Mini-beasts, giants, and mega-floods

I have a little link to the time before the English Channel formed 450,000 years ago. Almost every day in the last academic year, a PhD student has been working in my office. He is investigating the environment and ecology of the West Runton Freshwater Bed, a fine-grained sediment laid down by a river, between 780,000 and 600,000 years ago. The post-graduate is using pollen, fungal spores, and beetles to work out an extremely detailed reconstruction of this place and time.

What would a PhD student researching ancient sediment in Norfolk, find at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery? The answer lies in what he is discovering in the sediment. He is looking for tiny fragments of beetle body parts: dozens of tiny wing parts, thoraces, and heads all turn up through very careful sieving. And by using our collection of British Beetles, he is beginning to identify species and shed light on ecosystems long gone. The West Runton Freshwater Bed contains not only mini-beasts, but also giants.

A sample formsfsfds

One little beetle fragment from a sample at West Runton Freshwater Beds. The PhD researcher is going through dozens of specimens like this, and managing to identify them – quite a skill! This specimen (just one millimeter long) is the head shield of Helophorus strigifrons. (Image by Francis Rowney, Plymouth University).

head shield of Helophorus strigifrons. (Image by Francis Rowney, Plymouth University).

The full specimen of Helophorus strigifrons in the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. Note the metallic head shield. (Image by Francis Rowney, Plymouth University).

I have been wanting to write a post on how the English Channel formed for quite a while, and luckily a perfect opportunity came up thanks to a recent documentary on Channel 4. Co-founder of the fantastic Trowelblazers, the wonderful Tori Herridge presented an awesome documentary about this very topic in Walking Through Time. Tori’s enthusiastic and natural presenting took us effortlessly across Norfolk and over to Kent, taking us on a journey back to when beetles scurried under the feet of the giant mammoths, and to an incredible event that separated Britain from Europe. (For tweets, and more links to information about the documentary, have a look at #WalkingThroughTime on Twitter.)

To set the scene for how the English Channel formed, we need to travel to the north coast of Norfolk, to the small green village of West Runton. Sat in an Area of Outstanding Beauty, lies a fine grained sediment formation known as the West Runton Freshwater Beds. This sediment was laid down around 780,000 years ago, when the area was a huge river estuary, with fine delta sediments building up. In these sediment are clues to the past. Tiny fragments of beetles give us temperatures and habitats, plant pollen provides us with details of the rich vegetation around, and fossils of larger animals show the ecosystem as a whole.

Norfolk was extremely different back then. There was no English Channel. Britain was joined to mainland Europe allowing animals to freely roam. Cave lions, sabretooth cats, lynx, hyenas, the extinct rhino Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis, jaguars, and giant deer all show how incredibly rich and diverse this environment was. Then in 1990, something much, much bigger was found. Just before Christmas, Margret Hems and her husband Harold, went on a spot of fossil hunting on West Runton beach. Excavations over the next few years revealed an almost complete skeleton of a Steppe Mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii). It is the largest and most complete British Mammoth specimen, and the oldest, dating to around 600,000 years ago. (Full details on this awesome discovery are outlined by Trowelblazers).

An original photograph from the 1995 excavation of the West Runton Mammoth. (Image reproduced with kind permission from Norfolk Museum Service [Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery])

An original photograph from the 1995 excavation of the West Runton Mammoth. (Image reproduced with kind permission from Norfolk Museum Service [Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery])

Steppe Mammoths were amazing creatures. Evolving from the Southern Mammoth somewhere around 700,000 years ago, probably in Siberia, the enormous Steppe Mammoth spread far across Europe and Asia. One population of Steppe Mammoths evolved into the more familiar Woolly Mammoth, which were smaller and better adapted to the increasingly cold environments punctuating the late Middle Pleistocene. Taller than a double decker bus, the West Runton Mammoth (previously called the West Runton Elephant) was a huge beast. The size of the tusks, along with the pelvis suggests it was a male, and the teeth indicate it was around 40 years old. The skeleton provides answers to the death of this giant. An injury on the bottom-end of the thigh bone shows that it didn’t sit in the knee socket properly, so at some point this individual dislocated his knee. It seems as though he fell, or lay down, only never to get up again.

Around 800,000 years agoBritain was joined to mainland Europe. Happisburgh lay at the end of the ancient River Thames (which lay much more north than today). (Image by Wiki User, Phil88, Public Domain)

Around 800,000 years ago Britain was joined to mainland Europe. Happisburgh lay at the end of the ancient River Thames (which lay much more north than today). (Image by Wiki User, Phil88, Public Domain)

Tori then takes us 18 miles East along the Norfolk coast, to the gorgeous little village of Happisburgh. Here on the beach, exposed for just a few moments was one of the most important British archaeological discoveries of the century. In 2013, human footprints were revealed by the receding tide. These footprints were in ancient river sediment whicnah was around 900,000 years old – amazing to think the oldest human footprints outside of Africa are in Norfolk! It was a national effort, with staff from the Norfolk Museums Service, along with teams of scientists from the Natural History Museum, London, British Museum, Queen Mary University of London, University of Wales Trinity St David Lampeter, and University of St Andrews mapping, imaging and recording the footprints before they were washed away by the sea forever. Researchers from York University and Liverpool John Moores University carried out analysis of the information. Not only did 3D mapping of the footprints show that there were several individuals, but fascinatingly the larger prints of adults walked in a straight line, while the smaller prints of youngsters zig-zagged all over the place. Current thoughts are that these are the footprints left by Homo antecessor which lived from 1.2 million years ago to around 800,000 years ago. This was one of the early hominin species out of Africa and into Europe just after the more familiar Homo erectus.

