Want to see a prehistoric looking bird? I think you should look no further than the cormorant! Cormorants have an ancient dinosaur like look about them, as they sit on boats or rocky cliffs and stretch their wings. Look out for the young birds which have a cream coloured chest.
Many organisms that live today have barely changed their body shape in millions of years and look extremely similar to their ancestors. With the help of Sussex Wildlife Trust we have compared some of our Sussex chalk fossils, which are around 100 million years old, with modern animals that live in UK seas today.
Fossil Sea Urchin, Stereocidaris sceptrifera
Like many modern types living on the seabed, these sea urchins had spines as protection against hungry fish. This fossil is lacking it’s spines but you can still see where they would have been held.
Fossil of Stereocidaris sceptrifera, an ancient species of sea-urchin (or Echinoid). Photo by Bob Foreman
Common sea urchin, Echinus esculentus
Also known as the edible sea urchin. A large, round sea-urchin up to 15cm across with short, strong spines. Usually brick-orange in colour, with white bumps which the orange spines are attached to. Lives amongst seaweed and rocks, where it grazes on algae and small shellfish
Found on rocky shores, particularly around the north and west.
An edible species, eaten particularly in Spain and Portugal.
Fossil fish, Ctenothrissa radians sp.
Fossil fish, Ctenothrissa radians sp., this is a rare complete example of this beautiful scaly fish which was found by Charles Potter in the late 19th Century.
Black seabream, Spondyliosoma cantharus
The black sea bream, also known as a Porgy, is an omnivorous fish, eating seaweeds and small invertebrates.
Black sea bream breed in the Kingmere Marine Conservation Zone in Sussex between April and May. The males excavate a small shallow in the seabed, moving the gravel or sand around the edge to create a sort of crater into which the female lays her eggs. The male then protects the eggs until they hatch. He will fan them with his tail to keep them clear of sand or debris and wards off hungry predators, including smaller bream, wrasse and even whelks!
How to identify:
A large silvery fish, with an oval shape. Shaded bands running along the length of the upper flanks. It has a long single dorsal and anal fin and a small mouth. The tail is large and forked displaying a black band on it, most obviously noticeable on juveniles.
Juveniles usually have numerous broken yellow stripes running along the body. Spawning males are nearly completely black in colour, except for vertical white bars.
Found off south west Britain the Irish Sea and the English Channel.
All black sea breams are born female! They change to males when they reach 30cm. All fish over 40cm are male.
Lobster, Palaeastacus dixoni
This rare fossil lobster was found in the Lower Chalk, Clayton, East Sussex and is from the Upper Cretaceous era. It has been preserved in wonderful detail. First drawings of this fossil appeared in scientific journals in 1850. Collected by Henry Willet.
Common Lobster, Homarus gammarus
A large crustacean, that grows up to 1 metre long, although more typically to about 50cm in lenght. Lobsters are a deep purplish-blue colour, with red antennae. They live in crevices and caves amongst rocks from the low tide mark and deeper. Their first pair of legs have massive grabbing pincers.
How to identify:
Unmistakeable: other species of lobster are smaller and not the same colour
Found all round our coasts.
Lobsters are nocturnal, hiding during the day in their caves.
Who did these unusual teeth belong to?
With the help of Sussex Wildlife Trust we compared some of our fossil animal teeth from 85 million years ago to jaws of animals that live in UK seas today.
Shark fossil teeth, Ptychodus sp.
Originally this ray-like shark would have used a battery of such teeth for crushing molluscs and crustaceans.
These teeth look quite similar to a tropical species of ray’s teeth – the Cow nosed ray, however these live in tropical shallow seas. The UK species of ray that we have chosen as an equivalent is the Thornback ray.
Thornback Ray, Raja clavate
Thornback rays are regularly seen by divers. They have flattened bodies covered in blotches of colour to help them camouflage into the sand or mud or gravel. They have a long thorned tail. The males are smaller than the females.
How to identify:
Flat bodies with yellow and brown patches on their backs. Long thorny tail and protruding eye sockets.
Found all around the UK coast.
