Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: A pair of molded nautiloids from the Upper Ordovician of northern Kentucky

October 24th, 2014

1 Nautiloid pair 091314Two nautiloids are preserved in the above image of a slab from the Upper Ordovician of northern Kentucky. (I wish I knew which specific locality. This is why paleontologists are such fanatics about labeling specimens.) The top internal mold (meaning it is sediment that infilled a shell now dissolved away) has been covered in a previous blog entry. This week I want to concentrate on the nautiloid at the bottom.

These nautiloids belong to the Family Orthoceratidae McCoy, 1844, which existed from the Early Ordovician (490 million years ago) through the Triassic (230 million years ago). They had conical, aragonitic shells with walls inside separating chambers (camerae) and a central tube (the siphuncle) connecting them. They were swimming (nektic) predators that could control their buoyancy through a mix of gases and liquids in the camerae mediated by the siphuncle.

What is most interesting here is the preservation of these nautiloids. The aragonitic shells were dissolved away at about the same time the internal sediment was cemented, forming the internal molds. These molds were exposed on the seafloor, attracting encrusting organisms. This means the dissolution and cementation took place quickly and in the marine environment, not after burial. This rapid dissolving of aragonite and cementation by calcite is typical of Calcite Sea geochemistry, something we don’t see in today’s Aragonite Seas.
2 Nautiloid siphuncle 091314Above is a close view of the cemented siphuncle of the lower nautiloid, heavily encrusted by a trepostome bryozoan.
3 Bryozoan undersideEven more cool, the outside of the lower nautiloid was encrusted by several trepostome bryozoan colonies. When the shell dissolved it left the undersides of these bryozoans exposed, as seen above. These undersides often contain the remains of shelly organisms the bryozoans encrusted (see the Independent Study project by Kit Price ’13) and even soft-bodied animals (epibiont bioimmuration; see Wilson et al., 1994).

A neat package here resulting from biological, sedimentological and geochemical factors.

References:

Palmer, T.J., Hudson, J.D. and Wilson, M.A. 1988. Palaeoecological evidence for early aragonite dissolution in ancient calcite seas. Nature 335 (6193): 809–810.

Sweet, W.C. 1964. Nautiloidea — Orthocerida, in Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology. Part K. Mollusca 3, Geological Society of America, and University of Kansas Press, New York, New York and Lawrence, Kansas.

Wilson, M.A., Palmer, T.J. and Taylor, P.D. 1994. Earliest preservation of soft-bodied fossils by epibiont bioimmuration: Upper Ordovician of Kentucky. Lethaia 27: 269-270.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: An early bryozoan on a Middle Ordovician hardground from Utah

October 10th, 2014

ORBIPORA UTAHENSIS (Hinds, 1970) 072014Last week I presented eocrinoid holdfasts on carbonate hardgrounds from the Kanosh Formation (Middle Ordovician) in west-central Utah. This week we have a thick and strangely featureless bryozoan from the same hardgrounds. It is very common on these surfaces, forming gray, perforate masses that look stuck on like silly putty. Above you see one on the left end of this hardground fragment. (The circular object to the right is another eocrinoid holdfast.)
Kanosh bryo eo 072014Here is a closer view of the bryozoan, again with one of those ubiquitous eocrinoids encrusting it. The holes are the zooecial apertures. Each zooecium is the skeletal component of a living bryozoan individual (zooid). Note that the walls are thick and granular between the zooecia. All the zooecia look pretty much the same, and there are no other structures like spines, pillars or maculae. This is about as simple as a bryozoan gets.

It is impossible to be certain without a thin-section or acetate peel showing the interior, but I’m pretty sure this Kanosh bryozoan is Orbipora utahensis (Hinds, 1970). It matches fairly well the description in Hinds (1970), who named it Dianulites utahensis, and it fits within the redescription by Ernst et al. (2007).

Several years ago we would have called this a trepostome bryozoan and left it at that. These are, after all, the “stony bryozoans” with thick calcite skeletons and long zooecia. However, the group to which Orbipora belongs is unusual because they have no polymorphs (small zooecia different from the primary zooecia) and have granular skeletal textures rather than laminated. We think the granular walls may be because the original skeletons were made of high-magnesium calcite that later altered to low-magnesium calcite and dolomite, losing details of the microstructure. Orbipora is thus in an as yet undescribed new order of bryozoans. [Update: See comment below from Paul Taylor.]

