Archive for February, 2013

The Dendrochronology Team of Wooster Geologists makes its television debut

February 28th, 2013

Gwiles022813aBarn Detectives” is a recent episode of the television show Our Ohio, and it features Dr. Greg Wiles and his team of crack dendrochronologists. You can view the video by clicking the link. It is very well done. The project described in the program is the dating of the Emerson barn in Apple Creek, Ohio. These Wooster scientists study the tree rings in the beams which were used in the original structure. Careful analysis of these rings will show the year the old-growth trees were cut for timber, and thus the date of the building. This work not only gives the Emerson family a date for a treasured building, it also provides additional dendrochronological data for studying climate change in the last two centuries.

Nwiesenberg022813Our geological technician Nick Wiesenberg provides explanations of the process from the barn, a local old-growth forest (Johnson Woods, see above), and the dendrochronology lab at Wooster.

lvargo022813Geology senior Lauren Vargo describes the value of tree rings for climate history, and is shown in several action shots of coring and sanding.

anash022813Andy Nash, another geology senior, describes the construction of “floating chronologies” from tree cores that are eventually tied to the larger dendrochronological record to give dates to the wood. (With an accuracy, as Greg likes to say, of “plus or minus zero years”.)

gwiles022813bBack in the lab, Greg shows how the cores from the Emerson barn are counted and measured with our video microscope system. On the monitor is a magnified view of rings from the Emerson barn.

nwiesenberg022813bNick had the honor of announcing the calculated date the trees were cut to make the barn’s beams: (Spoiler Alert!) the Fall of 1845. The ground would have been hard then and the farmers would have had time to collect materials for the construction.

It was great fun to see our students and colleagues explain their work so well, and to show the world the enthusiasm and professional skills of Wooster’s dendrochronologists.

The full “Barn Detectives” video is available on YouTube at this link.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A bryozoan etching (Upper Ordovician of Indiana)

February 24th, 2013

Ropalonaria_venosa_585_010213Another trace fossil of a sort this week. Above you see the dorsal valve exterior of a strophomenid brachiopod from the Upper Ordovician of southeastern Indiana. Across the surface is a network of grooves looking a bit like a spider web. This is a feature formed when a soft-bodied ctenostome bryozoan colony etched its way down into the shell it was encrusting. Ropalonaria venosa Ulrich, 1879 is the official name of this fossil.
Ropalonaria_close_010513Above is a closer view of the same Ropalonaria venosa. Tiny crystals of yellow dolomite fill the excavations. The ctenostome bryozoan that made it had no skeleton and used some sort of chemical to dissolve the shell beneath it. The fidelity of this etching is good enough to identify various details of the colony structure and zooecial form. This is where our fossil classification system goes a bit awry: Is Ropalonaria a trace fossil (evidence of animal activity) or a kind of external mold of the original organism? Arguments have been made for each category, and the name Ropalonaria shows up on lists of both trace fossils and body fossils.
Ulrich_EO_1927Ropalonaria venosa is the type species of the genus Ropalonaria erected by Edward Oscar Ulrich in 1879 (above in 1927). E.O. Ulrich, as he is better known, was one of the most colorful and controversial geologists of the late 19th and early 20th century. He was born in Covington, Kentucky, in 1857. Covington is across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio, and is undergirded by the famous fossiliferous limestones and shales of the Cincinnatian Group (Upper Ordovician). Ulrich started as a child collecting fossils in the region. He was an early member of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History, often bringing fossils to meetings for identifications. (There he met another young man very interested in fossils: the future paleontologist Charles Schuchert. Schuchert was the advisor of my advisor’s advisor, so he’s in my “academic genealogy”.)

Ulrich took courses at German Wallace College (today’s Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio) and the Ohio Medical College. He had an eclectic youth exploring all sorts of topics, from opera to spiritualism, but always kept geology and fossils close to his heart. He had an adventurous stint as a superintendent in a Colorado silver mine. Returning back east, Ulrich became an enormously productive geologist with the geological surveys of Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio. He was President of the Paleontological Society in 1915. In 1931 he received the Mary Clark Thompson Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, and the next year the Geological Society of America awarded him the prestigious Penrose Medal. He died in 1944 in Washington, D.C.

E.O. Ulrich is still a polarizing figure in American geology. He is famous for resisting the modern concept of facies in sedimentary geology, preferring a concept now known as “layer cake stratigraphy“. (In his defense, the rocks in the Cincinnati area really do fit much of his model; his error was extending it much too far.) Ulrich also has a reputation as a bit of a “splitter” in paleontology. (Someone who makes more species than necessary by “splitting” groups into smaller subgroups.)

