Five-Year Anniversary Edition of Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A tabulate coral from the Devonian of northwestern Ohio

January 1st, 2016

AuloporaDevonianSilicaShale010211This post of Wooster’s Fossil of the Week marks five years of this feature. If you’re counting, that is 260 entries, with never a week missed. To celebrate, I’m returning to the very first fossil in the series, a beautiful encrusting tabulate coral. The original entry is below, with some updates and added links.

This week’s fossil was collected by Brian Bade of Sullivan, Ohio, and donated to Wooster as part of my hederelloid project.  It is a beautiful specimen of the tabulate coral Aulopora encrusting a brachiopod valve from the Silica Shale (Middle Devonian — about 390 million years old) of northwestern Ohio.  [Update: I now know the species is A. microbuccinata Watkins, 1959.] Auloporid corals are characterized by an encrusting habit, a bifurcating growth pattern, and horn-shaped corallites (individual skeletal containers for the polyps).

What is especially nice about this specimen is that we are looking at a well preserved colony origin.  The corallite marked with the yellow “P” is the protocorallite — the first corallite from which all the others are derived.  You can see that two corallites bud out from the protocorallite 180° from each other.  These two corallites in turn each bud two corallites, but at about 160°.  This pattern continues as the colony develops (a process called astogeny).  The angles of budding begin to vary depending on local obstacles; they never again go below 160°.

The polyps inside the corallites are presumed to have been like other colonial coral polyps.  Each would have had tentacles surrounding a central opening, and all were connecting by soft tissue within the skeleton.  They likely fed on zooplankton in the surrounding seawater.  This type of coral went extinct in the Permian, roughly 260 million years ago.

Again, we thank our amateur geologist friends for such useful donations to the research and educational collections in the Geology Department at Wooster.

Later I began to add information about a notable paleontologist associated with the highlighted fossil. I especially wanted to put a face and brief biography with a name we may often see in our taxonomic pursuits but know little about. We can now add this German gentleman from a previous entry —
August_Goldfuss_1841Aulopora was first described in 1826 by Georg August Goldfuss (1782-1848), a German paleontologist and zoologist. (Goldfuß is the proper spelling, if I can use that fancy Germanic letter.) He earned a PhD from Erlangen in 1804 and later in 1818 assumed a position teaching zoology at the University of Bonn. With Count Georg zu Münster, he wrote Petrefacta Germaniae, an ambitious attempt to catalog all the invertebrate fossils of Germany (but only got through some of the mollusks). The 1841 portrait above is by Adolf Hohneck (1812-1879).

Since the first few entries I began to add a few critical references for the fossils and related stratigraphy. At first these were for me so that I could remember where I got the information used in the text. Later I noted that students and others were finding these entries online and using them as brief introductions to particular taxa. A few references made each entry a starting point for someone else’s paleontological explorations. Here are some added citations for Aulopora

References:

Fenton, M.A. 1937. Species of Aulopora from the Traverse and Hamilton Groups. American Midland Naturalist 18: 115-119.

Fenton, M.A. and Fenton, C.L. 1937. Aulopora: a form-genus of tabulate corals and bryozoans. American Midland Naturalist 18: 109-115.

Goldfuß, G.A. 1826-1844. Petrefacta Germaniae. Tam ea, quae in museo universitatis Regia Borussicae Fridericiae Wilhelmiae Rhenanae servantur, quam alia quaecunque in museis Hoeninghusiano Muensteriano aliisque extant, iconibus et descriptionibus illustrata = Abbildungen und Beschreibungen der Petrefacten Deutschlands und der angränzenden Länder, unter Mitwirkung von Georg Graf zu Münster, Düsseldorf.

Helm, C. 1999. Astogenese von Aulopora cf. enodis Klaamann 1966 (Visby-Mergel, Silur von Gotland). Paläontologische Zeitschrift 73 (3/4): 241–246. [Courtesy of Paul Taylor]

Scrutton, C.T. 1990. Ontogeny and astogeny in Aulopora and its significance, illustrated by a new non‐encrusting species from the Devonian of southwest England. Lethaia 23: 61-75.

