kim biddulph

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Fossils and dinosaurs

I really enjoyed writing about fossils, while my co-writer wrote about dinosaurs, for the Hamilton Trust. I think it was one of the most enjoyable blocks I have so far written for them, despite having also written Stone Age to Iron Age Britain, the Shang Dynasty of China, the Ancient Greeks and the history of various sports.

I got to write about some very interesting characters in the history of science, including Mary Anning, Charles Darwin and William Buckland. Mary Anning and Charles Darwin are specifically mentioned in the Key Stage 2 science curriculum, of course, and both their stories are very engaging, if very different.

Mary was the daughter of a cabinetmaker and lived in Lyme Regis. She managed to get some rudimentary schooling and learned to read and write, but that was it. She made her living by finding fossils on the beach and selling them to collectors. Most of these were wealthy, educated gentlemen dabbling in natural history who went on to publish the finds as their own. Now the specimens she uncovered are being reclaimed for her. I was excited to see a huge ichthyosaur (a marine reptile from the same time as the dinosaurs) she found in the Natural History Museum in London recently.

Ichthyosauria.001 - Natural History Museum of London.JPG
Ichthyosauria.001 – Natural History Museum of London” by Drow maleOwn work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

I am very fond of Charles Darwin, and I have written about him elsewhere, but I didn’t know very much about William Buckland before writing this block for the Hamilton Trust, so it was quite a journey of discovery! I wrote the block using a ‘Take One Picture’ model, which has been used for museum teaching quite a lot. The image in question was a silhouette (very popular in the nineteenth century) of Buckland and his wife and son and several of their fossils.

Buckland family silhouette.jpg
Buckland family silhouette” by Mary Buckland, née Morland (1797-1857) – Originally taken from Elizabeth Gordon’s (1894) The Life and correspondence of William Buckland, London: John Murray. p.103.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Buckland found many Ice Age fossils in his explorations of Britain’s caves, including Kirkdale in Yorkshire and Goats Hole Cave on the Gower Peninsula of Wales. Famously, he discovered a skeleton in the latter that he named the Red Lady of Paviland and posited that she was a Roman camp follower. In reality the ‘Red Lady’ is actually a man and may date back as far as 30,000 years, a burial from the Upper Palaeolithic.

He’s more famous, though, for identifying the first dinosaur, although they weren’t called that at the time. Earlier finds of the same dinosaur, Megalosaurus, had been thought to have come from Roman war elephants. He noticed that a jaw bone looked very much like modern lizards, but much larger, and therefore coined the name. His wife, Mary, was an excellent scientific illustrator as well as a natural historian in her own right, and drew the Megalosaurus jaw in question for her husband’s publication.

Buckland, Megalosaurus jaw.jpg
Buckland, Megalosaurus jaw” by Mary Morland (later Buckland) – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Quite wonderfully, he also coined the term coprolite for fossilised faeces, having first been notified by Mary Anning of strange stones found in the abdominal area of the ichthyosaurs she was finding.

The block gave me an opportunity to explore the history of science with children, and to reflect on how science works, how it is important to publish and get your name on discoveries, and the social history of the nineteenth century where women were not given the scientific kudos they deserved. I may also have revealed Buckland’s proclivity to eat every animal he came across, from bluebottles to mice on toast by way of panther. Well, I couldn’t not, could I?


Discover Darwin

I’m always a little daunted by the prospect of reading the classics. I don’t get on well with Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy, though Jane Austen is my all time favourite writer. So I didn’t expect to be able to follow the writing of Charles Darwin when I first read On the Origin of Species. Amazingly, I could, and very easily. Darwin had not written a dense scientific treatise. It was a popular book intended for a very wide audience. It’s wonderfully poetic in places.

If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to read just the last chapter of the book, or even just the final paragraph if you’re that worried. The final chapter summarises the entire book, and the last paragraph is an even more succinct precis.

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

I used this paragraph as the basis for a few lessons work on non-fiction writing for a set of lessons The Charles Darwin Trust educational consultants (including me) wrote for the London Borough of Bromley. The borough had unsuccessfully attempted to get the natural environment around Down House listed as a World Heritage Site as it was there, in Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory, rather than the Galapagos Islands or anywhere in South America, that Darwin did most of his thinking, observation and experimentation that confirmed his ideas about natural selection.

entangled bank

I contrasted Darwin’s writing with that of modern science writers such as E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins (in hindsight I should have included some female science writers). I wanted to get across the idea to children that writing in science doesn’t have to be impenetrable and that by writing in an engaging and even poetic way, it can bring science to a wider audience.

Trace fossils

I volunteered for the Oxford University Museum of Natural History yesterday on one of their Dino Days that they do for Year 7s. I wanted to remind myself what secondary school students were like, plus I’m fond of dinosaurs. It was a great day.

I was helping with casting dinosaur footprints and other fossil casts with plaster of paris. One of the conservators had made silicon moulds for the job, and the kids had to follow instructions to mix the plaster and pour it into the moulds. While it hardened, they found out a bit more about trace and true form fossils.

I’m particularly fond of trace fossils, from coprolites (fossilised faeces) to footprints to skin impressions. I wrote a block of work on trace fossils, the study of which is called ichnology, for the Hamilton Trust. While the conditions for fossilisation for both true form and trace fossils are similar, there is so much more potential for greater numbers of trace fossils than true form, since every single dinosaur could have left thousands of footprints or specimens of faeces behind, but only one body.


A large coprolite (fossilized feces or dinosaur poop) from South Carolina, USA..jpg
A large coprolite (fossilized feces or dinosaur poop) from South Carolina, USA.” by PoozeumOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

One of my favourite finds for the block I wrote was a quarry in Bolivia where thousands of dinosaur footprints have been found. Due to the movement of the earth’s crust since the time of the dinosaurs, these now appear to be walking vertically up the wall.

Dinosaur tracks in Bolivia 1.jpg
Dinosaur tracks in Bolivia 1” by Jerry Daykin from Cambridge, United KingdomFlickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

I also like this one where the dinosaur had clearly sat down and then moved away again, found at a farm in Utah.

Squatting dinosaur tracks at Johnson’s Farm in St George, by Nancy Carruthers, Utah Geological Survey

Early and modern humans have also left tracks (though not in the same strata as dinosaurs as some would have you believe) like the famous ones at Laetoli in Tanzania (probably 3.7 million years old and belonging to Australopithecus afarensis), but also at Happisburgh in the UK (about 800,000 years old and possibly Homo antecessor) and modern humans, Homo sapiens, around 7000 years ago at Monte Hermoso in Argentina. What better way to get children to engage with what these footprints can tell us (height, gait, speed) than by getting them to make dinosaur feet, dip them in paint and run across paper with them, or make their own footprints in wet sand and fill them in with casting material?

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