Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: a cameloid footprint (Miocene of California)

August 19th, 2012

This fossil is from near my hometown of Barstow, California. It was collected many years ago loose in talus from the Barstow Formation (Barstovian, Miocene). I note this carefully because today collecting such specimens from the Fossil Beds of the Rainbow Basin Natural Area is illegal, as it should be. This is one of the most fossiliferous Miocene deposits in the world, and it has been heavily vandalized over the years.
The Barstow Formation (in a wonderful syncline) at Rainbow Basin, Mojave Desert, California.

This two-toed footprint is Lamaichnum alfi Sarjeant and Reynolds, 1999. It is preserved as a convex hyporelief, which is essentially a filling of the actual footprint. It was made by a camel-like animal (there are many choices) that walked through stiff volcanic mud along a stream during the Miocene. The impression of this foot was quickly filled with later sediment, probably from an overbank flood.

When I was a kid we found dozens of these footprints in long trackways throughout the Barstow Formation at the Fossil Beds. Those fossils are all gone now, most lost to collectors with rock saws and sledge hammers. Fortunately many have been lovingly preserved in the Raymond M. Alf Museum in Claremont, California. You will note that the ichnospecies of our fossil was named for the charismatic Raymond Alf, a legend in the study of vertebrate trace fossils and a spectacular teacher.


Sarjeant, W.A.S. and Reynolds, R.E. 1999. Camelid and horse footprints
from the Miocene of California and Nevada. San Bernardino Museum
Association Quarterly 46: 3-20.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: dinosaur gastroliths (Jurassic of Utah, USA)

June 10th, 2012

These rounded stones are labeled in our collections as gastroliths (literally “stomach stones”) from Starr Springs near Hanksville, Wayne County, Utah. I’m featuring them this week in honor of our Utah Project team working right now in the baking Black Rock Desert near Fillmore, Utah.

From their reported location, these stones are likely out of the Summerville Formation (Middle-Upper Jurassic) and, in another plausible supposition, probably from some sort of dinosaur. Sometimes we just have to trust the labels on our specimens, at least for educational purposes!

My friend Tony Martin recently wrote an excellent blog post on gastroliths, so I won’t repeat his insights here. The general wisdom is that these stones were consumed by herbivorous dinosaurs to aid in their digestion. They would have lodged them in the equivalent of a gizzard and used them to grind their food, much like modern birds. (And yes, dinosaurs were birds themselves.) Gastroliths usually have a resistant lithology to be useful as grinders. The gastroliths above are chert, one of the hardest rock types.

Identifying gastroliths correctly is a bit of a challenge if you don’t find them inside a dinosaur skeleton. The most common indicators are that they are very smooth, are in a location where they were unlikely to have been transported inorganically, and are of a lithology unlike the surrounding rock (“exotics” as geologists like to call them). Still, even with all these criteria met, we must be a tad suspicious if we didn’t find them associated with dinosaur bones. I would never, for example, buy a gastrolith in a rock shop. Without context, it could be just a stream-worn stone. I’m trusting the label on ours that we have the real deal!


Stokes, W.L. 1987. Dinosaur gastroliths revisited. Journal of Paleontology 61: 1242-1246.

Wings, O. 2007. A review of gastrolith function with implications for fossil vertebrates and a revised classification. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 52: 1-16.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: a trilobite burrow (Upper Ordovician of Ohio)

May 27th, 2012

This is one of my favorite trace fossils. Rusophycus pudicum Hall, 1852, is its formal name. It was made by a trilobite digging down into the seafloor sediment back during the Ordovician Period in what is now southern Ohio. It may have been hiding from a passing predator (maybe a eurypterid!), just taking a “rest” (what I learned in college), or maybe looking for worms to eat. (There is another example on this blog from the Cambrian of western Canada.)

Rusophycus is always the first trace fossil I introduce in the Invertebrate Paleontology course because it is simple in form and complex in interpretation. It shows that a relatively straightforward process (digging down with its two rows of legs) can have had several motivations. Rusophycus even shows that more than one kind of organism can make the same type of trace. Rusophycus is also found in the Triassic, long after trilobites went extinct. (These were likely made by horseshoe crabs.) It is also good for explaining the preservation of trace fossils. The specimen above is “convex hyporelief”, meaning it is on the bottom of the sedimentary bed and convex (sticking out rather than in). This is thus sediment that filled the open trilobite excavation.

