The Cliffs of Lyme Regis are world-famous for the fossils they have produced. Most of these come from the richly fossiliferous limestones and shales of the lower Jurassic period, and are around 200 million years old. Lying on top of these rocks, but separated from them in time by many millions of years are rocks from the lower Cretaceous period. These layers also yield fine fossils. Both the Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks were formed in shallow seas and so the fossils they contain are mainly of marine organisms. The sea continues to erode the cliffs and is constantly exposing new fossils, especially during winter storms. This is not the most pleasant time to be on the beach but from a fossil hunting perspective it is the most rewarding.
Click here for information on our Fossil Walks.
Lyme has strong links with the history of geology and fossils. Many important Geologists came to Lyme Regis to collect fossils or buy them from local collectors. The most famous of the local collectors is without doubt Mary Anning. She has her own page on the museum website where you can find out more about her. If you visit Lyme you can see her grave in the graveyard of Lyme Regis Parish Church. Despite the efforts of collectors coming to Lyme for over 200 years you can still find good fossils on the local beaches.
Some of the fossils you can find on the beach are of creatures familiar to us today; these include gastropods (snails), bivalves (mussels, cockles etc) and sea urchins. Other groups have living relatives, but may not be familiar to us in Britain. These include creatures like sea lilies, brachiopods and the nautilus. The living relatives of these animals come from distant parts of the globe, or live in deep water. When we find most fossils they only consist of the hard parts of creatures, their shells, bones and teeth. Living descendants are useful because they tell us what the creatures soft parts were like and give an insight into how it may have lived and behaved. Unfortunately some groups of creatures died out entirely; we have to learn about them almost completely from fossil evidence. These include the spectacular ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs as well as the more common ammonites and belemnites. Some organisms have no hard parts at all i.e. creatures such as worms and jellyfish. The bodies of these animals normally rot leaving no trace. This can mean the fossils we find preserved give us a distorted view of what lived in ancient seas, unless you know how to interpret it. Although soft-bodied creatures rarely survived they sometimes left traces of their existence in the soft mud, such as feeding marks, track ways and burrows. Such trace fossils also give further information on creatures that do survive as fossils. We can find fossilized poo (coprolites) from ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. These tell us what the animals ate.
As well as the large quantity of fossils to be found around Lyme Regis, and its historic links to the science of fossil collecting, Lyme has another distinction. Due to the very fine nature of the sediment and a very fortunate set of local chemical conditions you get special preservation. This is where very fine detail and soft parts are preserved. This has included ichthyosaurs preserved with the outline of the creature’s body. Fossil squids are found that still have a recognisable ink sac. It is even possible to grind up the fossilised ink and use it to write with. This was done in Victorian times, and some geological papers were written in fossil squid ink. The practice was revived at Lyme when museum geologist Paddy Howe prepared fossil squid ink for the author Tracy Chevalier to sign copies of her recent book Remarkable Creatures with.
At the start we said that the fossils from Lyme Regis are of marine creatures, as Lyme was a shallow sea 200 million years ago. This is broadly true, but occasionally some remains of land living creatures are discovered. These include the bones of dinosaurs, beautifully preserved insects and extremely rare pterosaurs (flying reptiles). The first dinosaur from Lyme was found in 1858 by local quarry owner James Harrison and since then several more skeletons of this animal have been found. This dinosaur is called Scelidosaurus harrisoni after its discoverer. It was described by Richard Owen in 1861. The illustration on the right is from Owen’s original monograph and shows bones from a juvenile Scelidosaur. Some of the bones illustrated, along with the monograph are on display in the museum. These dinosaur remains are of animals washed into the sea and drowned, or of carcases washed out to sea. The most complete dinosaur ever found in Britain is one of these specimens, found by local fossil collector David Sole.
Lyme Regis is the best place in the world for finding lower Jurassic insects. These are most commonly beetles, but you can also find grasshoppers, bugs, dragonflies, lacewings, scorpionflies and stick insects. The preservation can be so spectacular that you can see the colour pattern of the wings, this is shown by the fossil Scorpion Fly wing on the left. The flying reptile Dimorphodon was discovered by Mary Anning, and was the first British pterosaur. This is one of the rarest fossils from Lyme Regis. A small section of Dimorphodon skull with teeth is on display in the museum. Dimorphodon was scientifically described by Richard Owen, one of his illustrations is shown below.
It is remarkable that even after 200 years of collecting at Lyme Regis it is still possible to find new species, not only of small shells that were easily overlooked in the past, but also of large marine reptiles. Several of the local commercial collectors have made such discoveries. It is not only new species that scientists are interested in however, fossils can tell us many other things about the relationships between creatures now long dead. These include working out how the different animals lived together.
Find out as much as you can before you go to the beach; this will make your trip far more productive. You can do this by looking at other websites about fossils, and remember to look at our pages about how fossils look on the beach. If you find a fossil that you want to know more about bring it to the Lyme Regis Philpot Museum or Charmouth Heritage Centre for identification. Finally, remember to read the fossil collecting code of conduct and pay heed to safety guidelines, especially about cliffs and the tide. Good luck with your collecting.