Mark Wilson February 19th, 2016
Cyprus again for this week’s fossil. This is a nearly complete shell of the predatory snail Conus pelagicus Brocchi 1814 found at the Epsilos exposure of the Nicosia Formation (Pliocene) on the Mesaoria Plain of central Cyprus by Steve Dornbos (’97) and me in 1996. In life this species no doubt had an intricate shell color pattern, as their cousins do today.
The taxonomic intricacies of the genus Conus are far beyond the scope of a mere blog entry, so I’ll simply link to a list of associated genera, subgenera and synonymies. Conus as an organism is fantastic. These are venomous predators famous for shooting radular teeth loaded with very effective toxins. Some species can kill a human in less than five minutes. No worries, though — the venom contains analgesic compounds so there is little pain. The best way to demonstrate the extraordinary killing process used by Conus is to look at a video. You’ll never look at snails the same way again.
Conus pelagicus was originally described by Giovanni Battista Brocchi in 1814. We met him in a previous blog entry, so much of this information is repeated. Brocchi (1772-1826) was an Italian natural historian who made significant contributions to botany, paleontology, mineralogy and general geology. He was born in Bassano del Grappa, Italy, and studied law at the University of Padova. He liked mineralogy and plants much better than lawyering, though, and became a professor in Brescia. His work resulted in an appointment as Inspector of Mines in the new kingdom of Italy. He famously said, “The science of fossil shells is the first step towards the study of the earth.”
Brocchi wrote the first thorough geological assessment of the Apennine Mountains, and he included in it a remarkable systematic study of Neogene fossils. He compared these fossils to modern animals in the Mediterranean — a very progressive thing to do at the time.
Above are drawings made by Brocchi of the conid (and a couple cypraeid) fossils he found in the Apennines during his extensive study published in 1814. Note that in the Continental fashion still followed today, the shells are figured aperture-up. Americans and the rest of the English-speaking world orient them in the proper way. Figures 11a, b and c, though, are oriented in the opposite direction, maybe to fill the space efficiently.
Brocchi was an adventurous traveler, but it eventually did him in. He died in Khartoum in 1826, a “victim of the climate” and a martyr for field science.
Brocchi, G.B. 1814. Conchiologia fossile subapennina con osservazioni geologiche sugli Apennini e sul suolo adiacente. Milano Vol. I: pp. LXXX + 56 + 240; Vol. II, p. 241-712, pl. 1-16.
Cowper Reed, F.R. 1935. Notes on the Neogene faunas of Cyprus, III: the Pliocene faunas. Annual Magazine of Natural History 10 (95): 489-524.
Cowper Reed, F.R. 1940. Some additional Pliocene fossils from Cyprus. Annual Magazine of Natural History 11 (6): 293-297.
Dornbos, S.Q. and Wilson, M.A. 1999. Paleoecology of a Pliocene coral reef in Cyprus: Recovery of a marine community from the Messinian Salinity Crisis. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Abhandlungen 213: 103-118.