Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A bitten brachiopod (Upper Ordovician of southeastern Indiana)

February 5th, 2016

1 Best bitten Glyptorthis insculpta (Hall, 1847)This brachiopod, identified as Glyptorthis insculpta (Hall, 1847), was shared with me by its collector, Diane from New York State. She found it in a muddy horizon of the Bull Fork Formation (Upper Ordovician) in southeastern Indiana. She immediately noted the distorted plicae (radiating ribs) on the left side of this dorsal valve, along with the invagination along the corresponding margin. (Thanks for showing this to me, Diane, and allowing me to include it in this blog.)
2 Best closer Glyptorthis insculpta (Hall, 1847)Above  is a closer view of the unusual plicae. Note that they radiate from the top center of the brachiopod, extending as the shell grew outward along its margins. Something happened, though, when the brachiopod was growing. The shell was seriously damaged by a puncturing object. The brachiopod repaired the hole by closing it up with additional shell material coming from either side. The inwardly-curved plicae show the pattern of shell regrowth.
3 Reverse of best Glyptorthis insculpta (Hall, 1847)This is a view of the same brachiopod from the other side, showing that the ventral valve was damaged in the same event, but with slightly less destruction.

So how did such damage occur on that Ordovician seafloor? Some predator likely took a bite out of the brachiopod as it lay in its living position with the valves extended upwards into the seawater. Most brachiopods do not survive such events, but this one did.

Who was the probable predator? For that we turn to the work of the late Richard Alexander (1946-2006). He did the definitive study of pre mortem damage to brachiopods in the Cincinnatian Group in 1986, concluding that the most likely predators on these brachiopods were nautiloid cephalopods. Some of this figures show nearly identical healed scars on similar orthid brachiopods.
4. Richard AlexanderRichard Alexander was an accomplished paleontologist who lost his life in a swimming accident off the coast of St. Lucia just over nine years ago. He was born in Covington, Kentucky, right across the river from Cincinnati. As is so common with children in that part of the world, he developed a passion for fossils. He attended the University of Cincinnati, majoring in geology, He then went to Indiana University, completing a PhD dissertation titled: “Autecological Studies of the Brachiopod Rafinesquina (Upper Ordovician), the Bivalve Anadara (Pliocene), and the Echinoid Dendraster (Pliocene).” (We don’t see such diverse projects very much these days.) He taught at Utah State University from 1972 to 1980, and then at Rider University in New Jersey from 1981 until his death. He served as an administrator at several levels at Rider, and was known as an excellent teacher. His research interests changed when he moved to the East Coast, becoming increasingly focused on modern mollusks. No doubt he would still be contributing to paleontology but for the randomness of a freak wave in the Caribbean.


Alexander, R.R. 1981. Predation scars preserved in Chesterian brachiopods: probable culprits and evolutionary consequences for the articulates. Journal of Paleontology 55: 192-203.

Alexander, R.R. 1986. Resistance to and repair of shell breakage induced by durophages in Late Ordovician brachiopods. Journal of Paleontology 60: 273-285.

Dodd, J.R. 2008. Memorial to Richard Alexander (1946-2006). Geological Society of America Memorials 37: 5-7.

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