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Thursday, 26 September 2013

The solution to everything: under the (Jurassic) sea, part 2

In the last post, I mentioned that I was currently working on a Oxford Clay Formation and ichthyosaur display for the University of Portsmouth. Most of that post was dedicated to the various graphics and text generated for the ichthyosaur end of things (specifically, Ophthalmosaurus), so we'll now turn attention to the other half of the display: the Oxford Clay Formation itself, its palaeoenvironment and fauna. The words below are a very brief introduction to one of Britain's most stellar fossil units, complete with some of the artwork and graphics which will soon be adorning the walls of UoP. If you want to know more about the Oxford Clay, you may also want to check out Mark Wildman's Saurian, which has discussed the Oxford Clay and its fossils at length across many posts. Baring a quick nod to Dave Martill for his help with shaping the words here, I'll hand you over to the display text.


One-hundred and sixty million years ago, most of Europe - including the British Isles – was underwater, flooded by a warm, shallow sea populated by astonishing marine reptiles, gigantic fish and a diverse invertebrate fauna. The Oxford Clay Formation, one of the UK's most famous fossil-bearing rock units, provides an extensively researched window into this Jurassic marine ecosystem.
Extent of the Oxford Clay across the UK, with major localities. Whittlesey, the source of the marine reptile skeleton behind this and the preceding blog post, is highlighted in red. 
The Oxford Clay: geology, geography, economic geology
The Oxford Clay Formation is an extensive succession of dark mudrocks with intermittent limestones which crop out  almost continuously from Dorset to Yorkshire. Further exposures are found on the seabed of the English Channel and in Normandy, France. The entire Oxford Clay sequence is of late Middle Jurassic to lower Upper Jurassic age (164-159 Ma) and fossils occur throughout, although most vertebrate fossils occur in the Peterborough Member, a unit of organic-rich rocks which represent the lowest part of the formation. Considerable commercial interests in the Peterborough Member date to the 1870s when excavation of its clays began for brick making. The high organic content of these clays meant that they fired quickly at low temperatures, allowing for production of high-quality bricks at low cost. The Oxford Clay brick pits are now mostly closed, but the tremendous economic interest in the Oxford Clay has ensured that multitudes of fossils were continually excavated from quarries on an industrial scale for nearly 100 years, permitting a detailed view of the Oxford Clay palaeobiota.

Palaeoenvironment and palaeoecology
The Oxford Clay sea was a warm (water column temperatures of 20°C) and shallow (tens of metres) marine environment, with a rich supply of nutrients from local land sources. The abundance of light and nutrients supported a rich and complex ecosystem (below). Planktonic organisms, including numerous types of algae and zooplankton, were abundant in the Oxford Clay sea and likely formed the basis of its food web. Plankton was the food source for small invertebrates and juvenile fish, which in turn were preyed on by the larger fish, ammonites, belemnites, squid and reptiles that comprise the majority of Oxford Clay fossils. Ammonites are particularly common components of the Oxford Clay, being represented by some 78 species. The community of bony fishes and sharks was almost as rich as that of the ammonites, with 32 species adapted to exist in a variety of ecological niches. The Oxford Clay fauna contains one of the most spectacular bony fish to ever evolve, the 12-15 m long pachycormid Leedichthys problematicus. This animal was not a predator however, but instead filtered plankton from the water column using enormous gill apparatus.
Schematic reconstruction of the Peterborough Member fauna, palaeoenvironment and nutrient cycling. Animals are not to scale, unless you wish to invoke the Father Dougal sense of size. Based on data from Martill and Hudson (1991) and Martill et al. (1994).
The most famous Oxford Clay animals are the marine reptiles (below), which including ichthyosaurs (the 'fish lizards'), plesiosaurs (four-flippered reptiles with variably sized heads and necks, some of which – the pliosaurs - were the dominant predators of Jurassic seas) and thalassosuchians (marine crocodiles). Dinosaurs are also known from the Oxford Clay, likely representing animals washed in from the hinterland or individuals that died swimming between islands. Small flying reptiles, pterosaurs, were also present, but are very rare fossils.