The Kanosh hardgrounds and their attaching faunas are important in geological and biological history because they are telling us something about the geochemical conditions of the seawater when they formed. We think this was a peak time of Calcite Seas, when low-magnesium calcite was a primary marine precipitate and carbon dioxide levels were high in the atmosphere and seawater. Hardgrounds would have formed rapidly because of early cementation, and aragonite and high-magnesium skeletons would have altered soon after death. The abundant Kanosh communities and substrates are critical evidence for these conditions that were superimposed on the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (GOBE). We thus have a delightful combination of seawater geochemistry (and, ultimately, the tectonics that controls it) and evolution intertwined in the history of these rocks and fossils.

References:

Ernst, A., Taylor, P.D. and Wilson, M.A. 2007. Ordovician bryozoans from the Kanosh Formation (Whiterockian) of Utah, USA. Journal of Paleontology 81: 998-1008.

Hinds, R.W. 1970. Ordovician Bryozoa from the Pogonip Group of Millard County, western Utah. Brigham Young University Research Studies, Geology Series 17: 19–40.

Marenco, P.J., Marenco, K.N., Lubitz, R.L. and Niu, D. 2013. Contrasting long-term global and short-term local redox proxies during the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event: A case study from Fossil Mountain, Utah, USA. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 377: 45-51.

Wilson, M.A., Palmer, T.J., Guensburg, T.E., Finton, C.D. and Kaufman, L.E. 1992. The development of an Early Ordovician hardground community in response to rapid sea-floor calcite precipitation. Lethaia 25: 19-34.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Eocrinoid holdfasts on a Middle Ordovician hardground from Utah

October 3rd, 2014

Kanosh Hardground 072014 smBack in the late 1980s and early 1990s, several students and I did fieldwork in the Middle Ordovician Kanosh Formation in west-central Utah. One year we were joined by my friend Tim Palmer of the University of Aberystwyth. Together, Chris Finton (’91), Lewis Kaufman (’91), Tim and I put together a paper describing the carbonate hardground communities in this remarkable formation (Wilson et al., 1992). At top is an image of one of the surface of one of these hardgrounds. It is covered with holdfasts of rhipidocystid eocrinoids, a kind of primitive echinoderm.
Fossil Mountain UtahMost of the hardgrounds we studied in the Kanosh Formation were found here at Fossil Mountain near Ibex, Utah. (If you want to consider Ibex a place, at least.) It was a beautiful place to work, and it is still highly productive for geologists and paleontologists (see Marenco et al., 2013, for the latest investigation).

Kanosh eocrinoid 2The encrusters on the Kanosh hardgrounds are dominated by two groups: bryozoans (which we’ll highlight next week) and stemmed echinoderms (this week’s subject). The echinoderms are represented by thousands of these small attachment structures called holdfasts. The stem of the echinoderm was attached here to the hardground. The entire skeleton of the echinoderm, including the hardground, is made of low-magnesium calcite, so they are very well preserved. Surprisingly, the hardground communities in the Kanosh have very few sponges or borings.

Kanosh eocrinoid 3 072014The holdfasts come in a few varieties with subtle morphological differences. Here we have one with a tri-radiate center.

Kanosh eocrinoids 1Sometimes the holdfasts blended together on the hardground surface, which was probably the result of competition for attachment space. Note the tri-radiate centers.

Mandalacystis diagramFrom a few plates we found, it appears that the rhipidocystid eocrinoid holdfasts are from a creature like Mandalacystis, which is pictured above from Figure 1 of Lewis et al. (1987). We can’t tell for certain without more of the skeleton, but the holdfasts are very similar to what has been described for the genus.

These Middle Ordovician hardgrounds were formed at an interesting time in the chemistry of the oceans and the development of marine invertebrate faunas. More on that next week!

