Sunday, 16 October 2011

New Forest and Old Fossils

It’s not been all work, work, work with me though – I took a ‘break’ in mid-September to visit various bits of southern and western England. I attended the SVPCA (Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy) symposium in Lyme Regis, Dorset; visited the New Forest Reptile Centre in Hampshire, as well as Axe Valley Park in Devon; London Wetland Centre’s sister reserve in Slimbridge, Gloucester; and the amazing Crocodiles of the World in Oxfordshire. For now though, I’ll fill you in on one of the cooler highlights from Hampshire and a bit about SVPCA.

The Reptile Centre is located within the New Forest, a nationally important area of lowland heath and open woodland in Hampshire, southern England. The facility consists of a few open air terraria, each containing a number of reptiles and amphibians, all native to or otherwise found in the UK. All of Britain’s snakes are represented, as are the three native lizards, as well as two toads and two frogs.

Natterjack toad
Epidalea calamita (Laurenti, 1768)
Bufonidae; Anura; Amphibia; Chordata
New Forest Reptile Centre, Hampshire
September 2011

The natterjack toad the rarer of Britain’s two toad species, and is easily distinguished from the common toad (Bufo bufo) by the yellow dorsal stripe. It’s not certain whether the toad is native to the UK or introduced from mainland Europe, but either way, it is protected by law, and is restricted to such areas of lowland heath as the New Forest.

Female adder
Vipera berus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Viperidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata
New Forest Reptile Centre, Hampshire
September 2011

The adder is Britain’s only venomous snake. It is not as venomous as other vipers, however, and is very rarely fatal to humans. Even so, it’s not exactly heaven being bitten, with recovery taking up to a year if it doesn’t kill you. Males and females differ in their coloration, with the female being a less-contrasted version of the male’s black and grey zig-zag motif. Occasionally, but more often in continental Europe than in Britain, melanistic individuals occur, and of course the black adder has given its name to this.

Smooth snake
Coronella austriaca Laurenti, 1768
Colubridae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata
New Forest Reptile Centre, Hampshire
September 2011

The smooth snake is the rarest of Britain’s snakes, restricted to lowland heath, much like the natterjack toad and sand lizard (Lacerta agilis). Its generic name, Coronella, comes from the little dark crown present on the top of the head.

SVPCA was fascinating, with talks on subjects such as afrotherian tooth eruption, sauropod necks, well-preserved ankylosaurs, Dorset’s own basal thyreophoran (that would be Scelidosaurus harrisonii), and a seemingly countless array of pterosaurs. For me, the true highlight of the symposium was the auction held one evening to raise money for the Jones-Fenleigh fund which helps students without institutional backing to attend the yearly conference. The majority of items for sale were journal reprints, but prints by the excellent palaeo-artists Bob Nicholls and Luis Rey were also available. I didn’t bid, as I had a budget of £5, but was entertained by compère and palaeoichthyologist Jeff Liston. A series of public lectures were given by some of the bigger names in British palaeontology: I attended those given by Michael Benton (on extinction in general, and the Permian-Triassic extinction event in particular), David Norman (on the history of British dinosaurology), and Mark Witton (on the modern pterosaur revolution). All were excellent of course. Hopefully next year I’ll have something of my own to present, but I won’t say any more on that just yet.

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