Watkins, J.L. 1959. Middle Devonian auloporid corals from the Traverse Group of Michigan. Journal of Paleontology 33: 793-808.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: Tiny atrypid brachiopods from the Upper Ordovician of southern Ohio

December 25th, 2015

Zygospira modesta Waynesville 585These exquisite little brachiopods are among the most abundant fossils in the Upper Ordovician of the Cincinnati area. My Invertebrate Paleontology students collected dozens of them from the Waynesville Formation on our field trip to Caesar Creek Lake last semester. Their ubiquity, though, doesn’t make them any less precious.
Zygospira modesta dorsalThis is Zygospira modesta (Say in Hall, 1847). Above is a dorsal valve view of a single specimen. At the apex you can see a tiny round hole from which a fleshy pedicle extended to attach the brachiopod to a hard substrate.
Zygospira modesta ventralHere is the ventral valve view. Zygospira is an atrypid brachiopod, meaning that its internal support (brachidium) for the filter-feeding lophophore is looped in a characteristic way, shown below.
Hall diagram ZygospiraThe diagrams above are from Hall (1867) who named the genus Zygospira and wished to further distinguish it from other atrypid brachiopods.

The taxonomy of Zygospira modesta is a bit messy, as many early 19th Century species descriptions tended to be. It was apparently first named Producta modesta by Thomas Say (see below) but not actually published as such. James Hall described it as Atrypa modesta in 1847. Later in 1862 he named Zygospira as a new genus, making Z. modesta its type species but not indicating a type locality.
Thomas_Say_1818We met Thomas Say (1787-1834) earlier in this blog, recognizing him as the scientist who named Exogyra costata in 1820. He is shown above in an 1818 portrait. Say was a brilliant American natural historian. Among his many accomplishments in his short career, he helped found the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812, the oldest natural science research institution and museum in the New World. He is best known for his descriptive entomology in the new United States, becoming one of the country’s best known taxonomists. He was the zoologist on two famous expeditions led by Major Stephen Harriman Long. The first, in 1819-1820, was to the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains; the other (in 1823) was to the headwaters of the Mississippi. Along with his passion for insects, Say also studied mollusk shells, both recent and fossil. He was a bit of an ascetic, moving to the utopian socialist New Harmony Settlement in Indiana for the last eight years of his life. It is said his simple habits and refusal to earn money caused problems for his family. Say succumbed to what appeared to by typhoid fever when he was just 47.

References:

Copper, P. 1977. Zygospira and some related Ordovician and Silurian atrypoid brachiopods. Palaeontology 20: 295-335.

Hall, J. 1862. Observations upon a new genus of Brachiopoda. Report New York State Museum, Natural History 15: 154-155.

Hall, J. 1867. Note upon the genus Zygospira and its relations to Atrypa. Report New York State Museum, Natural History 20: 267-268.

Sandy, M.R. 1996. Oldest record of peduncular attachment of brachiopods to crinoid stems, Upper Ordovician, Ohio, USA (Brachiopoda; Atrypida: Echinodermata; Crinoidea). Journal of Paleontology 70: 532-534.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A tabulate coral from the Upper Ordovician of southern Ohio

December 18th, 2015

Calapoecia huronensis Billings, 1865 top 585We have here another fossil collected by a Wooster student on the August 2015 College of Wooster Invertebrate Paleontology field trip to Caesar Creek Lake, Ohio. Eduardo Luna picked up this specimen of the tabulate coral Calapoecia huronensis (Billings, 1865) from the Waynesville Formation (Upper Ordovician). For some reason in all my years of working in the Upper Ordovician, I’ve not come across this coral species before. Eduardo had sharp eyes as you can see it is rather small. The circular tubes are corallites, each of which held a coral polyp in life. This particular coral is distinctive for its septal spines along the inside rim of each corallite, giving them a beaded appearance.

Calapoecia huronensis Billings, 1865 bottom 585This is the underside of Eduardo’s coral. The corallites on the left side are eroded, showing the elongated septal spines that run lengthwise down their inside walls.

