Mark Wilson February 24th, 2013
Another trace fossil of a sort this week. Above you see the dorsal valve exterior of a strophomenid brachiopod from the Upper Ordovician of southeastern Indiana. Across the surface is a network of grooves looking a bit like a spider web. This is a feature formed when a soft-bodied ctenostome bryozoan colony etched its way down into the shell it was encrusting. Ropalonaria venosa Ulrich, 1879 is the official name of this fossil.
Above is a closer view of the same Ropalonaria venosa. Tiny crystals of yellow dolomite fill the excavations. The ctenostome bryozoan that made it had no skeleton and used some sort of chemical to dissolve the shell beneath it. The fidelity of this etching is good enough to identify various details of the colony structure and zooecial form. This is where our fossil classification system goes a bit awry: Is Ropalonaria a trace fossil (evidence of animal activity) or a kind of external mold of the original organism? Arguments have been made for each category, and the name Ropalonaria shows up on lists of both trace fossils and body fossils.
Ropalonaria venosa is the type species of the genus Ropalonaria erected by Edward Oscar Ulrich in 1879 (above in 1927). E.O. Ulrich, as he is better known, was one of the most colorful and controversial geologists of the late 19th and early 20th century. He was born in Covington, Kentucky, in 1857. Covington is across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio, and is undergirded by the famous fossiliferous limestones and shales of the Cincinnatian Group (Upper Ordovician). Ulrich started as a child collecting fossils in the region. He was an early member of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History, often bringing fossils to meetings for identifications. (There he met another young man very interested in fossils: the future paleontologist Charles Schuchert. Schuchert was the advisor of my advisor’s advisor, so he’s in my “academic genealogy”.)
Ulrich took courses at German Wallace College (today’s Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio) and the Ohio Medical College. He had an eclectic youth exploring all sorts of topics, from opera to spiritualism, but always kept geology and fossils close to his heart. He had an adventurous stint as a superintendent in a Colorado silver mine. Returning back east, Ulrich became an enormously productive geologist with the geological surveys of Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio. He was President of the Paleontological Society in 1915. In 1931 he received the Mary Clark Thompson Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, and the next year the Geological Society of America awarded him the prestigious Penrose Medal. He died in 1944 in Washington, D.C.
E.O. Ulrich is still a polarizing figure in American geology. He is famous for resisting the modern concept of facies in sedimentary geology, preferring a concept now known as “layer cake stratigraphy“. (In his defense, the rocks in the Cincinnati area really do fit much of his model; his error was extending it much too far.) Ulrich also has a reputation as a bit of a “splitter” in paleontology. (Someone who makes more species than necessary by “splitting” groups into smaller subgroups.)
Despite what we think of E.O. Ulrich today, his paleontological contributions have mostly held up, including the description of the intriguing fossil Ropalonaria.
Bassler, R.S. 1944. Memorial to Edward Oscar Ulrich. Proceedings of the Geological Society of America for 1944: 331–351.
Pohowsky, R.A. 1978. The boring ctenostomate Bryozoa: taxonomy and paleobiology based on cavities in calcareous substrata. Bulletins of American Paleontology 73(301): 192 p.
Ruedemann, R. 1946. Biographical memoir of Edward Oscar Ulrich, 1857-1944. National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Biographical Memoirs, Volume XXIV, 7th Memoir, 24 pp.
Ulrich, E.O. 1879. Descriptions of new genera and species of fossils from the Lower Silurian about Cincinnati: Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History 2: 8-30.