University of Leicester eBulletin

Fishing for Clues 

August 2003


University palaeobiologist and students contribute to television series on the history of life on earth

Following on from the remarkable success of Dinosaur Detectives screened in 2002, which pulled in an audience of 2.4 million viewers, RDF Media (of Wife Swap and Faking it fame) have been commissioned by Channel 4 to produce a television series centred on palaeontology. The first in the series of seven programmes, called The BIG MONSTER DIG was screened on the evening of August 18. 

The series is primarily aimed at children, families and anyone with an interest in the history of life on Earth, and it shows how, armed with some know-how, a hammer and a collecting bag, anybody can look for and find beautiful and significant fossils. The programme is presented by Lucy Taylor and has three geological experts in the BIG DIG team who, try to solve palaeontological problems brought to them by members of the public. 

Dr Sarah Gabbott, a Lecturer in the Geology Department at the University of Leicester, is a palaeobiologist, so she uses her expertise and knowledge of the way that ancient creatures lived and died to help solve the mysteries that the team are given.†

In one programme the grandchildren of famous Victorian fossil collector Alfred Leeds, asked the team 'how big was Leedsicthys?'. Leedsicthys is a giant fossil fish and its six-metre-long skull has recently been discovered in the Oxford Clay near Peterborough - unfortunately the rest of the fish is missing. 

So the Big Dig Team set about trying to use various methods to determine the true length of the monster fish. During this episode students studying geology at the University of Leicester helped in the painstaking process of uncovering and preserving the bones of the giant fish that swam the seas at the same time as dinosaurs roamed the land. The students armed with dental tools spent two days picking away the clay from thousands of fragile bones called gill rakers, which the giant fish would have used to sieve the Jurassic seas for plankton, in much the same way as basking sharks and whale sharks do today. 

Whilst the students were busy digging Sarah visited Leicesterís famous fish market to look for clues as to what the fish may have looked like because the shape of a fish varies depending upon its behaviour. For example, a tuna is perfectly engineered to cruise efficiently through the water, unlike a pike that has itsí distinctive shape because it waits in ambush for prey and lunges quickly at its quarry. 

Sarah bought a piece of shark and salmon from the market to take back to the University of Leicester to dissect. We canít give away the story here but she was able to explain why no complete giant Leedsicthys fish have ever been found - only their heads and tails are known. †

Other programmes centre around pterosaurs from the Cretaceous of the Isle of Wight, iguandodons from Hastings, mammoths from Gloucestershire, dinosaur eggs from southern France and sabre-toothed cats from the Spanish Pyrenees. 

The programme shows how much fun geology is, how exciting finding ancient creatures that no one else has ever seen can be, and it also shows what palaeontologists know all ready: that the general public can make a significant contribution to science.†

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Information supplied by: Barbara Whiteman
Last updated: August 2003
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