Scientific discoveries are not always made by scientists… sometimes they are the result of a combination of luck, chance, and dedication of a passionate citizen scientist.
A year ago, over several weeks, three fossil hunters separately found bones on the foreshore at Shanklin, on the Isle of Wight. ‘I was walking along and just kicking stones […] and suddenly came across what looked like a neck bone of a dinosaur.’ said Paul Farrell, one of the collectors, in an interview released to Southampton University. ‘Then once I got them in my hand, did a little bit of a jig because I knew they were something special.’ said Robin Ward, the second fossil hunter. Thinking that they were special bones, they brought them to nearby Dinosaur Isle Museum at Sandown.
A scientific study was then made by Palaeontologists at the University of Southampton. ‘The next part […] was to find traits in common with the dinosaur group as well as unique features that separate it from known dinosaurs within that group’, said Dr Neil J. Gostling, lecturer in evolution and paleobiology. Dr Gostling and his team discovered that the bones were part of the neck and tail of a dinosaur. ‘By using comparative anatomy, we know it’s likely a theropod due to various traits including the air spaces in the neck and backbones.’ However, because of the specimen’s incomplete nature, it was difficult to assign it to a specific theropod group before more material is found, the researchers knew that they were looking at a new species and genus of theropod dinosaurs, ‘the group which give rise to the many carnivorous taxa and modern birds’ explains Chris Barker, a PhD student who worked on the research. ‘We called it Vectaerovenator inopinatus: Vect because it comes from the Isle of Wight; aero because of its particularly hollow bones; venator from the Latin hunter and inopinatus because it was unexpected’, so the unexpected air-filled hunter from the Isle of Wight. The discovery was unexpected because the bones ‘were found in a marine deposit and dinosaurs are terrestrial animals, so somehow this dinosaur died and ended up in an unexpected deposit’ said Dr Gostling.
The professor launched an appeal to the public: ‘We hope that if people, walking along the beach, find more bones they will take them to Dinosaur Isle so that we can continue to add to our knowledge of this new and exciting species.’ But if you’re wondering how to become a good collector of fossils you should remember that much is left to chance. As Robin said: ‘I’ve been collecting fossils for a few years, but I don’t even know where you begin to start searching for something that we didn’t even know existed.’ Nonetheless, if you are persistent and lucky, you may fulfil one of your dreams. As James Lockyer, the third fossil hunter said: ‘I do actually literally have a bucket list and on that bucket list it does say to find a new type of fossil which I certainly didn’t think it’d be a dinosaur’. The findings will be published in the journal Papers in Palaeontology, in a paper co-authored by those who discovered the fossils.