Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fossil of the Week



12/30/09 – Fossil Cast

Paleontology is arguably more fortunate than neontology (the study of living organisms) through its practice of using casts, or detailed reproductions, made directly from important or particularly well-preserved specimens. This specimen is one such cast – of the holotype* specimen of the small (12 millimeter diameter) limpet Acmaea astroides described by Peter Jung in 1965. Casts allow important specimens to be deposited in more than one museum collection, becoming more easily available to a wider number of researchers than might be able to see and use the specimen at its “home” institution. [Neontology, at least for modern mollusks, does not typically use casts, which cannot reproduce the color of the specimens.]

Fossil casts are made by first producing a mold or imprint of the real fossil in something like soft clay or silicone rubber. Then the mold is used to produce a cast using a substance that can be poured but that will eventually harden into a durable cast. Traditionally this was plaster of paris, but museum-grade casts are now made from a plastic-like resin that can reproduce fine details. When the clay or rubber mold is removed from the hardened cast, you have an exact replica, in shape and size, of the original fossil.

The question mark in the middle of the name of this species (on the museum label in the photograph) is there because the author was not absolutely sure that it was correctly placed in the genus Acmaea. Some of the critical characters for that genus, specifically muscle scar impressions on the internal surface of the shell, were not well preserved in the three specimens that existed at the time. [I do not know whether other specimens have since confirmed its placement.]

This species was described in the paper “Miocene Mollusca from Paraguana Peninsula, Venezuela” (the published version of the Peter Jung’s Ph.D. dissertation), in Bulletins of American Paleontology, no. 223, in 1965. A total of 146 species were recorded from this single horizon, interpreted as a tropical shallow-water habitat, 24 of which were new species. The holotype of this specimen (and of the others described in the paper) is at the Natural History Museum in Basel, Switzerland (which was the home institution of the author). Casts were deposited at the British Museum, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and at PRI. Peter Jung later became a principle participant in the Dominican Republic and Panama Paleontology Projects**, which produced detailed monographs of Caribbean fossils, many of which were published in Bulletins of American Paleontology.

*See Fossil of the Week 8/19/09 - Cerithium gainesensis for a definition of "holotype."

**For more information, see http://www.dominicanrepublicproject.org/About/Index.htm and http://eusmilia.geology.uiowa.edu/ppp.htm.

Text by Paula Mikkelsen

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays!

From our family to yours...


Have a safe and happy holiday season
and a wonderful New Year!


The staff of the Paleontological Research Institution
and its Museum of the Earth

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Break Programming

Discover the Past

December 26 - December 30

1 p.m.

Take a journey through time this holiday break with a series of fun activities that will take you from the Devonian through the age of Dinosaurs to modern day! Join Museum educators at 1 p.m. to discover the past and make a fun craft project.

Saturday, December 26 – Local Geology
Come learn what creepy crawlies swam through the Devonian seas above New York State. You’ll get to examine real fossils, learn about New York’s state fossil, and then make your own trilobite mask and eurypterid tail to take home!

Sunday, December 27 – Ancient Amber
Have you visited our newest temporary exhibit, Amber: Letting the Past Shine Through? Join us to learn more about this exhibit and do a simple experiment to find out the difference between real amber and fake amber. Then, put your creative energy to work by making a suncatcher.

Monday, December 28 – The Ice Age
Come learn about the animals that roamed during the ice age. Participate in our Mastodon Matrix program and create a fun mastodon pop-up card.

Tuesday, December 29 – The Age of Dinosaurs
Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? Come learn more about these fascinating creatures, examine casts of the fossils they left behind, and make your very own triceratops hat.

Wednesday, December 30 – Sustainability
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! Get ready for the New Year by creating a recycled calendar. Bring in old magazines or other pictures to decorate yours and we’ll have some recycled supplies of our own for you to use!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fossil of the Week


This beautiful black spiky thing, that you might at first think is a tooth, is actually part of an extinct fish – it’s a spine from the tail of a fossil skate (something line a modern sting-ray). It is the holotype* (PRI catalog number 25065) of Machaeracanthus retusus, named in the journal American Midland Naturalist by John Wells in 1940. As far as I know, it is the only part of the fish that is known so far, which might be because the fish was probably an elasmobranch (sharks, skates, and rays), who all have cartilaginous skeletons (that don’t fossilize as well as bone). This is a pretty impressive spine, now 10.3 cm long (a little over 4 inches) but it was estimated (from the impression left by the spine in the rock) to be at least 16 cm (more than 6 inches) in length when the animal was alive. The name “retusus” means blunt, referring to the relatively blunt-tapering end of the spine (which was apparently not caused by wear and tear). A cross section of the spine in the original three-page paper describing the species (which, unusually, was dedicated to description of this one species) shows that each side of the spine was flattened into a sharp keel or blade.

