Wooster Geologists featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Senior Independent Study process for Morgan Pedroso Curry (’21) and his creative, enthusiastic advisor Dr. Shelley Judge is the subject of an excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week. (The article may be behind a pay wall for some readers. If you want a pdf copy, we can arrange it.) The images in the article, including the one above, were taken by Wooster’s ace photographer Matt Dilyard. The October 2020 COVID-restricted fieldwork for Morgan’s IS project was recorded in this blog entry by Dr. Greg Wiles.

Well done, Team Morgan!

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A new “living fossil” bryozoan with a Wooster connection

Way back in the summer of 2008, my good friend Paul Taylor (the Natural History Museum, London), John Sime (Senior Independent Study student at the time) and I explored the Pierre Shale (Upper Cretaceous) of the Black Hills region in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. We collected numerous conchs and internal molds (steinkerns) of the abundant ammonite Baculites. Some of the internal molds had beautiful networks of connected tear-drops molded in the sediment that had filled the empty shells on the Cretaceous seafloor (image above). These represent skinny bryozoan colonies that lived attached to the inside walls of the shells. These bryozoans were soft-bodied with no hard parts and so were preserved as molds within molds, a kind of taphonomic complexity we always enjoy.

In 2012, Paul and I published a description of these bryozoans, describing them as a new genus and species of ctenostome bryozoan: Pierrella larsoni (see Wilson and Taylor, 2012, and this Wooster Fossil of the Week entry). Above are photographs of ammonite steinkerns showing the undersides P. larsoni (figure 28.1 of Wilson and Taylor, 2012). The specimen above on the left is from Red Bird, Wyoming, and the one on the right is from the Heart Tail Ranch in South Dakota. The scale bars are 10 and 5 mm respectively.

One of the most interesting feature of Pierrella is a remarkable “pleated collar” at the zooid aperture. In the image above, we’re looking at a mold of the collar, which was, like everything else in this bryozoan, soft tissue. From Figure 28.4 of Wilson and Taylor (2012); scale bar = 50 µm.

Now the cool “living fossil” part. Several years later, Russian scientists examined metalliferous seafloor nodules in the deep-sea Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone of the eastern Pacific Ocean. This area is receiving considerable attention for deep-sea mining, so teams of ecologists and biologists are surveying the biodiversity in this zone to assess the damage that could be done to this dark ecosystem around 5000 meters deep. Turns out there is a considerable bryozoan fauna down there.

And guess who is a part of this deep-sea community? Pierrella! In 2018, Grischenko et al. published a paper describing Pierrella plicata, a modern species of a genus described  from the Late Cretaceous. Just last week, Schwaha et al. (2021) described the anatomy of this taxon. Above images are from their figure 2: (b) colonies attached to the surface of an arenaceous foraminiferan, showing dispersed zooids and thin proximal cystid appendage; (c) a single zooid; (d) the apertural folds — our Pierrella pleated collar! (Abbreviations: ap – aperture, pca/cd – proximal cystid appendage/cd, z – zooid.)

So our little Cretaceous Pierrella was recognized in the Modern by its fancy apertural collar, which was preserved in an unusual way we still don’t fully understand. The wonders of paleontology.

The modern Pierrella is an example of a “living fossil“, meaning that it very closely resembles an ancient fossil form. Paleontologists are not thrilled with this category, so I keep it in quotation marks. A popular misconception is that a “living fossil” has “not evolved” during some extended interval (about 75 million years in our case here). However, evolution proceeds along all sorts of pathways that are not always possible to see with a fossil-to-living comparison. Internal organs may have changed dramatically and we wouldn’t know. There is also the possibility of evolutionary convergence. Certainly the environmental differences are extraordinary for Pierrella: the Cretaceous version was found in shell interiors in relatively shallow waters whereas the modern form is about 5000 meters deep. Still, the similarities between fossil and modern Pierrella are intriguing.

You know who really likes “living fossils”? Creationists! They have the mistaken belief that these organisms show that no evolution took place between fossil and modern taxa. The fossil to them is just an example of the modern a few thousand years older. Check out the “living fossil” pages for Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research. I would love to see them add Pierrella to their benighted lists so I could call them out on it.



Grischenko, A.V., Gordon, D.P., and Melnik, V.P. 2018. Bryozoa (Cyclostomata and Ctenostomata) from polymetallic nodules in the Russian exploration area, Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, eastern Pacific Ocean-taxon novelty and implications of mining. Zootaxa, 4484(1), 1-91.

