Visiting an aquarium and historic ships in Gdynia, Poland

June 13th, 2014

Akwarium GdyniaSOPOT, POLAND — After lunch today the Larwood 2014 meeting participants had an excellent field trip to the aquarium in Gdynia on the Baltic coast (above). This aquarium has a diverse and interesting collection, but for me the two historic ships docked alongside were just as fascinating.
Dar PomorzaThis is the Dar Pomorza, a fully rigged ship built in Hamburg, Germany, in 1909 as the Prinzess Eitel Friedrich. It was used as a training ship in the Baltic Sea by the German Navy, and then surrendered to France in 1919 as part of reparations for World War I. The Polish bought it as a training ship for naval cadets in 1929, adding a diesel engine. It was interned in Stockholm during World War II, returning to Polish service in 1946. It became a museum ship in 1983.
Dar Pomorza plankingThe Dar Pomorza is being refurbished, so we had only this close view of new planking being laid on the deck.
Destroyer 2 061314This magnificent ship (above and below) had a long and distinguished career in World War II. It is the Błyskawica, which means “lightning” in Polish. It was built in 1935-1937 by a British firm on contract for the Polish government. On August 30, 1939, the Polish Navy secretly evacuated this ship along with two other destroyers to Great Britain just before the Germans invaded Poland. It was thus able to participate in the war against the Germans throughout the North Sea, Atlantic and Mediterranean. It covered operations in Norway, the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkerque, and the Allied landings in both North Africa and France. It must have been deeply satisfying for the Polish sailors on board the Błyskawica to be able to fight back so long and effectively against the Nazis.

Destroyer sailors 061314Polish sailors by an anti-aircraft gun and torpedo tubes.

Blyskawica_na_AtlantykuThe Błyskawica in the North Atlantic during the war.

Blyskawica MW 061314I couldn’t resist. Thanks to my friend Tomasz Borszcz for taking this photo on the Błyskawica.

The last presentations of the 2014 Larwood Meeting, including a sober reminder for paleontologists

June 13th, 2014

pdt lecturing 061314SOPOT, POLAND — This morning we had the final set of talks at Larwood 2014. Out of all the presentations, the one that struck me the most was by Paul Taylor and Andrea Waeschenbach entitled “Molecular phylogeny and the adequacy of skeletal characters in cyclostome taxonomy: The alarming case of Diaperorcia purpurascens.” Paul is shown delivering it above. This project represents the best of what these bryozoan conferences are about: the combination of biology and paleontology to further our understanding of the evolution and ecology of this large phylum. It also warned paleontologists to never be complacent about the value of morphology (shape and form) for sorting out systematic and evolutionary relationships.

Diaperoecia purpurascens is a “fixed-walled, tubuliporine” cyclostome bryozoan species common in New Zealand waters today. Molecular sequence data, though, shows it is without a doubt within the “free-walled cerioporine” cyclostome genus Heteropora. You don’t need to know why those terms actually mean to understand that the molecular work has shown that two dissimilar groups share a surprisingly close common ancestor — so close that the systematics are now fully disrupted. When we knew only the morphology of these bryozoans the differences between them were apparent at a high taxonomic level. Now that we have molecular data it is brutally clear that our reliance on shape and form to separate the groups was an illusion. Molecules trump skeletal evidence — and all paleontologists have to work with are the skeletons.
pdt image 2 061314Paul and Andrea did find, though, that in the early colony growth (astogeny) of these bryozoan groups they share a common pattern of tiny pores (pseudopores) on the earliest portion of the colonial skeleton (the protoecium; see above and below). It is this morphological feature, as subtle as it is, that shows the groups share a close common ancestor.
pdt slide 1 061314The lesson is that paleontological systematics are always provisional. We do our best with morphology alone because that’s what we have, but we should be forever haunted by the knowledge that we lack full biological evidence.

