Mark Wilson August 5th, 2016
This week’s specimen comes from one of my favorite fossiliferous units: the Matmor Formation (Middle Jurassic, Callovian) of Makhtesh Gadol in southern Israel. I’ve been delighted by the fossils and lithologies of the Matmor since 2003. This particular fossil is exposed in a bedding plane of the very rich subunit 65, which I’ve mentioned before in this blog. It is a mytilid bivalve identified as Mytilus (Falcimytilus) jurensis It has the classic wing shape of its order.
M. jurensis is very common in the Matmor Formation, especially in the upper third where it can be seen protruding from limestones at a variety of angles. The species was widespread throughout the Tethys Ocean, now recorded by sediments in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions.
Mytilid bivalves are very common today as well, and they have the same life mode as they did at least 150 million years ago. They attach to hard substrates in shallow waters with strong fibers they secrete called byssal threads. Above we see our M. jurensis shell with several others clustered around a gastropod shell to which they were attached. The organic byssal threads are long gone, of course, but the shells remain in their living positions.
I like to use these Fossils of the Week to explore their taxonomic histories. The specimens, after all, are usually not exceptionally well preserved or rare, but they all have stories. Mytilus (Falcimytilus) jurensis proved to be a challenge when it came to identifying the author of the species.
First I went to the online catalogue of the Muséum National D’Histoire Naturelle in Paris — an excellent resource. There I found the above image and information. Someone named Roemer named the species in 1836. So who was this Roemer and what was the publication?
After considerable searching, I learned our taxonomist was Friedrich Adolph Roemer (1809-1869), a German geologist born in Hildesheim, part of the Kingdom of Westphalia. He had a younger brother, Carl Ferdinand von Roemer, who was also a geologist, creating some confusion.
Friedrich Roemer has an 1836 book (above) that roughly translates as The Fossils of the North German Oolitic Mountains, “oolitic” referring to a kind of limestone common in the European Jurassic; for awhile it was essentially synonymous with “Jurassic”.
On Plate IV, fig. 10, of this 1836 book is a pair of drawings of Mytilus jurensis. So far all is on track for sorting out the taxonomic history of the species.
Surprise! When we look at the description in the text on page 89, we see that Roemer gives an undated credit for the species to “Merain”. Who is Merain?
I thought I’d never find the identity of this “Merain”, but through the extraordinary resource of Google Books, I uncovered the earliest record of Mytilus jurensis. It is on page 13 of Thurmann (1833). Note that following the species (fourth line above) is “Mèr.” and then “n. sp.”, meaning “new species”. (I have no idea what the intervening “M. Bas.” indicates. [Update: See comment by Christopher Taylor below.]) There is no description of the species, and no illustration, but there’s the first mention of it.
So is “Mèr.” short for Roemer’s “Merain”? Turns out Roemer misspelled the last three letters — it is “Merian”.
Peter Merian (1795-1883) was a Swiss geologist and paleontologist who was born in Basel. He studied scientific topics at the University of Basel, the Academy of Geneva, and the University of Gottingen. After two years in Paris, Merian returned to Baasel and began to specialize in the geology and fossils of the Jura Mountains. He was appointed a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Basel, and later an honorary professor of geology and paleontology. He was also Director of the Natural History Museum in Basel. Along with his work on Triassic and Jurassic fossils, he also made contributions to glaciology and meteorology. Peter Merian died in Basel in 1883 after a long, notable career. He certainly looked the part of a dashing 19th Century Swiss geologist. Kevin McNally could play him in the movie! And now we know that he was the man who named Mytilus jurensis in 1833. Roemer (1836) was probably credited with the species at one point because he had the first description and figures. Merian, apparently, just provided the name in someone else’s book.
Here is an 1829 geological map by Peter Merian of a portion of the Jura Mountains, one of the first of the region.
Cox, L.R. 1937. Notes on Jurassic Lamelibranchia V. On a new subgenus of Mytilus and a new Mytilus-like genus. Journal of Molluscan Studies 22: 339-348.
Freneix, S. 1965 – Les Bivalves du Jurassique moyen et supérieur du Sahara tunisien (Arcacea, Pteriacea, Pectinacea, Ostreacea, Mytilacea). Annales de Paléontologie, t. 51, vol. 1, p. 51-113.
Liu, C. 1995. Jurassic bivalve palaeobiogeography of the Proto-Atlantic and application of multivariate analysis method to palaeobiogeography. Beringeria 16: 31123.
Liu, C., Heinze, M. and Fürsich, F.T. 1998. Bivalve provinces in the Proto-Atlantic and along the southern margin of the Tethys in the Jurassic. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 137: 127-151.
Merian, P. 1829. Geognostischer Durchschnitt durch das Jura-Gebirge von Basel bis Kestenholz bey Aarwangen, mit Bemerkungen über den Schichtenbau des Jura im Allgemeinen. Zürich.
Roemer, F.A. 1836. Die Versteinerungen des Nordeutschen Oolithen-Gebirges. Hahn. 218 pages.
Thurmann, J. 1833. Essai sur les soulèvemens Jurassiques du Porrentruy, avec une description géognostique des terrains secondaires de ce pays, et des considérations générales sur les chaines du Jura. Mém. Soc. Hist. Nat. Strasbourg 1: l-84.