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Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: A bouquet of barnacles on a pectenid bivalve from the Upper Miocene of Virginia

May 19th, 2017

These beautiful fossils were found in York State Park by Mae Kemsley (’16). It was a surprise gift I found on my doorstep! They are fossil barnacles completely covering the exterior of a valve of the pectenid bivalve Chesapecten middlesexensis (Mansfield, 1936) from the Upper Pliocene. An excellent example of an ancient sclerobiont community.
This is the reverse of the specimen, showing the interior of the host shell. Note the large single muscle scar typical of monomyarian pectenid bivalves.
Chesapecten is well known among paleontologists. The genus preserves a distinct evolutionary sequence, as seen in the above famous figure from Ward and Blackwelder (1975). This image has been reproduced in countless articles and textbooks.
Chesapecten was also the first fossil from North America to be illustrated in a scientific publication. The above image of what we now know as Chesapecten jeffersonius was illustrated in the third volume of Martin Lister’s Historiae Conchyliorum in 1687.
Martin Lister FRS (1639 – 1712) was a natural historian and physician born into a prominent family in Radcliffe, England. His father, Sir Martin Lister, was a member of the Long Parliament in the eventful politics of mid-17th century England. He was a nephew of James Temple, a regicide (or patriot, take your choice) and Sir Matthew Lister, physician to Charles I (victim of said regicide). These were just a few of his family connections to politics and science.

Martin Lister was graduated from St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1659, and a year later elected a fellow there. He served as a physician for many years in York, including three years as Queen Anne’s doctor. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1671. He died in Epsom in 1712.

Martin Lister was an extraordinary naturalist, becoming the first conchologist (one who studies shells) and arachnologist (a spider expert). He was a prolific writer, so we know much about what he did, how he worked, and his motivations. He discovered ballooning spiders and invented the ubiquitous histogram. For us his most significant work was Historiae Conchyliorum (1685-1692), which had 1062 plates engraved by his daughters, Anna and Susanna. In keeping with his times, Lister noted the resemblances between fossil and modern shells, but believed the fossils were rocky replicas, not actual remnants of living organisms. He would no doubt be thrilled with our modern views of fossils and evolution.


Kelley, P.H. 1983. The role of within-species differentiation in macroevolution of Chesapeake Group bivalves. Paleobiology 9: 261-268.

Lister, M. 1687. Historiae Conchyliorum, volume III. Londini, aere incisi, sumptibus authoris.

Ward, L.W. and Blackwelder, B.W. 1975. Chesapecten, a new genus of Pectinidae (Mollusca, Bivalvia) from the Miocene and Pliocene of eastern North America: USGS Professional Paper 861. US Government Printing Office.

Wooster Geologists graduate!

May 18th, 2017

WOOSTER, OHIO — We had the pleasure on Monday of watching our geology seniors cross the stage and receive their diplomas. It happens every year, of course, and every year is special. Above is an image of most of the class taken in September as they started their last year at Wooster.

We were delighted that Wooster Geologist Helen Siegel (’17) earned the opportunity to speak at the commencement ceremony. (Image by ace College photographer Matt Dilyard.) She was a spectacular representation of her graduating class. She earned summa cum laude, Honors in Independent Study, the Jonas O. Notestein Prize, the Phi Beta Kappa Prize, and just about every award offered by the Geology Department itself. She is off to Yale on a full ride. Well done, Helen.

Sarah McGrath (’17) was another summa cum laude geology graduate; Clara Deck (’17), Annette Hilton (’17) and Chloe Wallace (’17) earned magna cum laude. It was a remarkably talented class — we’re proud of every student.


What is a clean lab?

May 16th, 2017

Chapel Hill, NC – Ben Kumpf (’18) and I are at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to use their lab facilities for isotope analysis. We’re working with small amounts of sample and the instrument has a high degree of analytical precision and sensitivity, so all of our sample preparation occurs in the class-1000 clean lab. A clean lab is a room that is specifically designed to limit the amount of airborne contaminants. Special air filters and air distribution systems keep the environment clean so that we can minimize contamination while we separate and purify the isotopes.