References:

Ernst, A., Taylor, P.D. and Wilson, M.A. 2007. Ordovician bryozoans from the Kanosh Formation (Whiterockian) of Utah, USA. Journal of Paleontology 81: 998-1008.

Lewis, R.D., Sprinkle, J., Bailey, J.B., Moffit, J. and Parsley, R.L. 1987. Mandalacystis, a new rhipidocystid eocrinoid from the Whiterockian Stage (Ordovician) in Oklahoma and Nevada. Journal of Paleontology 61: 1222-1235.

Marenco, P.J., Marenco, K.N., Lubitz, R.L. and Niu, D. 2013. Contrasting long-term global and short-term local redox proxies during the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event: A case study from Fossil Mountain, Utah, USA. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 377: 45-51.

Wilson, M.A., Palmer, T.J., Guensburg, T.E., Finton, C.D. and Kaufman, L.E. 1992. The development of an Early Ordovician hardground community in response to rapid sea-floor calcite precipitation. Lethaia 25: 19-34.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A crinoid calyx from the Upper Ordovician of southern Ohio

September 26th, 2014

Xenocrinus baeri (Meek, 1872)_585This week’s contribution from the Wooster collections will be short. If all is going well, as this is posted I’m on my way to the Fourth International Palaeontological Congress in Mendoza, Argentina. I hope to have a few posts from that exotic place!

The fossil above is the crown of a monobathrid crinoid called Xenocrinus baeri (Meek, 1872). It was found by Bianca Hand (Wooster ’14) in the Bull Fork Formation (Upper Ordovician, Richmondian) on an Invertebrate Paleontology field trip to the emergency spillway at Caesar Creek State Park in southern Ohio (seen below). Thank you to my friend Bill Ausich of The Ohio State University for identifying this fossil. It is an unprepared specimen of a common species, and it is not nearly so flashy as in other collections. Still, it is one of the best finds from our class field trips, and it is cool. The calyx is on the right and mostly buried in matrix. Four filter-feeding arms extend to the left. Where the matrix is broken away on the far right you can see tiny ossicles from the pinnules on the arms. Someone using a needle very carefully under a microscope could expose more details of this crinoid, but I like leaving something to the imagination!
CaesarCreek2011References:

Schumacher, G.A. and Ausich, W.I. 198). New Upper Ordovician echinoderm site: Bull Fork Formation, Caesar Creek Reservoir (Warren County, Ohio). The Ohio Journal of Science 83: 60-64.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: A nest of cornulitid tubeworms and friends from the Upper Ordovician of northern Kentucky

September 19th, 2014

Cornulitids and bryozoan Bellevue 585This fascinating and complicated little cluster of cornulitid wormtubes was found by my current Independent Study student William Harrison while we were doing fieldwork near Petersburg, Kentucky. (Just down the road from the infamous Creation Museum, ironically.) It was collected from a roadcut in the Bellevue Member of the Grant Lake Formation (Upper Ordovician, locality C/W-152). We’ve seen all the elements before (cornulitids, bryozoans and stromatoporoids), but not in such a tight set of relationships. I find this aspect of paleontology to be one of the most delightful: who lived with whom and how?
reconstr1The tubes are of the common Paleozoic genus Cornulites Schlotheim 1820, and the species is Cornulites flexuosus (Hall 1847). These long-extinct little marine animals had calcitic shells and likely bore a filter-feeding lophophore, as shown in the reconstruction above by my friend Olev Vinn. They appear to be related to brachiopods, bryozoans, phoronids, and some other tubeworms that shared this feeding device and certain features of the shell. Their life goal was to keep their lophophore or equivalent apparatus free of obstructions so they could collect nutrients from the surrounding seawater.
cornulitid whole specimen 091214The bryozoan, which makes up the primary substrate of the specimen (seen above) is a trepostome. Its skeleton contains hundreds of tiny tubes (zooecia) that held individuals (zooids) in the colony (zoarium — these terms are for my paleo students this week!). Each zooid in this type of bryozoan had a lophophore for filter-feeding.
cornulitid, dermatostroma, bryozoanAbove we see a thin, light-colored, bumpy sheet in the center of the image covering three of the cornulitid tubes and some of the bryozoan. This is the stromatoproid Dermatostroma papillatum (James, 1878). Stromatoporoids were a kind of sponge with a skeletal base, so this organism was also a filter-feeder. (It was originally known as Stromatopora papillata James, 1878.) Here we see the interesting symbioses (living together) aspects of this tiny assemblage. In the top right you see a cornulitid tube growing over the bryozoan, but the bryozoan in turn is overgrowing its proximal parts. The bryozoan and the cornulitid were thus alive at the same time. The stromatoporoid is growing over the bryozoan and the three cornulitids, but it is overgrown by cornulitids on the left. In addition, the stromatoporoid did not obstruct the cornulitid apertures, an indication that they were occupying living tubeworms. My hypothesis, then, is that all three of these characters were alive at the same time growing in response to each other.

