Contemporary melting of northwestern glaciers: A new paper by Wooster Geologists … and the ultimate finish of an Independent Study adventure

January 25th, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWooster geology graduate Nathan Malcomb, now a scientist with the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service, has just published an important paper with his advisor Greg Wiles in the journal Quaternary Research (affectionately known as “QR”). This work comes directly from Nathan’s Independent Study research with Greg, a project that was supported by the Henry J. Copeland Fund for Independent Study at Wooster. (A view of their field area in Valdez, southern Alaska, is shown above.) This is one part of Greg’s very productive Alaskan research program with his students.

Nathan and Greg used tree-ring series from temperature- and moisture-sensitive trees to reconstruct annual mass balances for six glaciers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. They show strong evidence to support their hypothesis that the retreat of these glaciers we see today is a unique event in the last several centuries. This melting is “dominated by global climate forcing”. Recent climate change is again demonstrated by careful data collection and well designed tests.


Sarah Appleton (’12) on one of the Alaskan coring expeditions.


Lauren Vargo (’13) demonstrating excellent coring technique.


Malcomb, N.L. and Wiles, G.C. 2013. Tree-ring-based reconstructions of North American glacier mass balance through the Little Ice Age — Contemporary warming transition. Quaternary Research (in press),

Wooster’s Pseudofossil of the Week: Manganese dendrites from Germany

January 20th, 2013

We haven’t had a pseudofossil in this space for awhile. A pseudofossil is an object that is often mistaken for a fossil but is actually inorganic. The above may look like  fossil fern, but it is instead a set of beautiful manganese dendrites in the Solnhofen Limestone (Jurassic) of Germany (scale in millimeters). I put this photo on Wikipedia a long time ago as manganese dendrites. That didn’t stop one website from still using it as an example of a fossil.

Manganese dendrites are thin, branching crystals that grew over a surface in a rock or mineral. Often they are found in cracks or along bedding planes (as in the above example). These dendrites are usually some variety of manganese oxide. The minerals represented can include hollandite, coronadite, and cryptomelane. Apparently they are never pyrolusite, despite what you may see in textbooks. It is also impossible to tell the mineralogy from the shape of the dendrites alone.

How can you tell this is not a fossil plant? For one, the branches are too perfect: none overlap or are folded over or broken as you would expect in a buried three-dimensional plant. Next you’ll notice that all the branches extend from a line at the bottom of the image rather than from a single branching point. Finally, there is no distinction between branch, stem or leaf; instead it is a fractal-like distribution of tiny sharp-edged crystals.

As a bonus, check out this benefit you get from having manganese dendrites:

“Metaphysically, stones with dendrites resonate with blood vessels and nerves. They help heal the nervous system and conditions such as neuralgia. Dendrites can help with skeletal disorders, reverse capillary degeneration and stimulate the circulatory system. It is the stone of plenitude; it also helps create a peaceful environment and encourage the enjoyment of each moment. Dendrites deepen your connection to the earth and can bring stability in times of strife or confusion.”

The Stone of Plenitude! (I hope you do see my sarcasm here …)

This post, by the way, marks the completion of the second year of Wooster’s Fossils of the Week. So far we’ve had 104 posts. Check out our very first edition about a sweet auloporid coral!


Potter, R.M. and Rossman, G.R. 1979. The mineralogy of manganese dendrites and coatings. American Mineralogist 64: 1219-1226.

Post, J.E. and McKeown, D.A. 2001. Characterization of manganese oxide mineralogy in rock varnish and dendrites using X-ray absorption spectroscopy. American Mineralogist 86: 701-713.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A glass sponge from the Upper Ordovician of southern Ohio

