Wooster’s Invertebrate Paleontology class at work

September 18th, 2018

Wooster, Ohio — The Invertebrate Paleontology class at Wooster set to work this afternoon on the excellent fossils they collected at the beginning of last week. They had already washed them carefully, using soft brushes and soap, and now were learning how to trim them down with our faithful basement rock saw. Grant Holter is seen above doing his very first cut. All the specimens are from a single outcrop of the Upper Whitewater Formation (Upper Ordovician, Katian) just south of Richmond, Indiana.

The spinning steel blade has industrial diamonds embedded in its periphery, which grind quickly through our soft limestones. The blade and rock are continually sprayed with water to keep the blade from overheating, lubricate the cut, and to capture the dust. The newbies to our saw learned fast.

Each student has two trays of specimens, which are right now in their raw, unprepared and unlabelled state. Julia Pearson examines her very full trays. Juwan Shabazz is behind her.

A closer look at Julia’s treasures.

An even closer view. We can easily now identify abundant brachiopods, bryozoans, and rugose corals — the big three groups.

Finally for today the paleo students learned how to label their specimens using water-soluble white glue and printed paper tags, a technique I learned at the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

Next week the class will use the saws, grinders, polishing plates and hydrochloric acid to make acetate peels. This is my favorite paleo process!

2018 Invertebrate Paleontology field trip — with the Ghost of Gordon

September 9th, 2018

The Invertebrate Paleontology class at Wooster had its annual field trip today to the Upper Ordovician (Katian) Cincinnati Group (Upper Whitewater Formation) in eastern Indiana. The weather looked terrible as the remnant of Tropical Storm Gordon worked its way into the Great Lakes region. Three to five inches of rain were forecast for our field area just south of Richmond, Indiana (locality C/W-148). For all I know, that massive amount of rain actually fell today — but not while we were there! As you can see above, we collected treasures in the dry. In fact, the specimens were nicely washed for us, with the fossils standing out better than I’ve ever seen.

Here’s a random image of the rubbly limestone we examined. Count the bryoimmurations! This is perfect material for beginning paleontology students. Each one made a representative collection to clean, prepare and interpret in our cozy Wooster lab the rest of the semester.

We’ve certainly had better weather here in past years, but I’m not complaining about today. We slipped by a ghost.

Wooster and Ohio State Paleontologists in Tallinn, Estonia

August 8th, 2018

Tallinn, Estonia — This morning Bill Ausich (Ohio State University) took the bus from Tartu to Tallinn to finish one more research task and then prepare for the long journey home. Above is the view from my hotel room towards the Old City section of Tallinn.

After getting settled, we visited Ursula Toom at the Department of Geology, Tallinn University of Technology. She and Bill (above) exchanged crinoids, and then Ursula discussed with me a wide variety of Ordovician borings as part of her dissertation work.

This is a small part of the various mystery specimens Ursula shared with me. There are some fantastic undescribed borings in this lot.

Afterwards Bill and I had an early evening dinner in the Old City, beautiful in the setting sun.

Our research in Estonia is done! Tomorrow we pack up and then walk around Tallinn taking in the sights and culture. On Friday we fly home. I hope to describe the results of our work soon in this blog.

Last day at the Tartu Natural History Museum, and a visit to a grim museum

August 7th, 2018

Tartu, Estonia — Bill Ausich and I started our last full day in this city at the University of Tartu Natural History Museum, finishing our work with the marvelous Mare Isakar, pictured above. Mare quickly found the specimens we needed, and many others she knew we would find interesting. She did nearly instant registration of specimens, greatly speeding up our taxonomic progress.

We finished photographing museum specimens for our future reference and possible publications. Bill concentrated on Silurian crinoids and I worked on the Ordovician rhombiferan Echinosphaerites.

This is one of Öpik’s Echinosphaerites aurantium specimens. Two roundish encrusting brachiopods are visible, along with sheet-like bryozoans. Shockingly, there are gouges in the bryozoans as if someone tried to scrape them off!

Most of the rhombiferans are filled with sediment and/or calcite crystals, but Bill found this hollow one in the collections. Note that it was still able to resist sedimentary compaction. Also note the bryozoans on the broken edge.

This broken specimen shows sediment in the bottom of the skeleton and crystals in the top half. This is known as a geopetal structure where the sediment shows what was the lower part of the skeleton when it was filled. Here’s another example.

Mare found even more specimens of Echinosphaerites today, so there is much to do on a later trip! Thank you again to Mare Isakar and our other friends in Tartu. Tomorrow we travel to Tallinn for a bit more work before heading home on Friday.

And now for something darker — the KGB Cells Museum in Tartu. It is a horrifying place of pain, anguish and hopelessness, yet today is surrounded by a vibrant, free city and country. This museum, in an actual KGB prison, is both disturbing and ultimately inspiring. It is a history we avoid at our peril.

