Once upon a time, about a hundred million years ago, a smallish lizard creature lived in Sussex near Lewes. Let’s call her Connie.
Under a metre long with a thin elegant neck, long powerful tail, short legs and scaly skin, Connie loved to swim and tuck into tasty marine fish and insects with her very sharp teeth. Her life consisted of eating, sleeping, swimming and avoiding the bigger dinosaurs which lived around her.
All around Sussex in the chalky slimy area, there were similar lizards to Connie to be found – near Falmer by the University and over at Worthing too.
Eventually Connie died and her body lay at the bottom of the chalk pit. Gradually it was covered up, the body rotted and the bones did too, over the intervening millions of years.
Fossil-hunter Willet discovers Connie
That should have been the end of Connie. Except in 1850 Mr Henry Willett, a local businessman who liked nothing better than trawling through chalk pits looking for fossils found an imprint of Connie’s jawbone in a rock.
The fossil was catalogued and named by the collector and founder of the Natural History Museum Richard Owen. Owen made it his life’s work to give names and catalogue as many species has he could. He called it the Coniasaurus crassidens (Owen) and the specimen was stored in the Booth Museum as part of Willett’s legacy.
And there it has sat for nearly 165 years. But Connie has not been ignored during that time. In fact, the little relic of her jawbone has fascinated and interested many scientists over the years. It has been studied and referred to in a range of journals devoted to palaeontology.
Scientists from as far away as the United States have travelled to look at the fossil in the Booth and over the years have discovered more and more about it. As a result, in the last 30 years or so, it was discovered that the same species was also to be found in Germany, Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Canada.
As scientific knowledge has increased, researchers came to the conclusion that the jawbone is the upper jawbone, not the lower as previously thought and has an unusual tooth formation.
Palaeontologist Dr Michael Caldwell at the University of Alberta has spent many hours studying the fossil and wrote the latest report on Connie, or the Coniasaurus crassidens, just over nine years ago. He was extremely excited to discover the fossil at the Booth, while looking at the other specimens in the collection.
The legacy of one little lizard from Sussex
In all, many hours of patient research and thought has been taken up by extremely intelligent scientists and some very prestigious people who have wondered about Connie. She was, in fact, quite an important lizard.
This story was told to me by Head Keeper John Cooper at the Booth Museum and the impact of Connie caught me by surprise and brought a lump to my throat. Not many of us will still be remembered by anyone in a hundred million years. That’s quite a legacy.
All the research and study is carefully documented at the Booth and now many of the articles written about the fossil can be found online for experts around the world and long into the future to draw on.
The growing knowledge around reptiles, chalk soil, marine life derived from the study over the last 160 years will inform our understanding of our changing environment. It may be useful, for example, in engineering to understand the different constituents of chalk which may be relevant in building road tunnels in chalk soil.
Or research into the Coniasaurus may impact on our education around evolution, climate change and sustainability for fish and marine stock. That the mere imprint of a partial skeleton has occupied so much time and effort since its death is astounding.
The life of that one little lizard, millions and millions of years ago continues to reverberate through the ages and will probably never be forgotten. That takes my breath away.
Caroline Sutton, Blogger in Residence