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

May 25th, 2014

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

May 18th, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 11th, 2014

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

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

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


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

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

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

Last work of Team Israel, Matmor Division

May 5th, 2014

Team Israel 050514WOOSTER, OHIO–Steph Bosch (’14) and Lizzie Reinthal (’14) volunteered to examine the Matmor Formation fossils I collected last month in Israel. Each fossil, most of which are crinoid ossicles, must be scanned under a microscope for tiny encrusters (especially bryozoans), borings, and bite marks. In the image above you can see the collection bags on the left and our three ‘scopes arranged so that we can exchange interesting bits that we find. I had planned to do this work all by my lonesome, and it would have taken a full day. With Steph and Lizzie, though, we were done in an hour and a half. No wonder — they’ve spent the last year doing this kind of analysis!

Israel specimens 050514And here are the results. Each paper tray has a particular category of fossil from a specific location. We found many little (and I mean little) treasures that my future students and I can now study. I’m grateful for the expert help.

Team Israel 2013 will be graduated a week from today. Congratulations to them!

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A scolecodont from the Upper Ordovician of the Cincinnati region

May 4th, 2014

Cincinnatian scolecodontThis tiny but fearsome jaw is known as a scolecodont, and they are fairly common in the Cincinnatian rocks (Upper Ordovician) in the tri-state area of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. The label on this particular specimen does not indicate the exact locality or stratigraphic unit, but it does give a taxonomic name: “Nereidavus varians Grinnell 1877″. More on that below.

Scolecodonts are the jaws of extinct polychaete annelid worms. They are known from the Cambrian right through the Recent, so we’re pretty sure what their functions were: grabbing prey and pulling it into the gullet of the worm. They are made of a very tough chitin (an organic material much like our fingernails) and survive well the vicissitudes of fossilization. I ran across them often when I studied conodonts, which they superficially resemble.

Polychaete mouthThe Telegraph, of all places, has some amazing SEM images of the scary end of living jawed polychaetes, one of which is shown above. (I think they colored it to look like it has blood on its teeth.) Our Ordovician jaw easily fits into this functional model.

For much more on scolecodonts, Olle Hints has a superb website devoted just to these critters, and Rich Fuchs has a very useful page on the Cincinnatian varieties.

Now as for the name of our specimen, it appears that the taxonomy of Ordovician scolecodonts is in a bit of disarray. Nereidavus Grinnell, 1877, is, according to Bergman (1991) and Eriksson (1999), a nomen dubium (dubious name) because the holotype (single primary type specimen) of the type species is lost. That specimen was from Cincinnatian strata, then referred to as “Lower Silurian”. The paratype (sort of a spare type specimen) is N. varians, the same name on the label of our specimen. Eriksson considered that species to be in the genus Ramphoprion Kielan-Jaworowska, 1962. A true diagnosis of our specimen would involve extracting it from the matrix and looking at it its dorsal (oral) surface, but that’s not going to happen. I’m plenty happy just leaving this fossil as Ramphoprion sp.

Kielan-JaworowskaThe paleontologist who named the scolecodont genus Ramphoprion is the famous and incredibly accomplished Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska (above). She is best known for her pioneering work on dinosaur-bearing deposits in Mongolia in the 1960s, but she has worked on many fossil groups from trilobites to mammals. Kielan-Jaworowska (born in 1925) received her Masters Degree in zoology and a doctorate in paleontology (aren’t many of those now) at Warsaw University. She became a professor there and was later the first woman to serve on the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences. I read her 1974 book Hunting for Dinosaurs in college as an adventure tale with a strong narrative framework of science. It was inspirational, and it convinced me that paleontology was the coolest science.


Bergman, C F. 1991. Revision of some Silurian paulinitid scolecodonts from western New York. Journal of Paleontology 65: 248–254.

Eriksson, M. 1999. Taxonomic discussion of the scolecodont genera Nereidavus Grinnell, 1877, and Protarabellites Stauffer, 1933 (Annelida: Polychaeta). Journal of Paleontology 73: 403-406.

Eriksson, M. and Bergman, C.F. 2003. Late Ordovician jawed polychaete faunas of the type Cincinnatian Region, U.S.A. Journal of Paleontology 77: 509-523.

Grinnell, G.B. 1877. Notice of a new genus of annelids from the Lower Silurian. American Journal of Science and Arts 14: 229–230.

Hints, O. and Eriksson, M.E. 2007. Diversification and biogeography of scolecodont-bearing polychaetes in the Ordovician. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 245: 95-114.

