Heavy Metal painter meets Heavy Metal palaeontologist: The conception of an unusual portrayal of the past

Mats E Eriksson (Sweden) Sometimes, the stars just seem to align perfectly and make you appreciate life more than at other times. You know those ephemeral moments when, all of a sudden, you find yourself in the midst of something that you would not have dared dream about. All your favourite aspects of life are suddenly combined into a giant melting pot and once the metaphoric molten steel hardens, you are left with the most stunning and unexpected new kind of precious metal. For me, this happens when music, arts and palaeontology unorthodoxly merge (Eriksson, 2016); and more specifically in this case, when exceptionally preserved, miniscule Cambrian arthropods had their first encounter with, and ‘sat for a portrait’ for, an iconic ‘metal’ painter. Besides my profession as a palaeontology professor at Lund University in Sweden, I have a major soft spot for the arts and music. As a matter of fact, in some aspects of my professional life, I have had (or created) the opportunity of actually combining these long love affairs. When it comes to scientific outreach, I am involved in a traveling exhibition on fossils named after rock stars (‘Rock Fossils’; Eriksson, 2014a) and I have named fossils in honour of some of my favourite musicians (Eriksson 2014a, 2017; Eriksson et al., 2017). I also record music based on palaeontological research results together, with established metal musicians (for example, Eriksson, 2014b; https://kalloprionkilmisteri.bandcamp.com/releases). Granted, this might be viewed as exceedingly eccentric and something that you perhaps think does not … Read More

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Tongue-twisting horrors – or beauty – of the names of organisms: A Linnaean heritage

Mats E Eriksson (Sweden) Sometimes, your name is a tell-tale sign of who you are, or your heritage if you wish. Not too long ago, the surname Andersson logically enough meant “the son of Anders” in my native frozen northern country of Sweden. Albeit not necessarily the case any longer – and to be quite honest it very rarely is – if your family name is indeed Andersson, at least you probably come from, or have your roots in, Sweden. (In fact, Andersson is currently the most common family name in Sweden – it usually varies between that and Johansson as the alternative top competitor.) If your name is Li or Wang, you probably come from China and if you are a Smith, you are probably British or North American. Even your first name can reveal something about you – if you are a Gandalf, Frodo or a Leia (yes, they do exist as names even outside the book/movie screen characters), your parents (or you – if renamed) probably have seen too many movies. Finally, if I am allowed to express some prejudiced ideas only for the sake of this tale, if you answer to the name Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet or Diva, your folks are probably deeply involved in spiritualism or New Age culture (or your father was in fact the late, great Frank Zappa). Anyhow, along those lines, you can deduce the meaning of the scientific names of organisms, usually though with much higher precision. Depending on the … Read More

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Worm monstrosity: A giant extinct worm

Mats E Eriksson (Sweden) In a new study published in Scientific Reports (Earth’s oldest ‘Bobbit worm’ – gigantism in a Devonian eunicidan polychaete) by Luke A Parry of Bristol University in the UK, David M Rudkin of the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada and me (Mats E Eriksson of Lund University in Sweden), an extraordinary new species of polychaetes (that is, bristle worms – the marine relatives of earthworms and leeches) is described. The new species, Websteroprion armstrongi, is unique among fossil worms and possessed the largest jaws recorded from all of earth history, reaching over one centimetre in length and thus easily visible to the naked eye. Typically, such fossil jaws are only a few millimetres in size and must be studied using microscopes. Despite being only knows from the jaws, comparison of Websteroprion armstrongi with living species suggests that this animal achieved a body length in excess of a metre. This is comparable to that of ‘giant eunicid’ species, colloquially referred to as ‘Bobbit worms’, a name that is bizarrely enough derived from the infamous story of eye-watering amateur surgery involving Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt. Living ‘Bobbit worms’ are fearsome and opportunistic ambush predators, using their powerful jaws to capture prey, such as fish and cephalopods (squids and octopuses), and drag them into their burrows. Fig. 1. A photograph showing the holotype of Websteroprion armstrongi. (Photo by Luke Parry.) Gigantism in animals is an alluring and ecologically important trait, usually associated with advantages and competitive dominance. It … Read More

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Erzberg Mine in Austria: An iron ore reserve with a long tradition

