Dinos in Lockdown #4 British Dinosaurs

Stan may not have been terrorising Britain 66 million years ago, but we can definately make a claim to the birthplace of dinosaurs. We have some pretty cool evidence to prove it too.

The first dinosaur bone was described in 1824 by William Buckland. Megalosaurus is now in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The word dinosaur was first used by Richard Owen in 1842. But dinosaurs are few and far between in the UK for a few reasons:

  • Most of Britain was under the sea at the time of the dinosaurs. This means we have amazing fossils of animals that lived in the sea, but not so much for dinosaurs.
  • When Britain was land during the time of the dinosaurs, it was very rare to preserve them as fossils. The sandstone they are preserved in often has an open porous structure that means fossil bones are dissolved away as water flows through the gaps in the rock.
  • It is rare for fossils to form on land anyway. If a dinosaur died on land, it was most likely eaten by other animals, rotted away and broken up by the wind and rain. Fossils are much more likely to form in the sea, lakes and rivers where they can be quickly covered up by sediment and buried.

Alongside some rare bones, the best evidence for dinosaurs in Britain is in the form of fossil footprints.

Dinosaur footprint from near Scarborough, showing details of the pads of the feet.

Unlike bones, theses fossils can tell us about the skin muscles of the animals and their behaviour. It turns out we had some pretty incredible dinosaurs right in our own back yard!

A great book about British dinosaurs is: Dinosaurs of The British Isles.

Dinos in Lockdown #3 Amber

One of my favorite dinosaur stories has got to be the original Jurassic Park Dinosaurs, DNA and Amber, in the Michael Chrichton’s book and Stephen Speilberg’s film. DNA is extracted from dinosaur biting insects and used to resurrect them.

It’s a really cool story that’s inspired millions of people around the world, but as I’m sure you’ll not be surprised to learn, it isn’t possible to get dinosaur DNA from amber for a few reasons:

Spider (at the top) in 40 million Baltic Amber. Manchester Museum

DNA is not preserved

DNA is unfotunately not preserved inside the insects. The bacteria inside the gut of the insects carries on rotting the insect after it’s death destroying and DNA. What we are looking at is a very accurate copy of the outside of the insect.

There isn’t much Jurassic amber anyway

Jurassic Amber is extremely rare and even more rarely contains insects, let-alond dinosaur DNA. There have been some amazing discoveries of 110 million year old spiders webs which give us clues to the insect diversity. Most of the beautifully preserved insects in amber are in much younger, long after most of the dinosaurs had become extinct.

Creatceous Amber, New Jersey. Manchester Museum

Blood but no DNA

Amazingly, fossil blood has been found in a 46 million year old Mosquito. But DNA is a very fragile molecule that doesn’t survive the fossilisation process.

There’s much more on this story from colleagues at the Natural History Museum, London.

Dinos in Lockdown #2

One of our most overlooked objects on display is also one of our most amazing. The point at which most doinosaurs became extinct – The Cretaceous/Tertiay bounday (also known as the Cretaceous/Palaeogene boundary).IMG_7030

The bottom of the grey layer marks the  exact point where three quarters of all plant and animal species became extinct, including most dinosaurs. Across the world, this layer has a high level of a rare element Iridium, not commom on Earth, but common in asteroids and comets. The extra-terrestrial cause of the mass extinction was first proposed by Alavez et. al. 1980.  The tell tale crater was later discovered in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

In recent years, it has become widely accepted that not all dinosaurs were wiped out. A few bird species, directly descended from Theropod (meat eating) dinosaurs, survived the extinction and thrive today.



Dinos in Lockdown #1

As DinoSelfie opportunities are a bit limited at the moment, I thought I’d share some of my favorite dinosaur facts and stories, many of which were in the Dippy exhibition at Rochale and Manchester Museum’s Fossils Gallery.

A couple of years ago we displayed our amazing new feathered Velociraptor dinosaur model.

It’s based on a handful of spectacular fossils from China which show the ghosts of preserved fossils.

Fossil remains of Zhenyuanlong suni. Credit: Junchang Lu

More stories to come soon 🙂

Ice Age Treasures: a fond farewell for a while, #MMhellofuture

Last chance to see some of our Ice Age treasures as we say a fond farewell for a few exciting years building our new Museum Hello Future! The ancient worlds galleries will close at the end of September 2018, as we transform into a natural history museum during the building work.


British Ice Age fossils including mammoth, hyena, bear and hippo formed the core of the Museum’s collection in the 1880s and 1890s when sites such as Creswell Crags were being excavated. They have been key to understanding where and how Neanderthals and other early humans lived in Britain during a period of rapid climate change during the Last Ice Age around 200,000 years ago. They continue to help us understand how our climate changed in the past, how people adapted and survived as animals migrated in and out of Britain and how we might adapt to future climate change.

Although some of our Ice Age Treasures will be resting from display for the next few years, they are still available by appointment and we still have our fabulous Fossils Gallery open as usual alongside a host of exciting events. Exciting times ahead!

Frogs in Ancient Egypt

Egypt at the Manchester Museum

An Old Kingdom carnelian frog amulet from Qau el-Kabir. Acc. no. 7122.

We recently had a visit from Joy Kremler, a Curatorial Assistant at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. Joy was visiting Manchester to discuss the process of redisplaying archaeological and Egyptological collections in advance of plans for a refurbishment at her own institution. Joy also has a particular interest in frogs, especially in the early apperance of frogs in Egyptian iconography and their use as amulets. It was a great opportunity, therefore, for Joy to meet my colleague Andrew Gray, our Curator of Herpetology, and see some of the many living frogs we have in our Vivarium at the Museum.

Middle Kingdom ivory wand or birthing tusk from the ‘Ramesseum Tomb’. Acc. no. 1801.