Clean labs are classified based on the amounts of specifically sized particles allowed in a cubic meter (~35 cubic feet) of air. If we sample a cubic meter of air in the class-1000 lab and measure the amount of particles that are 5 microns in diameter, we would count no more than 293! For comparison, human hair has a diameter of about 50 to 100 microns, so we’re talking about really tiny bits of airborne dust. Class-1000 refers to Federal Standard 209E, where class-1 is the cleanest space and class-100,000 is the dirtiest (but still pretty darn clean). Federal Standard 209E has been replaced by International Organization for Standardization ISO 14644-1 standards. The new standards include one dirtier and two cleaner classifications and are numbered ISO-1 to ISO-9. Class-1000 is equivalent to ISO-6. UNC Chapel Hill also has a class-100 (ISO-5) clean lab where they process zircons for U-Pb dating.

Before we enter the clean lab, we gear up in the gowning room. The garments are designed to protect the wearer and minimize contamination from the wearer’s body. We wear standard lab safety attire, like glasses, gloves, and a lab coat. We also remove our shoes and exchange them for designated (comfy) slip-on shoes that only go in the clean lab.

Ben Kumpf (’18) models the clean lab outfit, complete with matching Carolina Blue accents. I see a theme.

Let the summer research commence!

May 15th, 2017

Chapel Hill, NC – As the College of Wooster Commencement ceremony was just finishing, our rising seniors were starting their summer research. Ben Kumpf (’18) and I are visiting the labs in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We are using their Isotope Geochemistry Lab to measure Sr-Nd-Pb isotopes of pillow lavas from our study site in northern British Columbia. The first step in the process is to dissolve our rock powders using several strong acids. Fortunately, we were able to send some of our samples in advance, and the good folks here at UNC dissolved about half of our samples for us.

Ben Kumpf (’18) went straight from his flight to the lab and is already hard at work. He measured portions of the dissolved samples into new vials so that we can prepare them for Sr isotope analysis. The dissolved samples will be made into solutions that we’ll use tomorrow.

Look for our posts in the following week to learn more about how isotopes are analyzed and what we hope to learn.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Belemnites (Jurassic of Wyoming)

May 12th, 2017

This week’s fossils are among the most recognizable. They certainly are popular in my paleontology courses because no one has ever misidentified one. Belemnites (from the Greek belemnon, meaning javelin or dart) were squid-like cephalopods that lived in the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. You would never guess their original appearance from the fossils above. These are guards or rostra, internal hard parts that look nothing like the external animal. They are often found in large accumulations called “belemnite battlefields” (Doyle and MacDonald, 1993).
The above image shows a remarkable fossil belemnite in the State Museum of Natural History, Stuttgart, Germany (courtesy of User Rai’ke on Wikimedia). It shows their squidy form and ten equal-sized arms studded with little hooks for holding prey. They probably ate small fish and invertebrates.
The guard or rostrum is solid calcite at its distal end with a phragmocone (chambered shell) at the other. This phragmocone is only rarely preserved. The rostrum above is from the Zohar Formation (Jurassic) of the Golan in northern Israel near Neve Atif.

Belemnites have played an important role recently in sorting out Mesozoic climate change. Their solid calcitic rostra are ideal for examining stable isotopes that fluctuated with water temperature. Dera et al. (2011) showed that the Jurassic had significant climate variations based on the isotopes in belemnite fossils.

Belemnites have a long history in folklore. The English called them “thunderbolts” because they thought they were formed by lightning strikes. The Scottish knew them as “botstones” that cured horses of various ailments. The Swedish thought they were “gnome candles”. The Chinese called them “sword stones”. Much more prosaically, the belemnite is the state fossil of Delaware.
An engraving of belemnite rostra by Captain Thomas Brown (1889).


Brown, Captain T. 1889. An atlas of fossil conchology of Great Britain and Ireland. With descriptions of all the species. Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Dera, G., Brigaud, B., Monna, F., Laffont, R., Pucéat, E., Deconinck, J-F., Pellenard, P., Joachimski, M.M., and Durlet, C. 2011. Climatic ups and downs in a disturbed Jurassic world. Geology 39: 215–218.

Doyle, P. and MacDonald, D.I.M. 1993. Belemnite battlefields. Lethaia 26: 65-80.

[Originally published on November 20, 2011.]