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) The Erzberg Mine is situated in the Austrian county of Styria. From a geological point of view, it belongs to the so-called greywacke zone, which represents a band of Palaeozoic metamorphosed sedimentary rocks intercalated between the Northern Limestone Alps and the Central Alps. The Erzberg Mine is the world’s largest deposit of the iron mineral siderite (FeCO3), which is mixed with ankerite (CaFe[CO3]2) and dolomite (CaMg[CO3]2). Due to this mixture of different mineral phases, the concentration of iron ranges from 22% to 40% and adopts an average value of 33%. The annual output amounts to about two million tons of iron ore, which is transported to blast furnaces in Linz and Leoben-Donawitz. According to current estimations, the ore reserves will allow mining activity for another 30 to 40 years. History of the Erzberg Mine There are lots of myths regarding the founding date of the iron mine on the Erzberg. According to the opinion of several scholars and a few written documents of dubious veracity, the mine was already established in the year 712, which would imply a use of the deposit by Slavic peoples. However, there exists better evidence that foundation of the mine took place in 1512, which was also the inauguration year of the Oswald church in the village Eisenerz. Fig. 1. The Erzberg Mine with its characteristic appearance, photographed from the north (Pfaffenstein). First documentary mention of the Erzberg Mine is from 1171. In the fourteenth century, the Reigning Prince of Styria … Read More

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Fossil folklore: Some myths, monsters, swallows and butterflies

Paul D Taylor (UK) Myths are traditional stories embodying ancient yet false ideas. At the root of many myths lie unusual events, for example, extreme floods, or mysterious objects such as fossils. Numerous myths about different kinds of fossils can be found in the folklore of many countries around the world. Indeed, some ‘monsters’ or mythical creatures of legend – such as the Cyclops, griffins and dragons – may have their roots in findings of fossil bones. Angels’ Money and Slaves’ Lentils The Greek traveller and writer known as Strabo the Geographer (c. 63BC–21AD) visited the pyramids of Gizeh in Egypt, which were then some 2,500 years old (Fig. 1). Fig. 1. The pyramids of Gizeh, constructed of Eocene nummulitic limestone. The pyramids are constructed of Middle Eocene nummulitic limestone. Nummulites are a type of foraminifera. These single-celled protists lived on the seabed and secreted disc-like chambered shells up to 4cm in diameter (Fig. 2), the large size for animals having only one cell reflecting the presence of symbiotic algae in their tissues. Fig. 2. Eocene nummulites from Gizeh, Egypt. The block on the left contains both large and small specimens, ‘Angels’ Money’ and ‘Slaves’ Lentils, respectively. On the right are three specimens of ‘Angels’ Money’, weathered out of the limestone matrix. Fossil nummulites drop out of the limestone at Gizeh after weathering. Picking up examples of these fossils, Strabo was informed that they were the petrified remains of the food belonging to the workers who built the pyramids. Strabo … Read More

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Trilobites: A short introduction

Dr Robert Sturm (Austria) Many people interested in palaeontology and collecting fossils have either found fragments of trilobites in the field or marvelled at fossil examples of these animals displayed in museums around the world. Although they are essential components of palaeontological collections, thereby acting as index fossils for the Palaeozoic epochs (from the Cambrian to the Permian), data regarding their systematic and taxonomic categorisation, biology, and ecology are largely unknown among amateur fossil collectors. In this short contribution, I will provide an overview of the main characteristics of trilobites, which are of great importance if you wish to gain an understanding of these fascinating organisms, which became extinct 220Ma. The systematics of trilobites Fig. 1. Crude systematics of the Trilobita (superclass). In general, ten main orders can be distinguished, from which six important orders can be identified (Agnostida, Redlichiida, Ptychopariida, Phacopida, Nectaspida and Lichida), while the remaining orders, referred to as Corynexochida, Asaphida, Harpida, and Proetida (not shown above), play only a minor role, due to their similarity to members of the Redlichiida and Ptychopariida. The heyday of the trilobites was during the Cambrian (570 to 505Ma). Due to increased competition for food resources (for example, graptolites and brachiopods), they were subject to a successive displacement from their original habitats. This process was also accelerated by the appearance of predators, such as large cephalopods, eurypterids (which looked like gigantic crayfishes) and fishes. The evolution of better predators and competition for food finally resulted in the extinction of the trilobites … Read More

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Weird world of fossil worm cocoons

Stephen McLoughlin, Benjamin Bomfleur and Thomas Mörs (Sweden) Fossil hunters occasionally chance upon small glossy red to amber-coloured, roughly circular objects on bedding planes, when they crack open shales that were deposited in ancient swamps and rivers. These curious fossils range from about a millimetre in diameter up to the size of a fingernail (Fig. 1). When well preserved, they are egg shaped, but, in most cases, they have been flattened to a thin flake in the rock by the weight of the overlying strata. Some specimens appear to have a net-like coating on the surface but, otherwise, they offer few clues as to their identity. Indeed palaeontologists have reported these objects for over 150 years and have variously interpreted them as the eggs of insects, parts of lichens, the food-catching devices of ancient invertebrates, the membranous coatings of seeds, or the linings of clubmoss sporangia. Many early palaeobiologists simply labelled them as ‘red eggs’ and avoided assigning them to any particular biological group. Fig. 1. A minute, acid-resistant fossil belonging (Figs. 4 and 5). We have to a category traditionally called ‘red eggs’; from the Early Cretaceous of Western Australia. These strange objects occur mostly in sediments deposited in continental settings, and they have been reported widely in the residues left over after palaeobotanists have dissolved rock samples in the search for fossil spores, pollen and leaf cuticle. Two conclusions can be gleaned from these occurrences: The mysterious fossils likely belong to a land- or freshwater-based organism; andThese objects … Read More

