Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A spiriferid brachiopod (Middle Devonian of northwestern Ohio)

October 14th, 2012

I begin my Invertebrate Paleontology course by giving each student a common fossil to identify “by any means necessary”. This year I gave everyone a gray little brachiopod, one of which is shown above. They did pretty well. Kevin Silver (’13) got it down to the genus quickly. Turns out a Google image search on “common fossil” is very effective!

This is Mucrospirifer mucronatus (Conrad, 1841), a beautiful spiriferid brachiopod from the Silica Shale Formation (Middle Devonian) of Paulding County, northwestern Ohio. I collected it and many others at a quarry on a crisp October day with my friend and amateur paleontological colleague Brian Bade.

The image at the head of this page is a view of the dorsal valve exterior of Mucrospirifer mucronatus; the image immediately above is the ventral valve exterior. Spiriferid brachiopods like this are characterized by extended “wings” and a long hingeline. Inside was their defining feature: a spiral brachidium that held a delicate tentacular feeding device known as the lophophore.

This is the anterior of our brachiopod. The fold in the middle helped keep incurrent and excurrent flows separate, enabling more efficient filter-feeding. (By the way, have you noted the quirky asymmetry of this specimen?)

A view of the quarry that yielded our Fossil of the Week. Note the happy amateurs picking through blast piles of the Silica Shale Formation (Middle Devonian).

A pond in the quarry. It has an unexpected beauty, muddy as it is.

Timothy Abbott Conrad (1803-1877) described Mucrospirifer mucronatus in 1841. We met him before when discussing a siliquariid gastropod. He was a paleontologist in New York and New Jersey, and a paleontological consultant to the Smithsonian Institution.

Reference:

Tillman, J.R. 1964. Variation in species of Mucrospirifer from Middle Devonian rocks of Michigan, Ontario, and Ohio. Journal of Paleontology 38: 952-964.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Beautiful molds on a concretion (Lower Carboniferous of Ohio)

September 30th, 2012

Kit Price (’13) was exploring a local creek on a Geomorphology course field trip north of Wooster led by Dr. Greg Wiles. Like the excellent paleontologist Kit is, her eyes continually searched the pebbles, cobbles, slabs and outcrops for that distinctive outline of something fossilian. This particular place has been in the blog before, so we know the stratigraphic and geological context of the rocks. Kit saw the curious golden brown, rounded rock above and immediately noted the presence of several fossils on its exterior. She collected it, cleaned it up, and the two of us examined the treasures.

Here is the key to what we found: A = trilobite pygidium external mold (more on this below); B = productid brachiopod dorsal valve internal mold; C = replaced bivalve shell fragment; D = productid brachiopod ventral valve external mold; E = nautiloid external mold. There are also external molds of twiggy bryozoans on the surface, but they are too small to distinguish in this view.

This rock is an ironstone concretion formed within the Meadville Member of the Cuyahoga Formation (Kinderhookian; Lower Carboniferous). It weathered out of the softer shale matrix and lay free on the creek bed. The original shells of the various fossils were dissolved away after burial, either being replaced with iron oxides (like the bivalve) or just remaining as open cavities (the molds). They represent a little survey of some of the animals that lived in this shallow, muddy seaway. Most of these fossils would have been lost to the dissolution, but the hard concretion preserved them.

The most interesting fossil here is the external mold of the trilobite pygidium (or tail piece). We don’t see these very often in Carboniferous and later rocks. The group is dwindling in advance of their final extinction at the end of the Permian period. I suspect this is the pygidium of Brachymetopus nodosus Wilson, 1979. I can only guess this, though, because only the cephalon (or head) of B. nodosus was described originally from the Meadville Member. This may be the long-missing pygidium of that species. It certainly has the little bumps that we would expect. (By the way, if you stare at the above image long enough, it appears in positive relief rather than the actual negative relief (or hole) that it is. It “pops out”, giving a view of what it may have looked like in life.)