A cell door near the entrance to this basement complex of “the grey house”. These dungeons were used by the Soviet secret police for detention, torture and executions in the 1940s and 1950s. For a brief interval (1941-1944) the Nazis took over and did the same beastly activities. The victims were almost entirely Estonians.

A hallway of cells. The exhibits inside the rooms include many Soviet artifacts, along with stories of Estonian resistance.

A KGB mannikin at the end of a hallway. A sound track of a harsh Russian voice plays in a loop here, along with inevitable screams and moans. The brutality of the place is quite evident enough, thank you.

Finally, before you leave, why not dress up as a Soviet KGB officer and pose with Stalin? I don’t understand why anyone would do such a thing, especially in such a tragic space.

Tomorrow it is back to science as Bill and I take the bus to Tallinn. The countryside of free Estonia is beautiful.

Last day in the University of Tartu Geology Department — and a great garden party

August 6th, 2018

Tartu, Estonia — As a sign we’re near the end of our work in Tartu, there are no crinoids in this post. Instead, above is an Ordovician bryozoan from Estonia that encrusted the aragonitic shell of a nautiloid. The aragonite dissolved away, giving my favorite underside view of a bryozoan attachment from its ancestrula. We’ve seen this more than once in this blog. The bonus here are the just-visible chains of little crystalline teardrops across the surface.

These are the zooids of the cyclostome bryozoan Corynotrypa. They are encrusted right-side-up, meaning that they grew across the exposed attachment surface of the big bryozoan. The nautiloid shell thus dissolved between the two encrusting events — very early on the seafloor. Classic calcite sea dynamics.

After sorting out the specimens used in our crinoid studies, and doing some last microphotography, we finished our work for this season at the University of Tartu Department of Geology. A small and happy garden party followed.

Bill Ausich and some of our Estonian colleagues and friends. From the left is Oive Tinn, Mare Isakar, Bill, and Viirika Mastik. Great conversations. It actually got a little chilly outside, so we ended in Oive’s house (see below).

Sunday at the University of Tartu Natural History Museum — this time as tourists

August 5th, 2018

Tartu, Estonia — Bill Ausich and I returned to the Natural History Museum today to tour the public exhibits. It was hard to not make it into a study trip, though, for our research. I suppose since our “work” is so enjoyable it is difficult to separate it from a holiday. Above, for example, is a display of our favorite rhombiferan, Echinosphaerites aurantium of the Estonian Upper Ordovician.

There is a display about the Kalana Lagerstätte that we are studying.

Here is the museum description of the Lagerstätte.

And a close-up of some crinoids (“meriliilia”, sea lilies) from the Kalana.

It is a fun museum with a very thorough geology section, including meteorites you can touch (a favorite of mine). It has what is now an old-fashioned style of emphasizing actual specimens that Bill and I appreciated. There is a large biology section with much taxidermy and mounted skeletons. One of the featured exhibits is a rare “rat king” (see below), which you must look up!

Starting work in the University of Tartu Natural History Museum

August 2nd, 2018

Tartu, Estonia — Today Bill Ausich and I began our work in the University of Tartu Natural History Museum. Our most knowledgeable and helpful host is chief geology curator Mare Isakar. This museum is just a short walk from our hotel.

This is one of the collections rooms in the paleontological research part of the museum. Here is where I examined Ordovician bivalves and gastropods for bryoimmurations.

One of our goals is to study encrusters on specimens of the nearly spherical Late Ordovician rhombiferan echinoderm Echinosphaerites aurantium. Mare Isakar kindly set out dozens of specimens for us to study, a small subset of which is shown above.

Here is Bill at work scanning through a drawer of Echinosphaerites.

One of the encrusted Echinosphaerites skeletons. The black, branching, carbonaceous encruster is the graptolite Thallograptus sphaericola (“sphere-dweller”).

Posted in the museum is this figure by Öpik (1925) showing his idea of an Echinosphaerites community with encrusting graptolites. We want to test his hypothesis that the graptolites encrusted living rhombiferans as shown. My hypothesis is that the graptolites lived instead on dead, cemented skeletons. Armin Aleksander Öpik (1898-1983) was a prominent and productive Estonian paleontologist. Like many Estonian scientists of his generation, his career was bifurcated by World War II.

Several characters from Estonia’s scientific past watched us work. This is Constantin Grewingk (1819-1887). Ohio paleontologists will recognize him as the namesake of the rugose coral Grewingkia.

Here is Friedrich Schmidt (132-1908), considered the founder of Estonian geology. Both Grewingk and Schmidt were Baltic Germans.

The public part of the museum includes this exhibit on “Secrets of Ancient Sea”. You may recognize some familiar Ordovician characters in this scene. Bill and I intend to visit the public exhibits here on Sunday.

Thank you again to Mare Isakar for setting us up so efficiently for our research!

