Encrinus liliiformis – a crinoid from the Triassic that made a career for itself: Germany’s fossil of the year, 2019

Jens Lehmann (Germany) Despite their common name ‘sea lilies’, crinoids are animals but not plants, although they look like a flower (Fig. 1). They are related to the sea urchins, sea cucumbers and starfish, groups that are unified as echinoderms (see, for example, Broadhead and Waters, 1980). Crinoids consist of a “root”, a stem built of many disc-shaped elements (columnals) and a crown. Fig. 1. A crown of the famous crinoid, Encrinus liliiformis, from a Muschelkalk quarry in Northern Germany. The fossil shows a slightly opened crown, with a number of arms besides each other. The name “sea lily rock” is often associated with the basal plates of fossilised crowns that resemble a lily flower and were collected as “Lilienstein” (“lily rock”) by gentlemen collectors in Central Europe, particularly in the nineteenth century (Fig. 2). In fact, crinoids were encountered for many hundred years and thus were already known by the famous Swiss and German scientists (respectively), Conrad Gessner and Georgius Agricola, in the sixteenth century. However, these early geoscientists only found the fossils, since living crinoids can only be found in the deep sea and were not known by the scientific community before the eighteenth century. This is the reason why the isolated stem elements called columnals occur in millions of specimens in the German Muschelkalk (Middle Triassic) were mystically called “Boniface pennies” or “Witch money”, before they were recognised as parts of crinoids. Fig. 2: Even details of Germany’s “Fossil of the Year 2019” are beautiful, like these … Read More

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Wealden insects: An artist’s update (Part 4)

Biddy and Ed Jarzembowski (UK) An ‘artist’s impression’ of Wealden insects, inspired by the original work of Neil Watson, appeared in a three-part mini-series in Deposits issues 47 to 49. Since then, the discovery of a number of species new to science (belonging to diverse groups) has meant that an update was needed. Here are some completely new watercolours by Biddy, including the first true bug (heteropteran) from the Wealden, and the first Wealden earwig (dermapteran). Insects are arthropods and an accompanying Wealden crustacean is added this time. Photographs of actual fossils found in the Weald Clay Formation of Lower Cretaceous (Hauterivian and Barremian) age are provided too. We are indebted to Fred Clouter, Terry Keenan, Tony Mitchell and Pete Austen (UK) for help with these images. As before, Ed has supplied some explanatory notes to accompany the pictures, with more on the way. We have incorporated some new ideas on established species, such as different interpretations of the fossil lifestyle in the case of the ‘moss’ bug. Wealden insects are often disarticulated (due to transport in water). Where intact relatives are known from other contemporary deposits (especially Asia and Spain), these have been referred to, as well as recent representatives. While we can now recognise the commoner insect groups from the late age of the dinosaurs, continuing fieldwork shows that others remain to be unearthed. The artist’s job is ongoing, like that of the specialist and collector. We shall continue to periodically share the finds with you as a … Read More

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Important Green River Formation fossils come to New York

Stuart Wilensky and Douglas Miller (USA) In the early Eocene Epoch, drainage from the newly uplifted Rocky Mountains filled an inter-mountain basin to form what geologists call Fossil Lake. The climate of Fossil Lake was subtropical, similar to the climate of Florida today. The lake persisted for about two million years, and was home to palm trees, turtles, birds and an abundance of fish. On numerous occasions, unique conditions came together to result in some of the best-preserved fossils ever discovered. The sediments of Fossil Lake were first discovered in the 1860s, near the town of Green River Wyoming, and the area was named the “Green River Formation,” which is well-known in the scientific community and by amateur collectors. Palaeontologists have long theorised that the lake was deep enough to be anoxic (devoid of oxygen) at the bottom. This prevented scavengers from disturbing the plants and animals, and inhibited decomposition. Algae, and other plant and animal life, would die and fall to the bottom as in lakes and ponds today. Storms brought runoff from the mountains, covering the flora and fauna with mineral-rich material that would ensure their preservation. Recently, scientists have asserted that a kind of “red tide” may have been responsible for the many perfectly preserved fossils found. (“Red tide” is a common name for algal blooms, which are large concentrations of aquatic microorganisms, such as protozoans and unicellular algae. These can cause a severe decrease oxygen levels in the water column, leading to mass mortality events.) We … Read More

