THE diagonal line of dark shale scarring the bed of Whiteadder Water, near Chirnside, would have attracted little attention from most people, but veteran fossil hunter, Stan Wood, was intrigued.
It was 2009, and with the river’s swirling waters almost over the top of his waders, Mr Wood made a discovery he had spent 20 years searching for.
It has since been hailed as one of palaentology’s most important finds and could bring a major economic boost to the Borders.
Edinburgh-born Mr Wood, who has lived in Selkirk since 2006, is a palaeontologist who previously worked for Newcastle University and the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.
This week, a selection of 20 of the most important specimens went on display at the National Museum of Scotland after publication of details of the incredible find in the prestigious American scientific journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Experts believe many of the several hundred fossils, including species previously unknown to science, will rewrite a key chapter in the history of the evolution of life on land.
A consortium of interested parties put together by Mr Wood is now seeking to raise more than £3million in funds to allow the further exploration of sites in Berwickshire and elsewhere in the Borders.
Even famed naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough, was drawn to comment: “One is accustomed these days to hear of sensational new fossil finds being made in [other] parts of the world. But to learn of a site in this country […] which must surely be counted among the most extensively explored, in geological terms […] is wonderful and exciting,” he said.
With Mr Wood’s discovery making the news as far afield as San Francisco and Croatia, VisitScotland regional director, Paula McDonald, says it could bring fossil experts from around the world flocking to the Borders.
“We are hugely proud that the ‘eureka fossils’ were discovered in the Scottish Borders,” she told TheSouthern. “The find is said to unearth a missing chapter of the evolution story and overturn a long-held theory about land-dwelling on Earth
“This is the only find in the world from that 15 million-year period and truly puts Scotland and the Scottish Borders on the international stage,” she said.
“Our hope for the region would be that palaeontologists from all over the world take the time to visit the Borders and discover other hidden treasures.”
For decades scientists have been in the dark over a 30-million-year period in the Earth’s history. Known as “Romer’s Gap”, after the American palaeontologist who first noticed the discrepancy, it is notorious for its lack of a fossil record.
But when the fossil record re-emerges, the ancestors of today’s mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds had already appeared.
Nick Fraser, keeper of natural sciences at the National Museum of Scotland, calls it a real “eureka” moment in paleontology.
“These fossils aren’t much to look at in and of themselves, but they may prove to be profoundly important in advancing our understanding of the earliest development of land-dwelling life as we know it today,” he said.
Speaking to TheSouthern this week, Mr Wood, said the Whiteadder find was one of the most satisfying discoveries he had made in a 40-year career as a fossil collector and preparator that has already seen him exhume many previously unknown species.
“Back in 2009, I was working underwater along the bed of the Whiteadder, not far from Chirnside. I started in a few inches of water, but gradually had to change to wellies and, finally, waders as I went deeper in,” he explained.
“What had drawn my attention was the seam of shale which contained these fossils and which was running parallel to the surface of the water, driving in at an angle. It was while I was pottering about there that I discovered this Aladdin’s Cave containing fossils important to the record of evolution.
“They give us an understanding of that part of the Earth’s history of which we knew next to nothing.”
Mr Wood says the haul is important because the fossils include examples of flora together with those of animals, and means the collection contains an examples of an entire community of life.
A former shipyard engineer and insurance salesman who turned to fossil hunting in 1968, Mr Wood, has almost three dozen previously unknown species to his name as a fossil collector.
As well as the fossil of the oldest-known reptile in the world, pulled from a disused Bathgate quarry in 1987, Mr Wood found the complete fossilised remains of a shark in 1973 that was also unknown to science.
In the years since, he has published numerous scientific papers on his work and was the subject of a BBC2 TV documentary in 1980, after finding a rich seam of marine fossils, including many shrimps, fish and sharks new to science at Bearsden.
He believes Berwickshire and other parts of the Borders have great potential for further record-breaking scientific discoveries.
“There will certainly be more down there. Unfortunately I won’t be able to take part,” said Mr Wood, who disclosed he has incurable cancer.
Of the plan for multi-million-pound funding to allow the further investigation of the fossil record in Berwickshire and elsewhere in this region, Mr Wood told us: “The hope is that such work would contribute to a real understanding of that part of the Earth’s history.”
z For more on these historic findings, turn to page 11.