It's enough to make a dinosaur sick

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The Independent Online

In the list of picture captions you never thought you'd see in the pages of a serious newspaper, "160-million-year-old vomit" is right up there with "Joan Collins and her new husband, also 68". But "160 million-year-old vomit" was precisely the caption in Tuesday's papers, relating to the thrilling discovery of fossilised dinosaur puke in a clay quarry near Peterborough.

Let's leave to the panellists of Have I Got News for You the cheap gibe that the Daily Telegraph – with a substantial number of fossils and dinosaurs among its readers – was stirring nostalgia rather than publishing bona fide news. Instead, let's consider what a fabulous discovery this is, beyond even Steven Spielberg's wildest dreams.

Professor Peter Doyle, of the University of Greenwich, believes that the fossils found near Peterborough are partly-digested shellfish regurgitated by ichthyosaurs, marine reptiles. How he reached this conclusion is not the business of this column, thank God (not, of course, that the Almighty has any place in palaeontology). But it is certainly interesting to dwell on the significance of his conclusion.

For one thing, it heaps enviable prestige upon Peterborough, which until this week had only its handsome Norman cathedral to boast about. But there aren't too many places in the world able to demonstrate proof that an ichthyosaur once chundered somewhere in the vicinity. Thinking about it, though, it is quite possible that the people of Peterborough would rather not adopt this as a claim to fame, just as the townsfolk of Slough tend not to put it about that John Betjeman once wrote a poem about them.

As for the vomiting side of the equation, I don't know if you've noticed, but throwing-up has been looming large in popular culture.

Billy Connolly was one of the first to draw attention to it, wondering why drunkards being sick call so despairingly for Ralph and Huey. And although vomiting was one of the last human bodily functions to get a regular airing on television, rare is the drama now that does not feature at least one person spewing into a toilet. Certainly, no self-respecting soap lets New Year's Eve go without a character chucking up after too much alcohol; we have even had animated vomit, on The Simpsons.

I mention this because, until now, palaeontology has rubbed shoulders with popular culture only in the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs – which, as brilliant as it was, tended to drag once you'd marvelled at the special effects for long enough – and in the irritating form of Ross in the sitcom Friends.

But Professor Doyle's discovery changes everything. I have a six-year-old son who knows the difference between a protoceratops and a diplodocus like he knows the difference between baked beans and strawberry jam.

However, he has been to the Natural History Museum dozens of times and it no longer lights his fire. When I told him about the ichthyosaur pebble-dashing parts of Cambridgeshire with shellfish, however, he was all ears.

He was plainly enthralled by the idea that anything Jurassic might behave in the same way as he did the other night after a tummy bug brought up his spaghetti bolognese. Might behave, better still, like Bart Simpson.

What is needed now is for an enterprising children's telly producer, perhaps the person behind that sickeningly cute dinosaur Barney, to make a show about twin ichthyosaurs called Ralph and Huey.

And the thought also occurs that some graduate student might want to consider a thesis on the enthralling history of vomit. I was once shown round a vomitorium, where middle-class Romans went to bring back their dinners. It was fascinating. But I can't for the life of me remember where it was. For Peterborough's sake, not there, I hope.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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