My Invertebrate Paleontology students know this as Specimen #8 in the trace fossil exercises section: “the big swirly thing”. It is a representative of the ichnogenus Zoophycos Massalongo, 1855. This trace is well known to paleontologists and sedimentologists alike — it is found throughout the rock record from the Lower Cambrian to modern marine deposits. It has a variable form but is generally a set of closely-overlapping burrow systems that produce a horizontal to oblique set of spiraling lobes. It was produced by some worm-shaped organism plunging into the sediments in a repetitive way, gradually making larger and larger downward-directed swirls.
Zoophycos is a useful indicator of ancient depositional conditions. It give its name, in fact, to an ichnofacies — a set of fossils and sediments characterize of a particular environment. In the Paleozoic it is found in shallow water and slope environments; from the Mesozoic on it is known almost entirely from deep-sea sediments. Our specimen is from the Borden Formation and was found amidst turbidite deposits, so it is probably from an ancient slope system.
There has been much debate about the behavior and objectives of the organisms who made Zoophycos. The traditional view is that it was formed by an animal mining the sediment for food particles, a life mode called deposit-feeding. Some workers, though, have suggested it could have been a food cache, a sewage system, and even an agricultural garden of sorts to raise fungi for food. I think in the end the simplest explanatory model is deposit-feeding, although with such a long time range, a variety of behaviors likely produced this trace.
Zoophycos was named in 1855 by the Italian paleobotanist Abramo Bartolommeo Massalongo (1824-1860). Massalongo was a member of the faculty of medicine at the University of Padua, chairing their botany department. (Medicine had broad scope in those days!) Why was he studying this trace fossil? Like most of the early scientists who noticed trace fossils, he thought it was some kind of fossil plant.
Zoophycos villae (Massalongo, 1855, plate 2)
Bromley, R.G. 1991. Zoophycos: strip mine, refuse dump, cache or sewage farm? Lethaia 24: 460-462.
Ekdale, A.A. and Lewis, D.W. 1991. The New Zealand Zoophycos revisited: morphology, ethology and paleoecology. Ichnos 1: 183-194.
Löwemark, L. 2011. Ethological analysis of the trace fossil Zoophycos: Hints from the Arctic Ocean. Lethaia 45: 290–298.
Massalongo, A. 1855. Zoophycos, novum genus Plantarum fossilum, Typis Antonellianis, Veronae, p. 45-52.
Olivero, D. 2003. Early Jurassic to Late Cretaceous evolution of Zoophycos in the French Subalpine Basin (southeastern France). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 192: 59-78.
Osgood, R.G. and Szmuc, E.J. 1972. The trace fossil Zoophycos as an indicator of water depth. Bulletin of American Paleontology 62 (271): 5-22.
Sappenfield, A., Droser, M., Kennedy, M. and Mckenzie, R. 2012. The oldest Zoophycos and implications for Early Cambrian deposit feeding. Geological Magazine 149: 1118-1123.