a stone balcony between stone columns and carvings

Solving a celestial mystery: the Sun, Earth and Moon model

By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist

We like to think we know a lot about our collections, but with millions of items to care for some inevitably remain mysterious, with little record of their history. Luckily, every now and then someone gets in touch with a story about an object or specimen we know very little about. We were delighted when this happened recently for one of the most overlooked items on display: a delicate scale model of the Sun, Earth and Moon.

The model is a long-standing feature of the upper gallery: an astronomical moment hidden amongst the zoological and the geological. Yet we knew very little about it. Who made it, when was it installed, and what was its intention?

Meet the maker: Ted Bowen (1898-1980)

The Earth and Moon at a scale of 1:4,000,000,000 are tiny spherical models.
Edmund ‘Ted’ John Bowen. Image courtesy of Dr Will Bowen.

Thanks to a chance remark by Dr Will Bowen we can reveal that the model was created by his grandfather, Edmund ‘Ted’ John Bowen, lifelong fellow in Chemistry at University College. Ted Bowen was passionate about communicating science effectively, and the model was intended as a simple yet powerful representation of the true scale of our Solar System.

Born in Worcester in 1898, Ted Bowen won the Brackenbury Scholarship in 1915 to the University of Oxford, where he studied chemistry in the Balliol/Trinity labs. It was here that, from necessity, he started to create his own scientific apparatus and models, all made from whatever was to hand.

In 1935, Bowen was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his research into fluorescence and in 1963 was awarded the society’s Davy Medal in recognition of his distinguished work explaining photochemical reactions. While Bowen devoted his working life to the field of chemistry, he had many other scientific interests, especially palaeontology, but also our planetary system.

Creation of the Sun, Earth, Moon model

The Earth model is no larger than a pea, but still beautifully detailed.

Although we don’t know for sure, it is likely that the model was made between 1965 and 1971, and donated while Bowen was a member (and later chairman) of the Committee for the Scientific Collections in the University Museum, as the Museum was then known.

The distance across the Museum’s main court, around 37 metres, represents the distance between the Earth and the Sun – one Astronomical Unit, or 150 million kilometres. This makes the model scale to roughly 1:4,000,000,000!

The Sun itself is the size of a small beach ball, while the Earth and the Moon become tiny objects: the Earth the size of a small pea, and the Moon little more than a dot. Yet Bowen’s attention to detail is striking: the Earth is decorated with continents and even the miniscule Moon has texture to its surface.

If you haven’t seen it before, be sure to look out for the model on the upper gallery of the Museum: the Earth and Moon are on one side, where the Museum Café is currently located, and the Sun glistens on the far side, nestled in our temporary exhibition gallery.

Many thanks to Dr Will Bowen for his reminiscences, which have illuminated an object that was hidden in plain sight.

Black and white photograph of borders, paths, and trees with spired tower in background

Celebrating 400 years of botany at Oxford University

By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist

John Phillips, Professor of Geology (1856-1874)

As a natural history museum, we are perhaps slightly unusual: aside from some fossilised plants, there are no botanic specimens in our collections. The reason for this is that when the Museum opened its doors in June 1860, Oxford Botanic Garden had already been around for a considerable 239 years, and it was considered unnecessary to move it.

Today, the Botanic Garden celebrates 400 years since its founding as the Oxford Physic Garden on 25 July 1621. To mark this anniversary we’ve explored our archive to highlight some connections between the Museum and Botanic Garden, in a relationship that continues to this day.

With its Pre-Raphaelite influence, the design of the Museum was conceived as an object lesson in art; both beautiful and instructive, it should teach students and visitors alike about the natural world. One of the most noticeable decorative teaching tools are the columns, capitals and corbels that surround the main court of the museum. Following Pre-Raphaelite principles, these were designed by Professor of Geology and the first Keeper of the Museum, John Phillips, who sketched most of the designs and outlined the order they would go in.

The plans called for 126 columns, 64 piers and 192 capitals and corbels. Each column was made from a different decorative stone from around Britain and Ireland, topped with a carved capital and flanked by a pair of corbels carved into plants representing the different botanical orders. As it was decided early in the design process for the Museum that the Oxford Botanic Garden would not move from the High Street, these carved plants were meant to ‘satisfy the botanist.’ Each column was supposed to be labelled with the name of the stone, its source, and the botanical name of the plant, but unfortunately only the geological inscriptions were completed.

James O’Shea carving the Cat window found on the front façade of the Museum, c. 1860

The carvings were created by ‘Nature’s own Pre-Raphaelites’ the O’Shea brothers, James and John, and their nephew, Edward Whelan. Working in collaboration with Charles Daubeny, Professor of Botany and head of the Oxford Botanic Garden, Phillips supplied the O’Sheas with specimens of the plants he had chosen, and so the carvings were made from life. Each capital is different and unique based on the plants they were representing. Some are simple and elegant while others are more intricate and hide small birds, animals and insects.

Phillips also worked with another curator at the Botanic Garden, William H. Baxter, who advised on suitable trees and shrubs to adorn the grounds surrounding the Museum. Over the years, as landscaping has changed and additional science buildings have been added around the Museum, only one of the trees chosen by Phillips and Baxter has survived. It is the imposing Giant Sequoia on the front lawn, which was planted in the early 1860s and is believed to be one of the oldest specimens in the United Kingdom.

Our connection to Oxford Botanic Garden continues to the present day. As the Museum embarks on the first major redisplay of its permanent exhibits in almost 20 years, staff are collaborating with the Garden to reference plants for displays showing the immense, interconnected variety of the natural world.

We are very pleased to be strengthening the Museum’s long relationship with the Botanic Garden, and would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone there a very happy 400th birthday!

Oxford Botanic Garden today
Top image: Oxford Botanic Garden in 1880