A day of talks and scientific camaraderie at the 2014 Larwood Meeting

June 12th, 2014

Instytut Oceanologii bldg 061214SOPOT, POLAND — Our first day of the Larwood Meeting was much fun, especially after I unloaded my presentation in the morning and could relax. We are gathering on the beautiful campus of the Instytut Oceanologii (one building pictured above), which is within an easy walk of the hotels and the beach. Just under 50 people are participating, from beginning PhD students to retired faculty. These meetings are also a mix of biologists and paleontologists who are interested in bryozoans, so everyone learns a lot from the talks and posters. All that is required is some intersection of the presented material and the Phylum Bryozoa, which can include evolution, systematics, physiology, ecology and genetics. This kind of scientific conclave is rare with its interdisciplinary diversity.

Instytut Oceanologii sign 061214Piotr 061214Piotr Kuklinski, our leader and senior staff at the Institute, opened this morning’s session with a greeting and orientation. Note the proud Polish eagle behind him.

SopotHotel061214Here’s a view of my hipster hotel. Hard to tell its a place to stay when you walk in. It looks (and sounds) rather more like a nightclub at times. Very comfortable, though.

Intrusion 061214I thought Dr. Pollock would appreciate the very distinct intrusion in this glacial erratic found in the nearby park.

Tonight we have a mysterious dinner “in the Eastern European forest”. I shall report later, if the wolves don’t get me.

An evening of good food, games and talk deep in an Eastern European forest

June 12th, 2014

Polish bbq 061214SOPOT, POLAND — Our surprise dinner this evening was a Polish barbecue in the forest outside Sopot. I am impressed with how much forested land has been preserved around the three connected cities of Gdansk, Sopot and Gydnia. With a half-hour drive we arrived at a campsite well isolated from the urban build-up. The excellent food included wild boar, chicken, fish, cold beet soup, and various permutations of cabbage. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my dish of roasted potatoes were actually baked and sweetened apples. We talked and talked, of course, and played darts and fired hard beans with a slingshot at suspended buckets. (Some people were scary-good at this.) It was a great social event that tied the group together in new ways.
Polish woods 061214Nope, nothing spooky about the Polish woods. It’s not like anything happened here …

Wooster Geologist on the Baltic Coast

June 11th, 2014

HotelBalconyView061114SOPOT, POLAND — Yes, that’s a view from my hotel window. I’ve suddenly found myself in an old resort town on the Baltic coast of Poland near the cities of Gdansk and Gydnia. Another one of those astonishing geographic transformations we can so easily make.

I’m here for the Larwood Meeting, an annual gathering of bryozoologists held in various places around the world. Besides learning more about these complex little colonies (both fossil and recent), I’ll be presenting a summary of the work Steph Bosch (’14), Paul Taylor and I did on the new bryozoans from the Middle Jurassic of southern Israel. After the meeting I travel south by train with Tomasz Borszcz to visit Michal Zaton at the University of Silesia for some joint projects. From there it is on to London for a few days with ace paleontologist Paul Taylor at the Natural History Museum. I’m at the end of a research leave this summer so I have more travel than usual.

For now I’m enjoying an extraordinary day on the Baltic shore before the first meeting event this evening. My next images will be much more prosaic! My posts will be a bit shorter than usual because I have to stand in the shower to get enough wireless signal to connect. (There’s an accident waiting to happen …)

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A fragment of an asteroid (the sea star kind) from the Upper Cretaceous of Israel

June 8th, 2014

zichor asteroid aboral 585This is not an important fossil — there is not enough preserved to put a name on it beyond Family Goniasteridae Forbes, 1841 (thanks, Dan Blake) — but it was a fun one to find. It also photographs well. This is a ray fragment of an asteroid (from the group commonly known as the sea stars or starfish) I picked up from the top meter of the Zichor Formation (Coniacian, Upper Cretaceous) in southern Israel (Locality C/W-051) on my field trip there in April 2014. We are looking at the aboral (or top) surface; below is the oral view.
zichor asteroid oral surface 585In this oral perspective you can see a group of tiny, jumbled plates running down the center. This is the ambulacrum, which in life had a row of tube feet extending out for locomotion and grasping prey.
asteroid 2004Above is a sea star held by my son Ted on Long Island, The Bahamas, back in 2004. You can see a bit of resemblance between this modern species and the Cretaceous fossil, mainly the  large knobby ossicles running down the periphery of the rays.

