Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Fossil of the Week
This week, something more familiar! This is PRI 5388, a snail called Bellerophon calcifer named by H. F. Cleland in November 1900, in Bulletins of American Paleontology number 13. It is from the Mohawk Valley, east of Fort Hunter, New York, between Albany and Schenectady. This is a "syntype" specimen. Syntypes is a very "old school" word for all of the original specimens used by an author to name a species, before scientists bothered naming a holotype and paratypes (see our previous Fossil of the Week installments to understand these terms). Sometimes a scientist will later name one of the syntypes to serve as a holotype - this is called a "lectotype."
The species: The fossils described by Cleland's paper, including B. calcifer, were collected as part of a class in the Cornell Summer School of Geology taught by Professor Gilbert Harris (PRI's founder and first director). The material is from the Early Ordovician Period, about 475 million years old. The shell of Bellerophon is coiled with the midline in a single plane, so that one side of the shell is a mirror image of the other side. The edges of the mouth of the snail shell were flared outward (which you can barely see at about "4 o'clock" on this shell), and they were separated by a narrow slit, called the selenizone. Bellerophon is also the name of a hero in Greek Mythology, famous for riding the winged horse Pegasus and slaying the Chimera - perhaps the snail shell was thought to resemble Bellerophon's helmet.
The author: Herdman Fitzgerald Cleland (1869-1935) was a professor of geology at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. After early schooling in Nebraska, he received his PhD from Yale and spent the next summer in the field collecting fossils with Gilbert Harris. He filled in for Harris, teaching his classes while Harris was away, and then joined the Williams College faculty in 1901. His doctoral dissertation, published in the US Geological Survey Bulletin, was on the fossils of the Hamilton Formation exposed along Cayuga Lake here in Ithaca. He had many interests including geology and early human cultures. His last work was a booklet entitled "Why be an Evolutionist?" in 1930. He was killed tragically when the steamship Mohawk sunk off the coast of New Jersey en route to Yucatan; he was taking six students there to study Mayan ruins. Three of the students also died in the shipwreck. According to a published obituary, his last reported words were "I'm sorry the trip is off, boys, but I wish they had waited till the water was warm before they threw us in."