January 13th, 2013

Pattersonia ulrichi Rauff, 1894_585Like all those who teach, I learn plenty from my students, sometimes with a simple question. Richa Ekka (’13) asked me last semester during a paleontology lab if the above specimen was really a trace fossil as I had labeled it. I collected this curious fossil many years ago and had assumed then and ever since that it was an odd burrow system preserved on the base of a bed of limestone. That I had no idea what kind of trace fossil it was didn’t seem to bother me. When Richa questioned the specimen, I picked it up and looked closely and saw that, indeed, it had a reticulate structure (shown below) that demonstrated it was certainly no fossil burrow. Richa was right.
Pattersonia ulrichi closerI began to search the paleontological literature for Ordovician sponges and quickly found the genus Pattersonia Miller, 1889, in the Family Pattersoniidae Miller, 1889, of the Class Hexactinellida (below). The lobes on this specimen match those of our fossil very closely, as does the more detailed reticulate structure.
Pattersonia aurita (Beecher)Pattersonia aurita (Beecher), Brannon, A.M. Peter farm, northern Fayette  County, Kentucky (from McFarlan, 1931).

After reviewing more articles, it is clear that the Wooster sponge is Pattersonia ulrichi Rauff, 1894. It has doubled our collection of Ordovician sponges. Thanks, Richa!


Finks, R.M. 1967. S.A. Miller’s Paleozoic sponge families of 1889. Journal of Paleontology 41: 803-807.

McFarlan, A.C. 1931. The Ordovician fauna of Kentucky, p. 49-165, in: Jillson, W.R., ed., Paleontology of Kentucky, Kentucky Geological Survey, Frankfort, Kentucky.

Rauff, H. 1894. Palaeospongiologie. E. Schweizer-bartśche Verlagsbuchhandlung (E. Koch.).

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A conulariid from the Upper Ordovician of Indiana

January 6th, 2013

Conulariid123012This week’s fossil is not technically impressive: it is a rather modestly preserved conulariid from the Waynesville Formation of southern Indiana (location C/W-111). It is notable because it is one of the very few conulariids I’ve found in the Ordovician, and it gives me a chance to write about a fascinating talk three of my friends presented last month at the annual meeting of the Palaeontological Association in Dublin.

The above image is a side view of the specimen. Its identity as a conulariid is indicated by the four flat sides with gently curved ridges and the distinctive grooved corner between the two visible sides. With only this part of the conulariid visible, we can at least tentatively identify the specimen as Conularia formosa Miller & Dyer, 1878. Conulariids are most likely the polyp stages of scyphozoans (typical “jellyfish”).
CloseConulariid123012Here is a closer view of one of the sides. You can just make out a midline running parallel to the axis of the fossil slightly offsetting the ridges.
Cross1123012This is a broken cross-section through the conulariid showing the four corners and sides. Note that the fossil is symmetrical, give or take a little squishing during preservation. (The test was made of a flexible periderm, not a hard shell.)

This brings us to the presentation last month at the Palaeontological Association meeting titled: “Asymmetry in conulariid cnidarians and some other invertebrates”. It was given by Consuelo Sendino from the Natural History Museum in London, with co-authors Paul Taylor (also NHM London) and Kamil Zágoršek (Národní muzeum, Prague). The specimens below are part of a set of conulariids they studied from the Upper Ordovician (Sandbian) of the Czech Republic.
1Screen shot 2012-12-19 at 5.36.04 AMThis is Metaconularia anomala (Barrande, 1867). Note that it has a very different symmetry from the typical conulariid: it is four-sided at the base and three-sided at the top. Only a minority of specimens show this asymmetry, but why any do is a mystery.
2Screen shot 2012-12-19 at 5.36.27 AMHere are several more Metaconularia anomala specimens with various states of symmetry. All are internal molds.
3Screen shot 2012-12-19 at 5.37.02 AMThis is a summary of the symmetries present in these Ordovician conulariids. For such a simple morphology, these are surprisingly complex states. There is a pattern to this diversity: these conulariids show a kind of sinistral coiling — a directional asymmetry.

There are many questions that arise from such asymmetrical fossils. Why was the original symmetry “broken” in these individuals? Did asymmetry have adaptive value? (These aberrant individuals apparently survived to a normal size, at least.) Is this asymmetry genetically controlled or produced by the environment in some way? If there is a genetic component, has it ever had evolutionary value?

I now notice fossils that are outside normal symmetry ranges (like this Devonian brachiopod) and wonder how common and important the phenomenon is. Another paleontological wonder and mystery!


