A long, hot day with Cretaceous phosphorites in the Negev

OscarHawarimOutcrop070313MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–This was one of Oscar’s big field days. He is shown above at his first exposure of the phosphatic zone of the Mishash Formation (Campanian, Upper Cretaceous) exposed at Wadi Hawarim (N 30.84423°, E 34.75742°). We see here the entire section from the top of a phosphate-cemented conglomerate to the base of the overlying Ghareb Formation (the brown marls at the top of the image). Oscar is working to understand the complicated stratigraphy and origin hypotheses for these phosphorites. You may be able to make out some of the red ribbons we placed while measuring the section.

HawarimMishash070313This is another view of the Mishash phosphorites at Wadi Hawarim, with the Ghareb Formation in the upper left. We have six measured, sampled and described members in just under eight meters of section here. The phosphates are finely disseminated in some of the chalky units and bound up in a layer of nodules at the top.

ParticleDinosaur070313A conglomerate within the phosphate zone of the Mishash has an interesting collection of clasts, including this large chunk of reptile bone, possibly from a dinosaur. (Which is what we always say about large bone bits from the Mesozoic!)

SharkTeeth070313While Oscar and I worked on his measured section, Lizzie and Steph looked for shark teeth in the conglomerate unit. They did very well. Above is a sample of what they found. So Andrew Retzler — any ideas about what kind of sharks are represented by these tiny teeth? It looks like a small tooth in the lower row is Squalicorax kaupi.

RotemAmfertNegevMeeting070313Near the end of the day we went to one of the phosphate mine and enrichment plant owned and operated by Rotem Amfert Negev Ltd. This was a treat for Oscar who has strong interests in the economic geology of mining. We heard an excellent presentation by the chief geologist of the mine about the value of phosphate, the main markets for the their products, and the geological setting of these Negev phosphorites.

PhosphateMine070313Afterwards we visited the active part of the mine, shown above. Since about 2005 the mine has been restoring land as fast as it mines it. On the right is the working face of the mine, the white unit on the floor has most of the phosphate in it and is being ground up by the vehicle slowing moving across it. On the far left are piles of overburden and “interburden” (unusable material between the three phosphate-rich layers) ready to fill in the pit once the phosphorite is removed. We also saw those parts of the area where the original topography and (they hope) cryptobiotic top soil has been restored.

It was a good day, though a long one. Tomorrow we will celebrate the Fourth of July with yet another Negev work day. Maybe we’ll have a special American-themed dinner afterwards.

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Fossil collecting under a desert sun

GroupCollecting070213MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–Today the Wooster Geologists in Israel collected fossils from the Matmor Formation in Makhtesh Gadol. It was time to begin assembling data for Lizzie Reinthal’s and Steph Bosch’s Independent Study projects, and to follow up on some projects I have going in this Middle Jurassic set of fossiliferous marls and limestones. We do all our work as a team so that everyone is helping with everyone else’s project at some point. In the image above we have everyone at work picking up fossils at one outcrop near the center of the makhtesh (N 30.93369°, E 34.97588°, to be exact).

LizzieCollecting070213Lizzie is working on crinoid taphonomy, which we’re approaching in a very systematic way. She laid out individual square-meter boundaries on her fossiliferous exposures and collected every bit of crinoid present, from single columnals (the disks that make up a crinoid stem) to partial calices (the crowns or “heads” where the feeding arms were attached). She even seived the sediment to get a sample of small fragments like those from the arms. This way we can assess how the crinoids were disarticulated and tossed about on the seafloor, and whether their stems had some characteristic detachment horizons.

MatmorMakhteshGadol070213_585We are here in the Matmor Hills looking south towards the distant wall of the makhtesh. Two geologists are collecting from a yellowish marl. What do you think that small red dot is in the center?

OscarCollecting070213Why it is Oscar Mmari showing his flair for innovation! He brought the umbrella not for rain (that’s not going to happen here in July, for sure) but just for this. He isn’t much for hats, and we all must admit he had the best shade all day.

