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Students do the research

The project 'At the feet of the dinosaurs' is linked to the Bristol Dinosaur Project and offers students a chance to experience real research. The work is done by undergraduates and Masters students as their first experience of research. Each student is assigned a site, works through the collection, identifies specimens, and writes and illustrates the paper.

The work stretches the abilities of the students, encouraging them to think critically about what they are doing, and what they read, to query earlier accounts, identify new stories worth investigating, and to have the persistence to complete an independent project. At first, in reviewing a collection of hundreds or thousands of microvertebrate fossils, it may seem impossible to make sense of what is there. The students learn to identify different morphotypes, sort out the materials into categories, and then to engage with the published literature and established experts to determine the identities of their bones, teeth, and scales.

The tricky part is then to make sense of what they have found. What's new? Does my collection illustrate something that has only been suspected before? How does the site compare with others? Does it illuminate some regional pattern?

September 2014: Klara Norden (left) and Harry Allard (right) at their microscopes, and Dr Chris Duffin, in the background, speaks to Gareth Coleman and Heather Thiel about their mysterious microfossils.

Practical skills include sorting and cataloguing collections, learning the relevant scientific terminology, writing formal descriptions and systematic determinations, and photomicroscopy. In most cases, if the collection is old, the student attempts to piece together evidence about the original location, and then the site is relocated and the fossiliferous horizon identified (if possible) and put in context through field work.

The students and their projects

Tamara van den Berg [right] completed the first project, a detailed overview of the microvertebrate fossils from Tytherington Quarry, north-east of Bristol. She completed this project as part of the requirements for her MSc in Palaeobiology at Bristol in 2011, and the paper was published in Proceedings of the Geologists' Association in 2012. She was advised and helped in this project by David Whiteside, who completed his PhD on the Tytherington faunas in 1983, and by Remmert Schouten, Preparator in the Palaeobiology laboratories at Bristol. Tamara studied first at Groningen University in the Netherlands, and then came to Bristol to study for her Masters. You can download Tamara's paper here.

Davide Foffa [left] completed the second project, a detailed overview of the microvertebrate fossils from Durdham Down, Clifton, Bristol, close to the original site of discovery of Thecodontosaurus in the 1830s. Davide processed sediment from the original 1830s specimens, as well as freshly collected sediment, and his paper was published in Proceedings of the Geologists' Association in 2014. Davide studied first at the Università di Pisa in Italy, and then came to Bristol to study for his Masters in Palaeobiology. He was advised and helped in this project by Pedro Viegas, preparator on the Bristol Dinosaur Project, and David Whiteside, expert on the Bristol fissures and their tetrapod faunas. He has just begun a PhD at the University of Edinburgh. You can download Davide's paper here.

The third project was completed by Dana Korneisel (right), an undergraduate from Iowa State University, studying there for a joint Bachelors degree in Geology and Biology, who came to Bristol in 2013 as a summer volunteer. Her subject was a small collection of Rhaetic microvertebrates from Charton Bay in Devon. Unexpectedly, these tiny fossils were found preserved within burrow systems constructed by shrimps. Field work in Devon showed how the Rhaetic transgression had brought with it a flurry of bone concentrate as well as marine shrimps. The shrimps constructed complex burrow systems on the sea floor, and the bone-rich sediment washed into the burrows, and was even packed and reworked by the shrimps. Dana's paper was completed with substantial input from Ramues Gallois, expert on the geology of Devon, and Chris Duffin, expert on Rhaetic fishes, and it has just been published (January, 2015) in Proceedings of the Geologists' Association. You can download the paper here.

The fourth project, by Bristol undergraduate Catherine Klein (left) is focused on a new fissure site, Woodleaze, part of the Tytherington complex. Catherine comes from Luxemburg, and is studying for an MSci in Palaeontology and Evolution in Bristol. She began the processing and study of the specimens as a summer volunteer in 2013, and has completed the work in 2014. She presented a poster at the meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy in York (September 2014), and has just submitted her paper to Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, where it is under review (November, 2014). Her project is based on collections made some decades ago by David Whiteside and others, and her materials include some excellent remains of the small sphenodontian Clevosaurus, which was evidently abundant on the Tytherington palaeo-island. The most exciting discovery was that the sphenodontian is almost certainly a new species, and Catherine has thought up a suitable name, which will be revealed when the paper is published.

The fifth project concerns Hampstead Farm Quarry, based on enormous collections made in the 1970s and 1980s by local fossil collector Mike Curtis. So far, we have counted 20,000 specimens, all carefully boxed and labelled, in the collections of Bristol City Museum and Bristol University. Work on this site began in summer 2013, when volunteers Ellen Mears, an undergraduate at the University of Leeds, and Alana Weir, a Bristol undergraduate, began sorting through the materials and writing up the fish scales and vertebrae. The work continues in summer 2014, when Bristol undergraduates Gareth Coleman, Ellen MacDonald, and Heather Thiel have taken over and made an overview of the vast collection. We also re-located the site, logged it, and collected twenty bags of bone-rich sediment, which will be acid-processed and picked by Caterine Riesgo, a visiting preparator-in-training, supported by EU Leonardo funds. We hope to complete this faunal study in late 2014.

The sixth project is based on further collections by Mike Curtis, this time from Manor Farm quarry, near Aust cliff. These are being studied by Harry Allard, a visiting summer volunteer who completed his BSc in Zoology at the University of Exeter in 2014. Field work in August 2014 showed the site is not as pristine as it had been, but it shows an excellent 'demonstration' section through the entire Penarth Group ('Rhaetic').




The seventh project is underway, in the hands of Klara Norden, currently an undergraduate in Bristol, studying for the MSci in Palaeobiology and Evolution. She is tackling collections made at a classic quarry south of Bristol, Marston Road, near Holwell. This site was first mentioned by Charles Moore in his 1867 paper, and it had been used (mistakenly) to try to date a nearby mammal-bearing fissure. Klara is sorting and identifying the Rhaetic fishes and other fossils, and during fieldwork in August 2014, we were able to retrace Moore's steps and identify unequivocally the classic Marston Road Quarry. It had been re-excavated by Mike Curtis in 1983, but is now covered with a tangle of brambles, having been largely obscured by a road-widening scheme in the 1990s. But we found it, and can map its relation to the nearby mammal-bearing fissures in the underlying Carboniferous Limestone.


The publications

These are the outputs, the scientific publications that mark the endpoint of the achievements of each student.

Tamara Van den Berg (2012)

Davide Foffa (2014)

Dana Korneisel (2015)


In September 2013, we held a mini-symposium, with contributions from students involved in the summer projects, including Davide Foffa, Catherine Klein, Ellen Mears, and Alana Weir.

In a further symposium in September 2014, talks were given by Catherine Klein, Harry Allard, Gareth Coleman, Ellen Macdonald, Heather Thiel, and Klara Norden to a wider audience, and Dr Chris Duffin came to offer advice and guidance in identifying tricky bones and teeth (see image at the top).

The advisers

The project is supervised by Professor Mike Benton at the University of Bristol, and special advice is provided on the fossil fishes by Dr Chris Duffin and on the reptiles by Dr David Whiteside. These three variously help formulate the projects, provide detailed advice and training, and help in enhancing the papers during the write-up phase.

Mike Benton

Chris Duffin

David Whiteside

Dicynodon Illustration courtesy of John Sibbick.
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