CNSPhoto-GEOLOGISTWe met the author of C. huronensis, Elkanah Billings (1820-1876), earlier this year, but why not show the handsome Canadian again? He originally described this coral species in 1865. He was Canada’s first government paleontologist, and he very much looked the part. Billings was born on a farm near Ottawa. He went to law school and became a lawyer in 1845, but he gave up stodgy law books for the bracing life of a field paleontologist. In 1856, Billings joined the Geological Survey of Canada, eventually naming over a thousand new species in his career. The Billings Medal is given annually by the Geological Association of Canada to the most outstanding of its paleontologists.

References:

Billings, E. 1865. Notice of some new genera and species of Palaeozoic fossils. Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, New Series 2: 432–452.

Browne, R.G. 1965. Some Upper Cincinnatian (Ordovician) colonial corals of north-central Kentucky. Journal of Paleontology 39: 1177-1191.

Cox, I. 1936. Revision of the genus Calapoecia Billings. Bulletin of the National Museum of Canada 80: 1–48.

Jull, R.K. 1976. Review of some species of Favistina, Nyctopora, and Calapoecia (Ordovician corals from North America). Geological Magazine 113: 457-467.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A common trilobite from the Upper Ordovician of Ohio

December 11th, 2015

Flexicalymene meeki cephalon view 585This beautiful specimen was collected by Wooster student Eve Caudill on this year’s College of Wooster Invertebrate Paleontology field trip to Caesar Creek Lake, Ohio. It is the iconic trilobite Flexicalymene meeki (Foerste, 1910) from a soft, “buttery” shale in the Waynesville Formation (Upper Ordovician). This is one of the most common trilobite species in the world, and it has been photographed thousands of times, so I posed it at an unconventional, rakish angle. We are looking here at the cephalon (head) of the animal. I like the way the remnants of the enclosing sedimentary matrix cling to the low places, highlighting the bumps and ridges. The center of the cephalon shows the distinctive glabella with its side lobes. The stomach of the trilobite was housed underneath it. The two eyes are visible on either side of the glabella, the one on the right split by the slightly-open facial suture used for dividing its exoskeleton during molting (ecdysis).

Flexicalymene meeki pygidium view 585This is a view of the pygidium (tail end) of the same Flexicalymene meeki specimen. It is tucked under the leading edge of the cephalon in the classic enrollment position. Trilobites likely enrolled for several reasons, but the primary one was almost certainly to affect a pill-bug-like defense against predators.

Flexicalymene meeki side view 585This is a side view of the enrolled trilobite. The articulated segments between the cephalon and pygidium constitute the thorax.foerste-1936We met the author of Flexicalymene meeki four years ago in this blog, so let’s visit him again. August F. Foerste (1862-1936) was one of the pioneers of Cincinnatian paleontology and stratigraphy. He grew up and worked in the Dayton, Ohio, area. Foerste went to Denison University where he was a very successful undergraduate, publishing several geological papers. He returned to Dayton after graduation with a PhD from Harvard, teaching high school for 38 years. When he retired he was offered a teaching position at the University of Chicago, but instead went to work at the Smithsonian Institution until the end of his life.

A final note from the Invertebrate Paleontology class this year: We were greatly assisted by two fantastic paleontological websites, one by Alycia Stigall at Ohio University called The Digital Atlas of Ordovician Life, and the other by Steve Holland at the University of Georgia titled The Stratigraphy and Fossils of the Upper Ordovician near Cincinnati, Ohio. Thank you to my most excellent and productive colleagues.

References:

Brandt, D.S. 1993. Ecdysis in Flexicalymene meeki (Trilobita). Journal of Paleontology 67: 999-1005.

Brett, C.E., Thomka, J.R., Schwalbach, C.E., Aucoin, C.D. and Malgieri, T.J. 2015. Faunal epiboles in the Upper Ordovician of north-central Kentucky: Implications for high-resolution sequence and event stratigraphy and recognition of a major unconformity. Palaeoworld 24: 149-159.

Esteve, J., Hughes, N.C. and Zamora, S. 2011. Purujosa trilobite assemblage and the evolution of trilobite enrollment. Geology 39: 575-578.

Evitt, W.R. and Whittington, H.B. 1953. The exoskeleton of Flexicalymene (Trilobita). Journal of Paleontology 27: 49-55.

Foerste, A.F. 1910. Preliminary notes on Cincinnatian and Lexington fossils of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Denison University Science Laboratories Bulletin 16: 17-87.