StephCollecting070213And here is Steph Bosch carefully collecting tiny little specimens — hoping, hoping some will be encrusted by bryozoans. (None yet, but the best sites are yet to come.)

BittenSpines070213So what did we find? I can show you only a few things because fossil photography in a hotel room is more difficult than you might imagine. (Can you guess what background I’m using?) At one location in the Matmor Formation we collected every exposed echinoid spine in an attempt to statistically determine how many were bitten by some sort of predator. You can see that the spines displayed above have been chomped, probably by some sort of fish. Spines like these were part of an earlier Fossil of the Week post.

Nautiloid070213Yoav found this  nautiloid in subunit 52 of the Matmor Formation. The entire shell, including the septa (walls dividing the chambers), has been replaced with a fine-grained calcite. What are the two holes apparently punched through the shell? They could be just erosion, but I like to think they’re bite marks from some toothy reptile! [Added note: I think I’ve just identified this nautiloid. It has a distinctive groove on the venter (not visible here) which may place it in the genus Cymatonautilus. This genus lived only a short time (latest early to middle Callovian Stage of the Jurassic Period) and is found along the shallow shelf of the Tethys. Right interval, right place.]

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Field reconnaissance in the northern Negev of Israel

1FoldedPhosphates070113MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–This morning Team Israel 2013 met our friend Yoav Avni, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI), and we traveled north to our field localities. We did a survey of the sites so that we could put together an efficient schedule for our work over the next two weeks. We had a four-wheel drive vehicle from the GSI so we could get to places our little Budget rental car could only have nightmares about.

The first locations were for Oscar Mmari’s Cretaceous phosphorite work. The outcrop pictured at the top of this entry is on the east side of Makhtesh Gadol (N 30.93657°, E 035.03312°). We are looking toward the west at an incredibly asymmetric limb of a syncline. In the upper part of the exposure you can see the rocks dipping almost vertically, yet in the foreground they are nearly horizontal. They make an almost 90° bend. The Mishash Formation phosphatic zone is partly exposed as the white rocks along the side of the wadi. The phosphorites here are very thick and chalky.

2MishhashPhosphates070113A second phosphorite exposure for Oscar is in Wadi Havarim (N 30.84269°, E 34.75509°) not too far north of Mitzpe Ramon. The top of the cherty portion of the Mishash Formation is on the left in the middle; the light-colored units above are phosphorites. In the background is Nahal Zin, a deep valley formed by water draining north into the Dead Sea. The base level of the Dead Sea is so low that the wadis leading to it are rapidly downcut.

3OscarPhosphorite070113Here is Oscar getting is first look at the phosphorites at Wadi Havarim. Later this week we will measure at least one section at each locality and take plenty of samples for thin-sectioning and scanning electron microscopy.

4TraceFossil070113Steph Bosch’s hand gives us a scale for a nice set of trace fossils found in the phosphorite at Wadi Havarim. These look like callianassid shrimp burrows to me. We found some preserved as burrow-fills with apparent fecal pellets forming the outer walls. If true then the trace fossil ichnogenus is Ophiomorpha. This is a good indicator of shallow water.

5PhosphateSign070113We also briefly visited two phosphate mining sites east of Makhtesh Gadol. One has this helpful sign outside describing the geology of these deposits. The phosphorites are shown in yellow. Note that they formed in two synclines, both highly asymmetrical (as shown in our top photo).

6PhosphateMinedValleyWe viewed one phosphate mine where virtually the whole valley has been quarried, producing enormous piles of waste materials. Reclaiming mined terrain like this is especially difficult in this arid climate. Oscar will not only be looking at the geology of these phosphate deposits, but also the economics of mining, which now includes remediation and controls on emissions and water pollution.