Thanks, Kit, for such a nice view of a local Carboniferous community! It also brought back fond memories of my own local explorations as a Wooster student long, long ago.

References:

Corbett, R.G. and Manner, B.G. 1988. Geology and habitats of the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, Ohio. Ohio Journal of Science 88: 40-47.

Wilson, M.A. 1979. A new species of the trilobite Brachymetopus from the Cuyahoga Formation (Lower Mississippian) of northeastern Ohio. Journal of Paleontology 53: 221-223.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: a beautiful phacopid trilobite (Middle Devonian of Ohio, USA)

August 5th, 2012

Trilobites are always favorite fossils, especially big bug-eyed ones like Phacops rana (Green, 1832) shown above. It is, in fact, the state fossil of Pennsylvania after a petition from schoolchildren in 1988. This specimen is from the Middle Devonian of northwestern Ohio. Trilobites were Paleozoic arthropods with a hard dorsal skeleton divided into numerous segments. They look rather cute and brainy because of a swelling between the eyes (the glabella), but that space prosaically contained the stomach. Many trilobites, like this one, could roll up into balls when stressed, much like pill bugs today.

Phacops was studied by paleontologist Niles Eldredge in the early 1970s as the start of what became the theory of punctuated equilibria. The arrangement of lenses in the eyes show rapid changes in short intervals of geological time, which provided evidence for the theory he presented with colleague Stephen Jay Gould.

Phacops rana was named by Jacob Green in 1832. He called it Calymene bufo rana. Hall (1861) renamed it Phacops rana, which was confirmed by Eldedge (1972). Struve (1990) placed it in the new genus Eldredgeops (named after you know who), but I prefer the older name.
Jacob Green (1790-1841) was one of those early 19th Century American polymaths. He was a lawyer, a chemist, a physician, an astronomer, and a paleontologist. He came from a religious family, with both his father and grandfather being theologians. His father, in fact, was at one time president of Princeton University. Jacob graduated from the University of Pennsylvania at the young age of 16, and he published a treatise on electricity when he was 19. He did lawyering for a few years before becoming a professor at (you guessed it) Princeton (and later Jefferson Medical College). He published an amazing array of diverse scientific papers in his career. A trip to England introduced him to trilobites. He then spent a decade putting together a monograph on the trilobites of North America — the first ever.

References:

Eldredge, N. 1972. Systematics and evolution of Phacops rana (Green, 1832) and Phacops iowensis Delo, 1935 (Trilobita) for the Middle Devonian of North America. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 147:45-114.

Eldredge, N. 1973. Systematics of Lower and Lower Middle Devonian species of the trilobite Phacops Emmrich in North America. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 151:285-338.

Green, J. 1832. A Monograph of the Trilobites of North America. Philadelphia.

Hall, J. 1861. Descriptions of new species of fossils from the Upper Helderberg, Hamilton, and Chemung Groups. N.Y. State Cab. Nat. Hist., Ann. Rept. No. 14.

Struve, W. 1990. Paläozoologie III (1986-1990). Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 127: 251-279.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A mastodon tusk (Late Pleistocene of Holmes County, Ohio)

June 24th, 2012

This long and weathered tusk sits in a display case outside my office. It is from the American Mastodon (Mammut americanum) and was found many decades ago in Holmes County, just south of Wooster. A tooth found with it was a previous Fossil of the Week. Such tusks are rather rare because the ivory tends to disintegrate faster than tooth and bone. Our specimen is, in fact, hollow and held together by wires.
Above is a closer view of the proximal end of the tusk (the part closest to the face). You can see the hollowness and, curiously, that the ivory is charred. I used to tell students that the mastodon must have been hit by lightning, but I stopped when they took me too seriously!

This gives me a chance to mention a mastodon specimen I recently saw in a visit earlier this month to this famous place:
Monticello is, of course, the home of Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father and the third president of the United States. Jefferson was a science enthusiast, and paleontology was one of his passions. He was fascinated with ancient life, and some have considered him the first American paleontologist. One room of the White House, for example, appears to have been devoted to his fossil bone collection.