Frey, R.C. 1987. The paleoecology of a Late Ordovician shale unit from southwest Ohio and southeastern Indiana. Journal of Paleontology 61: 242-267.

 

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A fragmentary rostroconch from the Middle Devonian of Ohio

November 27th, 2015

1 Hippocardia 1Not all of our featured fossils are particularly beautiful, or even entire, but they are interesting in some way. Above is the broken cross-section of a rostroconch mollusk known as Hippocardia Brown, 1843. It was found somewhere in Ohio by the late Keith Maneese and kindly donated to the department by his widow Cameron Maneese. From its preservation and the kind of rock making up the matrix inside, we can tell that it almost certainly came from the Columbus Limestone (Middle Devonian, Eifelian).

In the top image it is apparent that this fossil has bilateral symmetry, a heart-shaped cross-section, and a ribbed calcitic shell. This is the dorsal view.
2 Hippocardia 2Flipping the specimen upside-down, we now have a view of the ventral portion. Again we see the ribs and bilateral symmetry.
3 Hippocardia side viewThis side view shows that the ribs extend from the dorsal to the ventral sides and are angled to the axis of the shell. That’s about all we can tell. (And this is the best specimen of a rostroconch we have! Thank you again, Cameron.)
4 CzechVirtualRostroThis diagram of a complete rostroconch (from the Czech Virtual Museum). This is a side view of a species that does not have the dorsal-ventral ribbing. The shell is superficially like that of a bivalve (clam), but the valves are fused together and their is a distinctive tube (rostrum) extending to the posterior. Much study and debate about the rostroconchs has at least confirmed that these are a class of mollusks separate from the bivalves. They lived semi-infaunally with the rostrum extending into the seawater to channel a flow of water into the body chamber for filter-feeding, much like infaunal bivalves today that have siphons. Rostroconchs and cephalopods appear to be sister groups, and some rostroconchs may have evolved into the scaphopods. Plenty of arguments to go around, though, on the evolution and diversification of mollusks
5 Thomas 1843 p 976 Thomas pl 8 fig 10 1843Captain Thomas Brown (1785-1862) named the genus Hippocardia in 1843. He was a Scottish naturalist who studied many topics, including mollusks. Above are the sections of his book The Elements of Fossil Conchology that describe and illustrate Hippocardia (considering it a bivalve). Captain Brown was born in Perth and went to school in Edinburgh. He joined the militia at 20, becoming a captain at 26. When he was transferred to Manchester, England, Brown acquired an interest in nature. He bought a flax mill after leaving the military, but it burned down while still uninsured. He thus turned to nature writing for support. He was became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1818, and in 1840 he was appointed curator of the Manchester Museum. He retained this position for the rest of his life. He was later a Fellow of the Linnean Society and a member, in classic 19th Century fashion, of several other groups, including the Wernerian, Kirwanian and Phrenological Societies. (I love the addition of phrenology to his interests!) The marine gastropod Zebina browniana d’Orbigny, 1842, was named after him. An interesting character, this Captain Brown, but I’ve been unable to find a single portrait of him.

References:

Brown, T. 1843. The elements of fossil conchology according to the arrangement of Lamarck; with the newly established genera of other authors. Houlston & Stoneman, London; 133 pages.

Hoare, R.D. 1989. Taxonomy and paleoecology of Devonian rostroconch mollusks from Ohio. Journal of Paleontology 63: 838-846.

Pojeta, J., Jr., Runnegar, B. 1976. The paleontology of rostroconch mollusks and the early history of the phylum Mollusca. United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 968: 1-88.

Pojeta, J., Jr., Runnegar, B., Morris, N.J. and Newell, N.D. 1972. Rostroconchia: a new class of bivalved mollusks. Science 177: 264-267.

Runnegar, B., Goodhart, C.B. and Yochelson, E.L. 1978. Origin and evolution of the Class Rostroconchia [and discussion]. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 284(1001): 319-333.

Wagner, P.J. 1997. Patterns of morphologic diversification among the Rostroconchia. Paleobiology 23: 115-150.

