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Fiann Smithwick: Britain's fittest fossil hunter

Claire Coakley

Photography courtesy of Jake Baggaley

Here to fire the imagination with a hunt for fossil treasure and a strength-focused fitness regime set in coastal beauty.

I carry my own body weight in rocks for miles

Jurassic coast

I grew up on the Jurassic Coast and, as a kid, went fossil hunting with my parents. Jurassic Park came out when I was seven so that helped cement my obsession. I loved finding the remains of animals that lived hundreds of millions of years before humans walked the Earth and trying to understand what the world would have looked like back then. It was more than just finding hidden treasure, which was the initial draw. It was trying to bring things back to life in my imagination. Now I've been lucky to make this my job.

Fossils are the physical remains of animals and plants that lived millions to hundreds of millions of years before humans existed. They provide a glimpse into a long-lost world that we can never physically visit and show us what the Earth was like in the past.

For example, we know that complex animals emerged in the 'Cambrian Explosion', over 550 million years ago, thanks to amazing fossils found in Canada. My area of expertise is figuring out what colour animals might have been in the past. During my PhD I reconstructed several dinosaurs in full colour, based on some amazing fossils where even the original pigment was preserved down to the microscopic scale. It was, amazingly, in the feathers that most dinosaurs had, where the pigment molecules are the same as we have in our hair and skin. 

Natural fitness

Spending huge chunks of time out walking inevitably makes you fitter. I now have a routine of strength training with running and hiking. This helps my fossil hunting as I'm often out all day, hiking up cliffs and carrying up to my own body weight in rocks for many miles. I want to encourage people to get out into nature and to appreciate it more, whether fossil hunting or on a walk.

I also collect fossils for their aesthetic value, and many are truly works of art. I spend a lot of time preparing fossils - that's the process of revealing them from their rocky tombs. There's a range available in my online shop.

Working with Sir David Attenborough was incredible

Dolphins on steroids

In 2018, I filmed the documentary Attenborough and the Sea Dragon as scientific advisor. I presented some of my academic research on the colour of extinct animals to Sir David Attenborough on camera. It was an incredible experience and I'd love to do more.

Many of my followers are as passionate as I am about fossils, palaeontology and the natural world, and people like seeing my latest discoveries. It can be beneficial to realise the world existed, and life thrived, long before we did. It helps to keep everything in my own life in perspective. Being the first person to see something that has existed for hundreds of millions of years never ceases to be a humbling experience.

China is well known for having incredible, feathered dinosaur fossils that show the original colour of the animals, and I'd love to find one of these. As I do most of my hunting on the Jurassic Coast, there are a few fossils from there I want to find. There are animals called Ichthyosaurs, which are extinct marine reptiles that look like killer dolphins on steroids. I have found a few of these and, at Lyme Regis, some have been found which are over ten metres long. They have skulls longer than a human and teeth as big as a T-Rex's. I might struggle to fit it in the house if I do find it, but it is my personal 'holy grail'.

 

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