The 30th Annual Keck Symposium and the Importance of Presentation in the Undergraduate Research Experience

May 11th, 2017

Middletown, CT – Wesleyan University recently hosted the 30th annual Keck Symposium. The Keck Symposium is one of the key features that separates Keck projects from other types of undergraduate research experiences. Most other REU programs are confined to the summer, but Keck projects continue through the following academic year and culminate in the Symposium. Research groups reunite to synthesize their individual results and present their work to a broader scientific community. The Symposium is also a best practice and an essential part of the undergraduate research experience. By presenting their research, students transition from private to public discovery and contribute knowledge to the scientific discourse. They develop confidence in their abilities and advance their independence as scientists (Lopatto, 2009).

Wooster Geologists, Andrew Conaway (’17), Chloe Wallace (’17), and Meagen Pollock are happy passengers headed to the Keck Symposium.

The Keck Symposium format involves two sessions of oral presentations followed by poster presentations. With coffee and muffins in hand, the Keck Iceland group is ready for the morning session.

Each research group provides an overview of their projects. Students present their work in a brief 5 minutes. Andrew Conaway (’17) tells the audience about the history of land use around the Wisconsin lakes that he studied.

The oral sessions are followed by poster sessions, where the students can discuss their work in detail. Andrew Conaway (’17) talks about his research on magnetic susceptibility in lake cores.

Chloe Wallace (’17) discusses her research on volatile contents of pillow lavas from a subglacial ridge in southwest Iceland.

Team Iceland celebrates the end of our poster session with a final group photo. The Symposium also provides an opportunity for faculty to catch up and network. It’s an important professional development opportunity, particularly for early-career faculty.

Another important thing that happens at the Keck Symposium is the review of copy-edited short contributions. Each student writes an extended abstract of ~2500 words and 5 figures, which is compiled and published in a Symposium Volume. Team Iceland goes through their short contributions one last time at the lunch break.

It’s an intense weekend, but the smiles on our faces at the end of it all (despite the early morning flight) show that it’s worth the effort.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: a medullosalean pteridosperm (Upper Carboniferous of northeastern Ohio)

May 5th, 2017

It is time we had another fossil plant in this series. The above specimen is Neuropteris ovata Hoffmann 1826, a relatively common bit of foliage in the Upper Carboniferous of North America. This is a pteridosperm, more commonly known as a seed fern. They weren’t really ferns at all but fern-like plants with some of the first real seeds. They are usually reconstructed as trees, but were also known to be bushy or even like climbing vines.

The taxonomy (naming system) of fossil plants can be very complicated because different plant parts were given different names at different times. A single plant species, then, could have a list of names for its foliage, bark, roots, seeds, etc. The name Neuropteris usually thus refers to the leaves of this particular pteridosperm.

Neuropteris ovata is famous for its use in studies of the distribution of stomata on its leaf surfaces. Stomata, sometimes called guard cells, regulate gas exchange and moisture retention in vascular land plants. The density of stomata on N. ovata leaves in the Late Carboniferous may reflect changes in carbon dioxide levels and the expansion and contraction of tropical forests (Cleal et al., 1999).

Neuropteris ovata was named by Friedrich Hoffmann (1797-1836), a Professor of Geology at the University of Berlin. I wish I knew more about him because not only did he do considerable paleobotanical research, he was also well known for his work on volcanoes in Italy. You don’t see that combination very often!


Beeler, H.E. 1983. Anatomy and frond architecture of Neuropteris ovata and N. scheuchzeri from the Upper Pennsylvanian of the Appalachian Basin. Canadian Journal of Botany 61: 2352-2368.

Cleal, C.J., James, R.M. and Zodrow, E.L. 1999. Variation in stomatal density in the Late Carboniferous gymnosperm frond Neuropteris ovata. Palaios 14: 180-185.

Hoffmann, F. 1826. Untersuchungen über die Pänzen-Reste des Kohlengebirges von Ibbenbühren und von Piesberg bei Osnabrück. Archiv für Bergbau und Hüttenwesen 13: 266-282.

Zodrow, E.L. and Cleal, C.J. 1988. The structure of the Carboniferous pteridosperm frond Neuropteris ovata Hoffman. Palaeontographica Abteilung Palaophytologie 208: 105-124.