The name: Machaeracanthus retusus actually refers only to the spine, not to the fish that made it. It is called an “ichthyodorulite” and is a trace fossil. Trace fossils receive their own scientific names in paleontology. They might or might not be connected to a whole animal, and even if they eventually are, they still retain their own names. So this spine is Machaeracanthus retusus, whether or not we ever know anything more about the fish that it came from! (So far, I don’t think we do.) The best-known trace fossils are footprints, and we have a very famous one here in New York: Grallator is the name of the only dinosaur remains in New York State – they are footprints of what might have been the dinosaur Coelophysis (our own “Cecil” mascot). But paleontologists acknowledge that Grallator footprints might have been made by any number of small, three-toed, bipedal theropod dinosaurs.

The scientist: The author of this fossil, John West Wells (1907-1994), was a graduate student of PRI’s founder Gilbert Harris (receiving his PhD from Cornell in 1933), past President of the PRI Board of Trustees, a long-time geology faculty member at Cornell University, and one of the world's leading authorities on fossil and living corals. According to the original description, this fossil was in his private collection. It might have come to us along with his private library, donated shortly before he died in 1994. This donation included what has been described as the largest private collection of books on corals. Memorial gifts from Wells’ colleagues and former students allowed PRI Library to create the John Wells Rare Book Room in 1996.

The locality: This is a Devonian fossil, from the Lowest Geneseo Shale at a location very familiar to all at Museum of the Earth - Taughannock Gorge, Cayuga Lake, New York. This place is famous for Taughannock Falls, a spectacular 215-foot waterfall just outside of the village of Trumansburg, New York. Although a narrow cataract, it is taller than Niagara Falls and sits in a supremely picturesque setting, now a NY State Park. Definitely worth a visit next time you’re here!

*See Fossil of the Week 8/19/09 - Cerithium gainesensis for a definition of "holotype."

Text by Paula Mikkelsen

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays!


Happy Holidays from our family to yours!

_______________________________________________

Please note that in addition to our normal winter hours (closed on Tuesday and Wednesday) the Museum of the Earth will be closed on the following dates:
  • Thursday, December 24
  • Friday, December 25
  • Friday, January 1

The Museum of the Earth will be open on Tuesday, December 29 and Wednesday, December 30.

We will be closing early at 2 p.m. on Thursday, December 31.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Darwin on the Road...

If you missed Charles Darwin: After the Origin when it was on exhibit here at the Museum of the Earth you can now see some of the panels that were on display by taking a trip to the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. Through February 12, 2010 they will be hosting an exhibit called Darwin: The Origin of Influence.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's seminal work, On the Origin of Species, the State University of New York at Buffalo and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System have teamed to present a collaborative exhibition on the influence of Charles Darwin. On display are rare books, archival materials examining Darwin's research and discoveries, and panels from the Museum of the Earth.



As part of this exhibition, PRI's Director Dr. Warren Allmon will be giving a lecture on Why Darwin Still Matters on Tuesday, January 12 at noon. If you are in the Buffalo area we hope you can join us!

For more information about this exhibition or Dr. Allmon's talk click here:
Buffalo & Erie County Public Library

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fossil of the Week


Here's another specimen from our type collection, the holotype* of Calliostoma shacklefordense Olsson, 1916, PRI catalog number 200 (an early one! We’re now assigning numbers in the 50,000s!). It is a snail, and a member of the family Trochidae, or Top Snails, members of which are still alive today. This one’s fairly small, 9 mm or about a half inch in diameter (= width in this photograph). It is Miocene in age, or about 15 million years old.

The species: Top snails are so called because many species, including this one (if you turn the photo upside down), have shells shaped like an old-fashioned top. They are usually abundant on solid substrates, like rocky shores and reefs, scaping algae and detritus from the rock surface. Living members of Calliostoma are among the most beautiful of gastropods, with colorful shells and interiors coated with mother-of-pearl (called nacre).

The name "shacklefordense" literally means "from Shackleford" and indeed the specimen was collected in Shackleford (actually Shacklefords), Virginia. This place, in King and Queen County on the coast just east of Richmond, derives its name from the Shackleford family, of whom the earliest American ancestor was Roger Shackelford, born in the English county of Hampshire in 1629. One branch of the Shackelford family includes descendants of President Thomas Jefferson.

