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.

References:

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).

Reference:

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]

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: Ammonite septa from the Upper Cretaceous of South Dakota

January 27th, 2017

This week we have an ammonite from the Pierre Shale (Upper Cretaceous, Campanian-Maastrichtian) of southwestern South Dakota. It was collected on a wonderful field expedition in June 2008 with my friend Paul Taylor (The Natural History Museum, London) and my student John Sime. Ammonites are extremely common in this interval, but I like this one because it is broken in such a way to expose its complex internal walls, called septa. We are looking at a cross-section of a coiled ammonite showing an early whorl in the upper left surrounded by a later whorl. The septa are fluted at their margins as they meet the outer wall. The wiggly boundary line between a septum and the outer wall is called a suture.

Ammonite septa are remarkably complex, showing fractal patterns. Why did these animals, extinct for 66 million years, evolve such complexity in their septa? This is a hotly debated topic in paleontology. The most popular explanations include strengthening the walls of the shell to resist hydrostatic pressure at depth, buttressing the shell against the crushing pressures of biting predators, and increasing soft-tissue (mantle) surface areas for physiological advantages. Klug and Hoffman (2015) have an excellent summary of these ideas. Lemanis et al. (2016) have a fascinating mathematical study that suggests the answer in many cases complex sutures “seem to increase resistance to point loads, such as would be from predators.”

The astonishing English polymath Robert Hooke (1635-1703) took considerable interest in ammonites and their complicated septa. We have no contemporary images of him, but based on descriptions, Rita Greer painted the above portrait in 2004. Hooke’s life was as complex as the suture patterns he studied, so I leave you to other sources on him. Note in the portrait above, though, the ammonite!

These are drawings by Robert Hooke of ammonites and their suture patterns (from Kusukawa, 2013). It is a single image mirror-reversed. Beautiful.

References:

Derham W. 1726. Philosophical experiments and observations of the late eminent Dr. Robert Hooke, S.R.S. and Geom. Prof. Gresh., and other eminent virtuoso’s in his time. London: Derham.

Garcia-Ruiz, J.M., Checa, A. and Rivas, P. 1990. On the origin of ammonite sutures. Paleobiology 16: 349-354.

Klug, C. and Hoffmann, R. 2015. Ammonoid septa and sutures. In: Ammonoid Paleobiology: From anatomy to ecology (p. 45-90). Springer Netherlands.

Kusukawa, S. 2013. Drawings of fossils by Robert Hooke and Richard Waller. Notes Rec. R. Soc., 67: 123-138.

Lemanis, R., Zachow, S. and Hoffmann, R. 2016. Comparative cephalopod shell strength and the role of septum morphology on stress distribution. PeerJ 4:e2434

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A craniid brachiopod from the Upper Cretaceous of The Netherlands

May 6th, 2016

1 Isocrania costata Sowerby 1823 double 2 smThese striking little brachiopods are gifts from Clive Champion, a generous Englishman with whom I occasionally exchange packets of fossils. In January I received a surprise box with lots of delicious little brachs, including the two shown above. I remember this type well from a field trip I had to the Upper Cretaceous of The Netherlands.
2 Isocrania costata Sowerby 1823 double 1 smHere we see the reverse sides of the shells at the top. These are most likely dorsal valves of Isocrania costata Sowerby, 1823, from the Lichtenberg Horizon, Upper Maastrichtian (Upper Cretaceous) of the ENCI Quarry near Maastricht, The Netherlands. It is possible they are the closely-related species Isocrania sendeni Simon, 2007, but we don’t have enough material to sort this out.
4 Surlyk 1973 fig 2 copyCraniid brachiopods usually live out their lives attached to hard substrates, as with this Ordovician example. This species of Isocrania, however, was only attached to shelly debris on the seafloor for a short time, outgrowing its substrate early and then living free in the chalky sediment. The above reconstruction image is Figure 2 from Surlyk (1973).

Christian Emig (2009) has a bit of folklore about Isocrania. In medieval Sweden these fossils were called “Brattingsborg pennies” for their size, shape and the face-like image on their interiors. Don’t see the face? Check this out from Emig (2009):
5 Ventral C craniolaris fig 6 SurlykThe “eyes” in this ventral valve are large adductor muscle scars, and the “mouth” and “nose” are a smaller set. Here is one of the “Brattingsborg pennies” legends Emig (2009) relates —

“… at the beginning of the 13th century the archbishop Anders Sunesen spent his last days on the island of Ivö, in his own castle of which the cellar was about 2 km southeast of the castle. In 1221, subjected to the terminal stages of leprosy, he spent his last days on the island. One day he was informed that warriors had stolen a large sum of money from the Brattingsborg castle. They spent that night gambling and carousing in the cellar. The archbishop cursed this money and the following morning the warriors were stunned to find that the coins had turned into stones with a laughing death’s-head on them.”

Thanks for starting us on this trip with your gift, Clive!
3 Isocrania costata Sowerby 1823 sm
References:

Emig, C. 2009. Nummulus brattenburgensis and Crania craniolaris (Brachiopoda, Craniidae). Carnets de Géologie/Notebooks on Geology, Brest, Article, 8.

Hansen, T., and Surlyk, F. 2014. Marine macrofossil communities in the uppermost Maastrichtian chalk of Stevns Klint, Denmark. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 399: 323-344.

Simon, E. 2007. A new Late Maastrichtian species of Isocrania (Brachiopoda, Craniidae) from The Netherlands and Belgium. Bulletin de l’Institut royal des Sciences naturelles de Belgique, Sciences de la Terre 77: 141-157.

Surlyk, F. 1973. Autecology and taxonomy of two Upper Cretaceous craniacean brachiopods. Bulletin of the Geological Society of Denmark 22: 219-242.

Dr. Patrick O’Connor gives the 35th annual Richard G. Osgood, Jr., Memorial lecture at Wooster

April 14th, 2016

1 Patrick GeoClub 041416WOOSTER, OHIO–It was our pleasure to host Dr. Patrick O’Connor of Ohio University, who presented the 35th Annual Richard G. Osgood, Jr., Memorial Lecture. The Osgood Lectureship was endowed in 1981 by the three sons of Dr. Osgood in memory of their father, who was an internationally known paleontologist at Wooster from 1967 to 1981. We have had outstanding speakers through this lectureship, and Dr. O’Connor was one of the best. He gave his public lecture last evening (“Cretaceous Terrestrial Vertebrates from Gondwana: Insights from Eastern Africa and Madagascar”) and then a more detailed presentation to our Geology Club this morning (shown in the image above). We all learned a great deal, and Dr. O’Connor was especially good at asking our students questions.

2 Dinosaur cast 041416In Geology Club today Dr. O’Connor brought casts of fossils (like the above Maastrichtian theropod from Madagascar) and actual fossils (like the Maastrichtian bird bones from Madagascar shown below).

3 Bird bones 041416We very much appreciated Dr. O’Connor’s diverse scientific skills and accomplishments, along with his enthusiasm and good humor. This is exactly what the Osgood Lectureship is about.

 

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