Trove of Prehistoric Sea Creatures Discovered in England

One day in prehistory, tens of thousands of sea creatures were buried alive on the ocean floor. During lockdown, 167.1 million years later, amateur paleontologists Neville and Sally Hollingworth found their remains in a feat of discovery that could offer priceless insights into the ancient world.

Referencing the thriving Roman metropolis that met an abrupt end when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., Neville Hollingworth has described the site, located at the bottom of a quarry in England's Cotswold Hills, as a "Jurassic Pompeii." Dating to between 199.6 million and 145.5 million years ago, the Jurassic Period was characterized by a humid climate that fueled the diversification of dinosaur species, according to National Geographic.

The site contains the preserved remains of a multitude of Jurassic-era echinoderms, sea creatures that include starfish and sea cucumbers. Like the dinosaurs, they were wiped out by a mysterious and cataclysmic natural disaster.

"These animals didn't even have time to get out. Even the sea urchins, who can get out of mud, were trapped. Everything died exactly where it was living," Neville Hollingworth said in a press release issued by the British Natural History Museum on July 21.

An amateur paleontologist cleans a fossil.
A treasure trove of well-preserved echinoderm fossils were discovered in England, delighting scientists. Here, amateur paleontologist Patrice Legrand cleans a seashell fossil in 2016. FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists currently working at the site have tentatively identified the disaster as a mudslide. "What we have is something very suggestive of a dramatic mudflow," Zoe Hughes, Ph.D., the curator of the museum, told the BBC. "We have this happy little ecosystem and then, boom! Something catastrophic happens." Whatever it was, it smothered everything in its wake in thick mud, ensuring that the bodies of its victims would be preserved for eons to come.

Sure enough, the site has yielded some of the most well-preserved echinoderm specimens ever found in Britain. In addition to starfish and sea cucumbers, the team has excavated sea lilies, brittle stars, feather stars and sea urchins. They expect to find several new species among their number as well.

"What we're finding at this comparable to some of the best fossil sea urchin and starfish sites in the world," Tim Ewin, Ph.D., the senior curator of the museum, said in the release.

Ewin and colleagues are particularly excited about the sea lily and feather star fossils they have found, many of which are completely intact. Sea lilies and feather stars, which belong to a family of organisms called crinoids, are so rarely preserved that the museum only has 25 incomplete specimens in its collection. However, the team has found "many" complete specimens at the site, according to the release. Given the bounty available, there are sure to be more to come.