Couple discover Wiltshire site with one of the largest collections of rare marine fossils in UK

ITV News correspondent Neil Connery reports on the amateur palaeontologist's spectacular discovery in Wiltshire

A couple discovered a site with one of the largest collections of rare marine fossils in the UK, thanks to the use of Google Earth.

The amateur palaeontologists discovered the site with fossils estimated to be 164-174 million years old (the Middle Jurassic period) in Wiltshire during the second lockdown, while researching the geology of the area online.

After being contacted by the pair, Dr Tim Ewin, a senior curator in Earth sciences at the Natural History Museum, secured funding for a dig at the site, and was amazed at the hundreds of specimens discovered.

Feather stars (stalk-less crinoids), sea lilies (stalked crinoids) and starfish (Asteroidea) fossils are rare as their multiplate skeleton quickly falls apart after death and they require instant burial for preservation.

Neville Hollingworth, who is also an honorary research associate at the University of Birmingham’s school of geography, earth and environmental science, and Sally Hollingworth, from Swindon, were the co-discoverers of the site.

Sally Hollingworth points to a fossil of a comatulida crinoid Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

He explained: “About six months ago, at the beginning of the year, when we were doing some research on local geology we noticed on Google Earth this little quarry and got in touch with the site manager and asked if we could visit.

“So we came on down to the bottom of the quarry and we noticed that the floor of the quarry was a clay layer, and on the surface of the clay with lots and lots of little fossils which we call crinoids or feather stars.”

The couple took a slab from a site and cleaned it up at home. They discovered an “incredible sight” of “beautiful” sea lilies, crinoids, starfish and brittle stars.

Mrs Hollingworth said: “It was amazing, the preservation is absolutely stunning.

“They are 167 million years old, these little critters, and the preservation is just amazing.”

The findings should allow research that was not possible before due to the small number of samples discovered.

One of the fossils uncovered Credit: Natural History Museum/PA

Dr Hollingworth said that in 2004 he found a Mammoth skull. But he said the discovery of the rare marine fossils was equal, if not better.

He said: “This is a different type of site with different types of fossils, but they’re unique from that perspective, this is a mammoth find.”

He added: “We’ve got a multidisciplinary team bringing it all together to understand the environment in which these animals lived and then died.

“From all the evidence we’ve gathered so far, it was quite sudden and they were probably buried alive by mudflow, some sort of submarine landslide buried them all where they were.

“And that in itself is tragic but fascinating because we’re looking back at a period of time when the dinosaurs were living on the land and vegetated shallow land masses around here.”

He added: “And all we’ve got is a snapshot, like a window back in time to what we call the Jurassic Pompei, that’s what I’m describing as because all the animals died where they lived.

“They weren’t transported anywhere, they were literally buried, that was it instantly, and we’re unearthing that.”

The dig site was found using Google Earth Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

Dr Ewin explained: “We know that they were buried during life, because we’ve got some evidence to show that the animals are adopting what we call stress position to being buried, they’ve closed up their arms to try to stop the mud getting into their mouths and our other orifices.

“So we know these animals were alive when they were buried.”

He added: “We knew instantly that it was an important site because of the quality of preservation, the number of specimens that we could find and that is exceptional.”

Dr Ewin said the team found so many specimens that they had to choose what to leave behind.

He said: “It’s a really nice problem to have because these fossil starfish and sea urchins are really rare.

“And normally we have the problem ‘are we going to find enough?’ and this is an alien sort of position to be in where we’ve got so much that we’re sort of having to contemplate leaving behind really nice material.”

A paleontologist from the Natural History Museum cleans a slab containing an isocrinus fossil Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

Researchers believe some of the fossils belong to creatures that are not yet been known. They believe they have unearthed three new species so far, a type of feather star, a brittle star and a sea cucumber.

Experts will also be able to use the specimens to look at the evolution of known animals. Among the discoveries is a starfish with an arm being regenerated.

Dr Ewin said: “It’s really an exceptional site, and the thing that’s so amazing about it is, is just the sheer amount of material just, and it’s all beautifully preserved.

“And so it’s going to allow us to do some really cool science.”

Describing the area that the fossils were found in, he said at some point it would have been some sort of delta regime.

“So we know that by looking at the rocks, and there’s also a huge abundance of fossil wood at the site, and echinoderms, starfish and sea urchins, only live in the sea,” said Dr Ewin.

He added: “And so to have sea urchins and then a load of fossil wood, suggests that there was a sort of delta coming in.

“And in order to get these echinoderms preserved, we need to have very rapid burial in sediments low in oxygen.”