Cut and polished ichthyosaur vertebrae from the Isle of Wight

September 5, 2019

The polished face of the block, 1.5″ tungsten cube for scale. The bowtie shapes are the two biconcave vertebral centra.

It is pretty darned satisfying to be heading to the Isle of Wight for SVPCA next week. My only other visit was in the spring of 2004, when Vicki and I were in England on a spring break vacation/research trip. We spent a night at a bed and breakfast in Sandown and visited the Dinosaur Isle museum, where I got to see “Angloposeidon” and the Barnes High brachiosaur in person.

My most tangible memento of that trip is this cut and polished block with two vertebral centra from what I’m guessing is an ichthyosaur. It has a little story.

While we were at Dinosaur Isle I got to see another cut-and-polished specimen, the partial titanosauriform centrum shown above (and memorialized on the blog way back in 2008, when SV-POW! was about 6 months old). I’ve seen others since (like this one), but that was the first such specimen I’d seen in person, and it captured my imagination.

Vicki and I took a bus to get back to the ferry from Sandown, and somewhere in the island interior there was a bus stop at a small collection of buildings, maybe just two or three? One was a rock shop, and I really wanted to pop in and see what they had. The bus driver warned me, sternly, that the bus would be stopped for precisely two minutes, and that if I was not back on board in 120 seconds I’d be left behind.

So I sprinted inside the shop, found this block behind the counter, paid, and dashed back to the bus, arriving with a few seconds to spare. For four years it sat on my desk or on our mantle, then it got boxed up with a bunch of other natural history stuff and was buried in a closet for a decade. I didn’t get around to unboxing it until January, 2018 — you can spot it in the second photo down in this post. Since then it’s lived on my desk at work, or on a bookshelf adjacent to my desk.

One of the things I love best about it is that even in these somewhat weathered, almost certainly non-diagnostic shards of adequacy, the internal structure is beautifully preserved.

This chunk of rock embodies a lot of time — developmental time for the ichthyosaur, to grow such beautiful bones; deep time for these vertebrae, voyaging to us across millions of years; and personal time. In the fifteen-and-a-half years since my last visit to the Isle of Wight, I’ve gone from being a grad student to a professor at a med school (which I did not see coming back in 2004), and Mike and I have gone from being pen pals to frequent coauthors and co-travelers (and we’re still pen pals).

I think it’s only right that I pressure Mike into stopping at that rock shop, if it’s still there, so I can find a companion piece. Stay tuned.

15 Responses to “Cut and polished ichthyosaur vertebrae from the Isle of Wight”

  1. Andrew Thomas Says:

    Say hi to Hypsilophodon for me! At the museum, they’ve got (or had in 2010) a beautiful little black specimen of a skull all sticky-tacked to an internal mount. I remember the curator telling me about collecting it in a wash near the beach in the rain as little black hypsi bits floated off to sea. Then he was kind enough to drive me to the collections building across the island, which was the coolest, old-garagiest collection of European bric-à-brac I’ve ever seen.

    Enjoy your trip, and take the train from the ferry port down to Sandown! Super cool, little old English train that runs up and down the island!

  2. Andrew Thomas Says:

    Oh yeah, driving to the collections building in his car was the only experience I’ve had of the wired sensation of sitting on the driver’s side and not driving! Very discombobulating!

  3. Matt Wedel Says:

    I have taken that train — Vicki and I took it down to Sandown back in 2004, and took the bus back. Lovely trips both ways.

    Usually my first couple of hours after landing in England are spent in the passenger seat of Mike’s car as he drives me back to Ruardean, so I get a solid dose of sitting-on-the-wrong-side right up front. (Also, Mike is an absurdly generous host, to come get me from the airport almost every visit.)

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nice, Andrew! I didn’t realise the collections were elsewhere on the island: a real shame for us, since we won’t have the time for a proper collections visit. I’m pretty sure there is some material in on-site collections, though.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    To put my alleged generosity in context, when I flew into Salt Lake City for the 2016 Sauropocalypse, Matt drove 660 miles from his home in Claremont, CA, to pick me up from the airport :-)

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    Eh, once I’d driven 615 miles to get to BYU, it would have been churlish to skip the last 45 and deprive myself of a collections monkey–er, valued collaborator.

  7. Rugosidens Excelsus Says:

    On the subject of Hypsilophodon, I’ve always wondered, where on EARTH did they get this skull from?!?

  8. Rugosidens Excelsus Says:

    Also, on a more appropriate note, the barnes high sauropod: is there enough material to tell if it’s one of the already named taxons? And either way, has anyone brought up anything about any plans to describe it?

  9. Andrew Says:

    I’ve seen that one on display in London, and if memory serves, it looks pretty fabricated up close. There may be some genuine elements incorporated, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t come out of the ground looking like that. I’m not aware of anything from the Isle of Wight that’s come out in that shape.
    Further, it’s a dead ringer for Galton’s reconstructions in his monograph on the hypsi from the 70s. I think the skull chicken probably came after the monograph egg.

  10. Rugosidens Excelsus Says:

    Thanks Andrew, I’ve always wondered about that thing…

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Rugosidens, Science Source wants me to register and log in before I can see the image. I’m not doing that: it’s ludicrous for a scientific image-hosting site to be less open than all the mainstream image-hosting sites.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Regarding the Barnes High sauropod: no-one knows what it is, because no-one’s done any serious work on it; and no-one will — even though it’s almost certainly the UK’s best sauropod specimen — because it’s privately owned and there is no plan in sight for shifting it to the ownership of an accredited museum. Depending on how things shake out, the Isle of Wight’s “Dinosaur Isle” museum might be in a position to acquire it in the next few years. If that happens, expect flocks of UK sauropod workers to descend like vultures. We’ve all been lusting over it for years.

    In the mean while, based on my relatively cursory examination of the elements embedded in the wall at Dinosaur Isle, my gut says it doesn’t belong to the “Ornithopsis“/”Eucamerotus” complex. It will likely end up getting its own name, being complete and diagnosable enough to warrant one.

  13. Rugosidens Excelsus Says:

    Thanks, Mike. That’s a real shame it’s in a private collection, hadn’t heard that before. I’m with you, though, sure would like to see the dinosaur isle or some other museum get ahold of it…

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, to be more precise: the Dinosaur Isle museum has got ahold of it — the material is on display there (in an inconvenient wall-mount), but the museum doesn’t own it: Barbara Phillips does. So we can look at it, but not publish on it — and no-one wants to invest a ton of time working on material that they can’t publish on. Hopefully thatcan change in the future.

  15. Rugosidens Excelsus Says:

    Wow, I didn’t know that either. Definitely hope that can change in the future though.

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