Education / Features / Interviews

Attenborough and the Sea Dragon

Fiann Smithwick, scientific adviser and part of the fossil excavation team for the BBC 1 documentary Attenborough and the Sea Dragon’ spoke to us about his experiences working on a natural history documentary with Sir David Attenborough, his fossil hunting and his PhD topic of fossil colour!

How did you first get into palaeontology and fossil hunting?

I was lucky enough to grow up on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, and so I often went to the beach to look for fossils as a child and developed a general love and passion for the natural world by being in it almost every day. I was also encouraged by my parents and a particular primary school teacher to learn more about nature, which helped light the spark of curiosity. I got into fossil hunting more seriously in my teens, when I taught myself how to do it properly and realised what incredible things could be found just lying on a beach, having remained hidden for hundreds of millions of years. This led me to want to study the subject and eventually to an undergraduate degree, masters and now PhD at the University of Bristol.

What topic are you researching for your PhD project?

Sinosauropteryx

Reconstructed colour patterns in the feathered dinosaur Sinosauropteryx. Image credit: Bob Nicholls

My PhD focuses on reconstructing colour in extinct animals, particularly birds and other feathered dinosaurs (but also other groups like ichthyosaurs), to better understand how they may have behaved and interacted and to inform us about the likely environments in which they lived. I also work on how soft (non-mineralised) tissues preserve in fossils. This is a great area to work in, because it has only really been possible to look at the colour of extinct animals for around a decade, and so there is so much to learn and so much we do not understand. It is important because it can tell us things about extinct animals that cannot be discerned just from looking at bones. Soft tissues (like skin, feathers and hair) can provide a wealth of information about how an animal may have looked and how it may have lived, and it helps us to build a more accurate and informed picture of what the world was like in the past. Plus, who wouldn’t want to find out what colour dinosaurs were?!

How did you come to be involved in the BBC 1 natural history documentary ‘Attenborough and the Sea Dragon‘?

I initially became involved through my fossil hunting, rather than my research. The fossil featured in the show was found by a good friend from the Jurassic Coast, Chris Moore. I have known Chris for years and he asked if I would like to help dig out the fossil for the show. I jumped at the chance! Serendipity brought me into the research and science side of the show. While we were excavating the fossil, we realised that it has skin preserved, which is a rarity as skin normally decays before it can become fossilised. This meant that I could do research into the pigment in the skin to determine certain aspects of the ichthyosaur’s colour in life. This also led on to me becoming more involved in the show as one of the scientific consultants, alongside my fellow palaeontologist from Bristol Dr. Ben Moon. My role in the show therefore evolved as the filming advanced, and I was lucky enough to be involved from start to finish.

For anyone hasn’t seen it, can you tell us what ‘Attenborough and the Sea Dragon’ is about?

Attenborough and the Sea Dragon is about the discovery, excavation and study of a large ichthyosaur fossil from the Jurassic Coast of Lyme Regis. Ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles that looked a lot like modern dolphins. It is really about what goes into excavating and studying these incredible fossils, and what we can learn from the remains. We build a picture of how the animal lived, and importantly how it died, and reveal new information about ichthyosaurs and what they may have looked like. It was also a passion project for David Attenborough. He has been passionate about fossil all of his life, and has always wanted to do a project about the discovery of a new and exciting fossil from the Jurassic Coast. I think that comes across in the show, you can see just how enthusiastic he is about the whole project, and that for me makes it a really unique program.

As part of the documentary you talk about the colour of fossil ichthyosaurs, how do you work this out?

