Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: Glyptodon carapace fragment from the Pleistocene

December 29th, 2013

Glyptodon carapace fragment Pleistocene 585This is a tiny bit of a large and fascinating Pleistocene animal from Central and South America. It is Glyptodon, an impressively large mammal with bony armor much like its cousin the armadillo. The above fossil is a fragment of that carapace. Each roundel is called a scute.
Glyptodon carapace side 585This is a side view of the above carapace fragment showing its thickness and layered, bony nature.
Glyptodon ReconstructionThis modern reconstruction of Glyptodon (from Wikipedia with a GNU free documentation license) shows its primary features, including the bony shell (the size and shape of a Volkswagen Beatle, as is often stated) and its characteristically large claws. It belongs to the Superorder Xenarthra, which includes armadillos, sloths and anteaters. I see the resemblance. They could not completely go turtle, as it were, but it could pull its head back enough into the shell that the scutes on the top of the skull would protect it like a cap. They had massive jaws and flat grinding teeth typical of a large herbivore. Its squat skeleton had a variety of features to support the heavy shell, including fused vertebrae and elephant-like short, stout limbs. They went extinct only about 10,000 years ago, possibly having been hunted to oblivion by early Americans. There is even some evidence that people used their empty shells as shelters.
Richard_OwenGlyptodon was formally named as a genus in 1839 by the extraordinary Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892). Owen was a giant of natural history through most of the 19th Century. He is most remembered for inventing the term Dinosauria (“terrible lizards”) and for being on the wrong side of history at the beginning of the Darwinian Revolution. He was apparently ambitious to the point of severity, and very tough on his contemporary scientists. Thomas Henry Huxley, for example, despised Owen for his treatment of his colleagues. Ironically, Huxley did considerable work on further describing Glyptodon in 1865. Owen had vision as well as sharp observational skills. He was a primary force in the eventual establishment of the Natural History Museum in London in 1881. It can be argued that this museum set the high standards of accessibility and research we now expect from all such institutions. Sir Richard Owen is such a large and well known figure I can simply refer you to one of many websites describing Owen’s life and contributions.

This post marks three complete years of Wooster’s Fossil of the Week. That’s 156 posts. You can visit the very first post (about a Devonian tabulate coral) and see how the entries have evolved, so to speak. We still have plenty more fossils to describe!

References:

Gallo, V., Avilla, L.S., Pereira, R.C. and Absolon, B.A. 2013. Distributional patterns of herbivore megamammals during the Late Pleistocene of South America. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 85(2): 533-546.

Huxley, T.H. 1865. On the osteology of the genus Glyptodon. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 155: 31-70.

Oliveira, É.V., Porpino, K.O. and Barreto, A.F. 2010. On the presence of Glyptotherium in the Late Pleistocene of northeastern Brazil, and the status of “Glyptodon” and “Chlamydotherium“. Paleobiogeographic implications. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie-Abhandlungen 258(3): 353-363.

Owen, R. 1839. Description of a tooth and part of the skeleton of the Glyptodon, a large quadruped of the edentate order, to which belongs the tessellated bony armor figured by Mr. Clift in his memoir on the remains of the Megatherium, brought to England by Sir Woodbine Parish. FGS Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 3: 108-113.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Bits of a bamboo coral from the Lower Pleistocene of Sicily

October 27th, 2013

Keratoisis melitensis (Goldfuss, 1826) 585Earlier this summer I participated on a pre-conference field trip of the International Bryozoology Association throughout Sicily. We had an excellent time and saw many wondrous things. At one stop on the western side of the Milazzo Peninsula in the northwestern part of the island we collected fossils from a fascinating foraminiferal ooze deposit known as the “Yellow Calcareous Marls” (Gelasian, Lower Pleistocene). Among the fossils in this unit were the objects pictured above. They looked like finger bones at first, but are actually the internodes (calcitic skeletal elements) of an octocoral known as “bamboo coral“. This particular species is Keratoisis melitensis (Goldfuss, 1826). I’ve never seen this group before in the fossil record. (Note, by the way, that these specimens are encrusted by foraminiferans and octocoral holdfasts. This means they rolled around on the seafloor for an extended period before burial.)
ModernBambooCoralBamboo coral belongs to the octocoral group and is only a distant relative of reef-forming “hard corals” or scleractinians. They are common today in deep seas because they do not need sunlight for photosynthetic symbionts like most hard corals do. They have multiple polyps for feeding, none of which can retract back into the skeleton. That is why the surface of these internodes is so smooth and without the usual corallite holes. Above is a colony of white bamboo coral (Keratoisis flexibilis); image from Wikimedia Commons.
bamboo_coral_585Here we have a dried specimen of Keratoisis from the Florida Straits. You can see the white calcitic internodes of the skeleton separated from each other by the black nodes made of an organic material called gorgonin. This explains why our fossil specimens consist entirely of the isolated internodes — the chitinous parts did not survive fossilization. (Image from NOAA.)