Miller, S.A. and Dyer, C.B. 1878. Contributions to Palaeontology (No. 1). Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History 1, no. l, p. 24-39.

Sendino, C., Zágoršek, K. and Taylor, P.D. 2012. Asymmetry in an Ordovician conulariid cnidarian. Lethaia 45: 423-431.

Van Iten, H. 1991. Evolutionary affinities of conulariids, p. 145-155; in Simonetta, A.M. and Conway Morris, S. (eds.). The Early Evolution of Metazoa and the Significance of Problematic Taxa. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Van Iten, H. 1992. Morphology and phylogenetic significance of the corners and midlines of the conulariid test. Palaeontology 35: 335-358.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Episkeletozoans from the Middle Jurassic of Israel

December 30th, 2012

Stomatopora122812Last week I had a delightful research afternoon with my former student Lisa Park Boush, now a professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science at The University of Akron, and currently Program Director, National Science Foundation, Sedimentary Geology and Paleontology Program, EAR Division. Lisa also directs an Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope (ESEM) lab in Akron. We worked there with the FEI Quanta 200 microscope looking at encrusters on echinoid fragments from the Matmor Formation (Middle Jurassic) of southern Israel. These encrusters are called episkeletozoans, a five-nickel word meaning that they are animals that encrusted the exteriors of skeletal fragments.

The specimen above is an eroded bryozoan episkeletozoan on the interior of an echinoid coronal fragment. It’s been beat up a bit and partially recrystallized, but we can see enough to identify it as the cyclostome Stomatopora Bronn, 1825.
SpineForam1This is the base of an echinoid spine with a tiny foraminiferan attached to it.
ForamSpine2Here is a close-up of the above foraminiferan. It is probably Placopsilina d’Orbigny, 1850. You can see an apparent aperture looking a bit like a blowhole on the left end top.
LisaSEM122812Above is our hero Lisa running the ESEM. This complicated device uses low vacuum so that we can look at uncoated specimens. We just stuck the specimens onto stubs with conducting tape and placed them in the chamber (on the right). I remember the old days when electron microscopy specimens had to be carefully dried and sputter-coated with gold or carbon. The advent of the ESEM made high quality imaging much easier, and thus more commonly done.

The images we took on this day are part of a larger project describing and interpreting the paleoecology of the Matmor Formation. It is a huge task, but every helpful session like this moves us closer to completion. Thanks, Lisa!


Guilbault, J.-P., Krautter, M., Conway, K.W., and Barrie, J.V. 2006. Modern Foraminifera attached to hexactinellid sponge meshwork on the West Canadian Shelf: Comparison with Jurassic counterparts from Europe. Palaeontologia Electronica 9, Issue 1; 3A:48p;

Richardson-White, S. and S.E. Walker, S.E. 2011. Diversity, taphonomy and behavior of encrusting Foraminifera on experimental shells deployed along a shelf-to-slope bathymetric gradient, Lee Stocking Island, Bahamas. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 312: 305–324.

Taylor, P.D. and Furness, R.W. 1978. Astogenetic and environmental variation of zooid size within colonies of Jurassic Stomatopora (Bryozoa, Cyclostomata). Journal of Paleontology 52: 1093-1102.

Taylor, P.D. and Wilson, M.A. 2003. Palaeoecology and evolution of marine hard substrate communities. Earth-Science Reviews 62: 1-103.

Walker, S.E., Parsons-Hubbard, K., Richardson-White, S., Brett, C. and Powell, E. 2011. Alpha and beta diversity of encrusting foraminifera that recruit to long-term experiments along a carbonate platform-to-slope gradient: Paleoecological and paleoenvironmental implications. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 312: 325–349.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A swimming clam from the Pliocene of Cyprus

December 23rd, 2012

In the summer of 1996, I was a co-director of a Keck Geology Consortium project in Cyprus. One of my students was Steve Dornbos (’97), now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. We had a great time exploring the Nicosia Formation (Pliocene) and its fossils on the Mesaoria Plain near the center of this Mediterranean island. (We published the study — Steve’s Independent Study thesis at Wooster — in 1999.)

