Evolution’s missing chapter found here in Berwickshire

Selkirk Palaeontologist Stan Wood's Romer's Gap fossil find in the Whiteadder Water near Chirnside. Stan studies a small fish fossil not yet named found  at the same time and location.
Selkirk Palaeontologist Stan Wood's Romer's Gap fossil find in the Whiteadder Water near Chirnside. Stan studies a small fish fossil not yet named found at the same time and location.

THE missing chapter in the history of evolution of life on land looks to have been filled in thanks to extraordinary fossil finds in Berwickshire.

The momentous discovery made in the banks and bed of the Whiteadder River near Chirnside is said to be evidence that creatures crawled out of the water to populate the land after a mass extinction 359 million years ago, resetting the timeline for animals with fingers and toes.

Fossil collector Stan Wood from Selkirk, was “pottering about” in the Whiteadder River, when he made the discovery and the pieces he found are now on display in the National Museum of Scotland’s ‘Evolution’s Missing Chapter’ exhibition.

Nick Fraser, Keeper of Natural Sciences at National Museums Scotland, said: “This is a real ‘eureka’ moment in palaeontology. These fossils aren’t much to look at in themselves, but they may prove to be profoundly important in advancing our understanding of the earliest development of land-dwelling life as we know it today. For that reason, we are tremendously excited to be able to give people the chance to see these fascinating objects first hand.

“The cache of fossils includes new vertebrate forms previously unknown to science, and researchers around the world are excited at the new information they will provide about the earliest development of life on land as we know it today.”

A consortium of interested parties put together by Mr Wood is now seeking to raise more than £3 million to allow the further exploration of sites in Berwickshire and elsewhere in the Borders.

Explaining how his historic find in the Whiteadder River came about – he also discovered fossils on the coastal section at Burnmouth and the banks of the Tweed River near Coldstream – palaeontologist Stan said: “It was in 2009, on a section of the bed of the Whiteadder River, not far from Chirnside. I was working in just a few inches of water where there was a seam of shales containing these fossils.

“As I worked along the seam I was getting further and further into deep water and by the end was having to wear waders.

“It was after I moved to Selkirk that I started pottering about in Berwickshire and it was during this time that I discovered this Aladdin’s cave of important fossils.

“There are a couple of hundred fossils in total from this site and they give us an understanding into that part of the Earth’s history of which we knew next to nothing. The fossils found represent an entire community which is extremely important in understanding this period.”

The Berwickshire fossil finds help overturn a long-held theory about evolution on Earth. “Romer’s Gap”, named after the American palaeontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer, is a gap in records, showing little evidence of life on land between 360 and 345 million years ago. The gap led some palaeontologists to conclude that there were low levels of oxygen during that time, which limited evolution on land.

However, the newly unveiled fossils suggest that a wide diversity of amphibians, plants, fish and invertebrates all existed during this 15 million year period, and they shed light on a period that previously had been almost blank.

Renowned scientist and BBC broadcaster Sir David Attenborough said: “One is accustomed these days to hear of sensational new fossil finds being made in other parts of the world. But to learn of a site in this country which must surely be counted among the most extensively explored, in geological terms is wonderful and exciting.”

The fossils unearthed by Mr Wood are part of what experts believe to be a whole eco-system preserved in the fossil record.

One amphibian specimen has been nicknamed ‘Ribbo’ due to his well-preserved vertebrate structure, providing scientists with enough information to interpret what he may have looked like as he roamed the Tweed basin 350 million years ago.

Mr Wood, who worked as a fossil collector and preparator at both Newcastle University and theHunterian Museum in Glasgow believes Berwickshire and other parts of the Border has great potential for further record-breaking scientific discoveries.

“There will certainly be more down there. Unfortunately I won’t be able to take part,” said Mr Wood, who disclosed he has incurable cancer.

Of the plan to seek multi-million-pounding funding to allow further investigations into Berwickshire’s fossil record and elsewhere in the Borders, Mr Wood said: “The hope is that such work would contribute to a real understanding of that part of the Earth’s history.”