Meanwhile, what are the Wooster Paleontologists up to?

July 19th, 2017

Wooster, Ohio — The igneous petrology team has a thorough and entertaining report about their activities in the Wooster geology labs this summer. It has encouraged the summer paleontologists (that would be me and Macy Conrad ’18) to give a progress report. Compared to the high-temperature geochemistry going on in the basement, we are decidedly low-tech upstairs in the Paleo Lab!

Above is our set of fossil oysters (Pycnodonte vesicularis) from the Campanian (Upper Cretaceous) of southwestern France we collected this summer. Each oyster has been cleaned, labeled, and given its own tray. We’ve examined each specimen in a preliminary way to sort out the prominent sclerobionts (hard-substrate dwellers, like encrusters and borings). So far we’ve determined which have bryozoans, serpulids, sabellids, foraminiferans and bivalves attached to them, and we’ve recorded the types of borings we see on each, which makes an impressive list: Entobia, Rogerella, Maeandropolydora, Gnathichnus, Radulichnus, Talpina, Belichnus, Oichnus, and maybe Podichnus.

The diverse encrusting bryozoans are the greatest challenge, and they will produce the most interesting and rich data for our paleoecological and evolutionary hypotheses. These fine creatures are difficult to identify, but we have one of the world’s greatest bryozoologists on our side: Paul Taylor of the Natural History Museum. He gave us a large computer file of scanning electron microscope (SEM) images of the most likely bryozoans we will encounter. We printed each of the 232 images as our “mugshots”. We have started with the uniserial and multiserial cyclostome bryozoans because they’re the easiest recognize. When we see one, we identify the specimen with a pink tag.

This microscope is our most sophisticated equipment so far! Later we will scan our best specimens in London on Paul’s SEM.

Here’s a tray of oysters from the Aubeterre Formation with the beginning of our colorful tagging. Laborious, detailed work, but already we see that the diversity of sclerobionts will generate some good stories.

Future updates will include some of our own photomicrographs!

French oysters. Aged to perfection.

June 30th, 2017

Wooster, Ohio — After our glorious fieldwork in France earlier this month, the Campanian (Upper Cretaceous) oysters Macy Conrad (’18), Paul Taylor (Natural History Museum, London), and I collected are now in our cozy Wooster Paleontology Lab. Now the less glamorous work begins: washing, sorting and labeling the specimens. Macy is shown at work with the collection arranged by localities.

This part of the work requires very low-tech equipment: scissors, paper, and water-soluble white glue. Generations of Wooster students know this procedure. Every specimen must be labelled with a number indicating its locality, even if we have hundreds of them. Paleontologists worry a lot about losing the context of a specimen, so we are obsessive about labelling. First we give a C/W code to each locality, print the numbers by the hundreds, cut them out, and then glue them to appropriate places on each fossil. White glue is great because it is easy to use, non-toxic, and it dissolves in water in case we need to remove or change a label. I learned this simple process in graduate school.Here are some fossil oysters with our coding sheet above.
A close-up of labeled specimens. We place the labels on matrix stuck to the fossil if possible.

These are the customized tags we’ll eventually fill out for each specimen recording our observations of the sclerobionts (hard-substrate dwellers like encrusters and borings). This will keep Macy and me busy for a long time. It’s not dramatic work, but we thought you might like to see all aspects of paleontological research through this project. More to come!

Revisiting the Gironde Estuary for our last day of fieldwork in southwestern France

June 7th, 2017

La Barde, France — Today Paul Taylor, Macy Conrad (’18) and I had our last fieldwork in France for this expedition. We returned to sites along the eastern shore of the Gironde Estuary to study the Biron Formation (Campanian, Upper Cretaceous), thus completing our three-part stratigraphic survey along with the Barbezieux and Aubeterre Formations. Macy is seen above crouching at the Caillaud South locality.

This is a view of the Caillaud South cliff from the south. The camera can’t convey how very white the rocks are and still keep the rest of the image in a correct exposure. A salt marsh is in the foreground.

The Pycnodonte vesicularis oysters are common at the Caillaud south locality, but they are well cemented into the limestone matrix. We’re looking here at an articulated shell with the right valve on top. This would have been the oyster’s living position.

There is a normal fault exposed in the Caillaud. It is still Biron Formation in either block, but the facies are slightly different on one side from the other.

This part of the estuary was the site of a significant Gallo-Roman settlement.

We also revisited the north side of Caillaud, where again it is Biron Formation with about a meter of Barbezieux on top of the cliff. The structures to the left are fishing towers.

Bryozoans are abundant in this exposure. Here is a nice bryozoan colony, probably the cyclostome Meliceritites, according to Paul.

