Project Emerging: Zoophycos

Rob Hope and Dr Davide Olivero (France).

“ … And yet we cannot hope to describe all of the natural happenings of our world; and thus impossible it seems to be to explain all of these unexplainable things …”

JL Alléon-Dulac, 1765, French naturalist (Opening Image). An ‘ammon horn’ sketch by Alleon-Dulac from 1765. Most probably an ammonite, Lytoceras sp, deriving from the Lyonnais quarries of France.

Our understanding of the Natural World will never be truly complete, yet seemingly, each day, we add another tiny fragment of knowledge, as some fresh academic paper adds to the long list of scientific bibliography. With just a few tiny pages, our understanding of the complexities of nature is focused ever clearer – Project Emerging is today’s paradigm, but by tomorrow, will be a fraction outdated. Yet, hard facts never alter; it is simply our conception of them which does.

If nature’s ‘big picture’ is observed through the prism of the great age of life on Earth, major patterns come to the fore. Simply speed up the sequences to see those differing, lively shapes adapt toward survival. Evolution, by whatever means, is the star factor, as remarkably, a harmony is found between both inert geologies and thriving ecosystems. Together, they all share ‘biosphere’.

Zoophycos from Bathonian limestones, Chasteuil, southern France.

At first, human intelligence desired to see a Creator. However, as the ever-questioning mind experimented and played, irrefutable results led on to discovery, and one academic discovery inspired the next as slowly, day by day, minute natural processes and cycles were untangled. The challenge of the project becomes a quest. With increasing speed, new answers are found and the emerging project diversifies towards individual topics. Then, fresh fossils are discovered; symbiotic lichens are analyzed; ‘new’ beetles are named; the multiverse is theorised; and viruses are deciphered. Therefore, various labours are divided, as our insight evolves further through both short academic, gradualist advances and through rapid, punctuated discovery. Science is rife.

To illustrate our historical and progressive understanding of life’s adaptation for survival, we could repeat the work of Stephen Jay Gould’s lineage of the horses (even Darwin had fossils of the Hipparion sp to examine, yet had failed to see them as a missing link); or the evolution of the dinosaurs; or evoke modern experimental processes and results upon the hapless fruit fly, not through profoundly deep time, but exceedingly short time. But no. We will play another card by describing our progressive, evolutionary understanding of the strange fossil phenomena named Zoophycos, as an historical fragment of palaeontology.

What is Zoophycos?

Today, there is a general agreement in considering it to be a trace fossil, or ichnofossil. It can be found within rocks ranging from the Cambrian to the Holocene, in various sediments and differing palaeoenvironments (Fig. 2). Zoophycos traces were seemingly produced by a deposit feeding organism, but this taxonomic attribution is still somewhat debated.

A) Zoophycos caput medusae. Original drawing from Massalongo 1855, plate 1. B) Zoophycos caput medusae Massalongo. Subsequently named Postelsiopsis caput medusa by A Forti (1926). Natural History Museum of Verona, specimen number fG268.

The initial hypothesis – of it being a trace fossil – was originally put forward in 1893, and it was named Spirophyton (not Zoophycos). Indeed, the very first attempts to untangle the mystery of the Zoophycos caused great confusion, as the large morphological complexity and variability of them, and other similar looking fossils, resulted in a mixed and unclear (ichno)taxonomy. Several synonyms appeared at the start of the 19th century – among them wonderful names like Fucoides circinatus, Zonarites, Gorgonia, Chondrites scoparius, Taonurus, Cancellophycus and Spirophyton. At this time, they were all considered to be seaweed fossils and, on some occasions, even a plant fossil. It was T Fuch who first provided some light on this problem in 1893, by suggesting the possibility that it was, in effect, a trace fossil. However, common agreement only truly emerged during the 1950s.

The importance of these intriguing trace fossils within palaeoenvironmental studies has now been widely recognised, yet a mixed bag of lingering ichnotaxonomic problems still hindered a clearer picture of Zoophycos and all the ‘related’ synonyms. As fossils of them accumulate, our comprehension of them relentlessly progresses, but just how complete is our understanding at this moment?

To this end, one of us (Davide Olivero) has recently tried to put order into the complex bustle of the Zoophycos ichnotaxonomic confusion – to unravel it all, sort it out and then look at Zoophycos anew. To achieve this sorting, we must attempt first to find the ‘holotype’, or type specimen of Zoophycos and, to do this, we must return to the original (mis)understanding of this enigmatic fossil. It is a fascinating challenge – a puzzle to solve.

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