Joy was keen to point out although the frog in ancient Egypt is often associated with the goddess Hekat, the appearance of frogs in iconography…

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Visit to Palaon and the Neanderthal spears

I have just returned from a really interesting visit to the Palaon museum and Science Centre, Germany. We had loaned them our Sabre tooth cat tooth (now classified as a scimitar toothed cat) found at Creswell Crags for their Cats exhibition which has recently finished.

Manchester Museum’s Sabre Tooth Cat tooth (now classified as a scimitar toothed cat) found at Creswell Crags alongside Palaon’s reconstruction

The tooth is a really important part of the story of the last Ice Age in Europe as one of the northern-most records alongside Neanderthal remains. It’s been great to loan it out so a new audience can see it and share Manchester Museum’s amazing Ice Age fossil collection.

Palaon Museum and Science Centre

It was also a great opportunity to see an amazing new museum, particularly has we are changing to becoming the UK’s most imaginative, inclusive and caring museum: hello future. Palaon is famous as the site where the worlds oldest wooden weapons and tools have been found. They are around 300,000 years old and were preserved in anoxic lake sediments above what is now an abandoned open-cast coal pit.

300,000 year old wooden spears used by Neanderthals to hunt horses

modified tools, probably used as handles for flint knives

Not only are these incredible tools preserved when they would usually have rotted away, but there is an incredible array of amazing Ice Age animals preserved too. Everything from lions to spectacularly preserved horses that the Neanderthals had been hunting 300,000 years ago.

A selection of exceptionally preserved horse skulls, hunted by the Neanderthals

I’d describe Palaon as a mix between Creswell Crags, La Brea Tar pits and the Guggenheim. An incredible mix of world class collections, a stunning building and amazing museum, well worth a visit.

Geology: the foundation of #Civilizations, Petra @McrMuseum

One of my highlights from the first episode of the stunning new BBC Civilizations series (available on BBC iPlayer) was Simon Schama’s visit to Petra.

Image Wikipedia Berthold Werner

This beautiful building, created during the 4th century Nabataean Kingdom was only possible because of the  the properties of the sandstone it is carved into.

Most buildings are made from rock that has been excavated, shaped into blocks which are then stacked to make walls. Petra is different, the columns, doors and rooms have all been excavated from the bedrock in the side of the gorge.

The Nubian Sandstone

The orange-brown sandstone at Petra was formed over a range of different time periods (from the Cambrian to the Upper Cretaceous) and was formed in a variety of different conditions from desert to shallow seas. The distinctive colour comes from the iron minerals that have reacted with oxygen forming the rusty-red.

Sand from Petra

The sandstone is very similar to the Triassic sandstone found in Cheshire and north-west England. This formed during desert conditions. The remains of the sand dunes can still be seen where the rock is exposed at the Stockport railway viaduct (on the M60) and the railway cutting going into Liverpool Limestreet station.

Triassic desert sandstone from Cheshire, similar to the sandstone at Petra

So what made it possible to create this building at Petra?

Not too hard, not too soft

Like the story of the Three Bears and the porridge, the sandstone here is just right. The strength and hardness come from how strong the cement is that holds the grains together to form the rock.

Too soft and it crumbles into sand. Softer parts of this sandstone have eroded away over the years and now form much of the sand of the Arabian Desert. Too hard and it is difficult to chisel out to form features (such as the details at the top of the columns) and rooms.


In contrast to buildings made from blocks of rock, Petra is pretty strong when under attack from armies, earthquakes and the ravages of time. Conventional block built buildings inevitably have points of weakness where the blocks meet.

It looks nice

One of the marks of culture and civilization is the desire to be surrounded by beautiful things. I guess it is a matter of personal taste, but the sandstone is a beautiful rusty-red colour reflecting the iron-minerals coating the quartz grains in the sandstone.

Right place at the right time

Petra was on a key trading route. It sits in a narrow sheltered gorge with little room for conventional buildings. The obvious thing to do is tunnel into the soft rock.

I didn’t want to miss an excuse to include a clip of one of my favorite films: Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. Good opportunity to look at the Nubian Sandstone 🙂

Lamp from Petra, Manchester Museum

Marie Stopes re-assessed: reluctant Mancunian, sexual revolutionary, birth control pioneer

Our very own Honorary Researcher Dr. Clare Debenham will be giving a talk about the life and impact of Marie Stopes at Manchester Museum on:

Saturday 10th of March 2018, book your ticket on Eventbrite!

Marie Stopes studying plant fossils now in Manchester Museum
Image courtesy of John Rylands Library

Marie was controversial in her lifetime, but since the Second World she has been maligned both in the academic world and in the popular press. Now is the time to re-assess her achievements. This talk offers a frank appraisal. 

Marie Stopes was the first female lecturer at the University of Manchester and worked on the Museum’s fossil plant collection. Her book, Married Love was published 100 years ago and became an immediate best seller as capturing the mood of the age. The enthusiastic response to Married Love encouraged Marie to set up the country’s first birth control clinic. 

This will be a rare opportunity to see the fossils collected by Marie Stopes and hear about her fossil collecting adventures.

Love Fossils? – We need your help!


If you love fossils and want to help us unlock the treasures of Manchester Museum’s fossil collection, this is your chance to make a real difference. This Valentine’s day, we are inviting people to unlock the treasures at the heart of the museum through our exciting new online project Reading Nature’s Library.



Reading Nature’s Library has been developed to reveal information about the museum’s amazing objects to help discover more about our world. The project is part of Zooniverse an online home for interesting projects looking for volunteer help. With over 4.5 million objects in the museum’s collection, recording this information is too great a task for us to tackle alone. The first few thousand objects have been photographed and we want your help to read the labels and record the names, places and other information.



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