Mastodons were particularly interesting to Jefferson because of an odd idea that was in vogue in France at the time. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a famous French naturalist, wrote that “a niggardly sky and an unprolific land” caused life in the New World to be weak, small and degenerate. Life in North America was considered by the French to be quite inferior to that in Europe. Jefferson knew, of course, this was nuts. Having the bones of a North American elephant, as large or larger than any other elephants, would show the Frenchies how wrong they were. And Buffon eventually agreed, although he died before he could correct his books.
Above is a lower jawbone of Mammut americanum in Monticello. I wish I could have taken my own photograph, but this was not allowed. I’ve had to make do with one of their images online.

Curiously, Jefferson had one serious deficit when it comes to calling him a paleontologist. He apparently did not believe that species ever go extinct. When he dispatched Lewis and Clark on their expedition, for example, he expected them to find living mastodons deep in the American interior. Too bad they didn’t!

References:

Conniff, R. 2010. Mammoths and Mastodons: All American Monsters. Smithsonian Magazine, April 2010.

Semonin, P. 2000. American Monster: How the Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity. New York University Press, New York, 502 pages.

Thomson, K.S. 2008. The Legacy of the Mastodon: the Golden Age of Fossils in America. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press.

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.

References:

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.

Now this is field trip weather

May 1st, 2012

WOOSTER, OHIO–It is now difficult to believe that we were measuring stratigraphic sections in a sleety thunderstorm on Saturday. Today the Tuesday lab of my Sedimentology & Stratigraphy course visited a local outcrop of the Logan Formation (Lower Carboniferous) to get more practice with stratigraphic techniques. What an enjoyable afternoon!

Students hard at work on the Logan Formation outcrop in Wooster. I’m hoping there’s no poison ivy in there.

Alex Hiatt and Cam Matesich looking very closely at the sandstone like good sedimentary geologists.

A set of male pine cones that have already distributed their pollen.

Andy Nash found this Eastern American Toad (Bufo americanus americanus) and our amphibian expert Ned Weakland captured it. Ned’s advisor Rick Lehtinen picked up a similar toad last semester on a short geology field trip. It made us feel all the more that we were in Spring at last.

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.)

References:

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.

A very damp field trip

April 28th, 2012

FAIRBORN, OHIO–I actually used to brag about the great weather on my class field trips. The hubris! Today Shelley Judge and I took our combined Sedimentology & Stratigraphy and Structural Geology classes to Oakes Park Quarry near Dayton for a field trip. (Location = N39.81401°, W083.98374°.) We planned to describe and measure the exposure there of the Brassfield Formation, and then assess the joint fabric and the direction of glacial grooves on its top surface. I took three students there last week to test the concept. Since this is the last weekend of the semester, there was no do-over, so we went rain or shine.

It was 38°F and breezy when we arrived. That’s when I took my first and last picture, shown above. (It is of Tricia Hall and Scott Kugel in the middle of their stratigraphic task.) The rain came slowly at first. Not too bad. Then we heard the thunder and were quickly overwhelmed by a serious downpour. Near-freezing temperatures and a thunderstorm? That’s spring in Ohio. I haven’t been so cold and wet since I was in this place. This is why I very much prefer my field areas to be very warm and very dry.

The students were great sports, though, and we collected just enough data so that we could retreat to the bus with some geological honor intact.

The summer can’t come fast enough back here for the Wooster geologists!

Wet and Cold Wooster Geologists in the Silurian of Central Ohio

April 21st, 2012

DAYTON, OHIO–It was 37°F and raining this morning as three stalwart Wooster Geology students and I worked in a muddy quarry near Fairborn, Ohio (N 39.81472°, W 83.99471°). Our task was to scout out a beautiful exposure of the Brassfield Formation (Early Silurian, Llandovery) for a future field trip by the Sedimentology & Stratigraphy class. Until today this week was sunny and warm in Ohio. Nevertheless, our students persevered and efficiently measured and described the exposed units, and then they searched for glacial grooves and truncated corals on the top surface.