Composition and abundances of the Peterborough Member reptile fauna. Based on Martill and Hudson 1991.
The sea floor was not as vibrant with life as the water column. Because the sea floor sediments and bottom waters had relatively low oxygen levels, the diversity of benthic species was restricted compared to the waters above. Bivalves, gastropods, arthropods and foraminifera comprise the majority of fossils from these communities, as well as the burrows of organisms which lived within the soft sea floor sediments. Sediment stability was an issue for some benthic organisms, leading to colonisation of decaying animal skeletons as substitutes for firm substrates by some species..

Micro- and macroconchs (male and female, respectively) of the ammonite Erymnoceras coronatum, hanging around the Oxford Clay seaway. The macroconch is 40-50 cm across, while the microconch, as is typical of ammonites, is about 20-25% of that size.
Ammonites: floating clocks and palaeontological enigmas
Ammonites, nektonic cephalopods with chambered external shells, form the backbone of biostratigraphy for Mesozoic rocks. Ammonite faunas evolved rapidly enough to permit identification of one million year intervals of Mesozoic time, allowing for very precise dating of ammonite-bearing rocks. The Erymnoceras coronatum ammonites shown above are one of the index fossils for the Peterborough Member, placing it firmly in the middle Callovian stage of the Jurassic.

Oxford Clay ammonites provide key data on the evolution of ammonites, and were integral in identifying male (small, elaborately ornamented ‘microconchs’) and female (much larger, less ornamented ‘macroconchs’) morphs. Despite the abundance and familiarity of ammonite fossils however, many aspects of their anatomy and lifestyles remain mysterious. Questions such as what they ate, where they lived in the water column, their floating orientation, as well as the exact nature of the squid-like creature living within the shell, remain unanswered.

Bonus fun: the assembled board
As a way of signing off these two linked posts, I thought it might be fun to show off the entire display board itself, just so anyone interested can see how all the text and images here will hang together. The entire thing is well over 3 m long, so should look fairly imposing when it's finally printed.
UoP's Oxford Clay and Ophthalmosaurus display text, coming soon to a display cabinet near me.
And that's our time in the Oxford Clay seaway done for the time being, folks. I'm hoping to get back to fairly regular posting over the next few weeks, because things have been a bit quiet about here of late thanks to a particularly busy conference season. Coming soon, hopefully: some comments on the All Yesterday's sequel, All Your Yesterdays.


  • Martill, D. M. and Hudson, J. D. (1991). Fossils of the Oxford Clay (Field Guides to Fossils) (No. 4). The Palaeontological Association, London.
  • Martill, D. M., Taylor, M. A., Duff, K. L., Riding, J. B., & Bown, P. R. (1994). The trophic structure of the biota of the Peterborough Member, Oxford Clay Formation (Jurassic), UK. Journal of the Geological Society, 151(1), 173-194.


  1. I wonder, if ammonites had precise enough control over the gas pressure in specific chambers could they have been oriented horizontally? Now that would make a fun reconstruction. Maybe as a defence measure, they could expell water from their siphon to spin on their axis!

    Not a serious suggestion, but can it be ruled out?

  2. When you refer to "maximum general" I assume you are referring to those found and if so, it should be stated like "Maximum known genera" because what we know, apart from taxonomical imprecision is always a minimum in terms of the diversity that was actually there. That's assuming it's not finalized yet.

    BTW, I'm not generally a fan of watermark type stuff but did you give any consideration to having a watermark of the eye (or head) of I iceni on the poster?

    Overall, really cool and it would be neat to see that whole banner life size

  3. Sorry to pepper you with comments, but might we see the other diagrams at some point (maybe you're saving them for future posts). As much as I'd like to visit, the budget doesn't extend to a trip to Portsmouth any time soon, alas.

  4. I've always wondered what was the engine of many of those seemingly highly productive Mesozoic seaways. They seem so fundamentally different from many of the most productive modern oceans- lacking upwelling, warm, anoxic water with little mixing and nutrient upwelling- how did they function? I gather from this post that input from terrestrial river systems was a predominant source of nutrients in at least this ecosystem.

    On the ammonite niche question- No doubt they were very diverse in lifestyle but their shape never struck me as one of a particularly fast swimmer. Perhaps some species secreted a mucousal net to trap plankton, marine snow etc etc

  5. The equivalent of ''Pterosaurs'' for marine reptiles ? That would be a dream with such magnificent artworks...