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The Real Jurassic Park?

Nestled off southern England, a picturesque island that once was home to Queen Victoria is evolving into one of the world's great dinosaur fossil discovery sites.

Mention the Isle of Wight to most Britons, and they'll think only of sailboats and beach holidays. But to paleontologists hunting for fossilized dinosaur bones, the small island is about as good as it gets.

"If you are European, this is the place you have got to be," says paleontologist Steve Hutt, clambering over the rocks along the island's southwest beach.

In many of the world's best fossil sites in China, Mongolia and the United States, remains are found over thousands of square miles.

But the Isle of Wight's fossils are concentrated in two tiny strips, one 6-miles long along its southern coast and the other just half-a-mile long on its eastern coast.

The island, which lies three miles off the English mainland, doesn't pretend to compete in terms of quantity, just quality.

Its rocks are yielding fossils from the early Cretaceous period - spanning from 100 million to 140 million years ago - which are rarely found elsewhere.

Most sites produce fossils from the late-Triassic period (200 million to 225 million years ago), or the Jurassic period (135 million to 200 million years ago).

"The island is a window on the Cretaceous world which doesn't occur anywhere else in the world," says Hutt, employed by the local government as the island's sole paleontologist.

David Norman of Cambridge University's Department of Earth Sciences says the island is important not only in historical terms, but also because "new dinosaurs continue to be discovered there and are well-preserved and articulated, that is, their bones are joined together."

Last year, an amateur fossil collector discovered a previously unknown catlike, flesh-eating dinosaur in a crumbling cliff. And in 1997, another previously unknown dinosaur, Neovenator Salerii, a smaller version of Tyrannosaurus Rex, was found on the island.

While big-name universities with budgets to match back many excavations in the United States, the Isle of Wight's digs are on a much smaller scale.

Hutt does most of the work himself, aided by a volunteer or two. Although paleontologists write frequently asking for work, he doesn't have money to hire them. So every summer, he picks from the best paleontology interns, both from Europe and the United States.

And while other institutions have major museums to house their collections, the Isle of Wight's finds are kept in much more modest surroundings, one floor above a town library.

But Hutt has one ally most other digs don't have: the sea.

Every fall and winter, the ebb and flow of the tides, together with the gales that blow north from the English Channel, remove layers of rock from the cliffs, unearthing new fossils.

"The rocks are exposed continually, so the goodies fall out,"> Hutt says.

In most places, such rocks sit anywhere from 50 to 1,000 feet under the earth's surface. But along the island's coast, geological pressures have pushed the rocks to the surface, exposing them to the elements - as well as to the eccentric amateurs and professional paleontologists who have been digging since the first discoveries in the 1830s.

By Robert Seely

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