One of our most common fossils in the Nicosia Formation is shown above. It is the pectinoid bivalve Amusium cristatum Röding, 1798. It is a remarkably thin and delicate shell that still retains much of its color after over four million years. Note that it is almost completely equilateral, meaning that it is nearly symmetrical. There’s a functional reason for this we’ll get to later.

Amusium is a genus still very much in existence today. They are usually found in abundance on carbonate platforms, often in the deeper portions. They are called “saucer scallops” or “moon shells” by collectors. There are many living species of Amusium, and they are apparently good eating (see below a platter from Thailand).

Both the genus and species of Amusium were named by Peter Friedrich Röding (1767–1846), a German shell specialist from Hamburg. He wrote a 1798 sale catalogue of a mollusk collection, providing the first publication of over 1500 taxonomic names. His descriptions were minimal, but enough to meet the requirements for new taxa, including Amusium cristatum.

Now, what is the functional importance of the symmetry of this particular scallop? Turns out it is one of the best swimmers in the bivalve world. By clapping its valves together with its strong adductor muscle, Amusium can swim at an average of 37-45 cm/second, usually for 8-10 seconds. Symmetry of the shell gives it good control over swimming direction. Features that also enhance the swimming abilities of Amusium include strengthening ribs (visible in our specimen above), a centrally-located adductor muscle, and a mantle that can direct water expulsion during the “clapping” actions of swimming.

We can be certain, then, that Amusium cristatum was a beautiful and unusually active mollusk in those shallow seas that once covered the beautiful island of Cyprus.


Aguirre, J. 2009. Biological concentrations of Amusium cristatum. Journal of Taphonomy 2-3: 263-264.

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.

Morton, B. 1980. Swimming in Amusium pleuronectes (Bivalvia: Pectinidae). Journal of Zoology 190: 1469-7998.

Röding, P.F. 1798. Museum Boltenianum sive catalogus cimeliorum e tribus regnis naturæ quæ olim collegerat Joa. Fried Bolten, M.D. p. d. per XL. annos proto physicus Hamburgensis. Pars secunda continens conchylia sive testacea univalvia, bivalvia & multivalvia. – pp. [1-3], [1-8], 1-199. Hamburgi, Trapp.

Williams, M.J. and Dredge, M.C.L. 1981. Growth of the saucer scallop, Amusium japonicum balloti Habe, in central eastern Queensland. Australian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 32: 657–666.

A spectacular glaciated valley near Ardara, County Donegal, Ireland

December 20th, 2012

GlacialValleyArdaraDONEGAL, IRELAND — One last post from a great day in the Irish countryside. The above is Glengesh Pass, with the town of Ardara in the background. Glengesh means “Glen of the Swans”. On the south side (right in this image) is Common Mountain (503 meters high). This is a classic U-shaped glaciated valley. Someone has actually posted a YouTube video of driving through Glengesh Pass. (The accompanying music is an eccentric modern Irish ballad called “Las Vegas in The Hills of Donegal“. The fourth ranked Irish single in 1992!)

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland

December 20th, 2012

SlieveLeagueOneDONEGAL, IRELAND — The above peak sweeping precipitously down into a raging sea is the smaller of the exposures at Slieve League along the southern coast of County Donegal. These are the highest sea cliffs in Ireland, and among the highest in Europe. The road getting to this point had spectacular views along the way. (“Spectacular” means, of course, terrifying.)

SlieveLeagueThreeThis is a view of the highest of the Slieve League peaks, hidden by the fog. It is just over 600 meters from the sea to the peak. The trail up to it is said to be bracing.

SlieveLeagueTwoThe maelstrom at the base of Slieve League. This coast of Ireland has some of the best surfing in Europe, facing as it does the North Atlantic. Surfing right here, though, would be a bit tricky, but there is a landing beach.

Screen shot 2012-12-20 at 3.21.27 PMShanbally on the middle right in this Google Map is the highest point of Slieve League.

FoldedRocks122012There is some structural geology going on as you can see from these folded quartzites just east of Slieve League on Carrigan Head.