Talmont-sur-Gironde from the south. This tiny place receives half a million visitors a year. Note the tidal mudflat in the foreground. We were near low tide.

This is an aerial view of the village, courtesy of Wikipedia. It is nearly surrounded by the sea at high tide. The village was founded in 1284 by Edward I of England. In 1652 it was destroyed by the Spanish. I’m surprised it survived World War II.

I’ll end this post with a French wildflower of some type we saw today. It symbolizes the beautiful countryside we had the privilege to explore. Thank you again to Paul and Patricia Taylor for hosting us so elegantly. Paul was also a spectacular field driver on the small country roads, and his knowledge of the fossils and stratigraphy is astonishing.

We have one more day in southwestern France, and then Macy and I head back to Paris.



A day of rocks and churches in southwestern France

June 6th, 2017

La Barde, France — This is our second-to-last day in southwestern France on this research expedition. Macy Conrad (’18), Paul Taylor (Natural History Museum, London) and I are continuing our study of sclerobionts on Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) oysters. I know the images of us facing into yet another set of white rocks are getting dull, so we’ll get the field shots out of the way first! Above, Macy is looking at the Barbezieux Formation just outside the village of Bonnes, a locality new to us on this trip.

Our second stop was one we visited last week: the Barbezieux Formation exposed in a narrow lane (“Chemin”) in Aubeterre. Another successful day with the Cretaceous oysters and their associates.

We visited two notable churches during our journey today. This one in St. Aulaye is notable for its very old tower and preserved Romanesque facade.

The Medieval carvings around the entrance are delightful. This is a man and what is apparently his donkey.

The second church we visited as in Bourg-du-Bost. This is a Thirteenth-Century building mostly intact.

The interior is richly decorated, and had automated organ music playing as we entered. The lights also switched on and off in a pattern I didn’t catch.

This church is known for its 13th century frescoes still mostly in place with their original colors.

The ceiling of the sanctuary is magnificent. Much attention was given over the centuries to detailed ornamentation and preservation in this relatively small country church. It survived countless wars in this region, including the most devastating ones of the 20th century.

Location GPS Unit Position
Bonnes 171 Barbezieux N45° 14.735′ E0° 08.935′

Wooster Geologists get to work in southwestern France

June 4th, 2017

La Barde, France — After a day of almost solid rain, we woke up the next morning to brilliant weather in southwestern France. Macy, Paul and I drove to the small town of Archiac, where we collected a bag full of gorgeous specimens of the oyster Pycnodonte vesicularis from the Aubeterre Formation.

The oysters could be easily pulled from the marly matrix. Our goal was to collect as many specimens with fossil sclerobionts on them as we could. Sclerobionts are organisms that live in or on hard substrates, in this case it means borings and encrusters.

Thanks to Paul Taylor for this modification of the stratigraphic column from Platel (1999). The three formations we are collecting from are the Biron, Barbezieux, and Aubeterre, all in the Upper Campanian.

We also visited an outcrop of the Segonzac Formation near Segonzac itself so Paul could collect bryozoans. We were at the edge of a vineyard.

The view from our last outcrop was wonderful. Peaceful countryside. That’s our field car parked on the roadside.

Location GPS Unit Position
Archiac 166 Aubeterre N45° 31.413′ W0° 17.909′
Chez Allard 167 Segonzac N45° 37.040′ W0° 11.546′

A day of geology on the coast of southwestern France

June 2nd, 2017

La Barde, France — Today we traveled west to the Gironde Estuary on the southwest coast to continue our survey of Campanian fossils. It looks like we will be working on the sclerobionts found with the extensive Pycnodonte oyster beds. Macy is above examining one of the best exposures of these fossils at a roadcut above Plage des Nonnes.

Our first stop was a roadcut in Mortagne of the Segonzac Formation, the oldest of the Campanian units we’ve seen so far.

The next outcrop was of the Biron Formation at the southern side of Caillaud. It is flanked by a salt marsh, with more open ocean conditions farther along.

Macy stands here on the fossiliferous Biron Formation at Caillaud south.

Another place where the ocean would love to kill me.

The Caillaud north locality was very fossiliferous, including excellent cheilostome bryozoans like Onychocella above. Despite the diversity of fossils here, there aren’t enough encrusted and bored oysters for us.

The cliffs just south of Plage des Nonnes. Definitely a location to visit at low tide.

These are some of the abundant Pycnodonte oysters we saw in the roadcut above Plage des Nonnes. We will certainly return to this outcrop later.

Besides the research, there were of course many other sites of interest. I took several images of this salt marsh at Caillaud south, for example, to use in my Sedimentology & Stratigraphy course.

