It's crisp November morning in the Dorset town of Lyme Regis and the still, cold air is heavy with the scent of salt and seaweed. Gulls and terns wheel in a cerulean sky, while waves lap meekly at weed-covered boulders at the water’s edge. It’s a stunning winter’s day, but for local geologist and fossil collector Paddy Howe, the weather conditions could hardly be worse.
He’s about to begin a guided fossil walk for a family of three and starts by apologising profusely for the sunshine. In an ideal world, he explains, what you want is high wind, crashing waves and torrential rain to maximise your chance of stumbling across fossils newly eroded from the crumbling cliffs. Nevertheless, he assures them, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll find something to take home. ‘I’ve taken more than 100,000 people fossil hunting,’ he tells the group. ‘And nobody has ever come back with nothing.’
The Jurassic Coast, as this World Heritage-listed stretch of coastline is known, is highly unusual among the world’s great fossil sites in that it’s entirely legal for absolutely anyone to come here, find fossils, take them home and even sell them. Try this in China or South Africa, for example, and you could be arrested. But with the West Dorset cliffs eroding at such a rapid rate, scientists alone could never hope to save even a fraction of the fossils emerging onto the beaches before they’re swept away by the waves. This has left amateur collectors as key partners in the fight to preserve the area’s extraordinary fossil bounty for study and display, and has, over the past two decades, fuelled a huge rise in the number of people visiting the local beaches in search of prehistoric treasures.
‘It’s the most pragmatic solution,’ says Howe, who has been collecting fossils on these beaches for decades and knows all too well the value of citizen scientists in making sure that as little as possible slips through the net. ‘If we don’t collect the fossils here they’ll be destroyed by the tides.’
Among Howe’s collection are some stunning finds, including an ichthyosaur – a fearsome apex predator from the Mesozoic Era that looks like a cross between a shark and a crocodile – that was almost six metres long. But many other finds of scientific interest have been made by complete amateurs. Several years ago, one of Howe’s guests, a first-time fossil hunter, found a fossilised starfish that belonged to a species that was new to science and just this past December, an amateur fossil hunter found a new species of ichthyosaur.
Elsewhere in the world there’s often a fraught relationship between amateur and commercial fossil hunters, and academics; the mutual reliance of these groups on the Jurassic Coast is very rare. It’s not a complete free-for-all, however. Collecting is governed by a code of conduct that requires finds of scientific value to be recorded and registered, and stipulates that such finds, if the owner wishes to sell them, must be offered to museums before private buyers, in order to try to keep them in the public domain.
‘It’s one of the few fields in which a total beginner can make a major scientific discovery,’ says Howe. ‘Every day you go out you could make a huge find. I think the rules we have here could be applied in a lot of other countries. It’s a system where everyone’s happy.’
According to Chris Moore, another veteran fossil collector with several new species to his name, the collecting boom has been further fuelled by the rise of social media and by a slew of dinosaur- and fossil-themed film and TV releases since the mid-1990s. ‘I think Jurassic Park, when it first came out, was a massive boost,’ says Moore, whose Charmouth workshop is packed from floor to ceiling with fossils of every kind, along with lumps of potentially fossil-bearing limestone yet to be cracked open. ‘And now you’ve got loads of collectors all posting their finds on social media.’
A few years ago, a BBC film crew followed Moore’s excavation of an ichthyosaur for a documentary presented by Sir David Attenborough. The ensuing publicity brought a further wave of eager fossil hunters to the area.
The latest piece of inspiring palaeo-entertainment is the film Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet, which premiered at the London Film Festival in October 2020. In the film, Winslet plays the role of Mary Anning, a pioneering but largely unrecognised fossil collector who, during the early 1800s, at the age of just 12, discovered the world’s first complete ichthyosaur. At the time, the word ‘dinosaur’ didn’t yet exist, and the discovery sent shockwaves through the scientific community. Anning’s finds can still be seen in some of the world’s top museums. Moore, who found his first fossil aged six after being inspired by a palaeontologist uncle, sees the popularity of citizen fossil collecting today as a natural consequence of Anning’s trailblazing work during the 19th century.
‘It’s the continuation of a collecting tradition that’s been going on for 200 years,’ he explains. ‘And it’s filled museums around the world with fossils from right here. The same process that reveals them – erosion – ends up destroying them, so if they’re not collected, they’ll be lost.’
The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, where new finds are registered, now sees more than 150,000 amateur collectors pass through its doors each year, almost double the numbers that were seen a decade ago. And the number of applications received by the nearby University of Portsmouth’s palaeontology department has quadrupled since the year 2000. Local fossil-hunting groups on Facebook are growing by the day and the number of fossil ‘preppers’, who use air tools to dig fossils out of the limestone rocks in which they’re often found, has proliferated exponentially.
Back at Lyme Regis, Paddy Howe and his clients shuffle slowly along the beach, eyes glued to the rock, sand and mud beneath their feet. The cliffs of the Jurassic Coast date back to the Mesozoic Era – the Age of Reptiles – which spanned about 185 million years of geological history. For much of that time, the area was submerged beneath a tropical sea that teemed with prehistoric life; consequently, most of the fossils that turn up here are marine creatures – everything from ammonites and sea-lilies to ferocious ten-metre plesiosaurs. Ancient relatives of more familiar species are found here, too, including fish, lobsters and dragonflies.
Howe’s clients, the Farndon family, drove here for the day from their home in Cornwall after their daughter Ellie learned about Mary Anning in a textbook and decided she wanted to be a palaeontologist. Within minutes, and with just a little help from Howe, she’s pulling her first ammonite from the sand. It has been preserved in iron pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, and its spiral-shaped metallic shell is so perfect it looks as if it could have just come off the production line at a souvenir factory. In fact, it’s almost 200 million years old.
Along with belemnites – the strange, bullet-shaped fossilised remains of a squid-like creature that existed from the end of the Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous – these pyritic ammonites are the easiest to find, often lying in plain sight on the beach. Other ammonites are preserved in calcite crystals inside limestone nodules. As these often display no outward sign of containing fossils, spotting the right rocks takes practice, as does splitting them open without damaging the fossil inside. But the ammonites within can be astoundingly beautiful, perfect gems in an array of yellow, white, green and grey crystals.
As the Farndons cluster around, Howe demonstrates, with a quick, sharp crack of his hammer, how to open a nodule and reveal its hidden secrets. For him, this is the moment of which dreams are made. ‘It’s a real buzz,’ he says. ‘You’ve broken open what looks just like a pebble and you find inside not only an ancient life form, but a particularly beautiful one preserved in crystal. And you’re the first person ever to have seen it. That’s a buzz that never goes away.’
As the group starts to make its way back towards Lyme Regis, an acquaintance of Howe’s beckons him over and takes from his bag a vertebra the size of a dinner plate. Howe’s eyes light up with excitement and a touch of envy as he turns it over in his hands. He can tell that the animal from which it came must have been an absolute monster and he knows that the rest of it is out there somewhere, waiting to be found.
‘I’ve been fossil hunting since I was six years old and I never get tired of it,’ he explains, as he makes his way back over the boulders, eyes constantly scanning from side to side in the hope of glimpsing one last fossil before leaving the beach. ‘Because you just never know what you’re going to come back with.’