Archive for October 16th, 2015

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: an upside-down nautiloid from the Devonian of Wisconsin

October 16th, 2015

1 Poterioceras calvini Milwaukee Formation DevonianThis lump of a fossil in Wooster’s teaching collection requires some explanation. It is not particularly well preserved, but it is our only representative of an interesting group of nautiloid cephalopods. The label that came with it says it is Poterioceras calvini, but I see no reason to believe it. There are simply not enough characters visible to identify it to the genus level, let alone the species. We should confine it to a higher taxon: Order Oncocerida Flower in Flower and Kummel, 1950. It comes from the Wisconsin Dolomite (Devonian) exposed in the city of Milwaukee.
2 Poterioceras calvini Milwaukee Formation DevonianOn the left-hand side (with the scale) of each image you may barely make out vertical partitions, shown as faint lines. These are sutures, which represent the junction between internal septal walls and the outer shell. The shell has dissolved (since it was made of more soluble aragonite), leaving this internal mold fossil. The right side of the fossil shows no such partitions because it is where the large body chamber was located. The nautiloid animal lived in the body chamber, with the septal walls (and the chambers they delineated) behind it as the phragmocone.
3 Gomphoceras cartoon 585This diagram from Wikipedia may make sense of this anatomy. The chambered phragmocone is shown in the top left, colored yellow; the body hangs below it in the body chamber. The phragmocone was filled with a mixture of gases and liquids, giving it positive buoyancy relative to the negatively-buoyant body chamber. The nautiloid thus in life hung upside-down facing the seafloor as it floated about. The cartoons on the right show the shell itself, including the keyhole aperture that kept the body from falling out.
4 orthoconeCompare this to the typical orientation of a Paleozoic nautiloid (above). Both of these nautiloid types were nektic (swimming) predators. The oncocerid just did it by hanging upside-down!
5 RH Flower 585The Order Oncocerida was named and described by one of the 20th Century’s most eccentric paleontologists, Rousseau Hayner Flower (1913-1988). I never met Dr. Flower, but I stumbled into a memorial session for him at the 1988 annual Geological Society of America meeting, which was held that year in Denver. Some people were barely holding back tears, others were laughing, and one crusty old paleontologist stormed out muttering “He was a bastard!”. I knew then that Flower was a character. (The photograph is from Wolberg, 1988, inside front cover.)

Rousseau Flower was born in a small town in upstate New York in 1913. He was both musically and scientifically gifted, winning a scholarship to Cornell University where he trained in entomology, eventually earning an M.A. degree there. An interest in fossil dragonflies drew him into paleontology, and a chance to take an extended geological field trip sealed his new interest in fossils. He had an eventful few years in the New York State Museum and the University of Indiana, finally earning his PhD at the University of Cincinnati in 1939. After bouts of unemployment during the war years, he went back to the New York State Museum to fill various temporary positions. In 1951 he took a job as Stratigraphic Geologist at the State Bureau of Mines & Mineral Resources in New Mexico, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Flower took on his new Western identity with gusto, wearing cowboy garb and sometimes brandishing a bullwhip. He traveled the world studying corals and cephalopods and amassing an enormous collection that people are still sorting through. He published some 1800 pages of paleontological work, naming dozens of new taxa and making major contributions to our understanding of cephalopod evolution and paleobiology, coral systematics, and western North American stratigraphy. He was acerbic and, shall we say, confident in his analyses, so he made as many enemies as friends. Over half of his work was published in the memoir series of the New Mexico Bureau — so much that some suspected it was his private journal. On top of all this, he was also a prominent music and arts critic in New Mexico. Rousseau Flower earned his fearsome reputation!

References:

Flower, R.H. and Kummel, B. 1950. A classification of the Nautiloidea. Journal of Paleontology 24: 604-616.

Mutvei, H. 2013. Characterization of nautiloid orders Ellesmerocerida, Oncocerida, Tarphycerida, Discosorida and Ascocerida: new superorder Multiceratoidea. GFF 135: 171-183.

Wolberg, D.L. 1988. Rousseau Hayner Flower, p. viii-x, in: Contributions to Paleozoic Paleontology and Stratigraphy in Honor of Rousseau H. Flower. New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources, Memoir 44, 415 pp.