Bamboo corals are long-lived, and it has been recently discovered that they incorporate trace elements in their skeletons as they grow, making them excellent specimens for studying changes in the chemistry and circulation of deep-sea waters. These fossils may thus someday be useful for sorting out the complex changes in the Mediterranean during the Pleistocene.

References:

Langer M. 1989. The holdfast internodes and sclerites of Keratoisis melitensis Goldfuss 1826 Octocorallia in the Pliocene foraminifera marl Trubi of Milazzo Sicily Italy. Palaeontologische Zeitschrift 63: 15-24.

Sinclair, D.J., Williams, B., Allard, G., Ghaleb, B., Fallon, S., Ross, S.W. and Risk, M. 2011. Reproducibility of trace element profiles in a specimen of the deep-water bamboo coral Keratoisis sp. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 75: 5101-5121.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: An ancient predator/prey system from the Lower Pleistocene of Sicily

September 15th, 2013

Bored and Borer for FOTWThe above fossils were collected from a Lower Pleistocene silty marl exposed near the Megara archaeological site east of Augusta, Sicily, Italy. I was on that epic International Bryozoology Association field trip this summer I’ve been blogging about. The shells in this locality are very abundant with hundreds of species represented, from foraminiferans to shark teeth. I thought this little vignette of a predator and its typical prey was worth noting.

On the far right is a naticid gastropod (moon snail). These mollusks are predators who kill and consume their prey by drilling holes into their shells with a specialized radula (a kind of tooth-bearing “tongue”). Their holes are distinctively beveled, with a wider portion on the outside narrowing to a smaller inner opening. The three organisms on the left all show boreholes indicating that they were likely killed and eaten by a naticid.

Or at least that’s the traditional story. A paper came out this year (Gorzelak et al., 2013) comparing predatory drill holes in shells with holes produced by physical abrasion by experimental tumbling. The sizes, shapes and locations of these abrasion-produced holes are shockingly similar to those made by drilling predators. It looks like we must be careful which holes we assign to predation and which were produced by other means.

As I look at the three victims above, two of them (the high-spired turritellid gastropod on the far left and the bivalve second from the right) have nicely beveled holes with almost perfectly circular shapes. The gastropod shell that is second from the left, though, presents problems. First, it has two holes that completely penetrate the shell. Predators occasionally bore a shell twice, but not very often. Second the holes are more irregular in shape and don’t have a noticeable beveling. This could be a feature of the thinner shell of this gastropod not recording the usual naticid boring evidence, or it could be the result of physical abrasion and not predation. It is a difficult call but an important one to those plotting the evolution of this predator/prey system through time.

References:

Gorzelak, P., Salamon, M.A., Trzęsiok, D. and Niedźwiedzki, R. 2013. Drill holes and predation traces versus abrasion-induced artifacts revealed by tumbling experiments. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58528. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058528

Kelley, P.H. and Hansen, T.A. 2006. Comparisons of class- and lower taxon-level patterns in naticid gastropod predation, Cretaceous to Pleistocene of the US Coastal Plain. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 236: 302–320.

Kowalewski, M., Dulai, A. and Fürsich, F.T. 1998. A fossil record full of holes: The Phanerozoic history of drilling predation. Geology 26: 1091–1094.

Tyler, C.L. and Schiffbauer, J.D. 2012. The fidelity of microstructural drilling predation traces to gastropod radula morphology: paleoecological applications. Palaios 27: 658–666.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: A foraminiferal ooze from the Pleistocene of Italy

August 18th, 2013

YCM forams 1On a recent field trip to Sicily, our paleontological party visited outcrops at Cala Sant’Antonino on the western side of the Milazzo Peninsula in the northwestern part of the island. We saw there an Early Pleistocene sedimentary unit informally called the “Yellow Calcareous Marls”. With a handlens you would see a close view of the rock like the image above. It consists almost entirely of tiny hollow white spheres with occasional dark flecks. In the lab back home these little calcitic balls were revealed to be tests (skeletons) of foraminiferans known as Globorotalia inflata (d’Orbigny, 1839). This is a classic example of a biogenic sediment called foraminiferal ooze, samples of which are now in Wooster’s paleontological and sedimentological teaching collections.
Foram-Marl-060913This is the outcrop of the “Yellow Calcareous Marls” at Cala Sant’Antonino from which the above samples were collected. The rock is very soft and powdery to the touch.