7MatmorCollectingFirstDay070113After lunch we drove down into the center of Makhtesh Gadol and plotted out future localities for Steph and Lizzie to do their work in the Matmor Formation. (The above site is at N 30.93837°, E 34.97907°.) I’ve been to these sites many times with students, so it was relatively easy to make our plan for collecting crinoids and encrusting bryozoans tomorrow and next week.

8NabateanCistern070113Finally, no fieldwork in Israel is complete without a touch of archaeology. Yoav took us into a Nabatean cistern and showed us the clever engineering (and strategic plastering) necessary to make this hand-cut cavern into a water trapping and storage facility. This cistern is cut into the Menuha Formation, a chalk unit very familiar to Andrew Retzler (’11). This cistern was originally made sometime between 100 BCE and 100 CE. After the nabateans it was used by the Romans, Byzantines and Arabs. It was last used by Israeli pioneers over 60 years ago.

Tomorrow we return to Makhtesh Gadol and work in the hot sunlight filling collecting bags with tiny bits of crinoids and assorted encrusters. We’ve had a very good start.

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Wooster Geologists return to the Negev

LizzieOscarSteph063013MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–These are the shining faces of Team Israel 2013 of the Wooster Geology program. From the left is wind-challenged Lizzie Reinthal (’14) from Ohio, Oscar Mmari (’14) from Tanzania, and Steph Bosch (’14) from Pennsylvania (and soon to be an Arizonan). We arrived this afternoon in our destination town of Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev Highlands of southern Israel. This is our first geological stop: a short walk from the hotel to the northern rim of the magnificent Makhtesh Ramon, a deep erosional feature often called the “Grand Canyon of Israel”. If you look back in our Israel blog entries (such as this one) you’ll see this is a traditional setting for our first images! (And the students get their first geological examination on an Israeli outcrop.)

We are in Israel for two weeks pursuing research as part of Wooster’s Senior Independent Study program. Lizzie will be looking at the taphonomy of crinoids in the Jurassic Matmor Formation, Oscar will be studying the origin and economic value of an extensive set of Cretaceous phosphorites, and Steph will be studying rare but important bryozoan fossils from the Matmor Formation, which was deposited near the equator during the Jurassic.

Getting to this spot in the middle of the desert took lots of planning. (Thanks, Suzanne Easterling and Patrice Reeder!) Oscar flew to Tel Aviv from Tanzania via Ethiopia a few hours before us. I was worried about his connections and getting through immigration, but it worked out splendidly — Oscar was there to greet us as we emerged from the arrivals gate. We then packed into a rental car and drove south about three hours to Mitzpe Ramon. The weather is excellent — far cooler than the deserts today in the southwestern USA!

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Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: Mosasaurid teeth from the Cretaceous of Morocco

PrognathodonTeethKhouribgaCretaceousThese impressive teeth are from the mosasaurid Prognathodon and were found in the Upper Cretaceous phosphorites near Khouribga, Morocco. They are not actually a matching set — I just arranged them to look fearsome.

Prognathodon_lutigini_Dmitry_Bogdanov(Prognathodon lutigi from the Upper Cretaceous of Russia. Reconstruction by Dmitry Gogdanov via Wikipedia.)

Prognathodon (the name means “front-jaw tooth”) was a very large mosasaurid, with some specimens up to 12 meters in length. They were cosmopolitan in extent, being found throughout the world in Campanian to Maastrichtian deposits. They lived in deep waters as shown by some specimens with strengthening bony rings around their eye sockets. They were essentially sea-going lizards, and big ones at that.