We found this large jellyfish at Plage des Nonnes. The thickness and rigidity of the “jelly” is amazing.

This is the Talmont church perched on an outcrop above the sea.

The Romanesque, intricately carved entrance to the Talmont church.

It was an excellent day of culture and geology in France!

Location GPS Unit Position
Mortagne 160 Segonzac – lower N45° 28.763′ W0° 47.496′
Cliff north of Mortagne 161 Segonzac – upper N45° 28.963′ W0° 47.943′
Caillaud south 162 Biron N45° 31.805′ W0° 53.629′
Caillaud north 163 Biron N45° 31.916′ W0° 54.206′
Plage des Nonnes 164 Aubeterre N45° 33.534′ W0° 57.895′
Roadcut above Plage des Nonnes 165 Aubeterre N45° 33.627′ W0° 57.894′


Wooster Geologists begin fieldwork in southwestern France

June 1st, 2017

LA BARDE, FRANCE–Macy Conrad and I began our paleontological fieldwork in what may be the most beautiful part of Europe: southwestern France. Our superb guide and colleague is Natural History Museum scientist Dr. Paul Taylor, a long-time friend who has a home in this region with his wife Patricia. Above is a view of our first location: Aubeterre-sur-Drone. Extraordinary. And note the weather!

French food is indeed all it is said to be. This was my lunch: Gallette au Thon. Simple, I know, but very good.

This is our first outcrop. Macy is standing at an exposure of the Biron Formation, a Cretaceous (Campanian) limestone full of fossils, especially Pycnodonte oysters. Many of these oysters are encrusted by bryozoans. This is the “Garage Esso” location, also known as Route D17, in Aubeterre. We are in the exploratory phase of the project — essentially sorting out projects.

The overlying Barbezieux Formation (also Campanian — all the units are Campanian today) has well-exposed Pycnodonte oyster banks. These are of particular interest to us, especially if they are bored or encrusted. This is the “Chemin” section in Aubeterre.

More Barbezieux Formation further up the lane.

Our third unit is the Aubeterre Formation, which dominates the top of the city. This is the “car park outcrop”. All of these rocks are cliff-forming white limestones with abundant fossils.

Paul knew a field near Le Maine Roy where fossils from the Maurens Formation are exposed. This did not sound like a productive site, but it was the best of the day. Above you see a pile of rocks marked by a stake. These are larger stones removed from the fields by farmers. (I was reminded of what many French farmers in the north continually extract from their soil: World War I artillery shells!)

The many fossils include numerous large rudistid clams. It is  hard to imagine these large cones as bivalves, but they are. Rudists go extinct at the end of the Cretaceous.

This is a view of the top of a rudist with its right (capping) valve intact. It has a beautiful mesh structure.

Our last stop of the day was a roadcut near Chalais exposing the Biron Formation. It had a great diversity of fossils, including echinoids, sponges, oysters, and ammonites. It did not have an abundance of sclerobionts, so it probably won’t be a site for us in the future.

In Aubeterre we visited two fantastic churches. The first was St. Jacques. Most of it had been destroyed in the 17th century religious wars, but the Romanesque facade remains. This is the main entrance.

The primary attraction of the remnants of St. Jacques is a set of Medieval carvings. They are extraordinarily detailed, depicted all sorts of mysterious fantastical animals and people.

The second church in Aubeterre is very geological. St. Johns is underground, being carved as a cavern from the Barbezieux Formation. Here is a view of the entrance to what remains.

Inside is a huge space in which the sanctuary is carved. This is one of the largest such underground structures known.

The centerpiece is this reliquary, designed to look like the structure over the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Again, all this is carved out of the limestone.

We are staying in the gorgeous French home of Paul and Patricia Taylor in La Barde. It is an 1820 converted farmhouse, both beautiful and comfortable. The River Dronne is just a few steps away. We’ll have more photos of this wonderful and peaceful place in later posts.

I’ll end this day’s post with a view of some peaceful French woods near a field site.