The publication: The monograph in which this species was described – entitled "New Miocene Fossils" – described material collected by Gilbert Harris in 1914-1915 during paleontological expeditions aboard the vessel Ecphora, a “launch” privately owned by Dr. Harris. The author of this paper (and species), Axel Olsson, was one of Harris’ students.

*See Fossil of the Week 8/19/09 - Cerithium gainesensis for a definition of "holotype."

**See FOW 11/5/09 - Echinocaris punctata for more about Axel Olsson.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pismo Clams--They're not for dinner!


Paula Mikkelsen wore her "biologist" hat this week when she received 8 live adult Pismo Clams (Tivela stultorum) from California. Each clam was about 6 inches long and weighed about a pound. A shallow-water commercial species, Pismo Clams were hunted to near-extinction in California and are now commercially protected. Despite their size and the fact that they have been harvested for food for decades if not hundreds of years, their anatomy has never been fully described. Paula did preliminary dissections, then preserved the specimens 5 different ways for the BivAToL NSF project (www.bivavol.org). She and her colleagues in the BivAToL grant will use the specimens for their morphological/molecular analysis and will also write a paper specifically on the anatomy of this species. The specimens were provided by colleagues at the California Department of Fish and Game, who are monitoring Pismo Clam populations at and around Pismo Beach, which was named for the clams.

Friday, December 11, 2009

This Weekend At Museum of the Earth...


Be sure to stop in this weekend for the fourth annual Ithaca Fine Craft Show (formerly the Mostly Pottery Show) at the Museum. The show, which runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, will feature the work of twenty artists. Ceramics, Jewelry, Photography, Basketry and Fiber will be available for viewing and purchase in a range of prices. A percentage of the show's profits will go to support programming at the Museum of the Earth so come out support the Museum while you get some holiday shopping done! Also, be sure to stop in at the Museum store while you are here. We just had new Museum of the Earth hooded sweatshirts arrive that we are sure you'll love!

Coming up:

Don't forget to come visit us from December 26-30 for a week of fun activities. Each day at 1 p.m. we'll have an educator to teach you about the Earth's history and a fun craft or experiment for you to participate in.

Saturday, December 26 – Local Geology
Come learn what creepy crawlies swam through the Devonian seas above New York State. You’ll get to examine real fossils, learn about New York’s state fossil, and then make your own trilobite mask and eurypterid tail to take home!

Sunday, December 27 – Ancient Amber
Have you visited our newest temporary exhibit, Amber: Letting the Past Shine Through? Join us to learn more about this exhibit and do a simple experiment to find out the difference between real amber and fake amber. Then, put your creative energy to work by making a suncatcher.

Monday, December 28 – The Ice Age
Come learn about the animals that roamed during the ice age. Participate in our Mastodon Matrix program and create a fun mastodon pop-up card.

Tuesday, December 29 – The Age of Dinosaurs
Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? Come learn more about these fascinating creatures, examine casts of the fossils they left behind, and make your very own triceratops hat.

Wednesday, December 30 – Sustainability
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! Get ready for the New Year by creating a recycled calendar. Bring in old magazines or other pictures to decorate yours and we’ll have some recycled supplies of our own for you to use!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Notes From The Field...


In November 2009, the three BivAToL PIs (Paula Mikkelsen, Rudiger Bieler, Gonzalo Giribet) plus the three new postdocs (Sid Staubach, Ilya Temkin, Stephanie Clark) spent a week in Florida to collect additional bivalve target species. [NMNH co-PI Ellen Strong was also scheduled to participate, but regrettably had to cancel due to illness.] The first half of the trip was in Ft. Pierce, largely in the Indian River Lagoon on the eastern coast of Florida, working out of the Smithsonian Marine Station (http://www.sms.si.edu/). The Indian "River" is actually an estuary (and part of the Intracoastal Waterway), set off from the Atlantic Ocean by a long line of barrier islands, and punctuated by inlets. There we continued the work started in April 2009 by Mikkelsen, Bieler, and Brian Gollands, collecting more specimens of four species (Rangia cuneata, Polymesoda caroliniana, Sphenia antillensis, Tagelus plebeius) and fully collecting three more (Crassostrea virginica from a seawall, and Phacoides pectinata, Parastarte triquetra). Two of the postdocs also had the opportunity to dissect fresh specimens for their assigned organ systems - stomachs for Temkin and gills for Staubach - which lent an informal name for this expedition: the "Gills and Guts Workshop." Thanks to Drs. Mary Rice and Valerie Paul and the staff of the SMSFP for their hospitality and assistance.

