The Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte preserves diverse species from an early Jurassic marine ecosystem in extraordinary three dimensional detail. 183 million years old, these animals lived and died at the peak of what geologists call the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic crisis (T-OAC), a worldwide period of decreased oxygen saturation in the oceans which led to an increased rate of extinction and marked changes in the fauna of the oceans.
The Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte
In the mid-1840s Somerset Geologist Charles Moore discovered remarkable fossil bearing strata near to his home town of Ilminster. Moore built up a substantial collection of specimens from what he called his ‘saurian, fish, and insect bed’. Since 1854 Moore’s unique collection has been preserved at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Working with in partnership with palaeontologists from University of Bristol, Bath Royal LSI have undertaken a programme of intensive study into the site we now call the Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte.
The term lagerstätte, German in origin and literally meaning ‘storage place’, is used by palaeontologists to describe an assemblage of fossils with exceptional preservation. In the case of Strawberry Bank, the fossils were preserved rapidly within limestone concretions, before significant compaction of the sediment in which they became buried, resulting in the preservation of fine three dimensional structures and in some cases soft tissues which are usually not fossilised. Unlike many important fossil sites of Toarcian age, which preserve similar creatures but crushed flat by the weight of accruing sediments, many of the fossils at Strawberry Bank allow us to study the orientation and structure of elements within the skeleton of certain marine vertebrates, especially ichthyosaurs of two species, Pelagosaurus crocodiles, and Pachycormus fishes. Additionally, fossils from the site include a variety of invertebrates including squid and octopus like cephalopods, lobster like arthropods, and terrestrial insects of nine different orders.
Since 2004 BRLSI has been facilitating palaeontologists to study the Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte. In 2010, our collections manager Matt Williams and Professor Michael J. Benton, of University of Bristol’s Palaeobiology Research Group, conceived of a project called the Jurassic Ecosystem of Strawberry Bank Ilminster (JESBI) in order to conserve, prepare, and research these amazing fossils. Our work was generously funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.
Many of the fossils needed to have rock removed from around them and a specialist conservator, known as a fossil preparator, called Lorie Barber, worked on over 50 specimens to reveal unseen details of their anatomy.
The insect specimens, missing from the Moore collection, were rediscovered in the collection of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. Cared for, but unexamined since donation in 1905, we curated this sub-collection of Moore’s fossils at the South West Heritage Centre in Taunton, which were still wrapped in 19th Century newspapers. These specimens included more than a thousand small specimens from Strawberry Bank, including 9 orders of insects.
Research into the crocodiles, ichthyosaurs, fish, insects, and the environment in which the fossils were preserved is helped us to build up a detailed picture of the ecosystem of Strawberry bank, 183 million years ago. In 2014 we celebrated these discoveries in an exhibition called Jurassic Ark, in 2015 an overview of our findings related to the Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte was
Micro Computed Tomography scanning, using X-rays to create serial cross-sectional images, is enabling us to examine the internal anatomy of skeletons preserved in three dimensions, leading to fresh interpretation of organisms. In 2015 Professor Michael Benton at University of Bristol received £240k from the Leverhulme Trust to use this technology to study Strawberry Bank fossils.
In 2019 our Collections Manager, Matt Williams, co-directed an excavation at Strawberry Bank with Dr Andy King, sponsored by his company Geckoella Ltd and supported by grants from the Geologists Association. This dig established key facts about the stratigraphic and geographic position of the Strawberry Bank strata and collected extensive samples which we hope will allow us to study the geochemistry and marine invertebrate ecology, as well as searching for further micro-vertebrates and insects.
… CT scanning Strawberry Bank fossils