The Grianán of Aileach

December 20th, 2012

GriananOutsideDONEGAL, IRELAND — In the northeastern part of the county, about 7 km west of Derry in Northern Ireland, is Greenan Mountain. On its very top is a spectacular ringfort called The Grianán of Aileach (“the Solarium of Aileach”, shown above). From it are spectacular views of the countryside 360° around. It is a majestic and yet rather lonely place, maybe because my new friend Andy Quinn and I were the only ones there. It was probably built in some form around the beginning of the common era and no doubt occupied by many successive groups. There is a burial mound on the site (a tumulus) that may date back to 3000 BCE. The local story is that it was originally a place to honor the sun (which I would not have minded seeing today).

The fort’s most prominent days were when it was the royal citadel of the northern Ui Neill sept of Aileach from the 5th to the 12th century. The stone portion of the fort was destroyed in 1101 by Murtogh O’Brien, King of Munster. His soldiers were ordered to take the fort apart and scatter its stones widely. In 1870 it was substantially restored to its present state.

The Grianán of Aileach was an excellent location to visit and have a look at the countryside of eastern County Donegal. The rocks exposed here are among the oldest in Ireland (Late Proterozoic to Early Cambrian).

GriananInsideThe inside of the circular Grianán of Aileach. There are three interior platforms connected by narrow stairs. There is some dispute over whether this was the original architecture of the ringfort before its destruction in 1101.

GriananRocksThe stones are mostly without mortar. They appear to be some kind of quartz mica schist.

GriananPanorama585I tried a panorama of Lough Swilly to the west of the ringfort. It doesn’t convey the real sweeping vista in 585 pixels wide, but you get the idea of a cool view!

GriananHolyWellThis is a “holy well” to the southeast of the ringfort. It is said to have been visited by St. Patrick himself. Then again, everyone wants a connection to The Man!

An Irish myth says that The Grianán of Aileach was built by King Daghda of Tuatha de Danann, and that the grave of his son lies beneath the fortress forever guarding it. In any case, we were suitably respectful of this ancient site.


The wild northwest of Ireland

December 19th, 2012

DonegalBaySunset121912DONEGAL, IRELAND — Above is an image of Donegal Bay at sunset. It is striking with its still water, wheeling gulls and glacially-rounded rocky islands. I am in County Donegal for a couple of days simply to see the place and get some hints of what is said to be the most complex geology in Ireland. There is also some evidence that the Wilson part of my family comes from the northwest of Ireland, so I might be seeing a bit of ancestral homeland. I am staying in the town of Donegal in the south of the county and will be visiting sites in the north and west tomorrow. Today, after a very bumpy flight and landing (Donegal airport is known for its high winds), I am exploring the town and its surroundings.

DonegalArrival121912This is the little County Donegal airport in the north. It is in one of the most isolated spots in the county — no bus line goes to it and taxis have to be ordered in advance from nearby towns. There were seven people on the plane, including the crew.

AbbeyHotel121912The Abbey Hotel in downtown Donegal. My home for a couple of days.

DonegalAbbey121912The ruins of the Franciscan Abbey in Donegal along the southern shore of the bay. It was built in 1474. As with many such structures in Ireland, it has a long history of sieges and intrigue. This portion has been used as a graveyard for centuries.

DriftDonegal121912The geology just along the shores of Donegal Bay seems complicated enough. There are some rocky outcrops I could not reach, along with exposures of boulder-studded glacial drift such as here.

AbbeyGraveyard121912The stones used in the local walls and in the remaining Abbey structures are diverse. Most are dark gray metabasalts or amphibolites, as seen in this graveyard wall lit by the setting sun.

AbbeyStone121912One prominent stone in the Abbey walls appears to be a quartzite metaconglomerate. Both these rock types are derived from local pre-Paleozoic outcrops.

Aodh_Ruadh_Ó_Domhnaill_585Finally, here is a dramatically-lit statue of Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill (1427-1505) at the head of Donegal Bay and mouth of the River Eske. He was the subject of one of my favorite book-movie combinations as a kid: The Fighting Prince of Donegal. I also think he looks a lot like me, wouldn’t you say?

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