Location GPS Unit Position
Garage Esso, Route D17, Aubeterre 153 Biron N45° 16.212′ E0° 10.274′
Route D17, Aubeterre 154 Barbezieux N45° 16.127′ E0° 10.268′
Chemin, Aubeterre 155 Barbezieux N45° 16.088′ E0° 10.257′
50 m up lane, Aubeterre 156 Barbezieux N45° 16.115′ E0° 10.229′
Back Chateau entrance, Aubeterre 157 Aubeterre N45° 16.362′ E0° 10.262′
Car Park, Aubeterre 158 Aubeterre N45° 16.344′ E0° 10.176′
Le Maine Roy 159 Maurens N45° 19.383′ E0° 07.885′
Chalais roadcut 160 Biron N45° 16.642′ E0° 02.395′


A Wooster Geologist on the Somme Battlefield

May 30th, 2017

Amiens, France — I had two days between the bryozoan meeting in Vienna and the fieldwork in southwestern France, so I decided to visit the World War I battlefields in the Somme Valley of northern France. It was a somber experience of natural beauty, stark and effective memorial architecture, and one of the deepest historical tragedies. I had a similar journey in 2010 to my Grandfather Snuffer’s World War I battlefield in the Meuse-Argonne. Above is a view of the cemetery at the Australian National Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux.

There were two major battles between the Allies and the Germans in the Somme Valley. The first, between July 1 and November 18, 1916, was the largest in terms of soldiers involved and lost. There were more than a million casualties, about even on each side, during those four and a half months of battle. A large proportion of those losses occurred on the first day; indeed, the first few minutes. The results were a draw. The second Battle of the Somme took place August 21 through September 2, 1918, and was an overwhelming Allied victory. This brief blog post is about my impressions of the battlefields a century later, so please follow the links for the historical background.

Gravestones at the Australian National Memorial. These are primarily for Australian soldiers, but there were also stones for New Zealanders, South Africans, Britons, and Canadians.

Flanders poppies grow naturally in this region, and they are also used decoratively in cemeteries. See the famous poem by John McCrae: In Flanders Fields.

An emblem of the soldier’s unit is engraved at the top of each stone.

The memorial building has walls of Portland Limestone (Jurassic of southern England) listing the thousands of missing Australian soldiers in the first battle.

In a compounding irony, the Australian National Memorial buildings and gravestones were shot up in turn during a skirmish here between Allied soldiers and invading Germans in 1940.

This is the small Proyart German Cemetery from the 1918 battle. There are over 450 cemeteries from all the involved nationalities throughout the valley. This one is seldom visited but immaculately maintained. The town of Proyart saw much fighting from the beginning of the war to its end.

An unknown German soldier. There are tens of thousands of unknown graves on the battlefields, matched by long, long lists of the missing.

Lochnagar Crater is a massive hole produced by the explosion of a British mine under the German lines on July 1, 1916 — the first day of the first battle. The bedrock is Cretaceous chalk, which was easy to tunnel with simple tools except that it had to be done in silence. No pickaxes were allowed. The last part of the explosives tunnel was dug under the German trenches with bayonettes alone. It is said that one soldier would pry a flint from the wall as another caught it before it struck the floor. The mine explosion was at that time the largest man-made sound in history.

You’ve heard that French farmers still find live artillery shells in their fields? Here’s one of them. About 60 tons a year of WWI explosives are removed from the Somme battlefields. The one above was marked for disposal with a red plastic cup. Demolition teams drive through the countryside in armored ammunition disposal vehicles removing munitions.

The local farmers repurpose many WWI items. Here a modern barbed wire fence is constructed with German barbed wire stakes from the war.

The Battle of Thiepval Ridge was a complicated and bloody operation in September, 1916. The ridge which cost so many Allied lives was selected as the site of the Anglo-French Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Over 72,000 names are engraved on the limestone panels. The architectural design itself is moving. Its high arches reflect the missing space in lives after so many personal tragedies without even grave for compensation.

A departure from the grim narrative with a brief paleontological note: The Jurassic crinoid Apiocrinites can be identified in the steps of the memorial. I know it well from other contexts.

There is a very well maintained part of the 1916 battlefield at Beaumont-Hamel. Here the Newfoundland Regiment attacked the German lines on the first day of the first Battle of the Somme. The regiment was destroyed in less than twenty minutes after they emerged from their trenches. Six-hundred and seventy men were casualties.

These are remnants of the first line of British trenches.

The killing field of the Newfoundlanders. It is estimated 300-400 of their bodies still remain in the churned soil.

There was an original blasted trunk here called the Danger Tree. It is midway between the British and German lines, about as far as the Newfoundlanders got on July 1, 1916.

A caribou memorial faces the old German positions from the trenches of the Newfoundlanders. All the stones below it are from Newfoundland. The site is maintained by the government of Canada.

The end of my journey was to Hawthorn Ridge, site of a German position blown up by another British mine on the first day of the 1916 battle. The explosion was filmed.

This is the same perspective as the famous photographs and films of the 1916 Hawthorn Ridge explosion. The trees are growing on the crater rim.

This is a famous photo of British soldiers awaiting the Hawthorn mine explosion on July 1, 1916. They had tunneled out of a trench into a sunken lane in no-man’s-land to get as close to the German lines as possible for their attack.