Trilobites making Rusophycus (from http://www.geodz.com/deu/d/Trilobita).

James Hall (1811–1898) named Rusophycus pudicum in 1852. The image of him above is from shortly before his death (photograph credit: The American Monthly Review of Reviews, v. 18, 1898, by Albert Shaw). He was a legendary geologist, and the most prominent paleontologist of his time. He became the first state paleontologist of New York in 1841, and in 1893 he was appointed the New York state geologist. His most impressive legacy is the large number of fossil taxa he named and described, most in his Palaeontology of New York series.

James Hall is in my academic heritage. His advisor was Amos Eaton (1776-1842), a self-educated geologist (he learned it by reading in prison!). One of James Hall’s students was Charles Schuchert (1856-1942), a prominent invertebrate paleontologist. Schuchert had a student named Carl Owen Dunbar (1891-1979) — Schuchert and Dunbar were coauthors of a famous geology textbook. Dunbar had a student at Yale named William B.N. Berry (1931-2011), my doctoral advisor. Thus I feel an intellectual link to old man Hall above.


Baldwin, C.T. 1977. Rusophycus morgati: an asaphid produced trace fossil from the Cambro-Ordovician of Brittany and Northwest Spain. Palaeontology 51: 411–425.

Donovan, S.K. 2010. Cruziana and Rusophycus: trace fossils produced by trilobites … in some cases? Lethaia 43: 283–284.

Hall, J., Simpson, G.B. and Clarke, J.M. 1852. Palaeontology of New York: Organic remains of the Lower Middle Division of the New-York System. C. Van Benthuysen, New York, 792 pages.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Intricate networks of tiny holes (clionaid sponge borings)

May 13th, 2012

The most effective agents of marine bioerosion today are among the simplest of animals: clionaid sponges. The traces they make in carbonate substrates are spherical chambers connected by short tunnels, as shown above in a modern example excavated in an oyster shell. The ichnogenus thus created is known as Entobia Bronn, 1838. I’ve become quite familiar with Entobia throughout its range from the Jurassic through the Recent (with an interesting early appearance in the Devonian; see Tapanila, 2006).
The holes in this Cretaceous oyster are the sponge boring Entobia; the cyclostome bryozoan is Voigtopora. This specimen is from the Coon Creek Beds of the Ripley Formation (Upper Cretaceous) near Blue Springs, Mississippi. (This specimen was collected during a 2010 Wooster/Natural History Museum expedition to the Cretaceous and Paleogene of the Deep South.)
This is a modern clam shell showing Entobia and several other hard substrate dwelling organisms (sclerobionts).
Entobia was named and first described by Heinrich Georg Bronn (1800-1862), a German geologist and paleontologist. He had a doctoral degree from the University of Heidelberg, where he then taught as a professor of natural history until his death. He was a visionary scientist who had some interesting pre-Darwinian ideas about life’s history.


Bromley, R.G. 1970. Borings as trace fossils and Entobia cretacea Portlock, as an example. Geological Journal, Special Issue 3: 49–90.

Bronn, H.G. 1834-1838. Letkaea Geognostica (2 vols., Stuttgart).

Tapanila, L. 2006. Devonian Entobia borings from Nevada, with a revision of Topsentopsis. Journal of Paleontology 80: 760–767.

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

Wilson, M.A. 2007. Macroborings and the evolution of bioerosion, p. 356-367. In: Miller, W. III (ed.), Trace Fossils: Concepts, Problems, Prospects. Elsevier, Amsterdam, 611 pages.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: the classic bioclaustration (Upper Ordovician of Ohio)

April 29th, 2012

We’re looking at two fossils above. One is the bryozoan Peronopora, the major skeletal structure. The second is the odd series of scalloped holes in its surface. These are a trace fossil called Catellocaula vallata Palmer and Wilson 1988. They at first appear to be borings cut into the bryozoan colony. Instead they are holes formed by the intergrowth of a soft-bodied parasite with the living bryozoan colony. This type of trace fossil is called a bioclaustration. We gave it the Latin name for “little chain of walled pits”.

