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The sad story of a largely forgotten pioneer of ichnology and Precambrian Palaeontology

on . Posted in Published

As part of my Ph.D. studies I had the pleasure of working on the Ediacaran  Lonymyndian Successions of the Welsh Borderlands, eventually crossing paths with the wonderful Pete Crimes, who ended up being the external examiner of my thesis and then a great friend.  Pete and I published (with one of his former students J. Pauley) on a number of peculiar structures that we collectively called "blobs", but which included morphologies like "donuts", "cherry buns" and "blobs" of various sizes, and the Precambrian pseudofossil Arumberia.

McIlroy, D., Crimes, T. P., and Pauley, J. C. 2005. Fossils and matgrounds from the Neoproterozoic Longmyndian Supergroup, Shropshire, UK. Geological Magazine, 142: 441–455.


I thought that that would be the end of the matter. I knew that the sedimentology could use a modern sequence stratigraphic approach, but my move to Canada seemed to put an end to my Longmyndian interest.  That is until Rich Callow (a student of my Ph.D. supervisor Martin Brasier and currently a postdoc with me here at MUN) discovered microbial filaments in the same successions.

Callow, R. H. T. and Brasier, M. D. 2009. A solution to Darwin’s dilemma of 1859: Exceptional preservation in Salter’s material from the late Ediacaran Longmyndian Supergroup, England. Journal of the Geological Society, London, 166: 1–4.


Rich and I got to talking about the historical material of Salter which is housed in the BGS in Keyworth, UK, and about Longmyndian geology in general. In particular we mused about how amazing it is that the material had not become part of the evolution of life debate in Victorian times, since it was described before Darwin published "On the Origin of Species".  The Longmyndian work was contemporary at a time when it was clear that the abrupt evolution of life, at the base of what we now call the Cambrian Period, was a problem to the theory of Evolution (as Darwin himself admitted).


At about the same time I had become aware of the fantastic Darwin Correspondence Project, in which we found had some correspondence between Darwin and Salter, in a period when Salter was suffering from depression and the breakup of his family.  Looking through correspondence and accounts of interactions with Salter at the time, makes it fairly clear that he was struggling with bipolar disorder.  We suggest that the difficulties that the Victorian upper classes might have experienced in interacting with the unpredictable and volatile side of John Salter brought on  by his mental illness (and perhaps his lower middle class heritage) might have led to to his work being given a less than enthusiastic hearing.


Also, the pious and religious Salter occupied a senior position in the Geological Survey, but interpersonal conflicts with the athesistic and go-getting Thomas Huxley (better known as Darwin's Bulldog) with whom he shared a senior position/rank in the Geological Survey.  It seems that the high-profile  Huxley applied pressure to his seniors to the effect that he would leave the post unless Salter was removed from his position.  Between the jiggs and the reels (as they say here in Newfoundland) Salter's position became untenable and he left the survey, just short of being eligible for his pension. 


He fell on hard times financially, and emotionally (as his wife and children left him), eventually committing suicide by throwing himself from a steamboat into the River Thames.  Just before he did so, he gave his son the gold watch that was given to him as a young man by Sedgewick in thanks for his field assistance in Wales.  The watch is perhaps the one in the fob pocket in the photo above.


He left behind him a collection of Precambrian fossils from the late Ediacaran that had the potential to propel palaeontology into new directions in support of ideas regarding the evolution of animal life, but his work fell by the wayside and was never really given the recognition it deserved.  His legacy is in the form of the most important thing that a palaeontologist can acheive, careful, thoughtful description and open-minded interpretation of fossils.  That kind of work is timeless and  has the potential to remain influential and important long after paradigms of the day have been overturned.


We consider John Salter to be the forgotten grandfather of Ediacaran palaeontology.  A highly gifted, but sadly under-appreciated, scientist.  As Salter knew, there was life in the Ediacaran.  The question of whether the Ediacaran fossils represent ancestors to Phanerozoic taxa, however, remains wide open.


You can find the full article here:

Richard H. T. Callow, Duncan McIlroy & Martin D. Brasier (2011): John Salter and the Ediacara Fauna of the Longmyndian Supergroup, Ichnos, 18:3, 176-187.