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Graptolites of Abereiddy Bay

Dr Neale Monks (UK) Graptolites are curious fossils that are common in Lower Palaeozoic rocks where other types of fossils are lacking. The word ‘graptolite’ comes from Greek words that mean ‘writing’ (graptos) and ‘stone’ (lithos), and refer to the fact that graptolite fossils look like pencil marks on stone, partly because they’re flat and partly because of the iridescence of many specimens when freshly exposed. It is generally assumed graptolites were planktonic organisms that occupied an ecological niche like that of modern jellyfish, drifting about the oceans feeding on algae or tiny animals harvested using some sort of filter-feeding mechanism. The impetus for this article was a quick but successful trip to Abereiddy in Pembrokeshire, Wales, about 2.5km from Britain’s smallest city, St Davids (population: 1,800). I had been to Abereiddy many years before on a geological field trip with Andy Gale, who is currently professor of geology at the University of Portsmouth, but I did not have any clear memory of where the fossils were to be found. But, as it happened, this locality is one of those where the fossils are abundant and easily collected – provided you look at the right sorts of rocks. Collecting at Abereiddy Bay Abereiddy is a tiny place, but the bay has become a popular tourist attraction because of a flooded quarry known as the Blue Lagoon. Quarrying for slate ended in 1901 and the sea eventually broke through to the quarry, creating what is, in effect, a small natural harbour. … Read More

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Harvesting the extinct Bennettitales

Stephen McLoughlin and Christian Pott (Sweden) Just as the animal kingdom lost some remarkable designs during the mass extinction events that punctuated the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic (consider the disappearance of the novel carapaces of trilobites and the aerofoils of pterosaurs), so too the plant kingdom lost some majestic groups that, had they survived until today, would no doubt have been cultivated as centrepieces in many domestic gardens. One such group is the Bennettitales. The Bennettitales were enigmatic, seed-bearing plants (gymnosperms) characterised by complex reproductive structures, some of which are not yet fully understood. Bennettitales are historically divided into two families, the Cycadeoidaceae (or Bennettitaceae) and the Williamsoniaceae. The two families are distinguished primarily by their growth habit and the arrangement of their reproductive organs. The former have short, stocky trunks somewhat like modern cycads, whereas the latter had slender, profusely branched stems. The former appear to have been restricted to the Jurassic-Cretaceous of western Laurasia, whereas the latter had a global distribution and greater temporal range. They were neither the smallest plants of the Mesozoic nor the largest. They were one of the important, mid-storey elements of the vegetation. If you care to view almost any artist’s reconstruction of a Jurassic landscape you will no doubt see bennettitaleans growing around the feet of (or being eaten by) a large sauropod or ornithischian dinosaur. Fig. 1.. A 45cm-tall permineralized cycadeoidaceae stem (Cycadeoidea dacotensis) from the Cretaceous of northern USA. Flowers before there were flowers Apart from their growth habit, the most … Read More

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Tertiary cephalopods, or where did all the ammonites go?

Dr Neale Monks (UK) Most geologists will be familiar with Palaeozoic and Mesozoic cephalopods, but their Tertiary counterparts are much less well known. It isn’t that Tertiary cephalopods are rare as such – at some localities they can be quite common – but their diversity is extremely low. For example, the Gault Clay is a Lower Cretaceous formation that has yielded hundreds of cephalopods species, including ammonites, belemnites and nautiloids. Fast-forward to the London Clay, an Eocene formation, and that diversity falls to about five species, at most. At first glance, you would think this reflects the fatal decline of a group marching towards extinction. However, there are 700 cephalopod species alive today, so clearly that isn’t the case. In fact, what the lack of Tertiary cephalopod fossils shows is the switch within the group from forms with shells (such as ammonites and nautiluses) towards forms that don’t have shells (like squids and octopuses). Because they don’t have hard parts that fossilise easily, squids and octopuses have an extremely sparse fossil record. Nonetheless, the Tertiary isn’t entirely devoid of cephalopods if you know where to look. The London Clay exposure at Sheppey is a particularly good place to find nautiloid fossils. Occasional specimens from other cephalopod groups occasionally turn up as well and these give us some fascinating glimpses into the evolution of the post-Cretaceous cephalopods. Fig. 1. Warden Point, on the Isle of Sheppey, is one of the best places to collect Tertiary cephalopods (UKGE photo). Nautiloids Perhaps surprisingly, the … Read More

