The Isle of Man was a very different place 340 million years ago.
It wasn’t an island at all but a shallow tropical sea close to the Equator, the kind of marine habitat you might associate with the Great Barrier Reef.
The primitive sea creatures and plants that once lived here may be long extinct. But their fossilised remains can still be found around Manx shores and can prove remarkably easy to spot – if you know where to look.
We joined Manx Wildlife Trust biodiversity education officer Dawn Dickens for a fossil hunting afternoon at Scarlett.
More than 50 people of all ages packed into the MWT’s visitor centre at Scarlett Point to hear Dawn explain a little about the island’s rich geological and ecological history.
She explained fossils are the remains of animals or plants that are preserved in the rocks, mostly in sedimentary rocks like limestone and shales.
Usually only the hard parts such as bones and shells of animals or leaves, seeds and woody parts of the plants survive.
The most common fossils in the limestone rocks of Castletown bay are crinoids, a kind of sea lily attached to the seabed by a long stalk that look like a plant but are actually creatures related to starfish. Some species of crinoid survive to this day.
Corals are also common fossils in the area and some spectacular specimens can be seen on the rocks opposite the entrance to the disused quarry at Scarlett.
After our talk it was time to head out on to limestone shelves armed with a magnifying glass and a bag to collect our specimens.
In no time at all, Dawn had pointed out our first crinoids and once we knew what we were looking for, it was easy to find many more.
Most were firmly embedded in the rock but some of the keenest fossil hunters soon uncovered some loose specimens to take home.
Dawn said that among other places to find fossils are Castletown beach, where they are often washed up, the north end of Gansey beach and opposite the farm at Poill Vaaish.
Fossil hunters are advised to keep safe by not searching under cliff faces without a hard hat on, and to keep an eye on the tides if working on the shore.
You should only hit rocks with a geological hammer.
Making your own fossil collection:
• Clean your fossil with tap water and use a paint brush (for more fragile fossils, ask how to clean it at a museum
• Store each fossil in its own cardboard box
• Label each specimen with: Where you found it, name of fossil, the age of the fossil.
• If you are finding it hard to name a fossil, email a photograph to the Natural History Museum (www.nhm.ac.uk) or take your specimen to the Manx Museum.