A massive review has documented a quarter of a million fossil specimens in Scottish museum collections
Scotland’s varied geology and long history of fossil collecting mean the fossils looked after by the nation’s museums have played a key role in the understanding of the development of our planet over millions of years.
As far back as the 1700s, geology was studied by eminent scientists of the day, notably James Hutton (1726-1797) whose ideas, based on his observations of Scottish geology, provided the foundations for geology as a modern subject.
Among Hutton’s proposed concepts was “deep time” based on his observations of tilted layers of rock at several localities across Scotland, most notably Siccar Point, East Lothian.
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Now such concepts may become a little more accessible for both public and researchers alike, as over a quarter of a million fossil specimens have been identified and recorded in a massive review of fossil collections held in Scotland’s museums.
The project, funded by John Ellerman Foundation and undertaken by National Museums Scotland, began in 2019 and the resulting Review of Fossil Collections in Scotland documents specimens held in 57 museum collections across the country.
The impressive holdings range from rocks originating in the Lewisian gneisses of the northwest, representing metamorphosed rocks from over 4 billion years ago, to the Post-Glacial clays of the Clyde and Tay estuaries, dated to 13,000 years ago indicating the presence of a cold Arctic climate.
Almost every geological period between these eras is represented in the collection by some form of sedimentary, igneous or metamorphic rock, indicating settings as diverse as desert sand dunes, swamps and great lakes, with tectonic events resulting in continental collisions, mountain building and the opening of oceans at different times.
The Scottish collections informed and inspired the work of many other prominent natural scientists including Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875) author of the ground-breaking study Principles of Geology, through to more recent discoveries such as dinosaur bones on the Isles of Skye and Eigg.
“The 410 million-year-old Rhynie Chert of Aberdeenshire preserves the earliest known terrestrial ecosystem on Earth”
The fossil-bearing rocks represent key stages in Earth’s history, such as the early ecosystems in the Devonian and the Carboniferous transition from life in water onto land. They have also helped to fill gaps in the fossil record, notably an interval known as ‘Romer’s gap’ in the Early Carboniferous and Middle Jurassic terrestrial life, including dinosaurs and early mammals.
Fossils from the collections also played a crucial role in historic scientific discussion. For example, the distribution of fish and reptile fossils from Elgin, Moray, which led to the separation of the Devonian ‘Old Red Sandstone’ from the Permo-Triassic ‘New Red Sandstone’, at the same time providing support for the then recently-proposed theory of evolution.
Examples include the 410 million-year-old Rhynie Chert of Aberdeenshire, which preserves the earliest known terrestrial ecosystem on Earth, specimens from which are held in Perth Museum and Art Gallery, The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, Cockburn Museum and Tweeddale Museum.
Most collections across Scotland have at least a few examples of the world famous fish from the Middle Devonian of Caithness, Sutherland, Orkney, Shetland and the Moray Firth with extensive collections in Nairn Museum, Elgin Museum, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, Stromness Museum, The Discovery Centre and Glasgow Museums Resource Centre.
“The Ellerman fossil review is an important and substantial piece of work,” says Dr Nick Fraser, Keeper of Natural Sciences at National Museums Scotland. “One striking thing is the way in which these diverse collections frequently mirror the immediately local geology and, considered together, show how important Scotland’s geological and fossil record is in understanding the development of life on earth.
“On a more practical level, it’s also really useful. Expert assessments like this review set museums up to be able to start sorting and properly documenting the nation’s natural science assets.
“This benefits the museum sector generally and each of the individual museums as it gives those that need it the power to unlock these collections to make them more accessible for people, whether scientific researchers or the wider museum-visiting public.”
The full review is published online at https://www.nms.ac.uk/national-international/sharing-collections/national-projects/fossil-review/