Note that the teeth are stout and blunt. They were not adapted for tearing flesh but rather crushing hard-shelled prey they found on the seafloor. One skeleton was found with some stomach contents intact, including a sea turtle, a variety of fishes, and an ammonite. This is not the usual diet of other mosasaurid genera which were nektic (swimming) predators.
Louis_DolloPrognathodon was named in 1889 by the famous Belgian paleontologist Louis Antoine Marie Joseph Dollo (1857-1931). Paleontology and History of Life students will immediately recognize that name because of Dollo’s Law: “evolution is not reversible”. (Or its corollary: extinction is forever!) He started his career as an engineer, graduating at the top of his class in 1877 from the École Centrale de Lille. He worked as a mining engineer and, as luck would have it, quickly discovered an extraordinary mass burial of the dinosaur Iguanodon. Studying this genus and other fossil reptiles became his passion. In 1882 he became an assistant naturalist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. One of his many remarkable contributions was to begin to think of fossils as once living organisms in ecological networks. In this sense he essentially founded paleobiology. In 1912 he received the Murchison Medal from the Geological Society of London. Not too shabby for an engineer.


Buffetaut, E. and Bardet, N. 2012. The mosasaurid (Squamata) Prognathodon in the Maastrichtian (Late Cretaceous) of the Cotentin Peninsula (Normandy, northwestern France). Bulletin de la Societe Geologique de France 183: 111-115.

Schulp, A.S., Polcyn, M.J., Mateus, O.,  Jacobs, L.L., Morais, M.L. and Silva Tavares, T. 2006. New mosasaur material from the Maastrichtian of Angola, with notes on the phylogeny, distribution and palaeoecology of the genus Prognathodon. On Maastricht Mosasaurs 45: 57-67.

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Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A barnacle-bored belemnite from the Jurassic of Spain

Hibolites_barnacle_borings585Two subjects of previous Fossil of the Week posts are combined together here: a belemnite (the elegant Hibolites hastatus) and barnacle borings (the ichnofossil Rogerella). This specimen is from the Jurassic of Moneva Teruel, Spain.

(Living belemnites reconstructed by Bogdanov on Wikipedia)

(Living belemnites reconstructed by Bogdanov on Wikipedia)

Belemnites are extinct cephalopods, oddly enough. The specimen is the guard or rostrum — a calcitic internal skeleton that gave the squid-like animal rigidity. Because they are made of solid, stable calcite, these guards can be extremely common in the fossil record, especially in the Jurassic and Cretaceous. Some people call these “belemnite battlefields”, probably because the fossils look so much like bullets.

de_BlainvilleHibolites hastatus was named by Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville (1777-1850) in 1827. He was a French naturalist with many accomplishments, especially in anatomy and systematics. He spent most of his career in the Faculty of Sciences at Paris, where he was a colleague (and eventual ideological enemy) of the epic Georges Cuvier. In 1830 he took over from the “father of invertebrate zoology” Jean-Baptiste Lamarck as the chair of natural history. Clearly he ran in powerful circles.

The yellow features in this close-up above are holes drilled by acrothoracic barnacles, which were then filled with fine-grained dolomite. The trace fossil thus formed is known as Rogerella. It is found from the Devonian all the way to today. Its presence on these belemnite guards shows that these structures laid for enough time on the seafloor that they could be colonized by barnacles. They are thus an indicator of the taphonomy (or history from death to discovery) of these fossils.


Doyle, P. and MacDonald, D.I.M. 1993. Belemnite battlefields. Lethaia 26: 65-80.

Lambers, P. and Boekschoten, G.J. 1986. On fossil and recent borings produced by acrothoracic cirripeds. Geologie en Mijnbouw 65: 257–268.

Mariotti, N. 2002. Systematics and taphonomy of an Early Kimmeridgian belemnite fauna from the Mediterranean Tethys (Monte Nerone, Central Apennines, Italy). Geobios 35: 213-232.

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Congratulations Team Utah!

UTAH – Congratulations to Team Utah on completing a successful field season!

Team Utah 2013 at the end of their last day in the field. From left to right: (front) Dr. Thom Wilch (Albion), Michael Williams ('16, COW), Ellen Redner ('14, Albion), Cam Matesich ('14, COW), Adam Silverstein ('16, COW); (back) Kyle Burden ('14, COW), Dr. Meagen Pollock (COW), Ben Hinks ('14, Albion), Candy Thornton ('14, COW), Tricia Hall ('14, COW), and Dr. Shelley Judge (COW).

