Sunday, 4 February 2018

A Red Crag whale

A fossil whale vertebra can be a beautiful thing. I was delighted when a friend gave me one he'd found on Landguard beach, near Felixstowe, south-east Suffolk.

The front (anterior) side of the specimen still has its flat articular surface, but the back (posterior) side has been worn away by the sea. There are two projections on either side. These are the eroded bases of the bony projections supporting the neural arch.

Thoracic vertebrae of Greenland right whale, showing
centrum and bones of the neural arch.
Image courtesy Eschricht & Reinhardt (1866)
Given its findspot, a Red Crag origin for the specimen is likely. It must have been washed out of the Red Crag strata which outcrop in the Felixstowe area. The town is founded on these reddish-yellow, sandy, fossiliferous sediments of Pliocene age about 2.5 million years old. They also outcrop to the north at Bawdsey and to the south at Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex.

My first exposure to whale fossils was when I was working on the geological collections at Ipswich Museum in 2004/05. There were racks and boxes full of Crag specimens like this, but very few of them had any firm identification. Spencer (1970) recounts everything known about the Crag cetaceans in Ipswich Museum.

I contacted the Natural History Museum in London to see whether I could find out more. Dr Travis Park, a fossil cetacean specialist, gave helpful replies to my questions.
It is a partial thoracic vertebra from either a small baleen whale or a big toothed whale... it's likely [to be] either an anterior or mid-thoracic. ... 
In terms of size, it’s probably closer to something in the 5-10 metre range. That’s a very rough estimate given the degree of wear of the specimen. So it could be a small sperm whale or one of the beaked whales which easily get that size and even bigger. If it’s a baleen whale then a minke whale would be a good proxy although there was quite possibly other small baleen whale lineages around at that time too
It's unfortunate that the specimen is so worn as to make it impossible to narrow down to Order level (mysticete or odontocete), let alone Family. Still, it's an attractive thing to have on my shelf, and it prompts me to find out more about the cetaceans of our beautiful 'Blue Planet' as they were in the Pliocene.

  • Eschricht, DF & Reinhardt, J. 'On the Greenland Right Whale Balaena Mysticetus. In: Flower, WH (ed). Recent Memoirs of the Cetacea. Ray Society, London, 1866.
  • Spencer, HEP (1970). A Contribution to the Geological History of Suffolk. Part 5. The Early Pleistocene. The Crag Epochs and their Mammals. Transactions of the Suffolk Naturalists’ Society, vol.15, pt. 4.
For further information about the geology of the Suffolk coast see my booklet 'Tides of Change' (2015).

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Land gulls

Two 80-acre fields at Cookley, near Halesworth, with winter wheat
(shades of yellowish green, blueish green)
on clayland, undulating, empty - just the crop, the soil, the flint.

Setting for a cold wind.

January the last.

Beyond me in space: white gulls.

Gulls in flight, over the field's face, roving. A few standing, breasting the sun.

White owls over a green sea.

A skylark sings, aloft. 

The gulls think downward. Raised on ocean-space and sprats, they turn to terrestrial matters: beetles and worms. 

All beneath a milky blue and infinite sky.

They flutter to and fro: staring, stopping, turning to drop and rise - a mere second or two. Focused then refocusing. Steady meditation. Body thinking. Time.

How many are there – forty or fifty? 

But who watches gulls - those dustbins of the bird world!?

One could map their delicate trajectories: a script of white on green. Their nodes and lines, objectified. 

Instead, each bird enters my vision, enters my thoughts. 

In this moment each one enters my heart.

Their wavering flights criss-cross my sight in a ceaseless, white-winged ballet. 

They catch the sun, like dew on wheat and roof-lines in distant villages. 

Land gulls.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Norfolk Island Pine

There's a Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) sapling on the 6th floor at County Hall, Norwich. 

It is not looking particularly happy, but I'm told it is a lot happier here than in its previous location downstairs in the foyer. A gift to the County Council from a well-wisher, it was given a home by the Environment team last year when a decision was taken to remove all potted plants from the foyer.

I am delighted to make the plant's acquaintance. It is a member of the Araucariaceae, a family of primitive conifers with their evolutionary roots over 200 million years ago, in the late Triassic period. The Araucariaceae once thrived around the globe, including Europe, but since the great extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous, about 65 million years ago, they are only native to the southern hemisphere. Members include the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) which makes spectacular forests in Chile, the towering New Zealand kauri (Agathis australis) which produces kauri gum, and the extraordinary Wollemia nobilis, a living fossil discovered in a remote Australian ravine in 1994. They are thought to have diverged from a common ancestor in the early Cretaceous period.[1]

The plant has an upright stem covered with pointed, scale-like leaves towards the top and bristling branches that emerge radially. It has an aromatic, resinous smell. I can imagine a small Composognathid dinosaur hiding behind it.

I'd like to have a specimen of A.heterophylla. It is not hardy in the British climate, so it would have to be kept in a plant pot then brought indoors in autumn. However, it is said to be fast growing and can reach a height of over 50 metres. I may have to think twice about the idea!![2]


[1] - Kunzman, Lutz (2007). Araucariaceae (Pinopsida): Aspects in palaeobiogeography and palaeobiodiversity in the Mesozoic. Zoologischer Anzeiger. 246 (4): 257–77. Online at [accessed Jan 2018]
[2] - Araucaria heterophylla. Wikipedia. Online at [accessed Jan 2018]