Schwaha, T., Grischenko, A.V., and Melnik, V.P. 2021. Morphology of ctenostome bryozoans: 4. Pierrella plicata. Journal of Morphology. doi: 10.1002/jmor.21344

Wilson, M.A. and Taylor, P.D. 2012. Palaeoecology, preservation and taxonomy of encrusting ctenostome bryozoans inhabiting ammonite body chambers in the Late Cretaceous Pierre Shale of Wyoming and South Dakota, USA. In: Ernst, A., Schäfer, P. and Scholz, J. (eds.) Bryozoan Studies 2010; Lecture Notes in Earth Sciences 143: 399-412.

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New paper on predatory drill holes in Cambrian/Ordovician brachiopods (northern Estonia and northwest Russia)

Once again I’m proud to be on Olev Vinn’s team with this new article on predatory drill holes in Cambrian and Ordovician brachiopods. Predation in the fossil record is always interesting, especially in the early Paleozoic. Here is the abstract with explanatory links added:

Rare Oichnus simplex drill holes occur in mature obolid shells from the Cambrian/Ordovician boundary beds of northern Estonia (Iru and Ülgase) and the uppermost Cambrian of NW Russia (Lava River). The drill holes are significantly more common in the central rather than the marginal regions of the obolid valves. Drilling predators attacked Ungula ingrica in the Kallavere Formation and Ungula convexa in the Ladoga Formation. Failed predatory attacks on obolids were relatively common in the latest Cambrian-earliest Tremadocian of Estonia. Presumably drilling predators at Lava River and Iru differed from those at the Ülgase as indicated by significant differences in drill hole sizes at these locations. Most likely some types of worms preyed on obolids in the latest Cambrian-earliest Tremadocian of Estonia and latest Cambrian of NW Russia. The predation rate (6% to 9%) of studied obolids indicates that they likely had an epibenthic life mode. In addition to Oichnus drill holes in the obolids, there are also common pseudoborings caused by mineral dissolution.

Top image: Single complete Oichnus in Ungula convexa from Lava River, NW Russia, Ladoga Formation, Furongian.


Vinn, O., Holmer, L.E., Wilson, M.A., Isakar, M. and Toom, U. 2021. Possible drill holes and pseudoborings in obolid shells from the Cambrian/Ordovician boundary beds of Estonia and the uppermost Cambrian of NW Russia. Historical Biology (DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2021.1878355).

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Israeli Graduate Student Yael Leshno Afriat summarizes her work in the Middle Jurassic of Israel

For several years I’ve been in the advising circle of Yael Leshno Afriat, a geology graduate student at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She has been working in the gorgeous Middle Jurassic units of northern and southern Israel — rocks and fossils I fell in love with way back in 2003. (Search “Israel” in this blog for dozens of posts on our fieldwork, which has included many Wooster students.) In the video above, Yael summarizes her PhD work in a seminar. It is very well done. It makes a beautiful capstone for my extraordinary geological experiences in Israel. Thank you, Yael, for such brilliant and detailed science. I’ve learned so much from you.

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A Day on the Lake

Another day on Browns Lake collecting and downloading data. Nick Wiesenberg (Geological Technician) and I had a quiet morning on a slushy/almost ice covered lake. Nick was trolling for diatoms and the like for sampling productivity in the lake. He was also downloading hourly temperature data (see below) that has been recorded since early July 2020 – in the graph you can see that the lake begins to thermally mix in the fall and is thoroughly mixed by Mid-November. These data are taken from a mooring that Nick established in the middle of the lake at 6 meters water depth. Justine Paul Berina (’22) used these data and others for his Geomorphology project. He wrote a report for our collaborators at the University of Cincinnati that includes his excellent GIS work along with analyses of various logger data. We hope to build on this work and continue the record in the years and decades to come.

Nick trolls the lake to capture the diatoms and other biology in the upper meter of the water column.

Keeping records of the geochemistry of the water throughout the year as well as the sediment raining down through the water column is also part of the monthly routine at the lake.

Nick lowers a Secchi disk into the water column to get an idea of the turbidity of the water.

The many faces of Browns Lake. Thanks to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) for allowing us to do this work and for managing this amazing resource.

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A Wooster Geologist goes virtual

Wooster, Ohio — We can’t let the eventful year of 2020 to pass without some record in this blog of how these difficult times profoundly affected Wooster’s Department of Earth Sciences. Along with the rest of the American educational system, from kindergarten through graduate school, we had to adjust to the extraordinary circumstances of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Here I briefly describe my own experiences since the emergency evacuations and lockdowns of March. My fellow Earth Sciences colleagues (Professors Meagen Pollock, Shelley Judge, and Greg Wiles, along with our administrative coordinator Patrice Reeder and technician Nick Wiesenberg) have their own stories they may tell later. (The top image is of a cameras-on moment in my History of Life class last month.)

