Mark Wilson November 13th, 2015
Sometimes it is a Fossil of the Week simply because it is new to me. The brachiopods above are abundant in a thin layer of shells within the Lewiston Member of the Rochester Shale (Silurian, Wenlockian) in western New York State. They are well exposed in the magnificent Caleb’s Quarry a few colleagues and I visited this past summer.
I find this spiriferid brachiopod fascinating because of the fine striations it shows on its fold and sulcus (where the shell bends at its middle). I’ve never seen these before on a brachiopod. The species is Striispirifer niagarensis (Conrad, 1842). I know of no functional interpretation of these fine lines other than that they might have provided some micro-topography to dissuade encrusting organisms. (I observed, in fact, no encrusters on these shells, but that may be coincidence.) The Striispirifer shell pavement consists mostly of isolated valves, but there are occasionally clusters of articulated shells in living position. It appears likely this is a storm lag of shells that was later colonized by the same brachiopods composing it.
We met the species author Timothy Abbott Conrad (1803-1877) earlier in this blog. He described this brachiopod originally as Delthyris niagaraensis in 1842 (above). (The third “a” in the species name was dropped by James Hall in his species lists.) This name held for over a century until G. Arthur Cooper and Helen Muir-Wood discovered that the genus was also in use for another brachiopod named in 1828 by Johan Wilhelm Dalman. This made “Delthyris” a homonym, or a name for a taxon identical in spelling to another such name for a different taxon. We can’t have that, of course, since every genus name must be unique (at least among the animals). Cooper and Muir-Wood (1951) gave the later genus (the junior homonym) the new name Striispirifer. Paul Taylor and I recently had our own adventure with a homonym we inadvertently created.
Helen Muir-Wood (1896-1968) was one of the most prominent brachiopod experts of the 20th Century. The image above may be the first one of her online. (Thanks to Jill Darrell of the Natural History Museum, London, for providing it. Come to think of it, the earlier image of Rousseau Hayner Flower in this blog is likely the first picture of him on the web.) Muir-Wood was born in Hampstead, England, and educated at Bedford College, University of London (a college for women at the time). She joined the professional staff at the British Museum (Natural History) in 1922 and spent the next 43 years of her career there. She was a systemacist to the core, apparently intolerant of any work with with fossils outside of describing and classifying them. Although she did no fieldwork of her own, from her position at the museum she was able to study brachiopods from around the world. She pioneered the techniques of describing brachiopod internal structures and eventually had to her credit hundreds of new and redescribed taxa. She was awarded the Lyell Medal in 1958 for her achievements, and in 1965 received the Order of the British Empire. She was remarkably successful and her work is still heavily cited to this day.
Ager, D. 1969. Helen Marguerite Muir-Wood. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 80: 122-124.
Brett, C.E. 1983. Sedimentology, facies and depositional environments of the Rochester Shale (Silurian; Wenlockian) in western New York and Ontario. Journal of Sedimentary Research 53: 947-971.
Conrad, T.A. 1842. Observations on the Silurian and Devonian Systems of the United States, with descriptions of new organic remains. Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 8: 228–280.
Cooper, G.A. and Muir-Wood, H.M. 1951. Brachiopod homonyms. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 41: 195-196.
Dalman, J.W. 1828. Uppställning och Beskrifning af de i sverige funne Terebratuliter. Kongl. Svenska Vetenskaps Academiens Handlingar, für 1827, 1828; Stockholm, tryckt hos P.A. Norstedt & söner, pp. 93, 99.
Williams, A. 1969. Helen Marguerite Muir-Wood. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 1655: 123-125.