Despite what we think of E.O. Ulrich today, his paleontological contributions have mostly held up, including the description of the intriguing fossil Ropalonaria.


Bassler, R.S. 1944. Memorial to Edward Oscar Ulrich. Proceedings of the Geological Society of America for 1944: 331–351.

Pohowsky, R.A. 1978. The boring ctenostomate Bryozoa: taxonomy and paleobiology based on cavities in calcareous substrata. Bulletins of American Paleontology 73(301): 192 p.

Ruedemann, R. 1946. Biographical memoir of Edward Oscar Ulrich, 1857-1944. National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Biographical Memoirs, Volume XXIV, 7th Memoir, 24 pp.

Ulrich, E.O. 1879. Descriptions of new genera and species of fossils from the Lower Silurian about Cincinnati: Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History 2: 8-30.

Celebrating the achievements of Wooster Geologists

February 21st, 2013

2013Geo AwardWinners

WOOSTER, OHIO –One of the pleasures of being the chair of the Geology Department at Wooster is that I get to go to the annual college Awards Banquet with some of our best students. Tonight we celebrate three young women who have done especially well at Wooster. On the left is Whitney Sims (’13) of Maple Heights, Ohio. She received the Charles B. Moke Prize, which is a “field instrument or device” awarded to the graduating senior who has shown the greatest improvement during his or her college career. (Whitney’s award was a new iPad — coolest prize of the evening.) In the middle is Tricia Hall (’14) of Marion, Ohio. She won the Karl Ver Steeg Prize in Geology and Geography, which goes to the geology major who has the highest standing in the middle of the junior year. On the right is Kit Price (’13) of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her award was the Robert W. McDowell Prize in Geology for having the highest general standing among geology majors in the junior and senior years.

Congratulations to Whitney, Tricia and Kit! We are very proud of them and all our Wooster Geologists.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: Encrusting tubes from the Devonian of Michigan

February 17th, 2013

HederelloidSEM_DevMIThe scanning electron microscope (SEM) image above shows the tubes of the encrusting group known as hederelloids. They are among my favorite fossils. I was reminded of them recently while reading this advertisement for a novel in which, to my great surprise, hederelloids are a primary part of the plot! A mysterious black “fouling” destroys shipping. Scientists discover that it is made by a group long thought to be extinct — the hederelloids! There is even a page talking about the “science” behind the story. (Although I would think if they were serious they would spell “bryozoan” correctly.)
HederellaOH3The hederelloids are a group of colonial encrusting organisms found from the Silurian through the Permian, with possible members in the Ordovician and the Triassic (Taylor and Wilson, 2008). They were entirely marine and were most common by far on Devonian brachiopods and corals. They are “runner-like” encrusters, meaning they grew sequentially across the substrate budding out new members of the colony. Their zooids (the skeletons that contained the individuals) are usually curved and made of microprismatic calcite secreted from the inside only. (This latter feature meant they could repair damage such as boreholes with patches from the inside; see Wilson and Taylor, 2006). The specimen above is a Devonian spiriferid brachiopod from northwestern Ohio with a hederelloid colony encrusting the dorsal valve.
HedsSEMpdtDevNYHederelloids were very diverse in their time. The SEM image above (courtesy of Paul Taylor at the Natural History Museum, London) shows at least two types of hederelloid on a rugose coral from the Devonian of New York. The large tube at the bottom has several lateral buds. At the very top of the view you can see a much smaller hederelloid growing in the opposite direction.
DevonianIowaHederelloidUSNM78639The earliest workers on hederelloids thought that they were cyclostome bryozoans of some type (see Bassler, 1939). They look superficially like the common genera Corynotrypa, Cuffeyella and Stomatopora. Hederelloids, though, are significantly larger on the whole, they do not bud in the same pattern as bryozoans, and they do not have lamellar walls. Their shell microstructure and budding patterns suggests instead that they may be related to the phoronids, making them a kind of lophophorate (lophophore-bearing organism; the lophophore is a tentacular feeding device). They could probably, like bryozoans, retract the lophophore into their tubes when necessary. The above photograph shows the underside of a hederelloid colony from the Devonian of Iowa. Note the distinctive budding pattern. The scattered spirals are microconchids.

HedCloseUpDevNYThis is a nice collection of hederelloids from the Devonian of New York. Notice the diversity of sizes, shapes and budding patterns. How can you not be fascinated by such enigmatic little creatures?


Bassler, R.S. 1939. The Hederelloidea. A suborder of Paleozoic cyclostomatous Bryozoa. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 87: 25-91.