[Originally posted on October 23, 2011.]

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Sponge and clam borings that revealed an ancient climate event (Upper Pleistocene of The Bahamas)

April 28th, 2017

This week’s fossils celebrate the publication today of a paper in Nature Geoscience that has been 20 years in the making. The title is: “Sea-level oscillations during the Last Interglacial highstand recorded by Bahamas coral”, and the senior author is the geochronological wizard Bill Thompson (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution). The junior authors are my Smith College geologist friends Al Curran and Brian White and me.

The paper’s thesis is best told with an explanation of this 2006 image:
This photograph was taken on the island of Great Inagua along the coast. The flat dark surface in the foreground is the top of a fossil coral reef (“Reef I”) formed during the Last Interglacial (LIG) about 123,000 years ago. It was eroded down to this flat surface when sea-level dropped, exposing the reef to waves and eventually terrestrial weathering. The student sitting on this surface is Emily Ann Griffin (’07), one of three I.S. students who helped with parts of this project. (The others were Allison Cornett (’00) and Ann Steward (’07).) Behind Emily Ann is a coral accumulation of a reef (“Reef II”) that grew on the eroded surface after sea-level rose again about 119,000 years ago. These two reefs show, then, that sea-level dropped for about 4000 years, eroding the first reef, and then rose again to its previous level, allowing the second reef to grow. (You can see an unlabeled version of the photograph here.) The photograph at the top of this post is a small version of the same surface.

The significance of this set of reefs is that the erosion surface separating them can be seen throughout the world as evidence of a rapid global sea-level event during the Last Interglacial. Because the LIG had warm climatic conditions similar to what we will likely experience in the near future, it is crucial to know how something as important as sea-level may respond. The only way sea-level can fluctuate like this is if glacial ice volume changes, meaning there must have been an interval of global cooling (producing greater glacial ice volume) that lowered sea-level about 123,000 years ago, and then global warming (melting the ice) that raised it again within 4000 years. As we write in the paper, “This is of great scientific and societal interest because the LIG has often been cited as an analogue for future sea-level change. Estimates of LIG sea-level change, which took place in a world warmer than that of today, are crucial for estimates of future rates of rise under IPCC warming scenarios.” With our evidence we can show a magnitude and timing of an ancient sea-level fluctuation due to climate change.

Much of the paper concerns the dating techniques and issues (which is why Bill Thompson, the essential geochronologist, is the primary author). It is the dating of the corals that makes the story globally useful and significant. Here, though, I want to tell how the surface was discovered in the first place. It is a paleontological tale.

In the summer of 1991 I worked with Al Curran and Brian White on San Salvador Island in The Bahamas. They were concentrating on watery tasks that involved scuba diving, boats and the like, while I stayed on dry land (my preferred environment by far). I explored a famous fossil coral exposure called the Cockburntown Reef (Upper Pleistocene, Eemian) that Brian and Al had carefully mapped out over the past decade. The Bahamian government had recently authorized a new harbor on that part of the coastline and a large section of the fossil reef was dynamited away. The Cockburntown Reef now had a very fresh exposure in the new excavation quite different from the blackened part of the old reef we were used to. Immediately visible was a horizontal surface running through the reef marked by large clam borings called Gastrochaenolites (see below) and small borings (Entobia) made by clionaid sponges (see the image at the top of this post).
Inside the borings were long narrow bivalve shells belonging to the species Coralliophaga coralliophaga (which means “coral eater”; see below) and remnants of an ancient terrestrial soil (a paleosol). This surface was clearly a wave-cut platform later buried under a tropical soil.

My colleagues and I could trace this surface into the old, undynamited part of the Cockburntown Reef, then to other Eemian reefs on San Salvador, and then to other Bahamian islands like Great Inagua in the far south. Eventually this proved to be a global erosion surface described or at least mentioned in many papers, but its significance as an indicator of rapid eustatic sea-level fall and rise was heretofore unrecognized. Finally getting uranium-thorium radioactive dates on the corals above and below the erosion surface placed this surface in a time framework and ultimately as part of the history of global climate change.

This project began 25 years ago with the discovery of small holes left in an eroded surface by humble sponges and clams. Another example of the practical value of paleontology.