Team Utah 2013 at the end of their last day in the field. From left to right: (front) Dr. Thom Wilch (Albion), Michael Williams (’16, COW), Ellen Redner (’14, Albion), Cam Matesich (’14, COW), Adam Silverstein (’16, COW); (back) Kyle Burden (’14, COW), Dr. Meagen Pollock (COW), Ben Hinks (’14, Albion), Candy Thornton (’14, COW), Tricia Hall (’14, COW), and Dr. Shelley Judge (COW). Credit: T. Wilch

Although we’re parting ways, the students will be working on the research. They have plenty of data to analyze and lab work to do, so continue following the blog to stay updated on their progress.

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The 16th Conference of the International Bryozoology Association

1.Building061013CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–The IBA meeting has now ended and, as this is posted, I should be winging my way home across the Atlantic. It was a fantastic experience. This is a unique organization, of which I’m now proud to be a member of council. It is a combination of paleontologists and biologists who share a passion for the Phylum Bryozoa in all its manifestations. We had 77 oral presentations and dozens of posters spread among 80 participants, including students, academics, museum scientists, and very keen citizen scientists. The “international” component is taken very seriously: of the 80 people present, 27 countries were represented.
2.MeetingRoomWall061413All the sessions were held in the Palazzo delle Scienze building shown at the top of the page. We shared it with the regular student body, so it was a lively place. Directly above is the back wall of our meeting room with images of famous scientists who lived in Italy, from the Greeks to the 20th Century.
3.MeetingRoomCeiling061413Italians leave no ceiling unpainted. I’m not sure who the people are depicted above us, except that Amerigo Vespucci must be the one holding a map of the Americas. This room certainly makes you feel part of the international scientific enterprise.
4.KevinTalking061013Here is one of our participants, Kevin Tilbrook, giving a presentation. All our communications were in English. Imagine the challenge of talking in your second or third language with someone else doing the same thing. I am continually amazed by the language skills here.
5.FirstSlide061413My talk was on Friday morning, June 14. My first slide is shown above. My friend Paul Taylor and I examined two purported bryozoans common in the Paleozoic and showed that they were certainly not members of that phylum, despite some superficial resemblances.
6.ConclusionSlide061413This is our conclusion slide. As you can see, it is relatively easy to say what something is not, but quite another to say what it is!
7.Palazzo Biscari 061413The IBA conference dinner is always a big event. This one was among the most spectacular. We had dinner in the historical Palazzo Biscari. This is a view from the terrace towards the central Duomo complex.
8.Palazzo Biscari Dinner 061415The ballroom is a Baroque fantasy. To complete the image, dinner was preceded by a choral performance from a Sicilian choir tucked back in the alcove. They sang many, many pieces, including some national favorites from countries represented among us.

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 8.03.57 AMAnd here is the group photo. Like many, I wasn’t ready for this shot, so I’ll be impressed if anyone can find me in here!

Our meeting was a spectacular success in terms of the science shared and learned, and the Sicilian cultural experiences. Thank you very much to organizers Antonietta Rosso and Rossana Sanfilippo from the University of Catania!