Females can lay up to 150 egg cases every year. When the babies hatch, these cases are often washed up onto the beach.
Pipe fish jaw
These teeth would have belonged to a long-snouted slender fish, one of many similar bony fish that lived in the Chalk Seas of NW Europe.
Greater Pipefish, Syngnathus acus
The pipefish has a long, segmented body, about 45 cm long. It lives in seaweed and seagrass and feeds on small prawns and mysid shrimp.
How to identify:
Thin segmented body with a long snout and a hump just behind the eyes
Commonly seen around the southwest coast and welsh coastlines.
Just like seahorses, the males (not the females) look after the eggs in a brood pouch until they are ready to hatch.
…and finally we couldn’t resist adding our favourite sea creature which is protected in our Sussex Marine Conservation Zones…
Short-snouted seahorse, Hippocampus hippocampus
Seahorses prefer to live in seagrass and shallow estuaries.
How to identify:
Distinctive horse like head with snout and a curling tail which is uses for holding onto things
Has been recorded along the south and southwest coasts of the UK.
Seahorses usually mate for life and perform a courtship dance with their partner every morning. The male seahorses get pregnant and give birth to the young.
View more Monster Jaws from the Booth Museum’s in our Monster Jaw gallery
Lobsters swam in our ancient warm Sussex seas around 100-85 million years ago. Lobsters are grouped within the Crustaceans which include crabs, shrimps, prawns and barnacles. They first evolved in the Cambrian period around 509 to 497 million years ago. Click the images to discover more.
Sea stars, sea lilies and sea urchins are all Echinoderms. The name Echinoderm comes from the Greek word meaning ‘spiny skin’. They first appeared in the fossil record in the early Cambrian period around 542-488 million years ago. The fossils in this gallery are between 100 – 85 million years old.
Plants form part of the immense natural history collections at the Booth Museum of Natural History, included in these are *seaweeds – some of which are over 100 years old!
These specimens were carefully dried, identified and mounted by the Victorian women who collected them – often forming beautiful delicate displays or arranged in beautiful bound books.
But why keep 100 year old seaweed? It can’t just be because they are beautiful, can it?…Dr Gerald Legg, former Curator of the Booth Museum of Natural History reveals all…
Learn from the past to protect our future
One important value of such collections is to be able to see what was found in the past compared with what is found now. What has been lost and what has been gained. The collections like those of Mary Merrifield, Mrs Leopold Grey and Dr Omerod in the Booth collections contain incredibly detailed notes showing exactly where they were found and the date they were collected.
Data, data, data!
Collecting data of seaweeds over the last century and in more recent decades has helped to provide key information for conservation. In Sussex, data collection like this is helping towards the restoration of a vital marine habitat that was hidden to most people beneath the waves…
In the not distant past **kelps were common along the shore and off the coast of Sussex. Kelp forests can provide important nurseries for fish, can help combat climate change and are a crucial habitat for a host of species.
However, with trawling, dredging and the storm of 1986 much of the dense ‘forests’ have been lost. You no longer get masses of seaweeds washed up on Worthing beach causing a stink and making a useful fertiliser to be collected by farmers and the like…
Sussex Kelp Forest cover 1980
Sussex Kelp Forest cover 2019
What it’s like now
But not all is lost…
Find out how local conservationists and activists are working together to bring the kelp back and allow the forests to regenerate in our Take Action section.
I’d like to finish this blog with a wonderful poem on Kelp by Jeffery Yang
Kelp by Jeffrey Yang
How easy it is to lose oneself
in a kelp forest. Between
canopy leaves, sunlight filters thru
the water surface; nutrients
bring life where there’d other-
wise be barren sea; a vast eco-
system breathes. Each
Dr Gerald Legg, former Curator of the Booth Museum of Natural History
*Kelps include: Oar Weed Laminaria digitata, forest Kelp Laminaria hypoborea, Golden Kelp Laminaria ochroleuca, Sugar Kelp Saccharina latissimi, Furbellows Sacchorhiza polyschides and the alien Wakame Undaria pinnatifida.
Sussex Wildlife Trust talk to us about the latest updates of their HelpOurKelp campaign, why kelp is important and what you can do to get involved.