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Images of cells preserved in stone

 Mike Viney (UK) As a child, petrified wood captured my imagination. However, as an adult, when someone taught me to look at the fossil wood at a microscopic level, I was in awe. At that moment, I like to think that I shared a joy similar to what the famous scientist, Robert Hooke, must have experienced when he examined fossil wood structure using his microscope, the first person ever to do so. The development of digital cameras and microscopes has catalysed my interest in using both technologies to zoom in on fossil wood specimens. In this respect, the purpose of this article is to stimulate this same interest among collectors. The building blocks of life In the last paragraph of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) eloquently reflects on the common ancestry of life on Earth. “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” (Darwin, 1859, p. 490) Darwin recognised that there exists a continuity to life on Earth through his theory of natural selection. This same continuity is echoed in the work of the German physician, Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902). In his 1858 classic work, Die Cellularpathologie, Virchow enunciates an idea that would add a critical component to cell … Read More

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Pallasites: The meteorite jewels in the crown

David Bryant (UK) Perhaps unsurprisingly (as a professional dealer in space rocks), I find all meteorites equally fascinating and, in their own way, aesthetically appealing. However, I have to admit, the meteorites known as the Pallasites, with their beautiful structure of olivine fragments suspended in a nickel-iron matrix, are probably the most visually exciting, particularly to the non-specialist. In addition to their undoubted beauty and rarity, Pallasites offer us an intriguing glimpse into the interior of a planet that make them among the most scientifically important of all meteorite types. The name Pallasite is derived from that of the German naturalist, Simon Peter Pallas. Pallas was one of those amazingly observant and gifted polymaths, who seem to have been a lot more abundant during the eighteenth century, as well as lending his name to a whole class of meteorite, an eagle, a warbler, two species of bat, a wild cat and dozens of other plants and animals. In 1772, Pallas obtained a 680kg lump of metal that had been found near Kransnojarsk in Siberia. When it was examined in St Petersburg, it was identified as a new type of stony meteorite. In keeping with tradition, it was named after the location where it was found, but, uniquely, the whole class of meteorites was named for Pallas. There is still some debate about the actual origin of Pallasites. Although some meteorologists contend that the stony-iron structure resulted from a collision between a nickel-iron asteroidal core and a chunk of mantle material … Read More

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Fossil fish from northern Scotland

 Bob Davidson (UK) The north of Scotland is famous to scientists and amateur collectors for its wealth of localities where fossil fish of Devonian age can be collected. From plate tectonics, we know that in Devonian times Scotland was situated just below the equator, as part of a continent that was largely arid desert and where land plants were only just emerging. Most life on earth was still aquatic and fishes were the most successful backboned animals. The fossil fish of the area are unique in many ways. They present a window on the development of vertebrates, in which many of the innovations necessary to pave the way for the next great evolutionary step (the invasion by tetrapods of the land) were already in place. The fauna contains the acanthodians, one of the first group of vertebrates to evolve jaws, and the lobe finned fishes, so called because of their fleshy lobes supporting their pectoral and pelvic fins. The lobe fins also include the lungfish. Their fleshy fin lobes played an important role in the development of the limbs of early four-legged animals (tetrapods) and ultimately to all terrestrial vertebrates today – including ourselves. The classic Middle Devonian (380 to 375Ma old) locality is Achanarras Quarry in Caithness, where exquisitely preserved fish can be collected in an old roof tile quarry. Many such quarries existed in the past and fish have been widely collected from several localities over the years. The fish are preserved in thinly laminated siltstones and limestones, … 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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