Kielan-Jaworowska, Z. 1962. New Ordovician genera of polychaete jaw apparatuses. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 7: 291-325.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A helpful echinoid from the Upper Cretaceous of Israel

April 27th, 2014

Echinoids a 042214These beaten-up fossils have served me well in the field this month. They are the regular echinoid Heterodiadema lybicum (Agassiz & Desor, 1846). They are common in the Cenomanian throughout northern Africa and the Middle East. These particular specimens, the other sides of which are shown below, are from the En Yorqe’am Formation we’ve been studying here on the rim of Makhtesh Ramon, southern Israel. When I find them in abundance I know I’m in the top half of that formation. They’ve previously been featured indirectly as a Fossil of the Week for the bites they made into the shells of oysters, producing the trace fossil Gnathichnus.
Echinoids b 042214The species Heterodiadema lybicum was named by Pierre Jean Édouard Desor (1811-1882) in 1846. We’ll meet him in a later entry. The genus Heterodiadema was erected in 1862 by Gustave Honoré Cotteau (1818-1894), who is pictured below. There is not much at all about Cotteau in the English literature, but with Google Translate I was able to sort out a bit of his story from the French. He was one of those glorious amateurs who make such important contributions to the science of paleontology. (I like the new term “citizen scientists” for this group, although I emphasize I’m a citizen too!) Cotteau was a judge in Auxerre, Burgundy, France. In his spare time he had a passion for living and fossil echinoids, eventually amassing a collection of over 500 species. He was also, as you might guess, a volunteer curator of the city museum in Auxerre. In 1889 he was President of the Société zoologique de France, a highly prestigious position. He was an important force in the early understanding of echinoderms.
Cotteau GustaveAgain, these specimen photos were taken under “field conditions” in Israel with a cleaner’s cloth for a background. As you read this, though, I am with luck back in my cozy home in Wooster.


Agassiz, L. and Desor, P.J.E. 1846. Catalogue raisonné des familles, des genres, et des espèces de la classe des échinodermes. Annales des Sciences Naturelles, Troisième Série, Zoologie 6: 305-374.

Geys, J.F. 1980. Heterodiadema libycum (Agassiz & Desor, 1846), a hemicidaroid echinoid from the Campanian of Belgium.  Anales de la Societe geologique du Nord 99: 449-451.

Smith, A.B., Simmons, M.D. and Racey, A. 1990. Cenomanian echinoids, larger foraminifera and calcareous algae from the Natih Formation, central Oman Mountains. Cretaceous Research 11: 29-69.

Among citizen scientists in southern Israel

April 24th, 2014

Zichor M2 M3 042414MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–Today Yoav Avni and I drove south to meet an enthusiastic group of naturalists in Arava of the Jordan Rift Valley. The group is led by Dr. Hanan Ginat and consisted of a micropaleontologist and three amateur collectors who have all added considerably to scientific knowledge. We did fieldwork together in the magnificent Menuha Formation (Upper Cretaceous). The outcrop above is the boundary between a middle unit of the Menuha (“M-2″) and the upper chalks (“M-3″) in Wadi Zichor.

Gidon and fossils 042414Here is Gidon and a fraction of his collection, which is mostly from the local Cretaceous. There were fossil types here I’ve never seen before. Like all good citizen scientists, he knows how to collect and observe with location and stratigraphic control, and he has learned an immense amount about fossils and the organisms they represent.

Winny home 042414We had tea in Winny’s desert house. The interior (and exterior) is dominated by delightful fossils (and many other objects). It is a classic desert-dweller’s home. The micropaleontologist Sarit is in the foreground. (I have only phonetic first names. I’ll collect last names later!)

Stratodus Winny 042414Winny collected this four-meter long Cretaceous fish named Stratodus. She must now be the world’s expert on its complex anatomy. It is just a taste of her other fossils, including a bryozoan-encrusted ammonite from the Ora Formation (Turonian) she freely and eagerly gave me for research.

Field party 042414The field party is here assembled to study a site where they helped find and excavate an Elasmosaurus plesiosaur — the first in Israel.

Menuha view 042414A view of the Menuha Formation in the Arava. This is an extraordinary outcrop, and you can tell by the minimal vegetation that this is the driest part of the Negev.

I very much enjoyed my time with this fun and dedicated crew. They reminded me so much of the naturalists I grew up with in my own desert home of Barstow, California. I made many connections here that will benefit future research programs and Independent Study projects for Wooster students. It was inspiring to see what joy these people have in pursuing their scientific passions, like all other citizen scientists I work with.

This was my last day of fieldwork on this expedition. Tomorrow the long trip home begins!

A 10K run into the Eocene of the Negev

April 20th, 2014

Horsha view 042014MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–Yoav and I had a long hike today into the Eocene succession of rock units in the northern Negev. We wanted to look especially at the Horsha Formation (Eocene, Lutetian) because it has some cool trace fossils and massively large oysters. Along the way there are also interesting features like submarine debris flows, thick chalk deposits, unconformities and faulting.

rainstorm 042014Despite the sunshine in the top image, we started the day with a thunderstorm at our back. It was the first time I’d heard thunder in Israel, and for awhile we contemplated in which rocky crevice we should take cover. (It’s not like we carry raingear with us here.) We did get rained upon, but not seriously.

Yoav and layer 042014Yoav is here looking at a thin limestone unit near the base of the Horsha Formation (at GPS 072; N 30.32537°, E 35.00653°). Note the sharp base and yellowish mineralization of the chalk.

Horsha traces 042014There are fantastic trace fossils in convex hyporelief on the base of this limestone layer.