Thompson, W.G., Curran, H.A., Wilson, M.A. and White, B. 2011. Sea-level oscillations during the Last Interglacial highstand recorded by Bahamas coral. Nature Geoscience (DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1253).

White, B.H., Curran, H.A. and Wilson, M.A. 1998. Bahamian coral reefs yield evidence of a brief sea-level lowstand during the last interglacial. Carbonates and Evaporites 13: 10-22.

Wilson, M.A., Curran, H.A. and White, B. 1998. Paleontological evidence of a brief global sea-level event during the last interglacial. Lethaia 31: 241-250.

[Originally posted September 11, 2011. Some updates and editing.]

Expanding Horizons by Mapping the Seafloor

April 24th, 2017

Wooster, OH – Last weekend, The College of Wooster hosted the Expanding Your Horizons conference. About 240 fifth- and sixth-grade girls participated in hands-on science workshops on computer science, math, geology, chemistry, biology, physics, and neuroscience. This year, I went back to my roots in marine geology to run a workshop on how we see what’s on the seafloor.

Pre-workshop selfie, complete with “I love rocks” name tag and photo of the Alvin submersible to jumpstart our conversations.

I put together a version of this activity about how geologists “see” under ice, the ocean, or inside the Earth. Most of the girls guessed that we use sonar to measure the depth of the ocean floor, and this short video was helpful for understanding how sonar works. Each group of girls was given a shoebox containing a mystery letter. They used their “sonar straws” to probe the bottom of the shoebox. They plotted their measured depths on their grid and used their data to interpret the letter in the box.

Poking straws into boxes seems not-at-all scientific and maybe a little silly at first, but the girls starting making and testing hypotheses pretty quickly.

You can see the map of “hits” and “misses” as they record the results of their hypothesis testing.

We found that the easiest letters to identify were those that had right angles, like “I” and “E.” Letters with triangles (like “N”) or curves (like “S” and “C”) were harder to identify.

Along the way, we learned about reproducibility and sampling strategy. As it turns out, if your data point is wrong, or all of your data are clustered in one corner of the map, it’s hard to make an interpretation. Still, each session managed to collect enough data to interpret the word “S-C-I-E-N-C-E” when the groups brought their maps together.

We watched part of a video on women in oceanography and I told them about Deep Sea Dawn, an inspirational woman oceanographer who maps the ocean floor and builds Legos! The girls asked incredible questions about what it’s like to be out at sea and about my favorite rock (basalt, of course). Finally, we watched a video about how we shrink styrofoam cups when we conduct deep-sea research and I showed them some of the cups from my cruises.

Their enthusiasm and energy were the best reminders of why I do what I do. I’m so grateful to all of my colleagues and educators everywhere who work hard every day to inspire the next generation of young geoscientists.

Wooster Geologists participate in the historic March For Science on Earth Day, 2017

April 22nd, 2017

Wooster, Ohio — It was a chilly day downtown, but several hundred people gathered for the national March For Science. We were one of over 500 local events across the country advocating for science awareness, education and funding. Thank you very much for retired Wooster Professor of Biology Lyn Loveless for organizing such a complex meeting with speakers and break-out discussions in local businesses. It was a great success. Above are some of the signs held by children in attendance. Several Wooster Geologists were in the diverse crowd, and some participated directly.

One view of the attendees. We all see the distinctive profile of Dr. Wiles in the foreground. Kelli Baxstrom may recognize someone on the far right!

One of the speakers was ace Wooster physicist and former dean Dr. Shila Garg. Note her coat on this mid-April day.

I include this photo (taken by Wooster political scientist Matt Krain) of Dr. Wiles and me to show my Paleontological Society colleagues that I wore The Shirt, even if no one noticed under the jacket.

One of the break-out sessions was on climate change. Greg Wiles and Clara Deck (’17) did great outreach work explaining their research to the large gathering. Wooster’s paleoclimate and climate change research and education is making a difference. Visit the Tree-Ring Lab website to see more details about the operation.

It was an inspiring afternoon, especially seeing the many young scientists and scientists-to-be who participated. Of course, for someone my age it is astonishing that we have to advocate for something so self-evidently beneficial as science, but such are our times.

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