Wooster’s Pseudofossils of the Week: Shatter cones from southern Ohio

October 30th, 2015

1 ShatterCones 585This complex rock was collected decades ago in Adams County, Ohio, by the late Professor Frank L. Koucky of The College of Wooster. He was at the time studying a strange geological feature in that part of the state known then as the Serpent Mound Cryptoexplosion Structure. He thought that the ring-like disturbance in the bedrock nearly 10 km wide was a place where “mantle gases” explosively erupted from below. The rock shown was going to be a key to deciphering the energy of these cataclysmic events. It is a set of shatter cones formed when enormous, high velocity pressures were applied to a micritic (fine-grained) limestone. Professor Koucky knew what these features represented, but they are still collected in that region and elsewhere as “fossils” by some because of their resemblance to corals. They are thus fine examples of pseudofossils, or inorganic features resembling fossils.

These shatter cones ended up showing conclusively that the event that caused the “bedrock disturbance” in southern Ohio was actually an ancient meteor impact, and the site is now known as the Serpent Mound Crater. This ancient crater (it may be as much as 320 million years old) has a central uplift surrounded by a ring graben (circular down-dropped rocks). It took a lot of clever geology to sort this out because known of it is now visible on the surface.
2 Shatter cones closerThe Serpent Mound shatter cones have a multiple long fractures running parallel to the cones, resembling hair or “horsetails”. The cones have horizontal step-like fractures on their broken surfaces. You can simulate this kind of structure by firing a BB or small rock at thick glass, which produces a conical fracture and perpendicular steps. To do this in a limestone requires between 20 and 200 kbar of pressure, which can only be achieved by a large meteorite impact or a nuclear explosion underground. More likely it was the former!
3 Shatter cones plan viewHere is what these shatter cones look like in plan view. The hole in the upper left is the tip of a cone that is not preserved.

So, shatter cones, despite their fine and repeatable details, are inorganic and not fossils of any kind. They represent enormous shock waves that left their marks as they passed through this limestone many millions of years ago.

References:

Carlton, R.W., Koeberl, C., Baranoski, M.T. and Schumacher, G.A. 1998. Discovery of microscopic evidence for shock metamorphism at the Serpent Mound structure, south-central Ohio: confirmation of an origin by impact. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 162: 177-185.

Kenkmann, T., Poelchau, M.H., Trullenque, G., Hoerth, T., Schäfer, F., Thoma, K. and Deutsch, A. 2012. Shatter cones formed in a MEMIN impact cratering experiment. Meteoritics and Planetary Science Supplement 75: 5092.

Milton, D.J. 1977. Shatter cones – an outstanding problem in shock mechanics. In: Impact and Explosion Cratering: Planetary and Terrestrial Implications 1: 703-714.

Sagy, A., Fineberg, J. and Reches, Z. 2004. Shatter cones: Branched, rapid fractures formed by shock impact. Journal of Geophysical Research 109: B10209.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A starry bryozoan from the Upper Ordovician of southern Ohio

September 11th, 2015

Constellaria polystomella Liberty Formation 585At this time of the year I pick out one interesting specimen from the fossils my Invertebrate Paleontology class collected on their first field trip into the Upper Ordovician of southern Ohio. They did so well this week that I may be choosing a few more later! Our Fossil of the Week is the above bryozoan given the beautiful name Constellaria polystomella Nicholson, 1875. It was found by Jacob Nowell at the Caesar Creek Emergency Spillway in the Liberty Formation.
Constellaria Liberty closerConstellaria is a beautiful form, and one of the easiest bryozoans to recognize. Like all bryozooans, it was a colonial invertebrate with hundreds of filter-feeding individuals (zooids) housed in tiny tubes called zooecia. In Constellaria some of the zooecia are regularly grouped together and raised into star-shaped bumps called monticules. (The name Constellaria is clever.) This genus is a cystoporate bryozoan in the Family  Constellariidae.
JD Dana by Daniel Huntington 1858I was surprised to learn that Constellaria was named in 1846 by James Dwight Dana (1813-1895), one of the most accomplished American scientists of the 19th Century. He is best known for his Manual of Mineralogy (1848) which is still in print (greatly revised) and known as “Dana’s Mineralogy”. Dana (shown above in 1858) studied geology on scales from crystal structures to continents, with volcanoes and mountain-building in between. He had an affinity for “Zoophytes” (animals that appear to be plants), thus entangled him briefly with bryozoan systematics. Dana was born in Utica, New York, and attended Yale College, working under Benjamin Silliman, a famous chemist and mineralogist. After graduating from college he had a cool job teaching midshipmen in the US Navy, sailing through the Mediterranean in the process. For four years he served in the United States Exploring Expedition in the Pacific region. He made numerous important geological observations in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest that he later published in books and papers. He even dabbled in theology with books like Science and the Bible: A Review of the Six Days of Creation (1856). Dana died in 1895 having received numerous accolades and awards for his research and writing.