My good friend Tim Palmer and I found this specimen and many others in 1987 as we explored the Upper Ordovician Kope Formation in the Cincinnati region. We were collecting bioeroded substrates like hardgrounds and shells, and these features were clearly different from the usual borings. They do not actually cut the bryozoan skeleton, for one thing. For another it is apparent that the bryozoan growth was deflected around whatever sat in those spaces. Tim and I called this kind of interaction “bioclaustration”, meaning “biologically walled -up”.
Catellocaula vallata on the Upper Ordovician bryozoan Amplexopora. Note that the scalloped holes have more lobes than those seen in the lead image. This may mean it was a different species of infesting soft-bodied organism.

The infesting parasite on the bryozoan colony was itself colonial, consisting of small clusters connected by extended stolons. The bryozoan grew around the parasite, roofing over the stolons and making walls on the margins of the clusters. We think the parasite was a soft-bodied ascidian tunicate like the modern Botryllus. If true, it is the earliest fossil tunicate known.

This closer view of C. vallata shows the scalloped margins of the pits and the horizontal connections between them.

Another specimen of C. vallata. This view shows the flat floors of the bioclaustration features.

Acetate peels cut longitudinally through the bryozoan and bioclaustrations. On the left you can see that the bryozoan zooecia (long tubes) were deflected sideways as they grew. On the right is a tunnel connecting two pits, with bryozoan zooids forming the roof. (From Palmer and Wilson, 1988.)


Bromley, R.G., Beuck, L. and Taddei Ruggiero, E. 2008. Endolithic sponge versus terebratulid brachiopod, Pleistocene, Italy: accidental symbiosis, bioclaustration and deformity. Current Developments in Bioerosion, Erlangen Earth Conference Series, 2008, III, 361-368.

Palmer, T.J. and Wilson, M.A. 1988. Parasitism of Ordovician bryozoans and the origin of pseudoborings. Palaeontology 31: 939-949.

Tapanila, L. 2006. Macroborings and bioclaustrations in a Late Devonian reef above the Alamo Impact Breccia, Nevada, USA. Ichnos 13: 129-134.

Taylor, P.D. and Voigt, E. 2006. Symbiont bioclaustrations in Cretaceous cyclostome bryozoans. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 257: 131-136.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: a nestling bivalve (Pleistocene of The Bahamas)

April 22nd, 2012

This weathered and encrusted shell was pulled from a round hole bored in a Pleistocene reef (about 125,000 years old) exposed on San Salvador Island, The Bahamas. It is Coralliophaga coralliophaga (Gmelin 1791), a derived venerid bivalve (a type of heterodont, meaning that it has cardinal and lateral articulating teeth inside its valves.) I collected it back in 1991 while studying an inter-reef unconformity that recorded a drop and rise of sea level (Wilson et al., 1998; Thompson et al., 2011).

Coralliophaga means “coral eater”, which is a bit of a bum rap for this clam. It is found inside borings in coral, true enough, but those holes were drilled by some other types of clams. C. coralliophaga only occupies the holes after the original dweller is dead and gone (Morton, 1980). We call this kind of behavior “nestling“, which seems a polite way of saying “squatting”. These bivalves grew to adulthood in these cavities protected from most predators as they filtered the seawater for food.
The trace fossil Gastrochaenolites torpedo (the elongate borings) with a nestling (and broken) C. coralliophaga in the lower right corner.

The posterior ends of these shells are encrusted by a variety of calcareous algae and other organisms during life, so they look a bit rough on their outsides. Often the encrustations are so thick that the shells are difficult to extract from the holes, so getting a nice complete shell like the one at the top of this entry is rare.
C. coralliophaga was named by Johann Friedrich Gmelin (1748–1804) in 1791. Gmelin was an accomplished naturalist from Tübingen, Germany. He received an MD degree in 1769, with his father (Philipp Gmelin) as his advisor. He taught at Tübingen and the University of Göttingen, writing many textbooks in fields from chemistry through botany. He published the 13th edition of Systema Naturae by Carolus Linnaeus, inserting his new taxa in the text, including our new friend Coralliophaga coralliophaga.


Gmelin, J.F. 1791, in Linnaeus, C. Systema Naturae per Regna Tria Naturae, Secundum Classes, Ordines, Genera, Species, cum Characteribus, Differentiis, Synonymis, Locis. 13th Edition, Lyon : J.B. Delamolliere Tom.