It could be that this represents a tiny hard substrate tiered assemblage, meaning that the organisms were selecting food resources at slightly different heights and particle sizes (see Ausich and Bottjer, 1982, for a start on the tiering literature). The cornulitids may have taken the largest bits, the bryozoans the next size, and then the stromatoporoids, as minuscule sponges, got the finest particles. This is another paleontological hypothesis that can be tested with further specimens.

It is also an example of the value of getting sharp-eyed students on the outcrops as often as possible. Good work, William!

References:

Ausich, W.I. and Bottjer, D.J. 1982. Tiering in suspension feeding communities on soft substrata throughout the Phanerozoic. Science 216: 173-174.

Galloway, J.J. and St. Jean, J., Jr. 1961. Ordovician Stromatoporoidea of North America. Bulletins of American Paleontology 43: 1-102.

Morris, W. R. and H. B. Rollins. 1971. The distribution and paleoecological interpretation of Cornulites in the Waynesville Formation (Upper Ordovician) of southern Ohio. The Ohio Journal of Science 71: 159-170.

Parks, W.A. 1910. Ordovician stromatoporoids of America. University of Toronto Studies, Geology Series 7, 52 pp.

Schlotheim, E.F. von. 1820. Die Petrefakten-Kunde auf ihrem jetzigen Standpunkte durch die Beshreibung seiner Sammlung versteinerter und fossiler Ueberreste des their-und Planzenreichs der Vorwelt erlaeutert. Gotha, 437 p.

Taylor, P.D., Vinn, O. and Wilson, M.A. 2010. Evolution of biomineralization in ‘lophophorates’. Special Papers in Palaeontology 84: 317-333.

Vinn, O. and Mutvei, H. 2005. Observations on the morphology and affinities of cornulitids from the Ordovician of Anticosti Island and the Silurian of Gotland. Journal of Paleontology 79: 726-737.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: A hardground with rugose corals from the Upper Ordovician of southern Ohio

September 5th, 2014

Hdgd small 090114The above slab is a carbonate hardground from the Liberty Formation (Upper Ordovician) of southern Ohio. Carbonate hardgrounds are cemented seafloors, so we’re actually looking at the hard rocky bottom of an Ordovician sea. I’ve long found the idea of a hardground fascinating — it is like a bit of ancient time frozen before us. This hardground is especially interesting because of the fossils associated with it. The knobby nature of the surface is probably due to a burrow system that was preferentially cemented and then exhumed by currents that washed away the loose sediment. The intersecting tunnels, now ridges, provided numerous crannies for encrusting, boring and nestling organisms to inhabit. The high points hosted encrusting bryozoans that needed currents for their filter-feeding.

brach coral 090114There are several shelly fossils found in the low points of this hardground surface. The brachiopod in the upper left is the orthid Plaesiomys subquadrata (Hall, 1847), and the conical rugose coral in the lower right is Grewingkia canadensis (Billings, 1862)

two corals 090114Here is another detailed view of the hardground showing a second rugose coral on the left. I suspect that the corals and maybe even the brachiopod are actually in place (or “in situ” to use the fancy words). I’ve seen such occurrences before and passed them off as just examples of loose fossils rolling into holes. Here, though, we can see that both corals have the calyx (the cup in which the coral polyp was located) facing upwards. These G. canadensis corals did not attach to hard substrates like some of their cousins, but lay recumbent and curved upwards on the seafloor. What better place to do so than in the cozy hollows of a hardground?