The asteroids have a poor fossil record, at least when compared to other echinoderms like crinoids and echinoids. It appears that all post-Paleozoic asteroids derive from a single ancestral group that squeaked through the Permian extinctions (Gale, 2013). There is a significant debate about the evolution of the asteroids (see Blake and Mah, 2014, for the latest). Unfortunately our little critter is not going to help much in its resolution.

Recently it has been discovered that some living asteroids have microlenses in their ossicles to provide a kind of all-surface photoreception ability. Gorzelak et al. (2014) have found evidence that some Cretaceous asteroids had similar photoreceptors. Maybe our fossil goniasterid fragment could yield this kind of secret property with closer examination.


Blake, D.B. and Mah, C.L. 2014. Comments on “The phylogeny of post-Palaeozoic Asteroidea (Neoasteroidea, Echinodermata)” by AS Gale and perspectives on the systematics of the Asteroidea. Zootaxa 3779: 177-194.

Gale, A.S. 2011. The phylogeny of post-Paleozoic Asteroidea (Neoasteroidea, Echinodermata). Special Papers in Palaeontology 38, 112 pp.

Gale, A.S. 2013. Phylogeny of the Asteroidea, p. 3-14. In: Lawrence, J.M. (ed.), Starfish: Biology and Ecology of the Asteroidea. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Gorzelak, P., Salamon, M.A., Lach, R., Loba, M. and Ferré, B. 2014. Microlens arrays in the complex visual system of Cretaceous echinoderms. Nature Communications 5, Article 3576, doi:10.1038/ncomms4576.

Loriol, P. de. 1908. Note sur quelques stellérides du Santonien d’Abou-Roach. Bulletin de l’Institut égyptien 2: 169-184.

Mah, C.L. and Blake, D.B. 2012. Global diversity and phylogeny of the Asteroidea (Echinodermata). PLOS ONE 7(4), e35644.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: My favorite part of a crinoid (Middle Jurassic of Israel)

June 1st, 2014

Apiocrinites negevensis proximale 585In April of this year I completed my 11th trip to southern Israel for fieldwork in the Mesozoic. My heart warmed every time I saw these robust plates of the crinoid Apiocrinities negevensis, which was reviewed in a previous blog post. They are thick disks of calcite with a heft and symmetry like exotic coins. They are easy to spot in the field because of their size and incised perfect star. They have been a critical part of our paleoecological and systematic studies of the Matmor Formation (Callovian, Middle Jurassic) in the Negev. Lizzie Reinthal (14) and Steph Bosch (14) know them particularly well!
negevensis proximales 1This part of the crinoid is called the proximale. It has a round base that articulates with the columnal below it in the stem, and its top has five facets that hold the basal plates of the calyx. It is thus the topmost columnal, specialized to serve as the integration between the articulated stem below and the complicated head above. The pentastellate (five-armed star, but you probably figured that out) impression is called the areola. In the very center is the open hole of the lumen, which goes from the head all the way down through the stem to the holdfast as an internal fluid-filled cavity.
Composite Miller Apiocrinites arrowedAbove are Miller’s (1821) original illustrations of Apiocrinites rotundus with the proximale shown by the red arrow. Note how thin this piece is compared to the equivalent from Apiocrinites negevensis. The significant thickness of the proximale is one of the distinguishing features of the Negev species.

I saw many more of these beautiful fossils in the field this year. We don’t need any more for our research, but they always indicate that other good fossils are nearby.


Ausich, W.I. and Wilson, M.A. 2012. New Tethyan Apiocrinitidae (Crinoidea; Articulata) from the Jurassic of Israel. Journal of Paleontology 86: 1051-1055.

Miller, J.S. 1821. A natural history of the Crinoidea or lily-shaped animals, with observation on the genera Asterias, Euryale, Comatula, and Marsupites. Bryan & Co, Bristol, 150 pp.