Abby, Steph and Lizzie during a relatively dry moment. The striped stick, by the way, is a Jacob’s Staff divided into tenths of meters. We use these large and simple rulers to measure the thickness of rock units. Our technician Matt Curren made us nice set of these this semester. Previous Wooster students may remember the long dowels we had in the past that Stephanie Jarvis discovered one day were not very precise! Why do we call them “Jacob’s Staffs”? Read Genesis 30:25-43. (This must be the first biblical reference in this blog!)

Dolomite at the base of the Brassfield with a pervasive fabric of burrows. These trace fossils were probably produced by shrimp-like arthropods tunneling in the seafloor sediments.

A well-sorted encrinite (limestone made almost entirely of crinoid skeletal fragments) from the lower third of the Brassfield Formation. These are mostly stem and arm pieces. The articulated portion on the left is a small stem.

A poorly-sorted encrinite. Here you can see a much greater range of bioclast size than in the previous image. There are also some brachiopod shell fragments mixed in.

The Brassfield Formation is a critical one in stratigraphy because most of the other Silurian carbonates in northeastern North America have been altered by dolomitization, which destroys the original fabric and texture of the rock. Fossils become mere ghosts in dolomitized limestone, but here they are superbly preserved.

It may have been a damp and chilly day, but how bad could it have been if we had limestones and fossils in it?

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A scale tree root in its own soil (Upper Carboniferous of Ohio)

April 15th, 2012

Last week a local man, Larry Stauffer, brought in the above fossil for identification and then kindly donated it to the department. It is part of the root system of Lepidodendron, the “scale tree” of the Carboniferous Period. What is especially cool about it is that the rootlets, thin ribbon-like perpendicular extensions, are still attached. Usually they were lost quickly when the root was dislodged from its bed.

The well-preserved rootlets show that this bit of root is still in its original soil. Such a fossil soil is called a paleosol. These features are important in the rock record because they show ancient climate conditions, weathering profiles and sedimentation rates. Carboniferous paleosols like this are called seat earth.

The roots of Lepidodendron were given a separate generic name in 1822 by the French naturalist Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1847). He called them Stigmaria because of the regularly-spaced holes called stigmata. (You may know “stigmata” from an entirely different context!) The name was superseded by Lepidodendron once it was figured out how the roots, trunk, and leaves were connected.

Diagram of “Stigmaria ficoides”  from “Elements of Geology: The Student’s Series” by Charles Lyell (1871).

Brongniart is best known to me as one of the first biostratigraphers. He worked out the first divisions of the Tertiary Period (now known as the Paleogene and Neogene Periods) using fossils to mark time intervals. He also was the first to systematically study the trilobites at the other end of the geologic time scale. Brongniart did original geological mapping with the famous Georges Cuvier in the Paris region as well. He was a professor at the École de Mines and director of the Sèvres porcelain factories. I think he looks rather friendly in a Frenchy way.

References:

Brongniart, A. 1822. Sur la classification et la distribution des végétaux fossiles en général, et sur ceux des terrains de sédiment supérieur en particulier. Soc. Philom., Bull., pp. 25-28 and Mémoires Du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle 8: 203–240, 297–348.

Frankenberg, J.M. and Eggert, D.A. 1969. Petrified Stigmaria from North America: Part I. Stigmaria ficoides, the underground portions of Lepidodendraceae. Palaeontographica 128B: 1–47.

Jennings, J.R. 1977. Stigmarian petrifications from the Pennsylvanian of Colorado. American Journal of Botany 64: 974-980.

Rothwell, G.W. 1984. The apex of Stigmaria (Lycopsida), rooting organ of Lepidodendrales. American Journal of Botany 71: 1031-1034.

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