Insight into the Isle of Wight during the Cretaceous

The Wealden Group of the Wessex Basin is exposed on the surface in the coastal cliffs of the 500 Teeth Dinosaur Isle of Wight off the English south coast. This strata is famous for its abundance of well-preserved dinosaur fossils, both body fossils and trace fossils as well as other prehistoric animal fossil material.

Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals from the Mesozoic have long been associated with this island, but now a new study into the island’s ancient fauna and flora has helped provide fresh insight into the diversity of life during the reign of the dinosaurs.

Exploring an Ancient Ecosystem

For Dr Steve Sweetman of the University of Portsmouth, the research has led to the identification of forty-eight new species of prehistoric animal including Deinonychus sized Dromaeosaurs and large Pterosaurs. The work of Dr Sweetman and his colleagues has enabled scientists to fill in a number of gaps in the early Cretaceous eco-system and provide much more detail than previously available on the smaller animals that shared the dinosaur’s habitat.

Important Dinosaur Fossil Location

The Isle of Wight’s dinosaurs are globally significant; a large number of different dinosaur species have been discovered in the rocks that make up the island. Most of the fossils date from approximately 135 – 130 million years ago (Hauterivian to Barremian Formation). The island, during this part of the early Cretaceous was an extensive flood plain that linked the continents of Africa, Europe and what was to become the Americas. The area formed a land bridge and as well as being a rich and fertile environment in itself it may have been on the migration route of many types of prehistoric animal.

The number of new species discovered by Dr Sweetman and his team is remarkable, especially when all the work to prepare and identify the fossils, many of which are minute, has been undertaken in just four years.

A Number of New Species Identified

Dr Sweetman’s haul includes eight dinosaurs, six mammals and fifteen different types of lizard all taken from cliffs of the Isle of Wight. Thanks to his efforts we now have a better understanding of the eco-system and have the opportunity to study in more detail some of the smaller faunal types.

However, Dr Sweetman did find fossil evidence of Brachiosaurs, the largest dinosaurs known from UK strata.

Rather than wait for fossils to be weathered out of the cliffs, he excavated a block of sediment approximately 3,500 kilogrammes in weight and then removed it all to a preparation area, where it was dried and then each individual grain was scrutinised. As well as larger items such as fossil bone, he discovered tiny teeth, fossilised jaws and other micro-fossils that enabled him to build up a picture of life during the Cretaceous.

Dr Sweetman explained that his technique was more comprehensive than traditional palaeontological methods and his systematic working has enabled such a rich picture of life to be built up. It is a testament to him and his team’s dedicated research that such a detailed picture of a Cretaceous ecosystem could be established.

Four Years of Dedicated Graft to Produce this Analysis

Dr Sweetman went on to state that it had taken just four years of hard work to make the new prehistoric fauna and flora discoveries. In one of the very first samples studied, the team found a tiny bone from a jaw of an extinct newt-sized salamander. Lots of new species were subsequently discovered.

Dr Sweetman went on to add that it is important to try to build up a more complete picture of Cretaceous environments. Lots of big animals were known to science but few researchers had tried to fill in the gaps in the food chain and food webs before. Dr. Sweetman wanted to work out what sort of creatures would have lived in the shadow of the dinosaurs and pterosaurs that dominated terrestrial faunas.

This new study will cement further the reputation of the University of Portsmouth as well as reinforcing the belief that the Isle of Wight remains one of the most important sites in the world for early Cretaceous fossils.

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