Wilson, M.A., Feldman, H.R. and Krivicich, E.B. 2010. Bioerosion in an equatorial Middle Jurassic coral-sponge reef community (Callovian, Matmor Formation, southern Israel). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 289: 93-101.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A fly in amber

May 25th, 2014

Fly in amber 012614A classic fossil this week. I wish I could say more about it. The specimen lost its label years ago, so I don’t know where it is from or its age (although a good guess is Neogene). I also can’t identify it with my skill set beyond “fly” (Order Diptera). Beautiful, though. The images were not easy to make. I used our photomicroscope and played with a combination of light from below (transmitted) and above (reflected). The polished amber fragment is about the size of a pea and the fly is near the middle of it.
Fly legs in amber 012614A closer view here of the legs. Each segment can be seen, along with their tiny spines. This seems to be a particularly long-legged fly.

Preservation in amber is a well known phenomenon. An insect like ours gets itself trapped in a drop of tree resin. The resin hardens into amber by losing much of its volatile content with heat over time. Polish the piece and you can peer inside and see the occasional treasures of three-dimensionally preserved organisms. Oddly enough, in most cases these fossils are hollow external molds with no internal tissues preserved. What we see is the outside of this cavity with pigments embedded in the amber. (This fly has gorgeous red eyes, for example.) Remember the Jurassic Park premise that dinosaur DNA had been recovered from blood in a mosquito’s belly preserved in Dominican amber? It just doesn’t happen. In fact, a recent study (Penney et al., 2013) showed that insect DNA doesn’t even survive in sub-fossil assemblages.

I know from experience that it is very easy to be fooled by fake amber. As a policy, I’ve learned to not buy it in an Estonian open market (just as an example!). After Jurassic Park appeared, the demand for amber shot up, especially if it had animals in it. Artificial amber, and amber made from shavings and fragments (“pressed amber”) flooded the market. Caveat emptor. I tested our piece and it passed.

For more images of insects in amber, please follow the link or just search “amber”.


Penney, D. 2002. Paleoecology of Dominican amber preservation: spider (Araneae) inclusions demonstrate a bias for active, trunk-dwelling faunas. Paleobiology 28: 389-398.

Penney, D., Wadsworth, C., Fox, G., Kennedy, S.L., Preziosi, R.F. and Brown, T.A. 2013. Absence of ancient DNA in sub-fossil insect inclusions preserved in ‘Anthropocene’ Colombian copal. PloS one 8(9), e73150. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073150

Poinar Jr, G.O. 1993. Insects in amber. Annual Review of Entomology 38: 145-159.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: “Star-rock” crinoids from the Middle Jurassic of Utah

May 18th, 2014

Isocrinus_nicoleti_Encrinite_Mt_Carmel_585This little slab of crinoid stem fragments comes from the Co-op Creek Member of the Carmel Formation (Middle Jurassic) exposed in northwestern Kane County, Utah. I collected it with my friend Carol Tang as we explored a beautiful encrinite (a rock dominated by crinoid skeletal debris) exposed near Mount Carmel Junction. In 2000, Carol and her colleagues published a description and analysis of this unit and its characteristic crinoid, Isocrinus nicoleti (Desor, 1845). This piece sits on a shelf in my office because it is so ethereal with its star-shaped columnals (stem sections). In fact, the local people in the area collect pieces of the encrinite and sell them as “star rocks“. As I recall, some folks were rather territorial about the outcrops!

Isocrinus nicoleti is one of only three crinoid species known in the Jurassic of North America. (The others are I. wyomingensis and Seirocrinus subangularis.) Tang et al. (2000) showed that this species migrated into southwestern North America by moving southward through a very narrow seaway for thousands of kilometers. I. nicoleti had long stems and relatively small crowns, so it left us zillions of the columnals and very few calices. These washed into large subtidal dunes creating the cross-bedded encrinite.
Isocrinus asteriaThe genus Isocrinus is still alive, most notably in the deep waters around Barbados in the Caribbean. Above is a diagram of Isocrinus asteria originally published by Jean-Étienne Guettard in 1761. The long stem is star-shaped in cross-section.
Pierre Jean Edouard DesorThis gentleman is Professor Pierre Jean Édouard Desor (1811-1882), who named Isocrinus nicoleti in 1845. He is shown here 20 years later. Desor was a German-Swiss geologist who studied two very disparate subjects: glaciers and Jurassic echinoderms. He trained as a lawyer in Germany, but got caught up in the democratic German unity movement of 1832-1833 and had to flee to Paris. In 1837 he met Louis Agassiz and began to collaborate with him on a variety of projects paleontological and glaciological. He even had a trip to the United States where he helped survey the coast of Lake Superior. He took a position as professor of geology at the academy of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1852, eventually retiring in genteel affluence. (This is not how these geological biographies usually end!)


