Volunteering with Pliosaurus Carpenteri: Face to Face with a Jurassic Beast!

On the 9th December 2017 I started volunteering at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery at their Pliosaurus! exhibition which ran from June 2017 until the 18th of February 2018. This interactive museum exhibition focused on the 8 metre long fossil of marine reptile Pliosaurus carpenteri (known as Deadly Doris the Pliosaurus! at Bristol Museum). The only known specimen of its species and a rare example of a relatively complete Pliosaur. In this article I explain more about the fossil, my volunteer role, what I enjoyed about the exhibition and what I think the impact of it has been.

I have been really looking forward to sharing this article with you all. As an aspiring paleontologist one of the big things you need as well as academic qualifications is relevant paleontological or museum experience whether it be paid or voluntary. I was very fortunate that whilst looking online to see what paleontological and geological activities were going on I came across Bristol Museums Pliosaurus! Exhibition. I became a fully-fledged volunteer of the exhibition working every Saturday for three months alongside two other volunteers and the museum’s staff. Because I see my future working in Vertebrate Paleontology working in a museum getting involved in something like Pliosaurus! was a no brainer and I enjoyed every minute of it!

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Display before entering the Pliosaurus! exhibition at Bristol Museum. Image credit: James Ronan, 2017.

Background on Pliosaurus carpenteri

Pliosaurus carpenteri was first discovered in a Westbury clay pit in Wiltshire in 1994. This magnificent fossil was discovered by a local fossil hunter, Simon Carpenter. It was found 7 meters below the kimmeridge clay formation, with the fossil dating back 150 million years ago during the late Jurassic. It was named after Simon the founder who had also been a volunteer at Bristol Museum. The Pliosaur was named as a new species in 2013, it was found in the same clay pit as another Pliosaurus westburyensis which had been previously discovered back in 1980. As well as Pliosaurus carpenteri this specimen is also on display at Bristol Museum, in the sea dragon’s area. Both specimens were found within 1 metre of each other in the clay formation in different areas making Pliosaurus westburyensis older, so it was surprising that they were both in fact two different species (Pliosaurus Volunteer Handbook cited in Benson et al, 2013 ).

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The skull of Pliosaurus carpenteri. The top half of the skull was a 3D printed model which was used instead of the real one as it was to fragile to be displayed. Image credit: James Ronan, 2017.

Being a Pliosaurus! Volunteer

As a Pliosaurus! volunteer my role was to share Bristol museums passion for paleontology and education through talking with museum visitors about the fossil. This would mostly take place alongside the full size model of Deadly Doris in the first room of the exhibit where I and the other volunteers would invite children, families and the elderly to interact with the model, to touch the skin, feel the pulse, and smell the animal’s breath. This interactivity was to help visitors to think about what life was like in the Jurassic Seas of Bristol, 150 million years ago. Getting the public to ask the important Paleontological questions like what did Doris eat? What other sea creatures did she live with? What did she look like? How much did she weigh? I happily helped explain these questions and more, whilst also showing visitors around the different interactive sections of the second half of the exhibit which explored these questions in greater detail.

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Model of Deadly Doris the Pliosaurus! which visitors could engage with.  A lot of my time was spent talking to visitors alongside the model. Image credit: James Ronan, 2018.

What I enjoyed about Pliosaurus!

There were many things that stood out to me volunteering for Pliosaurus!. Working alongside such great volunteers, how friendly and helpful the Museum staff were. I think the biggest thing for me that made the exhibition was the interactivity of the Pliosaurus! exhibit and how accessible it was for young children. Seeing the exhibit doors open and children rushing towards the Pliosaurus! model always made me think this is how museum exhibits should be, that they should be interactive, they should allow you to question and they should leave a lasting impact and Doris the Pliosaurus! definitely did leave an impression. During the last few weeks of the exhibition we had many returning families with their children which was great and this increased over the last weekend. We also had many visitors from far and wide, one of the volunteers told me that a family had travelled all the way from London for the final week the fossil was on display. So it was great the exhibit had such a good reception and word of mouth from the public.

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Managed to get a quick selfie with Doris before the exhibition finished. Image credit: James Ronan, 2018.

What has the impact been?

It is too hard to say at the moment what the numbers for the exhibit were as they haven’t been released as of yet but it was a resounding success. My last day was on the 17th of February on a day when the museum was holding activities around Chinese New Year. I had never seen the museum so busy, it was the perfect day for me to finish my volunteering as we had so many visitors come to learn, interact and see the Pliosaurus! fossil. Over that weekend a memory wall was put up ‘Memories of Doris’ where visitors could write on post it notes there favourite memories of Doris, what the exhibit had meant to them and the impact it had. Many parents and the museum staff thanked me and the other volunteers for our help in sharing more about the fossil. It was a fantastic and worthwhile experience and really helped me to put my passion for Paleontology into practice.

Whilst it is sad the exhibition is over the model of Doris has been moved to the back hall of the museum where it is now hung from the ceiling, so Doris is now one of the first things you see as you enter the back hall. The fossil itself has been moved back down into the museum collection stores for further study. Given the lasting impression Doris has had at Bristol Museum hopefully it will have inspired the next generation of Paleontologists, I am sure it has given the exhibitions success.

I hope you have found this article a great read! I have been waiting to share this on Jurassic Finds for a while so I am glad I have been able to share my volunteering with you all in detail. Please do check the Bristol Museum website to see what activities we have coming up. If you’re in the area do pop in to say Hello and have a good look around, it’s a beautiful museum and there is always something going on.

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The model of Doris during the exhibition which has now been moved into the back hall of Bristol Museum. Image credit: James Ronan, 2017.

 

References

Benson RBJ, Evans M, Smith AS, Sassoon J, Moore-Faye S, et al. (2013) A Giant Pliosaurid Skull from the Late Jurassic of England. PLOS ONE 8(5): e65989. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065989

 

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