This slab is certainly a nice vignette of a marine community nearly 450 million years old.

References:

Billings, E. 1862. New species of fossils from different parts of the Lower, Middle, and Upper Silurian rocks of Canada. Paleozoic Fossils, Volume 1, Canadian Geological Survey, p. 96-168.

Hall, J. 1847. Paleontology of New York, v. 1: Albany, State of New York, 338 p.

Palmer, T.J. 1982. Cambrian to Cretaceous changes in hardground communities. Lethaia 15: 309–323.

Wilson, M.A. and Palmer, T.J. 1992. Hardgrounds and hardground faunas. University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Institute of Earth Studies Publications 9: 1–131.

First Wooster paleontology field trip of the year: the glorious Ordovician of Ohio

August 31st, 2014

1CaesarCreek083114Today the Invertebrate Paleontology class at The College of Wooster drove south to one of our favorite outcrops: the Waynesville, Liberty and Whitewater Formations (= Bull Fork Formation) at the emergency spillway in Caesar Creek State Park. I enjoy taking students to this extensive exposure because it has diverse fossils, is easy for beginners, and it is hard to get lost here! The rain was unrelenting on our drive down, and it continued well past our arrival at the Visitor Center. The park manager very helpfully showed us a new park movie and gave us a talk about the Army Corps of Engineers (which runs the dam and lake). This occupied us as the rain slowed and finally ended soon after we approached the rocks. You’ll see surface water as a theme in these photos because the spillway turned into meandering streams and wetlands.

2Brachs083114Above is an example of why we visited Caesar Creek. The fossils are fantastically abundant and well preserved. The students had a simple charge: collect a diverse array of fossils, enough to fill two large bags each. They will prepare and identify their fossils throughout the semester as a field/lab exercise. Since I’ve shown these fossils many times in this blog, I’ll use the rest of the post to show off my students.

3TrevorBrianKevin083114Heading up the north end crew is (from the left) Trevor Shoemaker, Brian Merritt, and Kevin Komara. (You’ll see that I get better with the people photos as I moved south.)

4Chloe083114Chloe Wallace is here in the foreground braving the mud on her knees.

5KelliSpencer083114Kelli Baxstrom (upper left) has a nearly full bag, and the flash of purpleness in the lower right is Spencer Zeigler.

6Mary083114Mary Reinthal shows her enthusiasm for her first fossil expedition.

7Andrew083114Andrew Conaway was always easy to find on the outcrop.

8Annette083114Annette Hilton is here examining a slab full of small strophomenid brachiopods.

9Cassidy083114Cassidy Jester has a slab almost too large for her bag. Note the standing water behind her.

CurtisGalen083114Curtis Davies (back) and Galen Schwartzberg show the happiness that comes with fossil collecting (especially when the rain stops).

DanJeffKrysden083114Dan Peraza-Rudesill and Jeff Gunderson are joyfully receiving instruction from the class Teaching Assistant, Krysden Schantz.

GalenSharron083114Galen Schwartzberg (left) demonstrates that he can even find fossils here with his eyes closed as a cynical Sharron Osterman looks on. Both of these students are from Seattle, so rain is no discomfort for them. (Nor mud, in Galen’s case.)

MaeKaitlin083114Mae Kemsley and Kaitlin Starr proudly carry their first bags of fossils.

Meredith083114Meredith Mann reaches with mud-stained fingers for more fossil treasures.

William083114William Harrison is a senior who wanted to come along for the fun and to possibly add to his senior independent study materials. He was a great help with his advanced paleontological knowledge.

zPaleoGroup083114And here is the class at the end of the session with their collections. I was very pleased to see how dry everyone was. We had a window of respite for collecting because soon after lunch it began to rain again. We were only missing Julia Franceschi, who had a scheduling conflict. I’m looking forward to seeing all these fossils once they are cleaned and prepared in our paleontology lab. At the end of the semester each student will have a full report on the fossil fauna at Caesar Creek, including identifications and paleoecology.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: An Ordovician hardground with a bryozoan and borings — and an unexpected twist

