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Student makes Jurassic foot discovery

Palaeontology student Sam Davies with the fossilised dinosaur foot he discovered.

Palaeontology student Sam Davies with the fossilised dinosaur foot he discovered.

A University of Portsmouth student has made a “chance in a million” discovery – the fossilised foot of what could be the earliest Jurassic dinosaur.

Palaeontology student Sam Davies made the find during a field visit to Lavernock Beach, near Penarth, South Wales.

Experts have concluded that the foot belongs to the same theropod dinosaur – a distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex – whose skeleton was found by fossil-hunters following a cliff fall at the beach in spring 2014.

The previous discovery was announced by National Museum Wales in June this year, following analysis by experts from the University of Portsmouth, the University of Manchester and National Museum Wales.

Sam, from Bridgend, South Wales, discovered the dinosaur’s foot by chance during a visit to the beach earlier this month.

His tutor had suggested he visit the beach because its Jurassic cliffs are rich in fossils, little realising that a cliff fall just hours earlier had exposed another piece of the dinosaur.

But if Sam had arrived at the beach later, the fossil – found sitting on top of a slab of rock – would have been washed away by the tide of the River Severn.

The Jurassic foot.

The Jurassic foot.

Sam, who is about to start his third year at the university, said: “I had no idea what I’d picked up. It was my first day of doing field work for my third year project, and I was just wandering up and down the beach looking for fossils. The dinosaur they found at the beach wasn’t even on my mind.”

The student happened to see the fossil, embedded in a 20cm piece of rock, because it was in his line of sight as he was walking along.

“It was pure luck that I found it. It was just sitting on top of a slab of rock. It was obvious the fossil was fingers or toes, because there were three in a row,

Artist's impression of the dinosaur. (Bob Nichols, palaeocreations.com)

Artist’s impression of the dinosaur. (Bob Nichols, palaeocreations.com)

but the first thing that came to mind was that it was some sort of plesiosaur.”

Sam’s tutor, Reader in Palaeobiology at the University of Portsmouth, Dr David Martill, confirmed immediately that it was the missing foot after Sam emailed him pictures of his find.

“My first reaction was that I was very lucky,” said Sam. “Then I thought ‘This is going to make my project’ and started jumping up and down like a little boy.”

Dr Martill said: “We thought there was no way we were going to get any more remains out of this cliff. We didn’t expect it to fall down again so soon.

“The timing of this was critical. If I hadn’t put Sam on this project, if he hadn’t been there at that time, if the cliff fall hadn’t happened, if the tide had come in, then Sam wouldn’t have found it.

“This was a chance in a million find and highlights how important it is to encourage fossil-hunting in this country.

“This new specimen will help us chart the evolution of dinosaur feet, specifically looking at the number of toes and the nature of the ankle bone.

“What we can tell already is that this dinosaur was primitive. It’s right at the bottom of where we draw the line and say ‘These rocks are Triassic, and these are Jurassic’.

Dr Martill added: “We are now convinced it is the first ever Jurassic dinosaur.”

Sam Davies at the spot on Lavernock Beach, South Wales, where he made his dinosaur discovery.

Sam Davies at the spot on Lavernock Beach, South Wales, where he made his dinosaur discovery.

Sam has donated the foot to National Museum Wales, where the rest of the dinosaur is on display until the end of the month.

Dr Caroline Buttler, Head of Palaeontology at National Museum Wales, said: “The dinosaur found by Nick and Rob Hanigan is the first skeleton of a theropod found in Wales. Sam’s find adds to its significance because we can learn more about the animal and how it is related to the dinosaurs that eventually evolved into birds.

“We’re very grateful to Sam for donating the foot to the museum and hope to put it on display for our visitors to see very soon.”

The Welsh dinosaur – the first meat-eating dinosaur ever found in the country – was a small, slim, agile creature, probably only about 50cm tall, which had a long tail to help it balance.

It had lots of small, sharp, blade-like serrated teeth, suggesting that it would have eaten insects, small mammals and other reptiles.

The dinosaur – which has yet to be named – also probably had a fuzzy coat of simple proto-feathers, which would have been used for insulation and possibly display purposes. It may also have had simple quill-like structures for defence.

Palaeobiologist Dr David Martill said the discovery was a 'chance in a million'.

Palaeobiologist Dr David Martill said the discovery was a ‘chance in a million’.

The rocks where the dinosaur was found date back to a time immediately after the start of the Jurassic period, 201.3 million years ago. At that time the dinosaurs were just starting to diversify and the Welsh specimen is almost certainly the earliest Jurassic dinosaur in the world.

By comparison, Tyrannosaurus rex lived between 85 and 65 million years ago.

The Welsh dinosaur is related to Coelophysis, which lived approximately 203 to 196 million years ago in what is now the southwestern part of the USA.

2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Congratulations mate a well deserved find congratulations drink on me when we are back before the final year starts.

  2. Although I’m an English student, I have a huge interest in palaeontological studies and I must say that is an absolutely superb find! Congratulations! You are extremely lucky and definitely privileged to be a part of this extraordinary find! I wish you all the best and good luck for your final year.

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