Sun, Mar 01, 2009 - Page 13 News List

The dinosaur hunter

Steve Sweetman took up paleontology just eight years ago, but already he has discovered 48 new prehistoric species while scouring the coast of the Isle of Wight

By Patrick Barkham  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


Beneath the turf lies one meter of sandy soil. Next comes a rusty brown layer from the last ice age, where you might find remains of woolly mammoths. Below that are several meters of sandstone, deposited by ancient rivers, which burns red in the light of the afternoon sun. Towards the base runs a small slice of flecked gray rock, crumbling on to the beach as fast as the rest of this cliff face on the Isle of Wight, which lies a few kilometers off the south coast of England.

“This is the good stuff, the pay dirt,” says Steve Sweetman, whisking an oyster knife out of his pocket and prizing small pieces of fossilized charcoal from the rock. “This is what dinosaurs come out of. It’s a chaotic mix and there is no grading of grains — small and large are all mixed up together. It’s just full of fossils.”

Brook Bay on the south side of the Isle of Wight is a bleak prospect in winter. The relentless roar of the sea is broken only by the lonely pew of an oystercatcher. But going dinosaur hunting with Sweetman is an illuminating experience. With a small magnifying glass hung around his neck, he swoops on an ordinary-looking rock and kicks it. “That’s a dinosaur print,” he says matter-of-factly. The size of his yellow collecting bucket, the rock is a perfect cast of a three-toed foot of a huge, herbivorous iguanodon. Sometimes you can even see the wrinkles of dinosaur skin imprinted in the rock.

In the last four years, Sweetman’s trips to the beach have unearthed an astonishing 48 new prehistoric species, including eight previously undiscovered kinds of dinosaur. The new species, including crocodiles, lizards, frogs, salamanders and six tiny mammals, some as small as a shrew, come from the Early Cretaceous period, 125 million to 130 million years ago. Most spectacularly, Sweetman has found a new velociraptor-type creature, the rapacious dinosaur that terrorized the children in Jurassic Park’s memorable kitchen scene. In reality, this fearsome, pack-hunting beast was only the size of a turkey; Sweetman has found a bigger species measuring 6m from nose to tail. “If this one I found hunted in packs, it could have attacked anything that walked the planet,” he says.

In the 167 years since dinosaurs were given their name by the British anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen, only about 1,000 species have been named. How, then, has one man found so many, so recently? Sweetman, a research associate a few kilometers down the coast at the University of Portsmouth, came to academia late but became fascinated by fossils at the age of 4, when he was given a fossilized sea urchin by his mother. “After that, I was just bitten,” he says. Growing up on the Isle of Wight, he read about US paleontologists using sieves to sift through large quantities of mud and, as a teenager, rigged up his own version using an old bath and a flour sieve. Among his discoveries were some bone and teeth fragments. He talked to experts but, at that time, they didn’t know what they were so he put them in a box and forgot about them.

He studied geology at Oxford University but didn’t have the money to do a PhD. Apart from the occasional weekend looking for fossils for fun, he left his passion behind and became an oil trader in the City of London, later running a marine consultancy business. In 2001, he returned with his wife to the Isle of Wight and bought a small farm to keep horses. Just as he was packing his belongings for the move, a BBC TV program set on the island encouraged members of the public to show their fossil finds to their experts. Sweetman took along some of his old finds. In the intervening years, paleontology had progressed substantially and, this time, the scientists were really interested in his boyhood finds. His passion was reignited and, after a chance meeting with a paleontologist from the University of Portsmouth, he was amazed to be offered a fully funded PhD.

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