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Return to Mount Etna

1.Etna2001flowview061613CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–The very last field trip stop — and final event — of the International Bryozoology Association Conference was a trip to the south side of Mount Etna. We drove to a spot that had significant activity in 2000 and 2001. Several lateral craters appeared on the side of the mountain, and the lava flows buried parts of a restaurant and shop complex. They threatened to destroy the base of a cable car system, but firefighters with hoses managed to divert the flow by cooling it with water.
2.LateralCrater061613My Belgian friend Hans De Blauwe and I decided to choose one of these smaller craters and hike to it within our allotted visit time. We picked this one in the center because of its symmetry and the flows that streamed from it. All of these features in and around this cone formed in 2001.
3.LateralConesRow061613We soon saw that our cone was the first of at least three cones descending in a row down the slope. The lava flow shows very distinct levees on its sides where the lava lapped over its banks and cooled, creating a walled channel.
4.BouldersEtna061613There are many car- and house-sized boulders of non-vesicular basalt scattered about. I assume these were thrown from the throats of explosive craters.
5.LavaTube061613We found this very cool lava tube, indicated first by a long walled channel that apparently represents a collapsed portion of the tunnel. A lava tube is formed when the periphery of a flow cools into hard rock and the still-fluid interior empties. We explore a beautiful ancient example on our Mojave Desert field trips.
6.HansLavaTube061613Our lava tube is open at both ends. Here Hans is crouching in the larger of the entrances.
7.LavaTubeInterior061613I took a flash image of the interior. You can see small “lavasicles” (cooled drips of lava) on the ceiling, along with a white crust of some sulfurous minerals.
8.HansAA061613Here Hans is picking his way through the aa flow. In the lower right is another lava tube that extends back about three meters.
9.FlowerMounds061613The flowers on this volcanic slopes are very interesting. Hardy pioneers, they are. There are numerous clusters of these mounds of greenery. It appears that the plants settled on a bit of ash and then grew centripetally. The surrounding ash was eroded away, but the roots of these plants held onto their patches, eventually producing mounds as the surrounding sediment was removed.
10.SpinyFlowers061613The mounds are made mostly of this spiny flowering plant. Maybe Hans will provide me with names later.
11.PurpleFlowers061613These purple flowers often form in rings around the bases of the mounds.
12.LavaFlowersWhite061613Nice white flowers on the 2001 ash layers.
13.LavaDaisies061613Somehow there are always daisies around, even in the most surprising places.
14.ViewCatania061613Finally, here is a view from our craters toward Catania and the coast. A 2001 lava flow is directly below us. In the middle distance you can see a series of small cones, many of which were active in historical times. Catania is certainly in a volcanic hazard zone. The geologists, though, worry far more about earthquakes here than eruptions. An eruption, after all, gives you much more warning than a sudden and devastating ‘quake. Considering all this, and despite the occasional tornado and blizzard, Ohio looks like one of the safest places on Earth.

And to beautiful and much wetter Ohio I now return.

EtnaAshClose[A late addition to this post (June 23, 2013). Above is a close-up of ash erupted from Mount Etna in April 2013.]

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Sandstone Appreciation Day

Zion National Park, Utah – Team Utah took a break from the volcanic field to explore some of Utah’s (more famous) sedimentary rocks. We visited Zion, Utah’s first National Park.

Zion is a geological wonderland, featuring striking sheer cliffs and narrow slot canyons.

Zion is a geological wonderland, featuring striking sheer cliffs and narrow slot canyons.

The students took the Kayenta trail to the Emerald Pools.

The students hiked the Kayenta trail to the Emerald Pools. Credit: T. Hall

This is the Court of the Patriarch, so named for figures from the Old Testament by Frederick Vining Fisher in 1916. Abraham Peak is on the far left. Isaac Peak is in the center. Jacob Peak is the white peak that can be viewed just beyond Mount Moroni.

This is the Court of the Patriarchs, so named for figures from the Old Testament by Frederick Vining Fisher in 1916. Abraham Peak is on the far left. Isaac Peak is in the center. Jacob Peak is the white peak that can be viewed just beyond Mount Moroni on the right.

View of The Narrows, a trail that winds through the slot canyons carved by water through the Navajo Sandstone.

View of The Narrows, a trail that winds through slot canyons in the famously cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone.

The Wooster crew cools off in the Virgin River at the end of an awesome day in Zion. Credit: T. Wilch

The Wooster crew cools off in the Virgin River at the end of an awesome day in Zion. Credit: T. Wilch

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