Kelp is the name given to a group of brown seaweeds, usually large in size, that are capable of forming dense aggregations known as ‘kelp forests’.
Historically, kelp was abundant along the West Sussex coastline. But this important habitat has diminished over time, leaving just a few small patches and individual plants, mostly in shallow water and along the shoreline. Through the Help Our Kelp partnership, we want to bring it back!
Why we should Help Our Kelp!
How far have we come?
The first step towards restoration is to put fisheries management in place. Whilst there are a number of factors that may be affecting the kelp, one manageable factor is fishing effort.
The Sussex IFCA, who manage fishing within six nautical miles from the Sussex shore, agreed a new byelaw on 23 January 2020 which will see trawling excluded from a vast 304 km2 of Sussex coastline year-round. The decision was made following an extensive consultation period, which saw overwhelming support demonstrated by almost 2,500 people in response to the Help Our Kelp campaign.
Sussex Wildlife Trust is delighted to be working alongside Big Wave Productions, BLUE Marine Foundation, Marine Conservation Society and University of Portsmouth as the Help Our Kelp Partnership. Together we have contacted Secretary of State George Eustice directly, urging him to sign the byelaw swiftly, and encouraged all Sussex MPs to do the same. We have done this understanding the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis and the important roles that DEFRA and our local MPs are playing.
As lockdown restrictions start to ease, we wish to put this critical byelaw back on the political agenda. We see it as a win-win scenario for Sussex, both for its people and its wildlife. Getting the byelaw signed is a positive and unprecedented action for a more sustainable Sussex.
Click hereto learn more and to watch the stunning campaign film created by Big Wave Productions, narrated by David Attenborough himself.
Written by Nikki Hills and Ella Garrud, Sussex Wildlife Trust
Edward Thomas Booth notes in his catalogue from June, 1867 that kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) are common. They are currently the most numerous gull species in the UK; however, they are now in serious decline. Since 2000 black-legged kittiwake numbers have declined by more than half.
Booth’s entry about the summer kittiwake diorama discusses the Sea-Bird Preservation Act that protected the birds. In Booth’s opinion:
‘the senseless slaughter that took place round their breeding-stations every summer having been allowed to continue too long without interference.’
The Sea Bird Preservation Act of 1869 was the first in the country to protect birds. It prevented people from killing seabirds and collecting their eggs from April to August so that they could breed. The main motivation for this was not for the protection of the birds themselves, but to aid sailors who relied on healthy seabird populations to find land in foggy conditions.
As a collector of birds, Booth’s following sentence contains no sense of irony at his killing of these birds: ‘The specimens in this case were obtained at the Bass Rock in June, 1867.’ The winter kittiwake diorama contains adults in winter plumage and juveniles that were ‘shot a few miles off Brighton, in the winter of 1870.’
The black-legged kittiwakes joined the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species in 2018. Current threats to kittiwakes are associated with their prey, sand-eels and herring which are in decline, due to the effects of climate change. This impacts the prey the sand-eels feed on and the breeding season of the herring, which no longer coincides with the kittiwake breeding season. This results in lower breeding success for the kittiwakes.
Despite the downward trend of many populations of kittiwakes, the colony at Seaford Head in Sussex continues to thrive. Seaford Head to Beachy Head is designated as an area of Special Scientific Interest and Seaford Head Nature Reserve is part managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. There are over 1000 nests in the kittiwake colony. No one knows exactly why they are doing better than other colonies around the UK. A possible explanation is that prey species are also faring better in the South East. However, this may change as sea temperatures are expected to rise faster along the south coast bringing more unpredictable changes for the kittiwakes and their associated marine ecosystem.
Written by Kerrie Curzon, Collections Assistant, The Booth Museum of Natural History
Sussex covered by an ancient sea
Did you know that 100 million years ago the whole of the UK was covered by a warm ocean? Only the tops of the Scottish mountains would have poked above sea-level.
How do we know this? What lived in this warm shallow sea covering Sussex? How does it compare to now? We can use the Booth Museum’s important collection of fossils from the Cretaceous period to find out more.