That sunken lane is still present 101 years later.

I wanted to add more about the geology of the battlefield, but the human tragedy is so overwhelming I decided to leave it for later. For now, see the geological cross-section below. Also consider the remarkable observation that the intensity of the artillery bombardments actually changed the geology of the region. “Bombturbation” is a term that has been proposed in our clinical scientific way.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Bivalve escape trace fossils (Devonian and Cretaceous)

April 7th, 2017

It is time again to dip into the wonderful world of trace fossils. These are tracks, trails, burrows and other evidence of organism behavior. The specimen above is an example. It is Lockeia James, 1879, from the Dakota Formation (Upper Cretaceous). These are traces attributed to infaunal (living within the sediment) bivalves trying to escape deeper burial by storm-deposited sediment. If you look closely, you can see thin horizontal lines made by the clams as they pushed upwards. These structures belong to a behavioral category called Fugichnia (from the Latin fug for “flee”). They are excellent evidence for … you guessed it … ancient storms.
The specimens above are also Lockeia, but from much older rocks (the Chagrin Shale, Upper Devonian of northeastern Ohio). Both slabs show the fossil traces preserved in reverse as sediment that filled the holes rather than the holes themselves. These are the bottoms of the sedimentary beds. We call this preservation, in our most excellent paleontological terminology, convex hyporelief. (Convex for sticking out; hyporelief for being on the underside of the bed.)

The traces we know as Lockeia are sometimes incorrectly referred to as Pelecypodichnus, but Lockeia has ichnotaxonomic priority (it was the earliest name). Maples and West (1989) sort that out for us.
Uriah Pierson James (1811-1889) named Lockeia. He was one of the great amateur Cincinnatian fossil collectors and chroniclers. In 1845, he guided the premier geologist of the time, Charles Lyell, through the Cincinnati hills examining the spectacular Ordovician fossils there. He was the father of Joseph Francis James (1857-1897), one of the early systematic ichnologists.


James, U.P. 1879. The Paleontologist, No. 3. Privately published, Cincinnati, Ohio. p. 17-24.

Maples, C.G. and Ronald R. West, R.R. 1989. Lockeia, not Pelecypodichnus. Journal of Paleontology 63: 694-696.

Radley, J.D., Barker, M.J. and Munt, M.C. 1998. Bivalve trace fossils (Lockeia) from the Barnes High Sandstone (Wealden Group, Lower Cretaceous) of the Wessex Sub-basin, southern England. Cretaceous Research 19: 505-509.

[Originally published January 29, 2012]

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A scaphitid ammonite (Late Cretaceous of Mississippi)

February 24th, 2017

The beauty above is Discoscaphites iris (Conrad, 1858) from the Owl Creek Formation of Ripley, Mississippi. Megan Innis and I collected it during our expedition to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary in the southern United States last summer. It is a significant index fossil in biostratigraphy: the Discoscaphites iris Zone is the latest in the Cretaceous (the late Maastrichtian Stage). This animal lived in the final days of the Mesozoic Era just before the mass extinction 65.5 million years ago.

Discoscaphites iris is an ammonite, a type of extinct cephalopod mollusk related to the modern octopus, squid and nautilus. It had a planispirally-coiled shell with chambers divided from each other by complexly-folded walls. If you look closely near the top of the fossil above, you will see where the shell has flaked away revealing an internal mold of sediment and a peek at the folded walls inside. “Ammonite”, by the way, is a very old term for these fossils. Pliny the Elder himself used a variant of the name, which comes from the Egyptian god Amun with his occasional coiled ram’s horn headgear.

Reconstruction of an ammonite by Arthur Weasley (via Wikipedia).

Ammonite shells were made of the carbonate mineral aragonite. This is the mineral that makes many modern mollusk shells have prismatic colors, which we call nacreous. You may know it best as “mother of pearl” or as pearls themselves. Aragonite has an unstable crystal structure and so is not common in rocks older than a few million years. The original aragonite in our ammonite fossil is thus a bonus.

In an oddly topical note, Discoscaphites iris was recently found in the Upper Cretaceous of Libya, giving it a disjunct range from the US Gulf and Atlantic coasts to the Mediterranean coast of northern Africa (Machalski et al., 2009).


Machalski, M., Jagt, J.W.M., Landman, N.H. and Uberna, J., 2009. First record of the North American scaphitid ammonite Discoscaphites iris from the upper Maastrichtian of Libya. N. Jb. Geol. Paläont. Abh. 254: 373-378.

[Originally published April 24, 2011]

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