Trace nummulitids 042014The small disks near this trace are nummulitid foraminifera. They are a major component of this limestone.

Horsha algae 042014There are also many broken bits of calcareous algae.

Giant oysters 042014These giant oysters are common in this unit. Some are bored, which you might be able to see in the specimen on the far left. We will return to this area tomorrow for continued exploration.

Negev Berry shrub large 042014On the long way back to the car we encountered this shrub. I wish I knew the name. Yoav said it was called “Bread of the Monks”, but that has led me nowhere. It may be Ochradenus baccatus, also known as sweet mignonette.

Negev Berry shrub close 042014I’m not one to eat wild plants I don’t know, but Yoav assured me the berries on this shrub were tasty. Indeed. Sweet like blueberries. Worth the risk!

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: A scleractinian coral and its tube-dwelling symbionts (Middle Jurassic of Israel)

April 20th, 2014

MatmorCoral010114aI have a weakness for the beautiful scleractinian corals of the Matmor Formation (Middle Jurassic, Callovian-Oxfordian) of southern Israel. This particular specimen is Microsolena aff. M. sadeki from locality C/W-367 in Hamakhtesh Hagadol, southern Israel. (The “aff.” in the name means “affinities with”. It is a way of saying this looks like a particular species, but we’re not quite sure.) This is a place we’ve now had ten Wooster Team Israel expeditions, the latest of which was last summer. The corals are a prominent part of the very diverse fossil fauna there. Note in the above side view of the specimen the star-shaped corallites (which held individual polyps) each with radiating septa. In the middle of the view you can see a narrow tube covered by coral skeleton. (More on this below.)
MatmorCoral010114bThis is a top view of the coral. It has a generally flat base and an upper surface with extended knobs. Usually this particular species is flat across the top as well as the base, giving it a platter shape as in this previous Fossil of the Week.
MatmorCoral010114cFlip the coral over and we see how it is preserved. The skeleton was originally made of the mineral aragonite, which dissolved after the death and burial of the colony. The resulting void was filled with stable calcite, preserving even fine details of the septa (see below). This delicate preservation, though, is only of the exterior of the skeleton. The interior is coarsely crystalline calcite with no trace of internal coral structures. This preservation, then, is properly called a cast, not true replacement.
MatmorCoral010114tubeThese scleractinian corals had many symbionts (organisms that lived with them). Among them were tube-dwelling worms, probably polychaetes, that spread across the surface. We know this happened while the coral was alive because, as seen above, the septa sometimes grew over the tubes. The tubes themselves are here preserved in three dimensions because they are originally calcitic and did not dissolve after death and burial.

We have much to learn about these gorgeous Jurassic fossil corals of Israel. They are virtually unstudied and offer a great opportunity for comparing them to the global Jurassic coral world.


Martin-Garin, B., Lathuilière, B. and Geister, J. 2012. The shifting biogeography of reef corals during the Oxfordian (Late Jurassic). A climatic control?. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 366: 136-153.

Pandey, D.K., Ahmad, F. and Fürsich, F.T. 2000. Middle Jurassic scleractinian corals from northwestern Jordan. Beringeria 27: 3-29.

Reolid, M., Molina, J.M., Löser, H., Navarro, V. and Ruiz-Ortiz, P.A. 2009. Coral biostromes of the Middle Jurassic from the Subbetic (Betic Cordillera, southern Spain): Facies, coral taxonomy, taphonomy, and palaeoecology. Facies 55: 575-593.

Wilson, M.A., Feldman, H.R., Bowen, J.C., and Avni, Y. 2008. A new equatorial, very shallow marine sclerozoan fauna from the Middle Jurassic (late Callovian) of southern Israel. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 263: 24-29.

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

Our camel friends in the Negev

April 18th, 2014

camel head 041814MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–It is a problematic relationship between camels and me. My first experience with a camel out here was watching one eat my lunch, bag and all, when I foolishly left it in the shade of the vehicle while I measured a section. My students and I have been dissuaded more than once from visiting a particular outcrop by aggressive, bellowing camels standing their ground and looked very, very big and toothy. I was thus a bit hesitant when Yoav just walked up to this beauty on our way to the center of Makhtesh Gadol. I followed and did just fine within touching distance. This is a female (hence the lack of attitude) and a pregnant one at that. She is part of a small herd owned by a Bedouin family that may or may not have an arrangement to graze animals in this nature reserve. She eased my camel anxieties.

camel bed fossils 041814After our encounter I realized that camels actually play a role in our work. This is one of our most productive fossils sites (“GPS 055″). It is an exposure of a marl in subunit 51 in the Matmor Formation. This is also a camel resting spot. They love the soft sediment, probably as a break from the rocky soil elsewhere. We thus find such dry camel wallows often in our explorations of the Matmor. By stirring up the marl, the camels unearth fossils that would otherwise lay hidden.

Random Echinoderm bits 041814Here is a random assortment of crinoid and echinoid bits found in this camel haven. If we ignore the poop and flies, and avoid the angry males, these camels have done us a scientific favor!

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