Caption: Couple used Google Earth to find largest collection of rare marine fossils ever discovered in UK (Picture: PA)

A pair of amateur fossil hunters have discovered one of the largest collections of rare marine fossils found anywhere in the UK.

The couple used Google Earth before discovering the site in Wiltshire, after researching the geology of the area online.

Non-professional palaeontologists Neville and Sally Hollingworth’s discovery stunned experts after resulting in hundreds of samples dating back more than 150 million years being found.

After being contacted by the duo, Dr Tim Ewin, a senior curator in Earth sciences at the Natural History Museum secured funding for a dig at the site – and was amazed by the number of specimens discovered.

The specimens, dating from the Middle Jurassic period (174 to 164 million years ago) onwards, could spark new research that was never before possible due to the small number of samples held in collections.

Geologists found sea lilies (stalked crinoids), starfish (Asteroidea) and feather stars (stalk-less crinoids) fossils, which are all very rare because their skeletons fall apart soon after they die, meaning they tend to need instant burials to be preserved.

The Hollingworths, from Swindon, explained that the team involved now believe many of the creatures were buried alive by some sort of underwater mudslide while dinosaurs were alive.

Neville (centre) and Sally Hollingworth (left) joined forces with Dr Tim Ewin (right) to make the discovery (Picture: PA)
Paleontologists from the Natural History Museum were calling out fairly regularly as they made new discoveries (Picture: PA)

That led them to dub the site a ‘Jurassic Pompei’.

Looking back on how they first came across the site, Neville said: ‘About six months ago, at the beginning of the year, when we were doing some research on local geology we noticed on Google Earth this little quarry and got in touch with the site manager and asked if we could visit.

Dr Hollingworth, an honorary research associate at Birmingham University’s school of geography, earth and environmental science, continued: ‘So we came on down to the bottom of the quarry and we noticed that the floor of the quarry was a clay layer, and on the surface of the clay with lots and lots of little fossils which we call crinoids or feather stars.’

He and Sally took a slab to clean up at home and discovered an ‘incredible’ collection of ‘beautiful’ sea lilies, crinoids, starfish and brittle stars.

Mrs Hollingworth added: ‘It was amazing, the preservation is absolutely stunning.

‘They are 167 million years old, these little critters, and the preservation is just amazing.’

Dr Ewin holds a cleaned up sump specimen with all five extant echinoderm classes on (Picture: PA)
One of countless impressive finds at the site (Picture: PA)

Dr Hollingworth said he found a Mammoth skull in 2004 but sees the latest discovery as possibly even better.

Speaking at the dig, he added: ‘We’ve got a multidisciplinary team bringing it all together to understand the environment in which these animals lived and then died.

‘From all the evidence we’ve gathered so far, it was quite sudden and they were probably buried alive by mudflow, some sort of submarine landslide buried them all where they were.

‘And that in itself is tragic but fascinating because we’re looking back at a period of time when the dinosaurs were living on the land and vegetated shallow land masses around here.’

He added: ‘And all we’ve got is a snapshot, like a window back in time to what we call the Jurassic Pompei, that’s what I’m describing as because all the animals died where they lived.

People at the site had to clean slabs of material to find fossils, like this isocrinus fossil (Picture: PA)
The finds came at what’s been dubbed a ‘Jurassic Pompei’ (Picture: PA)

‘They weren’t transported anywhere, they were literally buried, that was it instantly, and we’re unearthing that.’

Dr Ewin explained: ‘We know that they were buried during life, because we’ve got some evidence to show that the animals are adopting what we call stress position to being buried – they’ve closed up their arms to try to stop the mud getting into their mouths and other orifices.

Throughout the dig in early July, excited groups of people covered in mud spread out across the site, calling out fairly regularly as they made a new discovery.

Dr Ewin said the team had found so much that they developed a process to decide what to leave behind.

He explained: ‘We knew instantly that it was an important site because of the quality of preservation, the number of specimens that we could find and that is exceptional.

Mrs Hollingworth points to a fossil of a comatulida crinoid (Picture: PA)
Paleontologists from the Natural History Museum were part of a ‘multidisciplinary team’ working out what happened to the fossilised creatures (Picture: PA)

‘Normally we have the problem “are we going to find enough?” and this is an alien sort of position to be in where we’ve got so much that we’re sort of having to contemplate leaving behind really nice material.’

The researchers think that while some of the fossils belong to creatures already known to science, others may be new discoveries.

They believe they have unearthed three new species so far, a type of feather star, a brittle star and a sea cucumber.

Other specimens will allow experts to look at the evolution of the animals as they have found both juvenile and adult samples, and even a starfish with an arm being regenerated.

Dr Ewin added: ‘It’s going to allow us to do some really cool science.’

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

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