YCM forams 2In this closer view of the rock the individual foraminiferal tests are more apparent. Near the center is one example showing the connected bulbous chambers (making it multilocular) and the slit-like aperture between them. These tests are slightly recrystallized, giving them a sugary look. The dark bits are sand-sized volcaniclastic grains derived from early eruptions of the Mount Etna complex.

Globorotalia_inflataThese are modern examples of Globorotalia inflata. (The scale bars are 0.1 mm.) The bumpy surface texture, bulbous chambers and distinctive aperture make identification of the fossil examples fairly easy. The images were taken by Bruce Hayward.

Globorotalia inflata is a long-lived planktonic species, meaning it floats about near the top of the water column throughout the oceans. In life these single-celled organisms extend thin strands of material (pseudopodia) into the water around them to collect organic material and the occasional diatom or radiolarian for nutrition. They live in populations with billions of individuals, so under the right conditions their tests can accumulate on the seafloor in numbers so vast they form thick deposits, our foraminiferal oozes. Our particular ooze in this story formed in relatively deep (epibathyal), cool waters during one of the early glacial intervals. This foraminiferan turns out to be a critical guide to the age of the unit as well as its paleoenvironmental context.

References:

Fois, E. 1990. Stratigraphy and palaeogeography of the Capo Milazzo area (NE Sicily, Italy): clues to the evolution of the southern margin of the Tyrrhenian Basin during the Neogene. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 78: 87–108.

Sciuto, F. 2012. Bythocythere solisdeus n. sp. and Cytheropteron eleonorae n. sp. (Crustacea, Ostracoda) from the Early Pleistocene bathyal sediments of Cape Milazzo (NE, Sicily). Geosciences 2012 2: 147-156.

 

Limestones, basalts, the wine-dark sea and the brooding volcano

June 16th, 2013

1.BasaltLimestone061613CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–Today we had our last field trip associated with the 2013 International Bryozoology Conference. We traveled to the east coast of Sicily at Castelluccio, which is south of Catania and north of Syracuse. The weather could not have been better. It was, as a commenter has said, “impossibly beautiful”.

The view above is of Early Pleistocene limestones resting on tholeitic basalt flows. As our guides said, in this place we could see the interplay of extensional tectonics, regional uplift, and glacially-controlled sea-level changes. The visuals were stunning. In the background you can see the east flank of Mount Etna.
2.Thalassinoides061613The limestones were of shallow-water origin and very diverse. One layer was almost completed bioturbated (biologically stirred up) by crustaceans, producing a trace fossil of connected tunnels called Thalassinoides.
3.FossilScallops061613Fossils were abundant in some units. Here is an horizon rich in scallop shells. These shells are often preferentially preserved because they are made of hardy calcite rather than chemically unstable aragonite like most other mollusk skeletons.
5.Dike061613The interactions between the basalt flows and the calcareous sediments were fascinated. Above you see a black basaltic dike cutting vertically through the limestones. Why there are no visible baked zones is a mystery to me.
4.BakedZone061613In this image we have basalt above and sediments below. The pink color of the limestones tells us they were cooked by the hot lava that flowed over them.
6.Beachrock061613There are a variety of post-depositional geological processes operating at this outcrop. One of them is the superimposition of beachrock during sea-level highstands. Beachrock is a cemented sediment formed in the surf zone by precipitation of carbonate. This particular beachrock was plastered onto an eroded limestone cliff like stucco. You can see black basalt among the diverse clasts.
7.EtnaBayView061613Over it all rules Mount Etna, here viewed from the top of the outcrop. It was unusually smoky today, which does not show well in our photographs because of the murky haze. We headed to this behemoth for the second and last stop of our field trip.

A shelly bonanza from the Pleistocene of Sicily

June 5th, 2013

5. MegaraDitch060513NOTO, SICILY, ITALY–Our second stop of the day on this International Bryozoology Association field trip was in an unimpressive ditch (above) near Megara. But, of course, there is paleontological gold here: an assemblage of extremely well-preserved marine fossils.

