Sometimes the strangest things are right on our doorstep. Neil Buchanan of the Bearsden Shark Group tells us about community efforts to celebrate and promote awareness of a local marvel of international importance.
The Glasgow suburb of Bearsden is known mainly for its Roman remains associated with the Antonine Wall, but there is a weirder, older history lurking beneath the veneer of civilisations past and present. In 1982 the renowned fossil hunter Stan Wood made an astonishing discovery in a small stream on the edge of the housing estate where he was then living. The Manse Burn at this point runs through a patch of woodland, and exposes rocks that were laid down at the bottom of a marine lagoon some 330 million years ago. Recognising the potential for fossil finds, Stan organised an excavation with support from The Hunterian Museum and the Nature Conservancy Council, along with volunteers from the local community and Glasgow University.
Many shrimp, fish and shark fossils were found but the spectacular one was a bizarre-looking, metre-long shark sporting on its back a peculiar structure (actually a dorsal fin) shaped like an anvil with spikes on top. Prehistoric sharks with this feature (belonging to the Stethacanthidae family) were previously known only from North America. The Bearsden Shark (or Akmonistion as it is known to scientists) is in such good condition that as well as its cartilage skeleton, muscle and blood vessels, it is also possible to see the contents of its stomach. The Bearsden Shark has become one of the star attractions at the Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, where it takes pride of place in the Main Gallery. The function of its ‘spiky anvil’ remains a mystery.
Stan Wood’s discovery in 1982 became something of a community attraction, and he encouraged the local children to take part in the excavation by allowing them to help on Wednesday afternoons, with as many as 70 turning up to sift through spoil heaps created by the excavation.
Following the shark’s discovery, the excavation was filled in and the remarkable secret of the Manse Burn site gradually fell into obscurity again. Then in 2006 Alan McBride, a ranger at Mugdock Country Park, gave a presentation to the local Residents’ Association hoping to remind the community of the find. This inspired a few of us to get together and raise awareness of the site’s international significance. With the help of East Dunbartonshire Council and Dr Neil Clark of the Hunterian Museum, and with funding from Tarmac, operators of the local Douglasmuir Quarry, we erected signage and an information board. Since then two of the group have continued to keep the project alive by the development of a web site at www.bearsdenshark.co.uk and the publication of leaflets. These together have been made available to local schools, the local library and other interested organisations to make people aware of the significance of the Bearsden Shark.
Besides what it tells us about life 330 million years ago, the Bearsden Shark is a reminder that our world is ever-changing. When it lived this part of Scotland was located at the equator, and what is now Bearsden was a shallow marine lagoon bordered by swamp forests (remarkably, tree stumps from this 330-million-year-old forest can still be seen a few miles away at Fossil Grove in Glasgow’s Victoria Park). What a story to emerge from a small suburban stream: a story about fish and sharks that existed long, long ago, and about the world and its climate at that time. A great story to make the scientific world more interesting to children – as Stan Wood understood.