I had the least-complicated arrangements for pandemic teaching in our department. For medical reasons I was remote from the start following Spring Break in mid-March. I didn’t set foot on campus for months, teaching entirely from my basement “studio” through my Mac laptop (see above). I was never in the “hybrid” mode of teaching (both in person and online), so the various “pivots” from in-person to remote did not change my routine.

My story starts with a delightful Spring Break field trip to southwestern Utah for Independent Study research with (left to right) Juda Culp (’21), Will Santella (’21), Dr. Shelley Judge and Nick Wiesenberg. We had an excellent and productive time until, midway through, we were called back to Wooster and sent home with the rest of the College. The image above now seems from a lost world. At the end of March we resumed our courses in remote mode, which was new for all of us. This was when I was introduced to the video and course management program Microsoft Teams, which has become a dear (if occasionally frustrating) friend. I thus began to climb the steep virtual learning curve in the second half of the 2020 spring semester.

During the summer my teaching colleagues and I had numerous workshop sessions organized by the College. They covered not only the endless technical video classroom details, but also the principles and goals of virtual teaching. I was a highly motivated participant, mainly because there were so many ways it could go wrong! I learned the most from fellow faculty members who had also endured that post Spring Break remote teaching interval. We were forced to adapt and innovate quickly then, so the time in the summer spent practicing the various modalities increased my confidence.

My basement studio has a dingy real-life background, so I used dozens of virtual backgrounds to hide it. These projected backgrounds themselves became part of the day’s topics, so I had fun choosing from dozens of images I uploaded. This is my favorite one-with-the-bryozoans backdrops.

During the Fall Semester I taught History of Life (two-thirds of my 30 students pictured at the top of this post) and Paleoecology (16 students). My courses were synchronous and live, meaning that at 8:00 am I met virtually with all my students who were in time zones that were compatible. The magical 8:00 am was convenient because places in the far east, like China, were about 12 hours different, giving those students a reasonable evening hour to meet. For most of the semester about half my students were on campus; in the last few weeks most students were in their homes. For those students who could not make our live sessions (it was 4:00 am in Alaska!) I recorded each class through the Microsoft Teams system. I had two office hour sessions every week to answer questions. The system worked with almost every student who could being present live for class. This made teaching much easier with student questions, comments and expressions. We even developed a Google-it tradition where when I couldn’t answer a question someone was assigned to find answers. Within a couple of weeks we had the online-teaching system down with all the muting-unmuting, electronic hand-raising, and cameras on and off. I’m very grateful to my students for making our sessions so much fun, each time transporting me out of my basement into our learning community.

Brachiopod-rich storm layer in the Liberty Formation. Note the circular bryozoan attachment.

I very much missed having rocks and fossils available to students, since I had no labs. Nick made a special solo trip into the Upper Ordovician rocks of southeastern Indiana to collect fossils to mail to each student in the Paleoecology course. A typical slab of brachiopods is shown above. These specimens gave the students some physical objects to associate with the course material. Each student in Paleoecology also gave an online presentation on their course research project, which was fun and extended the range of the course.

Next semester I will be teaching the Sedimentology & Stratigraphy course, again fully remote. I want to expand our use of specimens, so Nick and I assembled 25 sedimentary rock sets, one of which is shown above. Nick carefully cut and labelled the specimens. Each student will receive a sample set, which I plan to use for examples and unknown puzzles. They will also have handlenses and grain-size cards.

This is what 25 sample sets looks like! Thank you again, Nick Weisenberg.

We all hope, of course, that soon we can meet students face-to-face and be back, buzzing with enthusiasm, to our wonderful Scovel labs and classrooms. In the meantime we are making the best of our online tools and communities. Again, this is an account of my experiences. Every faculty member has a unique narrative. We all know how fortunate we are to have positions that enable us to work safely online, and to have such supportive and ingenious support staff as well as extraordinary leaders in the college administration. May the year 2021 bring us all relief and happier times.

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Earth Materials in our built environment – more student photos

Wooster, OH – The first installment of student photos from Earth Materials gave a personalized perspective on materials in our lives. The second installment looks at the built environment around us.

Brick sidewalk.

Devin Henson’s (’21) image shows a beloved Wooster tradition.

Devin writes:

My entry examines how Earth materials are used in the physical infrastructure of the College of Wooster campus and form a part of community tradition, as well as the consequences of this tradition. Multiple footpaths on campus are made of local red bricks, many of which are labeled either “Wooster Ohio” or “Wooster Paver.” These bricks are made of sand and clay and were fired at a high temperature during production. Sand and clay are sedimentary particles of different grain sizes. Sand refers to sedimentary particles with a grain size of 0.0625-2.0 mm, while clay refers to sedimentary particles with a grain size of less than 0.0039 mm. Wooster was the location of a brick company because of its high-quality clay. The hydrous aluminum silicates in this clay produce strong bricks and are thus optimal for the brickmaking process.

