Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A brittle star trace fossil from the Jurassic of Utah

February 13th, 2011

This week we have a trace fossil that looks almost exactly like the animal that made it. A trace fossil is evidence of organism activity recorded in the rock record. The photograph above shows one of my favorite specimens: Asteriacites lumbricalis von Schlotheim 1820 from the Middle Jurassic (Bathonian) Carmel Formation in southwestern Utah. I collected it while doing fieldwork with Wooster student Steve Smail too long ago for either of us to mention.

This fossil was made when a brittle star (ophiuroid) burrowed into carbonate sediment to either hide from predators or to look for a bit of food. Brittle stars are echinoderms that appeared in the Ordovician and are still very much alive today (see below). This Jurassic trace was formed when a brittle star essentially vibrated its way down into the loose sediment in a manner many of their descendants do today. The result is what appears to be an impression of the body (an external mold) but is actually formed by action of the animal.

Green Brittle Star (Ophiarachna incrassata) courtesy of Neil at en.wikipedia.

The trace fossil Asteriacites is far more common in the rock record than the brittle stars and seastars that made it. These traces thus often indicate the occurrence of organisms in critical intervals where they would otherwise be unknown. For example, Asteriacites lumbricalis is found in Lower Triassic rocks showing that brittle stars were part of the recovery fauna after the Permo-Triassic Mass Extinction (see, for a Wooster example, Wilson & Rigby, 2000).

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A chewed-up leaf (Upper Cretaceous of Kansas)

February 6th, 2011

This week’s fossil is a departure from our usual set of marine invertebrate animals. Above is a leaf of Viburnum lesquereuxii from the Dakota Formation of Ellsworth County, Kansas. The rocks enclosing it are from the Upper Cretaceous Cenomanian Stage, roughly 93-99 million years old. The leaf is preserved as a carbonized film in excellent detail.

What is cool about this particular leaf is that it has damage from insects that fed on the softer tissues between the veins. These feeding trace fossils are distinguished by smooth edges around the circular holes where the plant grew to seal off the torn cells. The leaf-eating insects may have been beetles or some kind of caterpillars. Viburnum is a common and diverse group of plants today, and they still experience significant insect herbivory, as shown below.

Beetles chewing holes in a modern Viburnum (http://www.maine.gov/agriculture/pesticides/gotpests/bugs/vib-leaf-beetle.htm).

Viburnum is a flowering plant, an angiosperm. This group appeared in the earliest Cretaceous (about 140 million years ago) and started a rapid rise to dominance just about the time this fossil leaf and its insect pests were alive. This little ecological vignette gives us an insight into the early days of our modern flora.

Thoroughly bored at GSA: A Wooster Geologist Faculty Talk

October 31st, 2010

DENVER, COLORADO — How I very much enjoy those few minutes AFTER giving a presentation, especially a Geological Society of America talk. That sense of renewed life, the rush of completing a task which was months in preparation, and the step back into the inviting shadows of the lecture room. I’ll just repeat my first and last slides below, and then link to the abstract. You will, I hope, see the joke in my blog post title!

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