I worked out aspects of the colour of the ichthyosaur by studying the skin that covered the bones of the fossil. We know that in most cases, when skin is preserved in a fossil it is because it has pigment in it. The pigment melanin, which is found in all vertebrates, is very stable and survives in some fossils for hundreds of millions of years relatively unchanged. This allows us to look at melanin to study features of animal colour. The ichthyosaur skin had melanin preserved in little granules called melanosomes. I looked at these tiny structures using a powerful electron microscope, which can magnify samples tens or even hundreds of thousands of times. From this I worked out the relative abundance of melanosomes across different parts of the ichthyosaur’s body. We know that in living animals, the abundance of melanosomes can show how dark and light the skin may be. In our fossil, the melanosomes were very abundant on the dorsal side (the back) but not abundant on the ventral side (the belly). This tells us that it likely had a much darker back and lighter underside, which is a pattern called countershading. Countershading is seen in lots of living marine animals like sharks and dolphins and helps to camouflage the animal in the water. So from looking at structures in the skin so small you could fit over a million of them in a square millimetre, we could tell the colour patterns of an animal that died 200 million years ago.

Media Attenborough & Fiann electron microscope screen

Fiann Smithwick showing Sir David Attenborough the melanosomes he found in the fossilized ichthyosaur skin. Image credit – Bristol University.

I’m sure the programme will have inspired lots of people to go out and look for fossils themselves! Do you have any advice for people who are new to fossil hunting?

It is a fantastic hobby and a great excuse to do exercise in the great outdoors. The first thing to do is figure out where to look. We are lucky in the UK that most areas have fossils of some kind. There are websites and guidebooks that can give advice about where to go looking and what you can expect to find in a certain location. Personally, I can’t resist looking at a pile of rocks whenever I see one! Any sedimentary rock can hold fossils. Rocks that have layers in them are the best to look in, as they are most likely sedimentary. The most important thing is to do it safely. When on beaches never collect from cliffs and watch for falling rocks – our eroding coastline is great for exposing new fossils, but this means it is always on the move and can be dangerous! If collecting inland, make sure you are not on private land and if so get the owner’s permission. In many places you don’t need to hammer rocks or anything like that, you can just pick up loose fossils, especially on beaches. Let the sea do the hard work for you and bring the fossils out for you to find! Even in freshly ploughed fields, fossils can be found just lying on the surface (get the farmer’s permission before you go trampling over their land!). The great thing is, you never know what you will find, and every trip can reveal something new and exciting.

Which of the fossils you have found is you favourite and why?

I have been lucky enough to find a lot of nice fossils in my time. I have found a few ichthyosaurs (not as big as the Attenborough Ichthyosaur!) which has been incredibly exciting. I have one on display at the University of Bristol which is one of my favourites. It is not perfect – it has a complete skull but the body was scattered before it became fossilised – but it was the first substantial fossil I ever found and so will always be special to me. I also have an ammonite found by my Dad when I was five; that is special because I am pretty sure it started my whole obsession!

Ichthy front end

Ichthyosaur fossil found by Fiann. Image credit – Fiann Smithwick.

For anyone thinking about university choices and for those who just want to learn a bit more about the history of life on Earth, why do you think people should consider studying palaeontology?

I think palaeontology is a fantastic subject to study because it teaches you so much about not only the history of the planet, but about evolution and life itself. Understanding how living things came to be the way they are by studying their forebears gives a wonderful perspective on life, and the immensity of time that has been involved in the world getting to where it is now. It also provides the perfect interdisciplinary way to gain more knowledge about geology and biology. Both are essential to understand for a palaeontologist. You need to know how and why a fossil came to be preserved, but you also need to understand what the organism it represents was like when it was alive. By understanding these you can gain huge insights into all aspects of life and evolution. Plus, you get to go exploring in the great outdoors and see things that have been lying in wait for hundreds of millions of years! Personally, I can’t imagine how anyone wouldn’t want to know more about what the world was like long before humans existed.

To see Fiann in action, make sure you check out ‘Attenborough and the Sea Dragon‘, available on BBC iPlayer until 13 February 2018.

Read some of Fiann’s published work on fossil colour here:

To find out more about Fiann’s PhD work and to see some fantastic images of his fossil discoveries follow him on Twitter @Fiann_Smithwick and Instagram @fms.fossils.

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