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Geology and terrestrial life of the Carboniferous

Russell Garwood and Alan Spencer (UK) The Carboniferous Period is a fascinating time in earth history. It spanned 60Ma (359.2 to 299.0Ma), towards the end of the Palaeozoic era, falling between the Devonian and Permian. During the Carboniferous, the supercontinent Pangaea was assembling and the oceans were home to invertebrates such as corals, bryozoa, ammonoids, echinoderms, trilobites and crustaceans. Fish were also well represented (especially sharks), which were rapidly diversifying at the time. The continents were no barren wasteland either – they were host to some of the first widespread terrestrial forest and swamp ecosystems. In these lived both invertebrates, which had crawled onto land by the Silurian period (at least 423mya) and vertebrates, which were relative newcomers to this realm. This article provides us with an excuse to write about the Carboniferous. We will first introduce the geology and palaeogeography of the Carboniferous, including an overview of the most common mode of preservation we see in terrestrial fossils. Then, we will provide an overview of terrestrial life during the period, as land-based ecosystems of this age are among the best known from the Palaeozoic and an exciting time in the history of life. Fig. 1. Global paleogeographic reconstruction of the Earth in the late Carboniferous period 300mya. (C)opyright Dr Ron Blakey (Wikipedia Creative Commons). Carboniferous geology The Carboniferous is split into two epochs, the Mississippian (or Lower Carboniferous; 359.2 to 318.1mya) and the Pennsylvanian (or Upper Carboniferous; 318.1 to 299.0mya). As we shall see, the two are associated with … Read More

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Fossil forests in the freezer

Stephen McLoughlin (Sweden) South of the craggy limits of Patagonia, Africa and Tasmania, and beyond the piercing gales of the roaring forties and the furious fifties, lies Antarctica – the last great continent on Earth to be explored. Straddling the South Pole, it lies frozen in a winter that has lasted millions of years. Today, only a few plant species more robust than mosses eke out a harsh existence on its warmest fringes. The bitter cold and screaming katabatic winds (a katabatic wind is one that carries high density air down a slope under the force of gravity) that drain off the continental interior mean that few plants and animals can survive in Antarctica year-round. However, this has not always been the case. Through much of deep time, it has not been the ‘white continent’ but a land of green forests and lush swamps. This forested landscape provided habitats for a wide range of terrestrial animals for most of the past 400 million years. The continent’s central location within the ancient southern supercontinent of Gondwana also meant that it held an important role in the exchange of plants and animals between the southern lands. Fig. 1. Map of Antarctica showing the Permian-Triassic basins. Early clues Little was known about Antarctica’s geology or fossil heritage until ‘the heroic era of exploration’ began to unlock the continent’s secrets in the 1800s. Some of the first explorers to realize that vegetation once clothed Antarctica’s landscape were the members of Captain Robert Scott’s team, … Read More

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Monster nautiluses of the Palaeozoic

Neale Monks (UK) The handful of nautilus species found in seas today are small, retiring animals that scavenge about at night, foraging for carrion and crustacean moults. However, nautiluses were not always so insignificant and, during the first half of the Palaeozoic Era especially, nautiluses were major predators, occupying the same niches in Ordovician and Silurian seas as sharks do today. The first nautiluses Compared to their cousins, the ammonites, the Palaeozoic nautiluses are relatively unfamiliar animals. That is a shame, because they are truly remarkable, in all likelihood being the first really big predators to evolve on Earth. But, to understand how they reached the top so quickly, we need to look back at their ancestors, the floating ‘snails’ of the Cambrian. Nautiluses are the most primitive of all the cephalopods, the group of molluscs that also includes squids, octopuses, cuttlefishes, ammonites and belemnites. Nautiluses appeared during the Late Cambrian, about 500Ma, but what their ancestors might have been remains uncertain. The traditional explanation is that the first nautiluses, such as Plectronoceras exile, were derived from monoplacophorans. These are snail-like molluscs today, limited to a few species only found in relatively deep water, but in the past they were quite diverse. Although they look a lot like a limpet, their internal anatomy is distinctive, with unusual features such as serial repetition of the gills, kidneys and reproductive organs along the body. At least some monoplacophorans had chambered shells. The Late Cambrian animal, Knightoconus antarcticus was one such species, but, … Read More

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