6. AndrejMegara060513Colleague Andrej Ernst is examining a layer of shells extending the length of the drainage ditch.

7. SerpulidsMegara060513Her are some beautiful pectinid bivalves (scallops) with the treat for me: abundant serpulid worm tubes. There is an extensive sclerobiont (hard substrate dwelling) community on these shells.

7a. TurritellidsMegara060513Turritellid gastropods (snails) are extremely common in this assemblage. Note that several of these specimens have small holes drilled in them by predatory gastropods. We found naticid gastropods here too, which were probably the culprits.

8. HornedQuadrupedsMegara060513This mother lode of fossils was guarded by a herd of horned beasts. This one had a bell on it, so I assumed it was the most dangerous and stayed far away. (Love this new zoom lens!)

 

Sicilian fossils at last!

June 4th, 2013

FieldStopOne060413CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–After lunch our International Bryozoology Association field trip actually collected fossil bryozoans. We visited a quarry exposure of Lower Pleistocene cemented marls rich in the bryozoan Celleporaria palmata (Michelin), along with many other species. These were apparently from a thicket of bryozoan colonies broken up in a storm and deposited as a debris flow down slope. The location is south of Catania at Pianometa.

Celleraria060413Lower Pleistocene Celleporaria palmata fragments at Pianometa. This was a very rapid-growing, branching bryozoan colony easily fragmented by storm currents.

Volcaniclastic060413Below those bryozoan-loaded beds is this unusual sequence. The darker layered units are volcaniclastic sediments derived from early eruptions from the Mount Etna complex. Occasionally boulders would roll downslope and be deposited as xenoliths (“foreign rocks”) Later the cemented sediments cracked repeatedly due to the intense earthquake activity associated with this tectonic boundary between the European and African plates. Those cracks filled with marly sediment from above.

SheepCheeseFarm060413The last visit of the day was to a sheep cheese farm. One sheep produces about a liter of sheep’s milk. The cheese we sampled (some more than others) is very soft — like cottage cheese without the lumps, or a soft ricotta. Interesting (and unpasteurized). We watched four rams beat each other bloody in an ongoing context monitored by large black dogs. I suppose it is part of the herding process, grim as it is.

Products of an angry giant

June 4th, 2013

SicilyCyclopeanIslands060413CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–They may look like impressive sea stacks to you, but it turns out these are three huge stones thrown by the aggrieved and wounded cyclops Polyphemus at Odysseus as he escaped that infernal cave. Who knew?

This morning we traveled north of Catania to the Ciclopi Marine Protected Area near Aci Castello and Aci Trezza to look at the evidence of the ancient volcanic activity that led to Mount Etna, and to snorkel and dive on the life-encrusted rocks in the blue, blue waters.

Island060413We took a boat ride all of about 300 meters across the bay to the tiny island of Lachea, shown above. Notice that there is a crack running through the rocks seen just above the boat. This is an active fault that runs through the middle of the island. Also note that there is a mix of light and dark rocks visible.

IslandBasalticIntrusion060413Lachea is a combination of whitish marls and claystones above with black basalt injected from below. This is the very beginning of volcanic activity in this region as hot magma began to work its way into the overlying sediments of a shallow sea. When the lava erupted onto the seafloor, masses of pillow basalts formed (see previous post). The cyclopean rocks in the top image are eroded roots of the massive basalt flows. They show beautiful columnar jointing.

Etnafromisland060413From Lachea we can see the glowering outline of Mount Etna, the true giant in our story.

StationSign060413The island of Lachea and its surrounding rocks has been the site of a research station for over a century. The fauna and flora of both the island and the seafloor down to 110 meters are protected by law.

IslandLizard585This pretty green lizard is common on Lachea and apparently endemic (found only there). It is Podarcis sicula ciclopica. Its mating season of three months is about to begin, so there was much lizardly activity.

Grotto060413One of the first places we visited on the island was this tiny historical grotto. Only five of us could crawl into this completely dark chamber at a time. Once inside you can carefully stand up and (at least some of us) touch your head on the ceiling. That turned out to be a mistake because the guiding biologists then show you the unique cave spiders hanging on their webs about your ears!

Lunch060413Finally I must show you at least one of our large Sicilians lunches, this one back in Catania after our morning marine excursion. We are eating well, if a bit later than usual — and with much more time in the process!

