Dragons and the Past

Dragonflies are often called living fossils. Dragonflies belong to the Palaeoptera, the most ancient group of winged insects. The ancestors of today’s Dragonflies, the Protodonata, were on the wing above the warmCarboniferous forests 300 million years ago. They were among the largest flying insects ever to have existed. The wingspan of one group, the Meganeuridae, reached a monster 70cm,making them the largest flying beasties of their time. These monster dragonflies resembled the ones you can see today. However there were important differences in the structure of their wings. There was no notch or node in the leading edge of their wings. There was no pterostigma to be found either.So what is Derbyshire’s link with the past history of Dragonflies? Well in Northeast Derbyshire there is a town called Bolsover. Known for its magnificent Castle under the care of English Heritage, dominating the town’s skyline. Bolsover also has a well preserved medieval grid pattern of streets, which is one of the best to be found in England. However its crown jewel of natural history goes even further back in time linked to the town’s long closed colliery.Here is an account of the discovery of a 300,000,000 year old fossil that put Bolsover on the world entomological map. It was written by Tony Smith and published in a short lived Derbyshire Local History magazine, The Tup in September 1993.1978 is a long time ago…it is hard to believe what a commotion was caused by the first ‘Beast of Bolsover’. Seemingly now not as well known as the subsequent ‘Beast’, Bolsover’s longstanding and current Member of Parliament Dennis Skinner.Few people know how lucky it was ever to see the light of day. Now that Bolsover Colliery is, ironically, ‘’mothballed’’, we shall not see the like again.(Since this article was first published the Colliery has now been closed redeveloped reclaimed and itself become part of Derbyshire’s history. R T Taylor.) The late Terry Judge was then a District deputy, and had passed on his enthusiasm for fossil hunting to his mates in the Deep Hard Seam. D3’s face had yielded nothing unusual, but the men moved on undaunted to D4’S face.The seam was very ‘scabby ‘ (a weak mudstone that broke irregularly, causing difficulties in re-setting the roof supports and needing careful vigilance)

When Malcolm Spencer saw something odd in the broken roof he wrapped it up and brought it out of the pit.

He and Terry were on opposite shifts, not meeting in the baths for some time. The bag lay in Malcolm’s locker for some time, until he threatened to throw it away if Terry didn’t look at it. Terry knew it was something special, but sought a second and then a third opinion. Eventually he brought it to the Mine Geologist, who thought that the fine detail resembled that on a dragonfly’s wing. He decided to have it photographed before sending it to the Regional Geologist. That done, he returned with it to the pit to let the Manager know his suspicions.

The ‘line lads’ in the Survey Department, before they could be stopped, gave it a quick rinse in the sink ‘to clean it up a bit’

Eventually, via the Institute of Geological Sciences, it went to Dr Paul Whalley, a specialist at the British Museum (Natural History). Two years later he officially declared it a new speciesErasipteron bolsoveri (‘’Gracefully winged of Bolsover’’). With a 20cm wingspan it was larger than any living dragonfly and the oldest then known from the UK.

First the local and then the national, then the international press, radio, and television beat a path to the Museum, and then to Malcolm’s door. The inconspicuous insect had caught the imagination of the world. Malcolm appeared on ‘Blue Peter’, and for months afterwards, photocopies badges were worn with pride around the village. The magazine Punch even gave the dragonfly a voice (courtesy of Alan Coren, 27thMarch 1978); Derbyshire was on the map.

The lads went to the museum; the scientists went down the pit. It was determined that the nearest fossil relative had been found in Czechoslovakia in 1933.Queues tailed round the block in Cromwell Road, where guards stood over the specimen, and there was a public outcry whenever it came off display.

Back at the pit, only days after the Museum scientists had searched in vain, the face-men renewed their vigilance.

On the 10thAugust 1978, Graham Bell was back on the D4, took a glance at the roof, and sent for a ‘shaft’. What he saw was already broken, as the face had stood over the weekend, but he eased out all he could into a paper sack.

It soon went down to the Area Photographer, and on to the museum. In December1980 it was named Typus Ailuculum (‘Giant Dragonfly of the dawn’). With an estimated wingspan of 50cm it proved to be the largest known fossil insect and the earliest of the giant dragonflies. Similar species are known from France, Russia and America.

Three hundred million years ago, these giant creatures cruised to and fro over the subtropical swamps. They had no predators, and little competition, it would takes cores of years for birds and mammals to evolve and displace them, while continents drifted infinitesimally across the globe, and the crust sank, twisted and fractured. What chance preserved the few remains and what still lies to be found?

The article then had the following footnote from Terry Judge, who as well as being a miner and fossil hunter was a well respected local historian and author.

The Dawn Dragonfly never achieved the fame of its predecessor. Which was a great pity. This was due to a variety of reasons. Wendy Bramhall, the British Museum’s artists had already produced her now famous picture of the Bolsover Dragonfly, and it would not have been possible to reproduce two together. (Not sure why? RTT)

Paul Whalley tells me that ‘Dragonfly mania’ was still gripping the museum’s staff when our second specimen landed on his desk! But it will be appreciated that it takes time, sometimes years, to study and positively identify, a new specimen, and alreadyErasipteronwas a superstar! But it must never be forgotten that Graham Bell’s find was just as exciting and important to our knowledge of those 350 million year old creatures.

Another point worth comment: it is unusual when a new ‘type’ is found to offer the finder the honour of naming the specimen. Thus our fossil could easily have ended up asErasipteron Spencerii.Malcolm, Tone and I discussed this point and it was decided to honour the colliery and the town of Bolsover, a generous and unselfish act on Malcolm’s part.

Bolsover Civic Society had the dragonfly drawn by an artist and incorporated on a poster depicting the historic events and places in the town.

So it came as something of a shock when the Bolsover District Council in finding its ‘New Green Image’ chose to use a Butterfly! Could it be that the image makers do not read history?

Quite a tale!

As a further footnote to this: Derbyshire-Dragonflies can add the following. Although the road signs welcoming visitors to the District of Bolsover still sport a Butterfly eight years on the Dragonfly did finally appear as a logo for the Millennium Funded Changing Places project, The Carr Vale Partnership. It was quite fitting that the Doe Lea Valley where the Dragonflies were originally found down the pit has been transformed over the last five years or so. Today contemporary Derbyshire Dragonflies can be found living in the restored wetland complex of the Carr Vale Nature Reserve and Peter Fidler Reserve. The later site is the restored Bolsover Colliery Tip South with purpose built Dragonfly pools and interpretation panels raising the importance of this part of Derbyshire in Dragonfly history. This area can be explored by using the Stockley Trail.