References:

Brown, G.D., Jr., and Daly, E.J. 1985. Trepostome bryozoa from the Dillsboro Formation (Cincinnatian Series) of southeastern Indiana. Indiana Geological Survey Special Report 33: 1-95.

Cutler, J.F. 1973. Nature of “acanthopores” and related structures in the Ordovician bryozoan Constellaria. Living and Fossil Bryozoa. Academic Press, London, 257-260.

Dana J.D. 1846. Structure and classification of zoophytes. U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842, 7: 1-740.

Wooster Paleontologists return to Caesar Creek Lake

September 6th, 2015

1 Shoreside collecting 090615Ohio is a wonderful place for paleontologists. One of the reasons is the thick, productive set of Upper Ordovician rocks that are exposed in the southwest of the state in and around Cincinnati. It is an easy drive south from Wooster into some of the most fossiliferous sediments in the world. Today Wooster’s Invertebrate Paleontology class went to Caesar Creek Lake in Warren County with its shoreline and emergency spillway exposing richly productive limestones and shales of the Waynesville, Liberty and Whitewater Formations (all of which equal the Bull Fork Formation). I’ve been there many times with many classes. The weather today was hot and dry — a contrast with last year’s torrential rains and mud.

2 Caesar Creek Lake Visitor Center MS 090615After a three-hour drive, we stopped first at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visitor center for Caesar Creek Lake. The Corps built the dam and spillway for the lake, and continues to maintain them both. This center has a set of museum displays and is where we obtain our fossil collecting permit. (This image was taken by Mara Sheban, a sophomore at The College of Wooster who will be contributing photographs to this blog and other geology projects.)

3 Initial briefing MS 090615Our initial briefing, with a review of the local geology and most common fossils. Since this is the start of the Invertebrate Paleontology course, most students have only begun to explore the topic. The fossils they collect on this trip will be the basis of a semester-long project of systematics and paleoecological analysis. (Photo by Mara Sheban.)

4 Marching to the outcrop 090615Our march to the far north of the exposures at the Caesar Creek Lake emergency spillway. We actually drop down from the spillway to the lake’s south shore. (See photo at the top of this post.) In the distant parking lot you can just make out a white pick-up truck in which the seasonal ranger is keeping an eye on us.

5 Jacob Nowell collecting MS 090615Jacob Nowell collecting small fossils washed from the shale along the lakeshore. (Photo by Mara Sheban.)

6 Jacob Pries trilobite MS 090615Jacob Pries found a nice enrolled Flexicalymene trilobite. Caesar Creek has a reputation as being a good place to find trilobites. We love them, but are also interested in the rest of the fossil fauna. (Mara Sheban image.)

7 Brachiopod hash 090615Some of the limestone units are a nearly solid hash of cemented brachiopod shells.

8 Hardground full view 0090616My favorite slabs at Caesar Creek Lake are the abundant carbonate hardgrounds like the above. A hardground is a cemented seafloor, usually with borings and encrusting organisms. This one began as a burrowed soft carbonate sediment. The burrows were filled with fine mud that cemented early on the seafloor. The surrounding softer matrix washed away, leaving a hardground with the burrows now in positive relief. Brachiopods and corals then lived in the nooks and crannies of this hard rock on the bottom of the sea.

9 Hardground closer 090615Here is the burrow system in a closer view. In the upper right is a beautiful encrusted rugose coral, shown in detail below.

10 Bryo encrusted rugosan 090615That coral is almost completely covered by a trepostome bryozoan. I would have loved to collect this specimen for further study, but the slab is too large and no tools are allowed on this outcrop.