 

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: Cast of a lower jawbone of the largest ape ever (Pleistocene, southern China)

March 17th, 2013

Gigantopithecus_blacki_mandible_010112The above is one of my favorite “fossils”, a commercially-available cast of the lower jawbone of Gigantopithecus blacki, a giant extinct ape. It was produced from an actual Pleistocene fossil found in a cave near Liucheng, Guangxi, in southern China. I like it especially because it is sometimes associated with the mythical “Bigfoot”.

Gigantopithecus blacki was the largest ape that ever lived: up to three meters tall and weighing over 500 kilograms. (G. blacki is known only from teeth and mandibles such as that shown above, so these size estimates are based on scaling.) It was a contemporary with early versions of our own species, which must have led to a few astounding encounters for our ancestors. G. blacki was two or three times heavier than the largest gorillas today.

Gigantopithecus blacki appears to have lived in bamboo forests. Striations on its teeth, and the occasional phytolith stuck in the enamel, shows that this species was a vegetarian. It may have even had a lifestyle much like today’s pandas.

The molars of Gigantopithecus blacki look surprisingly like ours with their multiple cusps and broad surfaces. This is the result of convergent evolution and not an indication of a recent common ancestry. (They are analogous features, not homologous.) G. blacki is now classified in the Subfamily Ponginae with their cousins the orangutans.

What is most fun about Gigantopithecus these days is its association with the “Bigfoot” illusion. Look at how seriously the people at the “Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization” take the possible connection of Gigantopithecus and Bigfoot. Despite their objections, we really can wonder why we’ve never found evidence of this giant ape in North America, including bones, teeth, legitimate footprints or real photographs. A living three-meter tall ape is a bit difficult for science to have missed! (Unless, of course, Bigfoot has supernatural powers.)

References:

Coichon, R. 1991. The ape that was – Asian fossils reveal humanity’s giant cousin. Natural History 100: 54–62.

Ciochon, R., et al. 1996. Dated co-occurrence of Homo erectus and Gigantopithecus from Tham Khuyen Cave, Vietnam. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 93: 3016–3020.

Jin, C., et al. 2009. A newly discovered Gigantopithecus fauna from Sanhe Cave, Chongzuo, Guangxi, South China. Chinese Science Bulletin 54: 788-797.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A crab from the Pleistocene of northern Australia

November 18th, 2012

Isn’t this amazing preservation? This fossil crab, which we received as a donation a few years ago, is Macrophthalmus latreillei (Desmarest, 1822) from the Pleistocene of northern Australia. It is virtually identical to its modern counterpart of the same species, Latreille’s Sentinel Crab.

M. latreillei has large, stalked eyes. It likes to hide under a layer of sand with its eyes sticking out looking for predators. It is mostly active in the night, burrowing through the sediment collecting deposited organic material. It is found throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

The modern crab species M. latreillei was named in 1822 by the French zoologist Anselme Gaëtan Desmarest (1784–1838), shown above. He was a student of two other famous French scientists: Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart. He was the Professor of Zoology at the École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort, succeeding the zoologist Pierre André Latreille (1762-1833), for whom he named this crab.
Latreille (above) was a most interesting fellow. He was an entomologist and a specialist in crustaceans. In 1786, when he was 24 years old, he was ordained a priest. This turned out, in hindsight, to be an almost fatal mistake. He was arrested by French revolutionaries in 1794 on suspicion of being a counter-revolutionary monarchist cleric (which he likely was). He was sentenced to deportation to a miserable tropical island prison. Just before he was scheduled to be shipped away, his jailers found him carefully studying a beetle crawling across his grungy cell floor. The authorities thought he had gone crazy in prison, but Latreille announced that the insect was a very rare species. This got back to an expert who confirmed the beetle as Necrobia ruficollis. Other experts then intervened to rescue the perceptive Latreille from prison and a tropical grave. To this day an image of this beetle is engraved on Latreille’s tombstone in Paris. Taxonomy saved a life.

References:

Barnes, R.S.K. 1967. The Macrophthalminae of Australia, with a review of the evolution and morphological diversity of the type genus Macrophthalmus (Crustacea: Brachyura). Transactions of the Zoological Society of London 31: 195-262.

Dupuis, C. 1974. Pierre André Latreille  (1762-1833): the foremost entomologist of his time. Annual Review of Entomology 1974: 1-13.

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