Ausich, W.I. 1997. Regional encrinites: a vanished lithofacies. In: Brett, C.E. and Baird, G.C. (eds.): Paleontological Events, p. 509-519. Columbia University Press, New York.

Baumiller, T.K., Llewellyn, G., Messing, C.G. and Ausich, W.I. 1995. Taphonomy of isocrinid stalks: influence of decay and autotomy. Palaios 10: 87-95.

Desor, É. 1845 Résumé de ses études sur les crinoides fossilies de la Suisse. Bulletin de la Societe Neuchateloise des Sciences Naturelles 1: 211-222.

Hall, R.L. 1991. Seirocrinus subangularis (Miller, 1821), a Pliensbachian (Lower Jurassic) crinoid from the Fernie Formation, Alberta, Canada. Journal of Paleontology 65: 300-307.

Peterson, F. 1994. Sand dunes, sabkhas, streams, and shallow seas: Jurassic paleogeography in the southern part of the western interior basin. In: Caputo, M.V., Peterson, J.A. and Franczyk, K.J. (eds.): Mesozoic Systems of the Rocky Mountain Region, USA, p. 233-272. Rocky Mountain Section-SEPM, Denver, Colorado.

Tang, C.M., Bottjer, D.J. and Simms, M.J. 2000. Stalked crinoids from a Jurassic tidal deposit in western North America. Lethaia 33: 46-54.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: One sick crinoid from the Middle Jurassic of Israel

May 11th, 2014

IsocrinidAMy first thought on seeing this distorted fossil was how much it evoked one of those Palaeolithic “Venus figurines“. It is certainly difficult to deduce that this is actually a crinoid column (or stem). It was found during my last expedition to the Middle Jurassic Matmor Formation in Makhtesh Gadol, southern Israel (location C/W-506). This particular crinoid was infected by parasites that caused the grotesque swellings of the skeletal calcite in the individual columnals (button-like sections of the column). The infection of a species of Apiocrinites in the Matmor is the subject of a paper now in press by me, Lizzie Reinthal (’14) and the pride of Ohio State University, Dr. Bill Ausich. That story will be a later Fossil of the Week entry. The specimen above, though, is different. To my surprise, it is a parasitic infection in an entirely different crinoid order.

IsocrinidBHere’s another view of the crinoid column. The top third shows some of the original star-shaped columnals in side view. This tells us that the crinoid was an isocrinid, possibly the cosmopolitan Isocrinus nicoleti. This group contains the famous and somewhat creepy crawling crinoids. We have just a handful of isocrinid stem fragments in the Matmor despite a decade of searching for a distinctive calyx (the head of the little beast). Note that the gall-like swellings have holes in them. This will be important in a later analysis of the parasitic system here.

IsocrinidCAnd now the other side of the fossil. Again, in the top part you can make out star-shaped columnals, but that distinctive outline is lost in the swollen column below. The stem must have been seriously hindered from flexing and bending with such a debilitating infection.


Salamon, M.A. 2008. The Callovian (Middle Jurassic) crinoids from northern Lithuania. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 82: 269-278.

Tang, C.M., Bottjer, D.J. and Simms, M.J. 2000. Stalked crinoids from a Jurassic tidal deposit in western North America. Lethaia 33: 46-54.

Wilson, M.A., Reinthal, E.A. and Ausich, W.I. 2014. Parasitism of a new apiocrinitid crinoid species from the Middle Jurassic (Callovian) of southern Israel. Journal of Paleontology (in press).

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