Taylor, P.D. and Wilson, M.A. 2008. Morphology and affinities of hederelloid “bryozoans”, p. 301-309.  In: Hageman, S.J., Key, M.M., Jr., and Winston, J.E. (eds.), Bryozoan Studies 2007: Proceedings of the 14th International Bryozoology Conference, Boone, North Carolina, July 1-8, 2007.  Virginia Museum of Natural History Special Publication 15.

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

Wilson, M.A. and Taylor, P.D. 2006. Predatory drillholes and partial mortality in Devonian colonial metazoans. Geology 34:565-568.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: Sea urchin bites from the Upper Cretaceous of southern Israel

February 10th, 2013

GnathichnusCenomanian020413_585What you see above is a bit of oyster shell with some curious small gouges in it. The oyster is Ilymatogyra (Afrogyra) africana (Lamarck, 1801) from the En Yorqe’am Formation (Cenomanian) exposed in Hamakhtesh Hagadol, southern Israel. The deep scratches are the trace fossil Gnathichnus pentax Bromley, 1975. As you can just make out in the lower center of the image, the grooves are overlapping series of five-pointed stars. That’s what makes this trace so cool — the stars were made by the unique feeding apparatus of a regular echinoid (sea urchin).
Strongylocentrotus_purpuratus_020313_585This is the business end of the modern sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus (a preserved specimen in Wooster’s collection). You see here in the center the peristome, which is a circle of plates surrounding the mouth, with the sharp five-sided teeth protruding from the echinoid’s Aristotle’s Lantern. These animals slowly graze across hard substrates, using their teeth to scrape the surfaces for algae, fungi and adherent organisms like diatoms. The biting actions of the Aristotle’s Lantern produce the star-shaped incisions we know as the trace fossil Gnathichnus pentax.

I briefly sampled and studied an exposure of the fossiliferous En Yorqe’am Formation in 2003 during my first visit to Israel. The oyster shells in this unit provide one of the few examples of hard substrate communities in the tropics of the Late Cretaceous. The encrusters include ostreid and spondylid bivalves, the cyclostome bryozoan Stomatopora, and the agglutinating foraminiferan Acruliammina. Borings include those of barnacles (Rogerella elliptica) and sponges (Entobia aff. E. megastoma). There is also a sea urchin present (Heterodiadema lybicum) that was almost certainly the maker of the Gnathichnus pentax traces.


Bromley, R.G. 1975. Comparative analysis of fossil and recent echinoid bioerosion. Palaeontology 18: 725-739.

Wilson, M.A. 2003. Paleoecology of a tropical Late Cretaceous (Cenomanian) skeletozoan community in the Negev Desert of southern Israel. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs 35(6): 420.

Women scientists at Wooster, featuring Wooster Geologist Shelley Judge

February 7th, 2013

Dr. Shelley Judge begins this excellent short video about women in science at Wooster:

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 10.20.43 AM(You have to click the link I made in the text above. Embedding a video in a blog post is beyond my skills!)

We’re proud of all the women scientists at Wooster, past, present and future!


Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A very thin coral from the Upper Ordovician of Indiana

February 3rd, 2013

Protaraea111712What we have above is a heliolitid coral known as Protaraea richmondensis Foerste, 1909. It has completely encrusted a gastropod shell with its thin corallum. Stephanie Jarvis, a Wooster student at the time and now a graduate student at Southern Illinois University, found this specimen during her paleontology class field trip to the Whitewater Formation exposed near Richmond, Indiana.

Protaraea is a confusing taxon to my Invertebrate Paleontology students. It is a very common encruster in their Ordovician field collections, being found on hard substrates as varied as rugose corals and orthid brachiopods. It is so thin, though, that it is hard to believe it was a colonial coral. Plus it has tiny septa (vertical partitions) in its corallites (the holes that held the polyps), very unlike most corals of the heliolitid variety. This is a group the students have to identify by matching pictures and taking our word for it.

We can’t identify the gastropod underneath. Note that it has a sinus evident in the last whorl (an open slot parallel to the coiling). The coral grew right up to the edge of this sinus, preserving it and its extension through the shell.


Alexander, R.R. and Scharpf, C.D. 1990. Epizoans on Late Ordovician brachiopods from southeastern Indiana. Historical Biology 4: 179-202.

Foerste, A.F. 1909. Preliminary notes on Cincinnatian fossils. Denison University, Scientific Laboratories, Bulletin 14: 208-231.

Mõtus, M.-A. and Zaika, Y. 2012. The oldest heliolitids from the early Katian of the East Baltic region. GFF 134: 225-234.

Ospanova, N.K. 2010. Remarks on the classification system of the Heliolitida. Palaeoworld 19: 268–277.