It is customary for graduating seniors to dig up and take one of the bricks on campus after completing their Independent Study. Part of the tradition, at least in the way it was passed down to me, is that it is unlucky to take a brick before submitting IS. In addition, the taking of the brick is supposed to happen at night (given that it is technically considered the theft of College property). That last point brings up an important factor in both this tradition and the Earth sciences – sustainability. The company that produced the labeled bricks no longer exists. As such, when the labeled bricks are removed, they are replaced with modern unlabeled ones. Eventually, there will be no labeled bricks left on campus, and the tradition will be forced to change (or will end entirely). In this way, we can see that the removal of Wooster bricks is a microcosm for other issues surrounding Earth materials. Tradition is a powerful force, and it can often lead us to engage in practices that are unsustainable because we value short term gain over long term consequences.


evening view of building remnant

Richard Torres’ (’23) image captures a local landmark.

Richard writes:

King Philip’s Mill (pictured) is one of the many mills in Fall River made of Fall River Granite. Fall River granite comes from the Fall River Batholith which was easiest to mine at the higher parts of the city and because of the dangers of transporting stone downhill most mills along the water front were made of bricks[1]. Most mills are made of brick, but granite was readily available and cheaper to use and was much harder than other granites[2]. The factories would sometimes get the granite from where they where building, this made large basements. Fall River granite looks grey from far away but close up it looks pink due to the felspar it contains[3].

Fall River Granite would provide the foundation for Fall River to become one of the richest cities in the world. Many factories, civil buildings, and Mansions were made of Fall River Granite and many still stand today. Most of the Factory buildings no longer operate as such but have been converted for other purposes. King Philip’s Mill was designated a historic place but now is being torn down to make room for single-family homes.

[1] https://keckgeology.org/files/pdf/symvol/21st/avalonia/mcmenamin_beuthin.pdf

[2] https://blog.mass.gov/transportation/massdot-highway/fall-river-granite-salvaging-the-past-for-the-future/

[3] https://www.southcoasttoday.com/article/20110714/PUB03/107140358

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Earth Materials students show creative side in final project

Wooster, OH – Students in Dr. Pollock’s Earth Materials course showcased their creative talents for their final project. Inspired by AGI’s Earth Science Week photography contest, students were tasked to “capture an image of the ways Earth materials are part of life where you live.” Enjoy these gorgeous images created by our students.

This piece highlights this adaptation showing different uses of eyeshadow, jewelry and stoneware that can be used to hold the jewelry and cosmetic products.

Mazvita Chikomo’s (’22) image shows different uses of eyeshadow, jewelry, and stoneware in cosmetics.

Mazvita writes:

I chose to make a picture entry based on the relations between people and earth materials in the cosmetic and jewelry industry.

Dating back from 5000B.C. Earth Materials have been an integral part of society in the cosmetics industry in the form of eyeliner from coal and water, as seen on Cleopatra in Ancient Egypt, and in eyeshadow pigments that were made from using different forms of oxidized clay. We may not be using the same raw materials to make the eyeliners, and eyeshadows we use today but we still take inspiration from ancient make-up. Not only do we use earth materials in the make up industry, but the jewelry industry makes synthetic crystals that are influenced and inspired by naturally occurring minerals that may be found in the ground.

This piece highlights this adaptation showing different uses of eyeshadow, jewelry and stoneware that can be used to hold the jewelry and cosmetic products.

To understand the work, simply view each item placed around me.

Caitlyn Denes’ (23) image shows how Earth Materials are used in everyday life.

Caitlyn writes:

After spending an entire semester in Earth Materials, I discovered that life as we know it exists entirely upon our dependence on a wide array of earth materials. Without air, soils, water, and rocks and minerals, virtually nothing around us would exist. The inspiration behind this photo submission was an all-about me project that my mother’s second-grade students participated in. The assignment was simple, lie on your back and place items around you that tell the story of who you are: your goals, interests, favorite items, etc. I took this into consideration and decided to use a similar concept in creating my photo. I simply placed items around me that are comprised of earth materials. All of the items are meaningful to not just me, but every person on earth because they are utilized in everyday life.