Ancient footprints at Happisburgh shouldn’t have been a huge surprise. Just over 10 years earlier a beautiful flint hand axe was found in sediment from an ancient river bed. The flint itself can’t be dated, but the sediment it was found in can: it was dated to around 500,000 years old. This exquisite hand axe was carefully knapped by someone half a million years ago! The owner of the axe is likely to have belonged to Homo heidelbergensis which is a hominin species from this time. Fossils of H. heidelbergensis have been found in Spain and Germany, and at Boxgrove in Britain. The stunning hand axe is currently on display in the natural history gallery at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

The gorgeous 500,000 year old hand axe found at Happisburgh. (Image from

The gorgeous 500,000 year old hand axe found at Happisburgh. The object is in the collections at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. (Image from the Portable Antiquities Scheme Public Domain)

It is hard to imagine Norfolk full of exotic beasts joined to mainland Europe, with at least two species of humans visiting. For us today, it is hard to imagine what Britain would have been like without the English Channel: something, which is quite dearly British. However, the English Channel formed relatively recently, and it was something quite incredible. Around 450,000 years ago Britain was in the grip of possibly the coldest period in its recent history. This major glacial period, was so cold that an enormous glacier covered most of Britain, much of the North Sea, northern Germany, Denmark and Norway. This massive slab of ice was so far south in Britain, it pushed the River Thames south to it’s current position.

A wonderful illustration (Image reproduced with permission, adapted from Colliers et al 2015)

A wonderful illustration of the enormous meltwater lake just off Norfolk and Kent. The yeallow line shows how far south the massive glacier reached. (Image reproduced with permission, adapted from Collier, et al 2015)

Just off the coast of Norfolk, was an enormous lake. Fed by meltwater from the enormous glacier, this lake grew to be twice the size of Wales. The lake was dammed by a chalk ridge, stretching from Dover all the way across to northern France. Made from billions of tiny microscopic organisms drifting to the ocean floor, chalk is a pretty weak rock. It is thought that a small earthquake weakened the chalk ridge, and the lake broke through the dam, with a flow rate 300 times that of Niagara Falls: a mega-flood. That’s a pretty powerful force. So powerful, the force of it would rip a valley out of any rock beneath it. And that is exactly what Dr Jenny Collier and  researchers at Imperial College London discovered 40 meters below the waves. The force of huge amounts of water gouged out valleys on the floor of the English Channel. The mega-flood happened, and it would have been an incredible, if terrifying, sight.

Walking Through Time took us back to a time when the Steppe Mammoth plodded through Norfolk, and to the formation of the English Channel. This documentary brought some excellent science together, which may have otherwise been missed by non-specialists. New research will bring even more detail to this enigmatic time before and after the mega-flood. Today, more than ever before, science is being made more and more accessible. Allowing more and more people to walk though time.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Walking Through Time was a documentary aired on Channel 4 on 6th February 2016, presented by Tori Herridge (@ToriHerridge)

The West Runton Mammoth can be seen at Cromer Museum and Norwich Castle Museum.

Further Reading:

Ashton, N., et al. (2014). ‘Hominin footprints from Early Plesitocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK.’ PLoS ONE. 9(2). [Full article]

Collier, J. S., et al. (2015). ‘Streamlined islands and the English Channel megaflood.’ Global and Planetary Change. 135. pp.190-206. [Full article]

Larkin, N. R., Alexander, J., & Lewis, M. D. (2000). ‘Using experimental studies of recent faecal material to examine hyena coprolites from the West Runton Freshwater Bed, Norfolk, UK.’ Journal of Archaeological Science. 27 (1). pp.19-31. [Full article]

Lister, A. M, & Sher, A. V. (2001), ‘The origin and evolution of the Woolly Mammoth.’ Science. 294. pp.1094-1097. [Abstract only]

Lister, A., & Stuart, A. J. (2010), ‘The West Runton Mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) and its evolutionary significance.’ Quaternary International.228 (1-2). pp.180-209. [Abstract only]

Lister, A. M, et al. (2005). ‘The pattern and process of mammoth evolution in Eurasia.’Quaternary International. 49. pp.126-128. [Abstract only]

Moncel, M. H., et al. (2015). ‘The early Achulian of north-western Europe.’ Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. [Abstract only]

Stuart, A. J. & Lister, A. M.  (2010). ‘The West Runton Freshwater Bed and the West Runton Mammoth: Summary and conclusions.’ Quaternary International, 228 (2010). Elsevier 241-248. [Full article]

Tichonov, A, & Burlakov, Y. (2008), ‘Causes of Northern Giants’ extinction.’ Science in Russia. (Moscow: Nawka). 2. pp.48-53. [Abstract only]

Wei, G. B., et al. (2010), ‘New materials of the Steppe Mammoth, Mammuthus trogontherii, with discussion on the origin and evolutionary patterns of mammoths.’ Science China Earth Sciences. 53(7). pp.956-963. [Full article]

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One Response to Mini-beasts, giants, and mega-floods

  1. kerberos616 says:

    Reblogged this on Kerberos616.

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