Morton, B. 1980. Some aspects of the biology and functional morphology of Coralliophaga (Coralliophaga) coralliophaga (Gmelin, 1791) (Bivalvia: Arcticacea): a coral-associated nestler in Hong Kong. pp. 311-330, in: Morton, B., The Malacofauna of Hong Kong and southern China. Proceedings of the First International Workshop on the Malacofauna of Hong Kong and Southern China, Hong Kong, 1977. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Thompson, W.G., Curran, H.A., Wilson, M.A. and White, B. 2011. Sea-level oscillations during the Last Interglacial highstand recorded by Bahamas corals. Nature Geoscience 4: 684–687.

Wilson, M.A., Curran, H.A. and White, B. 1998. Paleontological evidence of a brief global sea-level event during the last interglacial. Lethaia 31: 241-250.

A Drool-Worthy College Museum

April 11th, 2012

AMHERST, MA – Last weekend, some Wooster Geologists attended the Keck Symposium at Amherst College and were awed by their geology museum. The Beneski Museum of Natural History  is housed in a modern building and covers three floors, displaying over 1,700 specimens. The museum hosts the Hitchcock Ichnology collection, the world’s largest collection of dinosaur footprints. Other highlights include the wall of mammals, an impressive mineral collection, and exquisite table tops of polished stone. Here are a few photos that might just make your jaw drop.

A large mastodon and other mammals greet visitors as they enter the museum.

The Hitchcock Ichnology Collection is the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world.

Casts of dinosaur footprints featured on the Hitchcock Collection webpage.

Was the dinosaur running or walking to make these tracks?

A large mold.

The cast that fits into the mold above.

Fossilized mudcracks, viewed from below.

Fossilized raindrops.

The petrified trunk of an ancient tree.

Want to keep a geologist busy for hours? Give her a countertop that looks like this.



Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: An asteroid trace fossil from the Devonian of northeastern Ohio

February 12th, 2012

It is pretty obvious what made this excellent trace fossil: an asteroid echinoderm. (The term “asteroid” sounds odd here, but it is the technical term for a typical sea star.) The above is Asteriacites stelliformis Osgood, 1970, from the Chagrin Shale (Upper Devonian) of northeastern Ohio.

We can tell that it was made by a sea star burrowing straight down into the sediment because it has faint chevron-shaped marks in the rays made by tube feet as they moved sediment aside. The mounds of excavated sediment can be seen between the rays at their bases. This tells us that we are not looking at an external mold of a dead sea star, but instead its living activity. This is what a trace fossil is all about.

A living asteroid from the shallow sea off Long Island, The Bahamas. (The hand belongs to my son, Ted Wilson.)

The ichnogenus Asteriacites was named by von Schlotheim in 1820. We profiled him earlier with the genus Cornulites. The author of Asteriacites stelliformis was Richard G. Osgood, Jr., my undergraduate advisor and predecessor paleontologist at The College of Wooster.
Richard Osgood, Jr., was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1936. He went to Princeton for his undergraduate degree (I still remember his huge Princeton ring) and received his Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. He worked for Shell Oil Company in Houston just prior to joining the Wooster faculty in 1967. He was one of the pioneers of modern ichnology (the study of trace fossils), naming numerous new ichnotaxa and providing ingenious interpretations of them. At least one trace fossil was named after him: Rusophycus osgoodii Christopher, Stanley and Pickerill, 1998. Dr. Osgood died in 1981 in Wooster. He was an inspiration to me and many other Wooster geology students during his productive career, which was all too short.


Osgood, R.G., Jr. 1970. Trace fossils of the Cincinnati area. Palaeontographica Americana 6: 281-444.

Schlotheim, E.F. von. 1820. Die Petrfactendunde auf ihrem jetzigen Standpunkte durch die Beshreibung seiner Sammlung versteinerter und fossiler Überreste des Thier- und Pflanzernreichs der Vorwelt erläutert 1-457.

Stanley, D.C.A. and Pickerill, R.K. 1998. Systematic ichnology of the Late Ordovician Georgian Bay Formation of southern Ontario, eastern Canada. Royal Ontario Museum Life Sciences Contribution 162, 56 pp., 13 pl. Toronto.

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

January 29th, 2012

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.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Sponge and clam borings that revealed an ancient climate event (Upper Pleistocene of The Bahamas)

September 11th, 2011

This week’s fossils celebrate the publication today of a paper in Nature Geoscience that has been 20 years in the making. The title is: “Sea-level oscillations during the Last Interglacial highstand recorded by Bahamas coral”, and the senior author is the geochronological wizard Bill Thompson (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution). The junior authors are my Smith College geologist friends Al Curran and Brian White and me.