Wooster Geologists on Helvellyn

June 4th, 2018

The black mountain icon indicates the location of Helvellyn in the Lake District.

During the last two weeks of May, Dr. Alley and were in the UK.  Part of the experience involved complaining about the inadequate width of UK roads, but there was also some undeniably beautiful geology.  One such location was Helvellyn, in the Lake District of England. This is one of the “top walks” in the UK, but note that the term “walk” has a very loose definition in British English.  Really, this is a hike, with a climb of nearly 3000 ft in about 4 mi.  If you’re a fan of glacially carved, open landscapes, it deserves the hype. 

The exposed rocks of the Helvellyn Range are part of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group. The volcanics here transitioned from primarily intermediate lava flows (andesite) to more silica-rich magma that resulted in pyroclastic flows and ignimbrite deposits.  This all occurred around 450 million years ago (Ordovician) — around the same time as the Taconic Orogeny in North America (most notably in New England).

That’s the raw material for the terrain, but the carving is much more recent.  Glaciers from the last glacial advance have gouged out the sides of these mountains into deep u-shaped troughs with steep sides and wide bottoms. Below Helvellyn sits a deep bowl called a cirque. This is where a large mountain glacier once originated, digging out a hole from which it later advanced.

Look back at Helvellyn Cirque from Birkhouse Moor.

If you go up into the cirque today, that depression has been filled with a small lake called a tarn. Tarns sits at the headwaters of watersheds, and the outlets are often some of the cleaner water you can find (although they may be turbid from lots of sediment).  This tarn, though, had a large number of sheep around it.  So I’d be a little more suspicious.

Red Tarn below Helvellyn.

Actually, the sheep are a more important aspect the the geology than you might think.  Looking down from Helvellyn, you can see the “Striding Edge”.  This is an arête, a sharp ridge that, thousands of years ago, was the boundary between two parallel glaciers.  The glaciers would have been flowing away from you in the image below.

View eastward from Helvellyn overlooking Striding Edge (an arête) and Red Tarn.

Finally, when walking along the northwest side of the mountain, you go by the Greenside Mine. In the 19th century, veins along a normal fault through the mountain were mined for the mineral galena (PbS), which also contains impurities of silver. 

New article: Paleoecology of an Upper Ordovician submarine cave-dwelling bryozoan fauna and its exposed equivalents in northern Kentucky, USA

April 20th, 2018

I’m happy to link to an article on Ordovician bryozoans that has just appeared in the Journal of Paleontology:

Paleoecology of an Upper Ordovician submarine cave-dwelling bryozoan fauna and its exposed equivalents in northern Kentucky, USA

It is work Caroline Buttler (Head of Palaeontology at the National Museum Wales, Cardiff) and I pursued as our first joint project. An early version is described in this blog post. Thank you to Caroline for her leadership, and the Luce Fund at The College of Wooster for its support. If you want a pdf of the paper, just send me an email note.

[I just noticed this is my 1000th post on this blog!]

A Wooster Paleontologist visits the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

April 5th, 2018

Washington, DC — I have the privilege this semester of being on a research leave from teaching, so I thought I’d report on one of my activities. Without classroom responsibilities I can travel for research opportunities, especially now as the weather in the northeastern US marginally improves. (Despite the sunny view above, it was freezing!)

I visited the Paleobiology Department of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington to examine some particular fossils in the collections, and give a departmental seminar. This is typical for paleontological research, and I’m grateful to the generations of museum scientists who make it possible.

The Collections Manager at the NMNH Paleobiology Department is our own Kathy Hollis (’03). She does such a fine job she’s on a poster board in front of the museum, and she was featured in an excellent Wooster Magazine article on museum science.

Kathy sets me up deep in the fossil collections, endless rows of cabinets. The Paleobiology Department, in fact, has more than 10,000 of these, each with multiple drawers of treasures.

My work is pretty simple at this stage. I find fossils of interest in the collections (most of which I’ve identified from publications) and photograph them for future reference. I use this copy stand, which is the best in the business. (I want one, Department Chair.) The paper tray is filled with lead shot which is useful for positioning specimens at any angle under the camera.

Here’s an example specimen: the ambonychid bivalve Claudeonychia from the Upper Ordovician of the Cincinnatian region. The scale is in centimeters. The dark color is actually an encrusting bryozoan, a story I’ll tell later.

I meet many cool fossils along the way, including this magnificent specimen of Wilsonoceras from Wyoming. It is a nautiloid cephalopod I’ve always wanted to see purely for its name!

Here is the poster for my presentation to the Paleobiology Department. It is a tradition for visiting researchers to present a talk on their work.

This is the Cooper Room where the talks are held. I love its Old School ambiance, and the paleontological history it represents. It is a superb place to present ideas to colleagues in the discipline.

The field season is about to begin for Wooster Earth Scientists, so expect more posts. Again, it is a privilege to have such opportunities.

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