RAMM’s extensive collection of fossils tells an exciting story of life and evolution in Devon. Devonian plants and Triassic reptiles, Jurassic fish and Cretaceous sea urchins, Tertiary leaves and Ice Age Mammal remains – together they make RAMM’s fossil collection a unique archive of ancient life excavated from local grounds.
Donations of fossils from all four corners of the world are valuable additions to the collection and good examples of how life developed in other parts of the Earth in the past.
Ice Age Creatures
Mammal bones and teeth from the Ice Age period. This collection includes mammoth tusks, hippopotamus bones, rhinoceros teeth and hyena jaws from various locations in Devon. Most of the specimens were found in limestone caves which once were used by animals and humans for shelter.
Ever seen a hippopotamus swimming in the rivers of East Devon? Seems unbelievable but once it was true!
It is hard to believe that the little town of Honiton with its many shops, houses and highways was once marshland, and about 100,000 years ago the area was home to elephants, hippos, bison, cave lions and red deer.
The Quarternary (which started around 1.6 million years ago) is mainly known as a time of snow, ice and glaciers and is often described as the ‘Ice Age’. At that time even North Devon was temporarily covered by an ice sheet and the annual average temperature was 7-10ºC below today’s values. However, this cold period was repeatedly interrupted by several warmer periods known as ‘interglacials’. Glaciers melted, big rivers developed, and sea levels rose. Average temperatures were higher than today and winters were much less severe.
During the interglacial phases animals migrated from Southern Europe towards England, where they found a perfect habitat to live – rich in food and water. About 100,000 years ago, during one of these warmer periods called the Ipswichian, a wide range of species, including hippos, lived in South Devon. The hippos in particular were attracted by the water-rich and boggy area around Honiton.
In 1965 a new road was constructed near Honiton. The work revealed a rock section rich in mammal bones, mostly leg and back bones, and peaty material. The excavated bone remains come from 17 different individual hippopotamus, but also from elephants, giant ox and red deer. Unusually, the hippopotamus bones either belong to juvenile or elderly individuals. Suggestions are that the hippopotamus lived in a rather marshy and boggy area where occasionally weaker animals such as the very young or old became trapped. In 1968 the Ministry of Transport donated these fossil bones to RAMM.
Come and see them in the Down to Earth gallery!
Mammoths in Newton Poppleford
RAMM has recently been given the tooth of a mammoth. It was found by staff of the Environment Agency during work to repair the flood-damaged bank of the River Otter near Newton Poppleford.
Today we may be worried about temperature and climate change, but this tooth takes us back to the later Pleistocene and the last time, some 70,000 to 20,000 years ago, when Devon had a sub-arctic climate and glaciers had advanced to cover northern and much of southern Britain.
The elephant-like woolly mammoth with its thick hairy coat was able to survive in these conditions. Some poor individual seems to have died near the Otter at this time and one of its teeth was washed into the river gravel. The degree of wear on the tooth gives an idea of the animal’s age – about 20 years old.
The RAMM has similar finds from East Devon, mainly derived from the gravels of the River Sid and the clay underlying part of the beach. These were collected by the noted Sidmouth antiquarian Peter Orlando Hutchinson in the 1870s.
The reason why the mammoths died out has been controversial. The main factors seem to have been hunting by Homo sapiens and the warming of the climate at the end of the ice age. The resulting change of habitat saw the open grassy tundra-like country preferred by the mammoths becoming invaded by trees.
Recent research has shown that mammoths survived on Wrangel Island off the north coast of Russia as late as 4,000-4,500 years ago.
This jaw bone of an ancient hyena came to light during an early excavation of Kents Cavern near Torquay. Between 1846 and 1858 the archaeologist and palaeontologist William Pengelley systematically unearthed and recorded a huge number of human artefacts and animal bones on the site.
The chambers and passages at Kents Cavern were created around 2 million years ago. During the Ice Age, when temperatures dipped sharply, early humans and prehistoric animals used the cave for shelter. Many hyena teeth, jaws and bones have been found. Like its modern African descendants, it was probably a pack animal acting both as hunter and scavenger. Its powerful jaws and teeth are able to crush bones. Bones of other animals from the caves show tooth marks made by the hyenas gnawing them.
The caves came to be one of the most informative sites for archaeologists in the first half of the 19th century. They played a major role in the establishment of the roots for human antiquity, coinciding with the development and circulation of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) lived during the Pleistocene (Ice age) period and became extinct around 27,000 years ago. The scientific name ‘spelaeus’ means ‘cave’, indicating that the remains of these bears are often found in caves. Caves were probably used as dens and the concentration of bear bones in some caves suggests that some died during hibernation. The remains of cave bears have formed an important part of the finds from Kents Cavern.
Cave bears ate a largely vegetarian diet and so their teeth were designed for eating tough plants and leaves. Their skulls were broad and dome-shaped, with a deep lower jaw containing sharp front canines and pre-molars which would actively grind vegetable material. There is some evidence that they may have had a more mixed omnivorous diet. Their size and bodily structure was similar to that of the largest modern grizzly bears.
Miraculously preserved sea creatures derived from the chalk cliffs of South England can be found at RAMM. Sea urchins, sponges, shells, corals, and fish teeth are preserved in the characteristic white and soft chalk matrix or as moulds and casts in flint.
Read more: Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site
RAMM holds a wide range of fossils found in the Jurassic cliffs in South Devon and Dorset. Small delicate shark teeth, ammonites of the size of a cart-wheel and fossilised tree stems are just some of the fascinating finds. The highlights however are stunning skeletons of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, swimming marine reptiles that ruled the oceans during the Lower Jurassic.