The paper’s thesis is best told with an explanation of this 2006 image:
This photograph was taken on the island of Great Inagua along the coast. The flat dark surface in the foreground is the top of a fossil coral reef (“Reef I”) formed during the Last Interglacial (LIG) about 123,000 years ago. It was eroded down to this flat surface when sea-level dropped, exposing the reef to waves and eventually terrestrial weathering. The student sitting on this surface is Emily Ann Griffin (’07), one of three I.S. students who helped with parts of this project. (The others were Allison Cornett (’00) and Ann Steward (’07).) Behind Emily Ann is a coral accumulation of a reef (“Reef II”) that grew on the eroded surface after sea-level rose again about 119,000 years ago. These two reefs show, then, that sea-level dropped for about 4000 years, eroding the first reef, and then rose again to its previous level, allowing the second reef to grow. (You can see an unlabeled version of the photograph here.) The photograph at the top of this post is a small version of the same surface.

The significance of this set of reefs is that the erosion surface separating them can be seen throughout the world as evidence of a rapid global sea-level event during the Last Interglacial. Because the LIG had warm climatic conditions similar to what we will likely experience in the near future, it is crucial to know how something as important as sea-level may respond. The only way sea-level can fluctuate like this is if glacial ice volume changes, meaning there must have been an interval of global cooling (producing greater glacial ice volume) that lowered sea-level about 123,000 years ago, and then global warming (melting the ice) that raised it again within 4000 years. As we write in the paper, “This is of great scientific and societal interest because the LIG has often been cited as an analogue for future sea-level change. Estimates of LIG sea-level change, which took place in a world warmer than that of today, are crucial for estimates of future rates of rise under IPCC warming scenarios.” With our evidence we can show a magnitude and timing of an ancient sea-level fluctuation due to climate change.

Much of the paper concerns the dating techniques and issues (which is why Bill Thompson, the essential geochronologist, is the primary author). It is the dating of the corals that makes the story globally useful and significant. Here, though, I want to tell how the surface was discovered in the first place. It is a paleontological tale.

In the summer of 1991 I worked with Al Curran and Brian White on San Salvador Island in The Bahamas. They were concentrating on watery tasks that involved scuba diving, boats and the like, while I stayed on dry land (my preferred environment by far). I explored a famous fossil coral exposure called the Cockburntown Reef (Upper Pleistocene, Eemian) that Brian and Al had carefully mapped out over the past decade. The Bahamian government had recently authorized a new harbor on that part of the coastline and a large section of the fossil reef was dynamited away. The Cockburntown Reef now had a very fresh exposure in the new excavation quite different from the blackened part of the old reef we were used to. Immediately visible was a horizontal surface running through the reef marked by large clam borings called Gastrochaenolites (see below) and small borings (Entobia) made by clionaid sponges (see the image at the top of this post).
Inside the borings were long narrow bivalve shells belonging to the species Coralliophaga coralliophaga (which means “coral eater”; see below) and remnants of an ancient terrestrial soil (a paleosol). This surface was clearly a wave-cut platform later buried under a tropical soil.

My colleagues and I could trace this surface into the old, undynamited part of the Cockburntown Reef, then to other Eemian reefs on San Salvador, and then to other Bahamian islands like Great Inagua in the far south. Eventually this proved to be a global erosion surface described or at least mentioned in many papers, but its significance as an indicator of rapid eustatic sea-level fall and rise was heretofore unrecognized. Finally getting uranium-thorium radioactive dates on the corals above and below the erosion surface placed this surface in a time framework and ultimately as part of the history of global climate change.

This project began 20 years ago with the discovery of small holes left in an eroded surface by humble sponges and clams. Another example of the practical value of paleontology.


Thompson, W.G., Curran, H.A., Wilson, M.A. and White, B. 2011. Sea-level oscillations during the Last Interglacial highstand recorded by Bahamas coral. Nature Geoscience (DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1253).

White, B.H., Curran, H.A. and Wilson, M.A. 1998. Bahamian coral reefs yield evidence of a brief sea-level lowstand during the last interglacial. Carbonates and Evaporites 13: 10-22.

Wilson, M.A., Curran, H.A. and White, B. 1998. Paleontological evidence of a brief global sea-level event during the last interglacial. Lethaia 31: 241-250.

« Prev - Next »