To understand the work, simply view each item placed around me. It can be as simple as a home-grown carrot or as complex as the many metals found in pieces of technology like cellphones or cameras. Similarly, I included coins, which aren’t too special, but also a plant, as it fuels any number of chemical processes that gives life to each and every one of us. To illustrate the point that these items surround us in every aspect of life, I placed them all around me. I also made sure to hold some of the items, as furthers the point that we use them, not merely observe the many uses of earth materials.

From this image, I hope to get across a very important point: respecting and conserving necessary earth materials. For this reason, I included two books that strongly emphasize climate change and protecting the environment. In order to secure the items in the photo for future generations, we need to be aware of where earth materials come from, how they are discovered, and how to utilize them to their fullest potential. Also, I hope this picture serves to inform people of what truly makes up the items we use each day. I think that few people realize the number of earth processes that must occur in order to form the main components of a light bulb, laundry detergent, soils, and so much more.

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A new paper describing and interpreting a new crinoid from the Upper Ordovician of Estonia

I am very pleased to announce that Lena Cole, Bill Ausich, and I have a new article that appeared (on a dramatic election day in the USA!) in Papers in Palaeontology: “A Hirnantian holdover from the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction: Phylogeny and biogeography of a new anthracocrinid crinoid from Estonia.” Lena was our leader and did a fantastic job with the description and analysis. In fact, it was the easiest peer review process I’ve ever seen. Above you meet the star specimen, the calyx of Tallinnicrinus toomae gen. et sp. nov., an anthracocrinid diplobathrid crinoid. The new genus is named after Tallinn, the beautiful capital of Estonia. The species is named after our excellent Estonian colleague Ursula Toom.

The abstract: Relatively few Hirnantian (Late Ordovician) crinoids are known, and none has been previously described from the palaeocontinent of Baltica. This has impaired our ability to understand the patterns of extinction and biogeographic dispersal surrounding the Late Ordovician mass extinction, which triggered a major turnover in crinoid faunas. Here, we describe Tallinnicrinus toomae gen. et sp. nov., an anthracocrinid diplobathrid from the Hirnantian of northern Estonia. Tallinnicrinus is the youngest member of the Anthracocrinidae and the first representative of the family to occur in Baltica. Morphologically, Tallinnicrinus is unusual in that the radial and basal plates are in a single circlet of 10 plates, similar to the anthracocrinid Rheocrinus Haugh, 1979 from the Katian of Laurentia. Phylogenetic analysis further confirms a close relationship between Tallinnicrinus and Laurentian anthracocrinids, suggesting biogeographic dispersal of the lineage from Laurentia to Baltica during the late Katian or early Hirnantian. The occurrence of this new taxon establishes that the family Anthracocrinidae survived the first pulse of the Late Ordovician mass extinction. However, the lineage remained a ‘dead clade walking’ because it failed to diversify in the wake of the end-Katian extinction and ultimately went extinct itself by the end of the Ordovician.

Above is Bill Ausich talking to Ursula during our visit to Tallinn in August 2018. We are in the collections of the Department of Geology, Tallinn University of Technology.

The College of Wooster and The Ohio State University geology programs have had an excellent relationship with Estonian geologists for many years, for which we thank Olev Vinn, who invited me to his lovely country many years ago. Many Wooster and OSU students have done field and laboratory work there, and we now have numerous joint publications. We look forward to visiting again once the COVID-19 pandemic abates.


Cole, S.R., Ausich, W.I., and Wilson, M.A. 2020. A Hirnantian holdover from the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction: Phylogeny and biogeography of a new anthracocrinid crinoid from Estonia. Papers in Palaeontology (early view)

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An October Day at Fern Valley – The Mass Movement

A day at Fern Valley with a team of experts, from the left Dr. Judge, Nick and Arrow, Morgan and Ellen. The mission was to map the Fern Valley Slump (and Ellen took a bunch of tree cores from the second (or third) growth oaks).The slump from above. Note the arcuate scarp that marks the upper reaches of the slump block – a series of grabens and scarps stair-step their way into the valley.

Nick has installed wells in the slump blocks to monitor the pore water pressure of the materials.
Here Dr. Judge and Morgan decide where the boundaries of the block are located and then use the Trimble to gather the points.

The team standing at the head of the slump devising a three-part plan of attack.

Another monitoring strategy is the game camera in the tree, which has kept an eye on the movement for the past 8 years.

Morgan and Nick measure the water level in the lower well at the base of the slump.

The hillslope hydrology at the site is complex with much of the flow moving through natural through flow pipes.

The pipes are developed in the reddish sand layer at the base of a legacy (eroded soils) layer (bluish).

One of the well developed pipes in a sand and gravels layer. Note the oxidation of the water as they emerge. Oxidation is facilitated by the bacterial slime that forms at the exits of the pipes.

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