Read more: Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site
The Otter Sandstone is an internationally important source of Triassic fossils. These rocks are 245 – 235 million years old and form some areas of the exposed red cliffs around Sidmouth and Ladram bay. Although finding fossils in these cliffs is far less common than from the cliffs at Lyme Regis and Charmouth, early reptiles, reptile-like animals, fish and amphibians have been found. RAMM has some exciting fossils from the Otter Sandstone, some of which are on display in the Down to Earth gallery.
Footprints in the sand
This chirothere footprint was found near Sidmouth in the Triassic Otter Sandstone. It is about 240 million years old (before the dinosaurs). The print and some less well preserved examples were discovered by Dr Robert Coram who has researched them and donated one to RAMM.
Chirothere footprints have been known from the Triassic rocks of the Midlands but this is the first recorded occurrence in the Triassic of southern England.
Footprints are known as trace fossils because they are not fossils of an actual animal. The name ‘Chirothere’ is given to the footprint only, because there are many known footprints but no associated fossil remains of the reptile that made them.
Most recent research suggests that the Chirothere prints were probably made by a reptile from the genus Ticinosuchus. These animals resembled a 3m long, rather upright and long-legged crocodile, of which they were distant ancestors. RAMM’s print is about 22 cm long and 14 cm wide.
The curious shape of Chirothere footprints, which appear to have a large toe on the outside of the foot, led the palaeontologists who first discovered them to believe that the animal walked cross legged.
This specimen has been published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association Volume 124, Issue 3, March 2013, Pages 520-524: ‘A chirothere footprint from the Otter Sandstone Formation (Middle Triassic, late Anisian) of Devon, UK’.
Forming the Otter Sandstone
The Otter Sandstone is part of the Permo/Triassic succession formerly known as the ‘New Red Sandstone’ that gives rise to the ‘red soil’ country for which parts of Devon are famous. The sandstone takes its name from the River Otter which reaches the sea at its main coastal outcrop, with further occurrences around Sidmouth.
When the Otter Sandstone was laid down the part of the Earth’s crust that is now Devon was close to the equator and part of the super continent known as Pangaea. The climate was semi arid with occasional streams flowing through a desert landscape. Such a stream was responsible for the deposition parts of the Otter Sandstone. Other parts are the remains of ancient sand dunes deposited about 270 million years ago in the geological period known as the Triassic.
Most Triassic rocks in Devon rarely contain fossils but animals did live in and along the water source that deposited the sandstone. From time to time it appears that these animals were swept into the stream, buried in the sandy river deposits and fossilised. This may have been the result of flash floods or the creatures may have simply died on the stream banks. Certainly the skeletal remains are mostly fragmentary.
Although fossils are rare a good range of creatures have been found. These include reptiles such as the rhynchosaur, archosaur fragments (very early ancestors of dinosaurs and crocodiles), labyrynthodont fragments (amphibians with broad heads, short legs and toothed-tails, as well as fish and plant remains.
Most recently trace fossil footprints of an early reptile referred to as a Chirothere have been found.
Fossil reptile remains were first found in the Otter Sandstone, seen on the coast between the mouth of the River Otter and the River Sid, in the late 19th century. Further discoveries have been made since, notably by Dr Patrick Spencer while he was still at school in the 1980s.
Reptiles such as Fodonyx spenceri were about one metre long, low and lizard-like with a broad head. They were vegetarian equipped with a pair of long tooth-like bony projections from the upper jaw, perhaps used for digging up roots. Their teeth were low and rounded, ideal for grinding up plant matter. The nature of the Otter sandstone shows that they lived beside a stream with plants along its banks, but the environment was semi-desert.
A partial skull from the Otter sandstone near Peak Hill is a Holotype (the single defining specimen of a fossil which bears the scientific name) of the Rhynchosaur Fodonyx spenceri named after Dr Spencer. This skull is on permanent display in the Down to Earth gallery together with a semi-complete skeleton.
More recently a skull from the Otter Sandstone at Sidmouth has defined the holotype of another Rhyncosaur genus and species: Bentonyx sidensis. In this case named after Prof Mike Benton of Bristol University who is a Rhynchosaur expert, and of course the River Sid near where it was found. This specimen is in the collection of Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. This artist’s reconstruction of B. sidensis is courtesy of Peter Montgomery.
Rhyncosaur fossils are quite rare, they also occur in similar rocks of Permian age (270 million years ago) in the West Midlands and in other parts of the world such as the USA, Brazil and South Africa.
South Devon limestone
RAMM holds a comprehensive collection of fossils from the Devonian limestone outcrops in South Devon.
Hidden within these rocks are fascinating remains of various species of corals. Trilobites, sponge-like stromatoporoids, shells, snails and bryozoans are common, too. The petrified creatures tell us a fascinating story of a time when Devon lay close to the equator and was covered by a shallow tropical sea.
Once cut and polished the limestone reveals bright colours and intriguing patterns. Collectors, artists and craftsmen used the limestone as decorative raw material for windowsills, tiles, tables and jewellery.
Find out more: Ancient reefs – English Riviera Geopark
Budleigh Salterton pebbles
Unlock the secret of the millions of pebbles on your next visit to the beach at Budleigh Salterton. Take a closer look at the round stones under your feet and discover lots of different life forms like bivalves, trilobites and brachiopods. They are preserved in Ordovician quarzite, a hard and cherty rock, that originates from the north of France. Huge ancient rivers once brought blocks and boulders of this french stone to England.
RAMM holds an extensive collection of fossils from the Triassic Budleigh Salterton Pebble Beds. Colonel A. Wyatt-Edgell donated the majority of the specimens in 1909.