Documentation of Dinosaur Fossils at Hastings

On today’s featured blog, we are talking with Philip Hadland to learn about the history and recent findings in the task of the documentation of fossils.

The foreshore at Fairlight Cove reveals layers of sediment known as the Ashdown Beds, deposited by rivers during the Cretaceous period around 140 million years ago. At times dinosaurs walked across successions of layers and left their footprints.

Occasionally, dinosaur bones are found on the beach, but usually ex-situ and worn by the sea. It is the far more common dinosaur footprints that prove they were living right here. Sometimes they even left marks with their tails (known as tail traces or tail drags). This is what we see in the cove alongside the footprints and this makes the site extra special.

Fossil Documentation
Dinosaur Toe Bone found by Phil on the western wide of the Syncline on 22nd March 2021

Historical Documentation of Fossils

Belgian paleontologist Louis Dollo (1857-1931) knew of footprints and tail traces being found around Hastings and it is possible they influenced his plans for mounting the famous Iguanodon skeletons found 322m underground in a coal mine Bernissart in 1878. In 1906, Dollo himself published an example he discovered near Hastings, which is redrawn here. Reconstructions of dinosaur skeletons, and in depictions by palaeoartists with their tails trailing behind them, would become the norm for most of the 20th Century.

fossil documentation
Redrawn Sketch (after Dollo, 1906).

Although Kim & Lockley (2013) reported other examples of tail traces in the literature, as far as we know (until now), researchers have not found any more examples from the Hastings area. In April 2019, I noticed some dinosaur footprints in Fairlight Cove and later, when viewing the photographs I took, I realised what appeared to be a tail trace was running in between them. I would map this initial tail trace find later in the year. The documentation of fossils applies textual analysis, field research, interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. The dinosaurs mainly responsible for the footprints and tail traces appear to be Iguanodontids – the scientific name for the family of dinosaurs that includes the Iguanodon, named by Gideon Mantell in 1825, making next year (2025) the bicentenary.

What is remarkable is the similarity of this sinuous tail trace and the tail shape of an Invicta plastics Iguanodon.

In July 2019, I began a job at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery. One day, while looking through the archives, I discovered an old sketch that clearly depicted the same trackway with a tail trace. Louis Dollo published this sketch in 1906. More details and the original sketch (accession number HASMG2003.35.10a) available here.

Meeting Simon Brown of Accupixel

Not long after this, I met Simon while he was doing some 3D scanning of objects for us at the museum. I then suggested the idea for recording a large part of the site using photogrammetry. Utilizing new technology with the objective of the documentation of fossils.

It did not happen straightaway, as our LinkedIn chat will testify, because a lot of factors had to line up for the survey to happen. These included:

  • Dry weather with low wind
  • The right tide (only a good low tide would do)
  • Availability of all involved (including helpers)
  • Sand should not cover the site, although it usually does.
  • A working drone/other equipment

The first attempt was…a deferred success when the drone did an emergency landing in a rockpool.

Finally, on 10th April 2024 we were able to do it

This site is important not only because of the historical context and rare tail traces. The trackways also include evidence of dinosaur behaviours such as swimming. Making it a unique resource for scientists who study dinosaur trace fossils.

Fairlight Cove dinosaur tracks exposed at extreme low tide. Each claw mark, footprint or tail drag mark is highlighted in blue with the layer added in Global Mapper.

The sea constantly erodes the site, causing more loss than gain as it eats away at the layers. Fairlight Cove contains at least 12 layers with footprints and tail traces. This erosion highlights the increasing value of the 3D data to current and future scientists, as it will eventually disappear. We have a chance to digitally assist the documentation of fossils and other prehistoric markings.

To emphasize this point and demonstrate the erosion rate, the section mapped in 2019 has now completely vanished.

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