August 1st, 2014

1 Hardground Bryo Large 071514aThe view above, one quite familiar to me, is of a carbonate hardground from the Upper Ordovician Grant Lake Formation exposed near Washington, Mason County, Kentucky. We are looking directly at the bedding plane of this limestone. The lumpy, spotted fossil covering about half the surface is a trepostome bryozoan. It looks like a dollop of thick pudding plopped on the rock. In the upper left are round holes that are openings of the trace fossil Trypanites, a common boring in carbonate hard substrates.
2 Closer hdgd bryo 071514bThis closer view shows the bryozoan details in the right half. You can barely pick out the tiny pin holes of the zooecia (the tubes that contained the individual zooids) and see the raised areas called maculae, which may have assisted in directing water currents for these colonial filter-feeders. Without a thin-section or peel I can’t identify the bryozoan beyond trepostome, but I suspect it is Amplexopora. The Trypanites borings in the hardground surface are also visible.
3 Hardground oblique Ordovician sm 071514cThis oblique view brings all the elements together. The bryozoan has closely encrusted the microtopography of the hardground surface. The Trypanites borings are shown cutting directly through the limestone of the hardground. Both of these observations confirm that the hardground was cemented seafloor sediment when the encrusters and borers occupied it.
4 Cross section hdgd 071514dHere is a full cross-section view showing the borings and the draping nature of the bryozoan. Now for the twist — I’m showing the specimen upside-down! It was actually found in place with the bryozoan down, not up. This is the roof of a small cave on the Ordovician seafloor. The bryozoan was hanging down from the ceiling, and the boring organisms were drilling upwards. The true orientation of this specimen is thus —
5 Cross section hdgd right side up 071514dThe cave was apparently formed after the carbonate hardground was cemented on the seafloor. Currents may have washed away unconsolidated muds underneath the hardground, forming a small cavity then occupied by the borers and the bryozoan: an ancient cave fauna. Brett & Liddell (1978) showed similar cavity encrustation in the Middle Ordovician, and I recorded a nearly identical situation in the Middle Jurassic of Utah (Wilson, 1998). Other detailed fossil marine caves are described from the Jurassic by Palmer & Fürsich (1974) and Taylor & Palmer (1994).

I should write up this Ordovician story someday!

References:

Brett, C.E. and Liddell, W.D. 1978. Preservation and paleoecology of a Middle Ordovician hardground community. Paleobiology 4: 329– 348.

Bromley, R.G. 1972. On some ichnotaxa in hard substrates, with a redefinition of Trypanites Mägdefrau. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 46: 93–98.

Palmer, T.J. 1982. Cambrian to Cretaceous changes in hardground communities. Lethaia 15: 309–323.

Palmer, T.J. and Fürsich, F.T. 1974. The ecology of a Middle Jurassic hardground and crevice fauna. Palaeontology 17: 507–524.

Taylor, P.D. and Palmer, T.J. 1994. Submarine caves in a Jurassic reef (La Rochelle, France) and the evolution of cave biotas. Naturwissenschaften 81: 357-360.

Taylor, P.D. and Wilson. M.A. 2003. Palaeoecology and evolution of marine hard substrate communities. Earth-Science Reviews 62: 1–103.

Wilson, M.A. 1998. Succession in a Jurassic marine cavity community and the evolution of cryptic marine faunas. Geology 26: 379-381.

Wilson, M.A. and Palmer, T.J. 1992. Hardgrounds and hardground faunas. University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Institute of Earth Studies Publications 9: 1–131.

Last day of work at the Natural History Museum, and some special visitors

June 25th, 2014

pdt16846 copyLONDON, ENGLAND — I know it is an acquired taste, and way too esoteric, but I think the above scanning electron micrograph is beautiful. This is an undescribed species of the cyclostome bryozoan Corynotrypa from the Upper Ordovician Bromide Formation of Oklahoma. There are all sorts of juicy details in this image that tell us about the growth and development of this extinct colonial organism, its paleoecology, and even its evolutionary relationships. It is also just plain exquisite. Paul and I had a productive and enjoyable time scanning this and several other Ordovician bryozoan specimens in our exploration of the early cyclostomes.

