August 15, 2007

Fossil-Hunters Uncover an Ancient Fish Called Asbo


A 200-MILLION-YEAR-OLD fish discovered by two amateur archaeologists may be one of the most significant fossil finds in recent decades, researchers said yesterday.

Liverpool fossil hunters Keith Hackett and Mary Coates discovered the specimen searching for buried treasures below Lyme Regis's Church Cliffs, on Dorset's fabled Jurassic Coast.

Measuring 88cm the fossil is believed to be the largest example of its kind ever uncovered in this country compared with existing specimens of around 50cm in length.

It was officially identified as a Caturus Heterus, and dated back to the Jurassic era which was between about 145 and 200 million years ago, by London's Natural History Museum fossil fish expert Alison Longbottom.

But because of its aggressive appearance the fish was affectionately named Asbo by its finders, after Anti Social Behaviour Orders handed out to trouble makers by courts.

The fossil was partly obscured by sand and was in danger of being destroyed by the tides along the Wessex coastline when it was discovered by Ms Coates and Mr Hackett.

Archaeology graduate Ms Coates works full time as a youth worker in Liverpool, and geology graduate Mr Hackett is a self employed consultant advising on the arts, tourism, science and environmental issues but the friends enjoy hunting fossils as a hobby.

"We knew it was going to be an impressive fossil when we started to uncover it but nothing could have prepared us for how significant this find was," said Mr Hackett.

"For amateur fossil hunters like us it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Mr Hackett said it was a seaside trip as a child that sparked his passion for paleontology.

"The memory of finding your first fossil stays with you forever, and my first visit to Lyme Regis when I was eight years old had me hooked," he said.

"Since going on to study geology I have grown incredibly fond and protective of the area."

The Asbo specimen first attracted serious attention from the paleontologists and enthusiasts at the Rising Seas Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in May 2007.

It was cleaned, prepared and conserved by fossil fish expert Chris Moore and his team at Old Forge Fossils in Charmouth.

"This is a major new find of exceptional quality, the best fish I have seen from the Jurassic Coast in over 20 years of collecting here," said Mr Moore last night.

The fossil is on display at the Lyme Regis Philpot Museum, but may soon be going on tour around the country.

Ms Coates said: "Long-term we hope to locate the specimen on public display in Lyme Regis.

"In the meantime we are exploring the possibility of taking it on tour as part of an exhibition for museums highlighting the Jurassic coast, the fossil itself, its palaeo-environment, and the exceptional conservation work done by Chris Moore."

Paddy Howe, Lyme Regis Museum geologist at the Philpot Museum said: "We are delighted to be able to exhibit such a superb and unusual find at our museum. Many startling discoveries are made on this coast but few come better than this."

Mr Hackett and Ms Coates run Liverpool company Great Finds Productions, from where they have produced and published a CD-ROM about their hobby, called Discovering the Fossils and Geology Around Lyme Regis.

It is available from the NHM shop in London, or by ordering from Toxteth TV, 39-45 Windsor Street Liverpool L8 1XE price pounds 14.99 including post & packing.