Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A rudist clam from the Upper Cretaceous of southwestern France

September 8th, 2017

When we picked up this beautiful fossil in southwestern France this summer, Paul Taylor immediately predicted it would become a Wooster Fossil of the Week. Macy Conrad (’18), Paul and I were on our wonderful expedition in the Type Campanian (Upper Cretaceous) of France. Paul took us to a most unpromising plowed field, claiming there were fossils here from the Maurens Formation. Sure enough we found a pile of large fossils that farmers had picked from their fields. They included probably the most distinctive invertebrate organism of the Late Cretaceous: the rudist clam. Hard to believe these conical objects were clams, but such is evolution. (They have the disconcerting shape and size of other objects found in some French fields: artillery shells!)

The cone itself is the right valve of these sedentary bivalves. The capping valve is the left, as seen here from the top. (Right and left make little sense unless you think of their more traditional bivalved ancestors.) Note that this valve has a reticulate, almost lacy pattern to the shell. Rudists were filter-feeders like most bivalves, but they may have also supplemented their nutrition with photosynthetic symbionts in their mantle tissue. The holes in the top valve may have allowed sunlight to hit the upper mantle.

This stratigraphic chart, courtesy of Platel et al. (1999) via Paul Taylor, shows the Maurens Formation at the top of the Campanian in southwestern France. Our primary Campanian work in SW France is with the three units below (the Biron, Barbezieux and Aubeterre formations).

A typical heterodont clam is in the upper left of this diagram; the rest are elaborate rudist clams. In the lower right is a drawing of the type of rudist photographed above. Diagram from Schumann & Steuber (1997).

Rudists flourished in Cretaceous seas right up until the mass extinction at the end of the period. They are often characterized as reef builders, but most were probably living on soft sediment substrates, like our friend here.

References:

Gili, E., Masse, J.P. and Skelton, P.W. 1995. Rudists as gregarious sediment-dwellers, not reef-builders, on Cretaceous carbonate platforms. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 118: 245-267.

Platel, J.-P. 1996. Stratigraphie, seédimentologie et évolution géodynamique de la plate-forme carbonatée du Crétacé supérieur du nord du basin d’Aquitaine. Géologie de la France 4: 33-58.

Platel, J.-P., Faugeras, P., Mauroux, B., Spencer, C., Charnet, F., Célerier, G., Harielle, B. and Jacquement, P. 1999. Notice explicative, Carte géologie France (1/50 000), feuille Thenon, Orléans, BRGM, 128 p.

Schumann, D. and Steuber, T. 1997. Rudisten. Erfolgreiche Siedler und Riffbauer der Kreidezeit. Städte unter Wasser-2 Milliarden Jahre.-Kleine Senckenberg-Reihe 24: 117-122.

Steuber, T., Mitchell, S.F., Buhl, D., Gunter, G. and Kasper, H. U. 2002. Catastrophic extinction of Caribbean rudist bivalves at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. Geology 30: 999-1002.

Unknown fossils for the Invertebrate Paleontology class at Wooster

September 1st, 2017

I start my Invertebrate Paleontology classes with an unknown fossil given to each student. I pick something I have enough examples of so that everyone gets the same species. As their first assignment, the students are asked to identify their fossils as specifically as possible using whatever method works, short of asking me or my teaching assistant. Once they’ve identified their specimens, they are then asked to provide an age and likely location of collection. The beautiful fossils above were the unknowns for this semester’s class. Do you know what they are?

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These are specimens of the trepostome bryozoan Prasopora falesi (James, 1884) from the Decorah Formation (Katian, Upper Ordovician) of Decorah, Iowa. They were collected by Rachel Wetzel (’17) as part of our Team Minnesota expedition in 2016. Four of my current students figured this out to the species level! Most knew we were in bryozoan territory.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Oysters from the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) of southwestern France

August 22nd, 2017

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week returns from its summer hiatus. It is appropriate, then, to feature as our first fossil of the new season an oyster species prominent in our summer research. This is Pycnodonte vesicularis (Lamarck, 1806), a very common fossil in the Cretaceous around the world. These particular specimens are from the Aubeterre Formation (Upper Campanian, Upper Cretaceous) exposed in the town of Archiac in southwestern France. They were collected by Macy Conrad (’18), Paul Taylor (Natural History Museum, London) and me during our June 2017 expedition. Above is the interior of a deeply concave left valve. The large spot near the middle is the single adductor muscle scar (thus the oyster, like all oysters, is monomyarian). It was a free-living oyster in soft, shallow platform marine sediments. This species has been used for all sorts of studies, from investigating paleoecology and evolution to paleoseasonality (see references below for a start).

This is the interior of the right valve, showing the corresponding muscle scar. The valves are very different in size and shape, so this oyster is termed inequivalved.The exterior of the right valve, with characteristic faint radiating ridges. The tag, by the way, indicates the locality. Every one of our hundreds of oysters is tagged in this way.Macy Conrad (’18) is seen here at the Archiac outcrop collecting specimens of Pycnodonte vesicularis.

A typical bed of P. vesicularis in the Upper Campanian of SW France. This one is exposed along the sea cliffs at Pointe de Suzac.

References:

Brezina, S.S., Romero, M.V., Casadío, S. and Bremec, C. 2014. Boring polychaetes associated with Pycnodonte (Phygraea) vesicularis (Lamarck) from the Upper Cretaceous of Patagonia. A case of commensalism? Ameghiniana 51129-140.

De Winter, N.J., Vellekoop, J., Vorsselmans, R., Golreihan, A., Petersen, S.V., Meyer, K.W., Speijer, R.P. and Claeys, P. 2017. Cretaceous honeycomb oysters (Pycnodonte vesicularis) as palaeoseasonality records: A multi-proxy study. EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts 19: 4359.

Lamarck, J.B. 1806. Suite des mémoires sur les fossiles des environs de Paris. Annales du Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle 7: 130-139.

Platel, J.-P. 1996. Stratigraphie, seédimentologie et évolution géodynamique de la plate-forme carbonatée du Crétacé supérieur du nord du basin d’Aquitaine. Géologie de la France 4: 33-58.

Videt, B. 2003. Dynamique des paléoenvironnements à huîtres du Crétacé supérieur nord-aquitain (SO France) et du Mio-Pliocène andalou (SE Espagne): biodiversité, analyse séquentielle, biogéochimie (Doctoral dissertation, Université Rennes 1).

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′

 

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