Paul and I stumbled upon something very surprising in our scanning this morning. We think it is potentially significant. Sorry for the tease, but we’re not ready to announce it yet. I just want to say again that we had a very good day of science!

Davis family 062514This afternoon we had great visitors to the Natural History Museum in London and its behind-the-scenes collections. From the left is Hudson Davis, his grandfather the prominent structural geologist George Davis (Wooster ’64), another grandson named, curiously, George Davis, and Merrily Davis. Paul (on the far right) gave all of us an excellent tour of the museum, including special collections and an emphasis on the awesome bryozoans. Paul and I were very impressed at how well prepared the Davis family was for this experience. They had excellent questions and a deep appreciation for natural history. It was also good to see a bit of Wooster here!

Photo by George Davis.

Photo by George Davis.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A scolecodont from the Upper Ordovician of the Cincinnati region

May 4th, 2014

Cincinnatian scolecodontThis tiny but fearsome jaw is known as a scolecodont, and they are fairly common in the Cincinnatian rocks (Upper Ordovician) in the tri-state area of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. The label on this particular specimen does not indicate the exact locality or stratigraphic unit, but it does give a taxonomic name: “Nereidavus varians Grinnell 1877″. More on that below.

Scolecodonts are the jaws of extinct polychaete annelid worms. They are known from the Cambrian right through the Recent, so we’re pretty sure what their functions were: grabbing prey and pulling it into the gullet of the worm. They are made of a very tough chitin (an organic material much like our fingernails) and survive well the vicissitudes of fossilization. I ran across them often when I studied conodonts, which they superficially resemble.

Polychaete mouthThe Telegraph, of all places, has some amazing SEM images of the scary end of living jawed polychaetes, one of which is shown above. (I think they colored it to look like it has blood on its teeth.) Our Ordovician jaw easily fits into this functional model.

For much more on scolecodonts, Olle Hints has a superb website devoted just to these critters, and Rich Fuchs has a very useful page on the Cincinnatian varieties.

Now as for the name of our specimen, it appears that the taxonomy of Ordovician scolecodonts is in a bit of disarray. Nereidavus Grinnell, 1877, is, according to Bergman (1991) and Eriksson (1999), a nomen dubium (dubious name) because the holotype (single primary type specimen) of the type species is lost. That specimen was from Cincinnatian strata, then referred to as “Lower Silurian”. The paratype (sort of a spare type specimen) is N. varians, the same name on the label of our specimen. Eriksson considered that species to be in the genus Ramphoprion Kielan-Jaworowska, 1962. A true diagnosis of our specimen would involve extracting it from the matrix and looking at it its dorsal (oral) surface, but that’s not going to happen. I’m plenty happy just leaving this fossil as Ramphoprion sp.

Kielan-JaworowskaThe paleontologist who named the scolecodont genus Ramphoprion is the famous and incredibly accomplished Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska (above). She is best known for her pioneering work on dinosaur-bearing deposits in Mongolia in the 1960s, but she has worked on many fossil groups from trilobites to mammals. Kielan-Jaworowska (born in 1925) received her Masters Degree in zoology and a doctorate in paleontology (aren’t many of those now) at Warsaw University. She became a professor there and was later the first woman to serve on the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences. I read her 1974 book Hunting for Dinosaurs in college as an adventure tale with a strong narrative framework of science. It was inspirational, and it convinced me that paleontology was the coolest science.

References:

Bergman, C F. 1991. Revision of some Silurian paulinitid scolecodonts from western New York. Journal of Paleontology 65: 248–254.

Eriksson, M. 1999. Taxonomic discussion of the scolecodont genera Nereidavus Grinnell, 1877, and Protarabellites Stauffer, 1933 (Annelida: Polychaeta). Journal of Paleontology 73: 403-406.

Eriksson, M. and Bergman, C.F. 2003. Late Ordovician jawed polychaete faunas of the type Cincinnatian Region, U.S.A. Journal of Paleontology 77: 509-523.

Grinnell, G.B. 1877. Notice of a new genus of annelids from the Lower Silurian. American Journal of Science and Arts 14: 229–230.

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