Saturday, 7 May 2016

Budleigh Salterton scientist Henry Carter and that dinosaur poo

At a previous post about Fairlynch’s Object of the Month for April 2016 I promised that I would give some background to my pooem at 

No, it wasn’t an April Fool.

A few years ago I wrote the first biography of any length devoted to the life and achievements of Henry Carter FRS, physician, geologist and naturalist, pictured above.

 Born in Budleigh Salterton, Carter returned to his “native place” as he calls it in 1862 after travels in Arabia and working as a doctor in India. He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints, East Budleigh.

Carter was internationally known by his contemporaries for his research into marine sponges, but it was for his work as a geologist that the Royal Society elected him as a Fellow in 1859.

There is evidence to show that his geologising had begun while he was still a boy, as he explored the coastline around Budleigh Salterton. In fact, in a 1981 article published in the Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Geology Series, Dr Robin Cocks of the Natural History Museum’s Palaeontology section, mentioned that it was a Mr Carter who had found brachiopod fossils in Budleigh pebbles in around 1853. From my research into Carter’s life I concluded that the fossil Orthis budleighensis should be renamed Orthis carteri.

In 1859, while Carter was still in India, the anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) published an article concerning the discovery in the cliffs between Budleigh and Sidmouth of a jaw bone identified as that of a rhyncosaur.

Given his many years of geologising in the sub-continent it is highly likely that Carter, on his return to Britain, would have been motivated to search in the area east of the River Otter where the rhynchosaur remains had been found, particularly as Huxley had in his paper referred to some specimens obtained from Central India, among which "were fragments of large jaws with teeth, which presented all the characters of Hyperodapedon."  

At any rate Carter is noted as having found "many traces of osseous structure at this locality" according to later geologists Horace Woodward (1848-1914) and William Ussher (1849-1920).  He may even have noted in Huxley's article the fact that the fossils had been presented to the Geological Society in 1860 by Stephen Hislop, whose work in India he had acknowledged in an article seven years previously.   

A later event of interest to Carter was the discovery in 1875 of bones identified as those of a labyrinthodont. This carnivorous amphibian is thought to have flourished in the late Carboniferous/early Permian —  approximately 260 million years ago. The find was made in fallen debris from the cliffs between Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth by Henry James Johnston-Lavis (1856-1914), a Devonshire man who like Carter had trained as a physician at University College London, where he also studied geology. He was later noted as a volcanologist. 

Woodward and Ussher noted that Carter "subsequently obtained bone structures of Labyrinthodont affinities, and a fragment of jaw-bone, with teeth" from the same location below the western slope of High Peak Hill at Picket Rock Cove.

Evidently the 71-year-old Carter, who by this time was primarily concerned with his work of cataloguing sponges, continued to be intrigued by such finds so close to his home. A further paper on the fossil remains in this location west of High Peak Hill appeared in 1884, authored on this occasion by Arthur Metcalfe (1857-1938). Born in Retford, near Nottingham, he began studying geology as a schoolboy and was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of London at the age of 23.  It is notable that in publishing his research findings concerning the vertebrate remains discovered in the Triassic sandstone strata east of Budleigh Salterton Metcalfe was proud to acknowledge the role of his "friend" Henry Carter in obtaining the "rare and interesting specimens" now in the Natural History Museum.

Carter was keen to carry out his own research into the fossils. He had discovered what he described as "small pellet-like amorphous bodies" among the fallen blocks of Triassic rock on the beach where the Labyrinthodont remains had been found.  They were, he observed, "composed of white calcareous matter, traversed in all directions by semitransparent crystalline plates showing bone-structure" and were identified as coprolites, the scientific term used to describe the fossilised dung of ancient animals. 

He found that sections of the coprolites, "when examined in water under the microscope, presented the same bone-structure as the scales of the Bony Pike of North America (Lepidosteus osseus)." This was confirmed when he compared a fossilised pike scale found in Hampshire to a similar fragment of the fossil from the East Devon beach.  In 1888 the Geological Society published his short account of how this ancient dung from a fish-eating creature from 200 million years ago could be described as "Ichthyosaurian coprolites." 

These fossils described by Metcalfe and Carter have been written of as "fragmentary and unpromising." But the evidence of Carter's involvement in geology at this late stage in his life is nonetheless of value, if only to Devon historians. Metcalfe's account shows the high regard in which Carter was held by a geologist who was less than half his age in 1888. And it proves that the older man retained a continuing interest in the county's ancient landscape for as long as his considerable powers of intellect would allow.

On 4 October that year Henry Carter suffered a paralytic attack which left him with impaired speech and vision. He improved but never completely recovered.

No comments:

Post a Comment