In the coming weeks we will identify the fossils we gathered, apply to them several paleontological techniques such as cleaning, cutting, polishing and photography, and then put together a grand paleoecological analysis. We will be greatly assisted by two fantastic websites, one by Alycia Stigall at Ohio University called The Digital Atlas of Ordovician Life, and the other by Steve Holland at the University of Georgia titled The Stratigraphy and Fossils of the Upper Ordovician near Cincinnati, Ohio.

A Wooster Geologist goes to a Bigfoot meeting

August 29th, 2015

1 Bigfoot head reconstruction 082915ORRVILLE, OHIO — The First-Year Seminar course I teach at Wooster is called “Nonsense! (And Why it’s So Popular)“. It is ostensibly about exploring irrational ideas in human society, such as astrology, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, quack medicine, the “paranormal” and the like, but more fundamentally concerned with critical thinking and writing. It is about skepticism and learning how to test ideas and express the results. It is great fun because there is of course an endless carousel of nonsense to choose from every semester. We’re careful not to ridicule people, but we assess myths and misconceptions ruthlessly. Understanding why people believe weird things (from the title of one of our textbooks) turns out to be just as interesting as the ideas themselves, and it reveals the many filters and barriers between us and “reality” or “truth”. There are fuzzy boundaries around every topic, and our empathy for people who have poorly-supported world views grows throughout the course. Still, we can call some concepts nonsense even if the people professing them are sympathetic. The existence of Bigfoot is unsupported by physical evidence. The claim that Bigfoot has been thriving in Ohio for thousands of years is utter nonsense.

So why do people believe that an eight-foot tall hominid has been hiding all this time in the woods and swamps of crowded Ohio? To gain some insight, today my wife Gloria and I went to a Bigfoot presentation held at the Orrville Public Library by the founders of American Primate Exploration (APE from now on!). It was a fascinating two hours. You can see what the primary program was like by watching this video made from an earlier but nearly identical event.

2 Bigfoot presentation 082915The main presenter was Dan Baker, pictured above, the founder of APE. He first described the history and organization of his organization, emphasizing the number of “research teams” they have across North America and even into Australia. All the teams are staffed by what he termed “self-described experts on Bigfoot”, then noting that no one is a real expert on Bigfoot (thus leveling the field with scientists, I suppose). Mr. Baker moved immediately into anatomy, showing how Bigfoot has a flexible foot structure that includes a “midtarsal break”, unlike most humans. This means that Bigfoot footprints show a distinctive pressure ridge behind the ball of the foot, separating them from the typical human footprint. He had to admit, though, that one in 13,000 humans has such a mid-tarsal break. Turns out it is actually one in 13, so he was three orders of magnitude off. [Update: Check out the “midtarsal break” on these fake Bigfoot tracks.]

3 Bigfoot footprint casts 082915Above is a selection of the footprint casts displayed at the meeting. As you may can see, sorting out evidence for a midtarsal break from a regular human-like arch is dodgy business. Plus, some of those Bigfoot impressions are flat throughout, a feature attributed to “casting errors” by one of the presenters.

I was amazed to see that the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film of a “Bigfoot” now named “Patty” was a central piece of “evidence” for the existence of Bigfoot. Mr. Baker breezily dismissed all accusations of fraud on the part of Patterson and Gimlin, which include a confession from the man filmed in the ape suit. This ancient clip, it turns out, is now holy script in the Bigfoot movement, so no skeptical analysis will make a dent in this belief system. Mr. Baker even brought a footprint cast that he proudly showed was signed by Bob Gimlin himself. A sacred relic.

4 Bigfoot handprint 082915I was introduced to evidence new to me: Bigfoot handprints. Here is one that was apparently made in 1995 by Paul Freeman in the Blue Mountains, Washington. Note the opposable thumb. Pretty impressive how that animal pushed his whole hand down into the mud. (The fingers are shortened here because, one of the APE crew said, “he didn’t clean out the holes first”.) Mr. Baker said that this cast all all the work of Paul Freeman was “legit”, despite claims that the man was a fraud. You can follow up on the Paul Freeman story here: “A few of Freeman’s “Bigfoot-related” discoveries were found to be faked, including manmade hair samples, and a few of his finds remain “unknowns.” (Although softened, this criticism is heresy in Bigfoot circles.) Freeman’s most famous film of a Bigfoot was shown approvingly at our event. Freeman had an unusual ability to find Bigfoot, proponents say. Unusual indeed.

After these items, Mr. Baker and the following speaker (Raymond V. Gardner II, APE Field Researcher) spent the remaining time describing their own encounters with Bigfoot in Ohio. Carroll County (about an hour and a half east of Wooster) is a hotspot, as is the area around Spencer in Medina County (just a half hour up the road). In fact, Ohio itself is second only to the Pacific Northwest in Bigfoot reports. The stories were what you would expect: fleeting glimpses before a camera could be deployed, howls and “wood-banging” in the night, “trampled grass” after a night of “activity”. One long segment was an audio recording of an APE team describing some squatting shape in the midnight woods. There was a brief mention of giving some vocal Bigfoot recordings to “a Native American” who could apparently translate them into some sort of pidgin English. (I’ve never heard that before.) I also learned that Bigfoot may be able to “see in the infrared” and thus avoid the ubiquitous trail cameras in the Ohio woods.

The questions from the audience were interesting. Most there were true believers from their tone, but some skeptics lurked. One of the best questions asked why we don’t see evidence of Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest right now as unprecedented wildfires tear through the forests. Shouldn’t Bigfoot be flushed out into the open, or at least a few smoking bodies be found? No, was the answer. Bigfoot is very smart, very crafty, very quick, and very good at hiding. The lack of evidence is not evidence that they don’t exist. I also learned from an audience member that Bigfoot sometimes speaks in “backwards Indian” and “the Douglas Dialect“.

My conclusion is that we attended a service with true Bigfoot believers. The lack of evidence for the creature is quickly explained away to preserve the tenets of the faith. Bigfoot proponents have invested their identities in its existence, no matter how implausible. No amount of scientific skepticism can overcome a belief unencumbered by a need for physical evidence or even biological possibility. Bigfoot believers have a strong community reinforced daily with testimonies and acts of resistance against skeptics. As with any community, there are social roles to fill, from the leadership to “field researchers”. There is even an Ohio Bigfoot Hall of Fame for the ambitious. If your subject is defined by perpetual ambiguity, your arguments for it can be impervious to logical analysis. This was an excellent field experience for me to bring back to my First-Year Seminar class next week.

Thank you to the good and earnest officers of APE for the presentation (free to the public), and to the Orrville Public Library for hosting the event.

Here’s a cool book to explore the origins and details of Bigfoot mythology —

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Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: Small and common orthid brachiopods from the Upper Ordovician of Ohio

August 7th, 2015

Cincinnetina meeki (Miller, 1875) slab 1 585
One of the many benefits of posting a “Fossil of the Week” is that I learn a lot while researching the highlighted specimens. I not only learn new things, I learn that some things I thought I knew must be, shall we say, updated. The above slab contains dozens of brachiopods (and a few crinoid ossicles and bryozoans). I have long called the common brachiopod here Onniella meeki. Now I learn from my colleagues Alycia Stigall and Steve Holland at their great Cincinnatian websites that since 2012 I should be referring to this species as Cincinnetina meeki (Miller, 1875). Jisuo Jin sorted out its taxonomy in a Palaeontology article three years ago:

Phylum: Brachiopoda
Class: Rhynchonellata
Order: Orthida
Family: Dalmanellidae
Genus: Cincinnetina
Species: Cincinnetina meeki (Miller, 1875)
Cincinnetina meeki (Miller, 1875) slab 2 585This slab, which resides in our Geology 200 teaching collection, was found at the famous Caesar Creek locality in southern Ohio. It is from the Waynesville/Bull Fork Formation and Richmondian (Late Ordovician) in age.
Cincinnetina meeki (Miller, 1875) slab 3 585You may see some bryozoans in this closer view. This bed is a typical storm deposit in the Cincinnatian Group. The shells were tossed about, most landing in current-stable conditions, and finer sediments were mostly washed away, leaving this skeletal lag.

Reference:

Jin, J. 2012. Cincinnetina, a new Late Ordovician dalmanellid brachiopod from the Cincinnati type area, USA: implications for the evolution and palaeogeography of the epicontinental fauna of Laurentia. Palaeontology 55: 205–228.

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