Dr. Mikkelsen scuba diving in the Florida Keys.

Following Ft. Pierce, the three PIs spent an additional few days in the subtropical Lower Florida Keys to scuba dive on the reef and sample the shallow waters of Florida Bay. Despite the nearby passage of Hurricane Ida a few days before (which caused 15-foot seas on the reef), the weather calmed down and turned beautiful for our trip. Our dive on the spur-and-groove reef at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary off Big Pine Key was memorable, with 50-foot visibility and water temperature of 81 degrees F. Additional needed specimens of five species (Pteria colymbus, Ctenoides scabra, Petricola lapicida, Arcopsis adamsi, and Chama macerophylla) were obtained over the three days, and three additional target species were fully collected for the project (Ctenoides mitis, Lamychaena hians, Lithophaga antillarum). Our sampling in the Keys is supported by a research permit from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fossil of the Week


Here's something really tiny - about the size of a good-sized snowflake (to celebrate the 4-inch snowfall we had in Ithaca last night - our first "real" snowstorm of 2009). The scale bar in the photo is 100 microns long, which makes the specimen about 475 microns in diameter. That's barely one-half millimeter or about 2 one-hundredths of an inch. The specimen is a "foram" or a member of the Phylum Foraminifera. Forams are protists, in other words, single-celled organisms. They have a calcium carbonate "test" or shell, which is what has been preserved here, from the Pleistocene Yorktown Formation of Virginia. Forams are neither animals or plants - they are classified in the Kingdom Rhizaria. Most are marine benthic forms, which means simply that they live in the sediment at the bottom of the sea. Forams date back to the Cambrian Period, and have played very important roles in paleontology. Due to their abundance and readily fossilized tests, they serve as "index fossils" for specific time intervals in the geologic time scale. More accurately, they are "index assemblages" - in other words, a certain combination of foram species tells you that you're at a certain level in geologic time. They have also been used to reconstruct past climates by examining oxygen isotopes, and to reconstruct past ocean currents through the geographic patterns in the fossil records of planktonic forams. The oil industry once relied heavily on forams and other microfossils to find potential oil deposits.

The species: This foram is Buccella sp. (the species name is not identified). It is a plesiotype, that is a specimen upon which a description or figure is based that is not the original description. In other words, this is a figured specimen. It was figured in Bulletins of American Paleontology no. 191, "The Microfauna of the Yorktown Formation from James River, Surry County, Virginia," by Joseph W. Sabol, published in November 1960.

Text by Paula Mikkelsen

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Copenhagen

As many of you know, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is underway in Copenhagen. Because PRI supports the IPCC finding that climate change is human-caused, and because we support education efforts on the science behind global climate change, we are closely following the events happening in Copenhagen.

I'd like to highlight a couple of the exciting things that happened yesterday with respect to climate change.

First, there was a piece on NPR about American feelings on climate change. For the last few years, fewer Americans each year accept the science behind climate change. Listen to the piece here.

Second, the Environmental Protection Agency just published their decision to declare carbon dioxide a health hazard. Read about its implications to both US regulation and President Obama's visit to Copenhagen here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Big News...



James Dake, PRI's Cayuga Nature Center Collaborations manager has just been notified that he will be recieivng a "Sign of Sustainability" award for the publication of his book, Field Guide to the Cayuga Lake Region, from Sustainable Tompkins.

Since 2006, Sustainable Tompkins’ board members have tried to spot individuals and organizations emerging on the local scene, all doing their part to help advance community sustainability. At its annual holiday party, Sustainable Tompkins honors these new activists in order to connect them with others involved in similar endeavors. Awardees are celebrated for their contributions and receive a “Sign of Sustainability” certificate for their initiative.

Each year, Sustainable Tompkins acknowledges the following categories of Signs of Sustainability: a new sustainable enterprise; a brand new program or non-profit organization supporting some aspect of sustainable development; and a new sustainable program element rolled out by an existing business or non-profit organization. In 2008, we identified over 80 new sustainability initiatives in our community! This year’s Award Ceremony will be held on Sunday, December 6, from 4:00 – 6:30 pm in the Womens Community Building, Seneca St., Ithaca, NY.

When you see James here at PRI and its Museum of the Earth or over at the Cayuga Nature Center be sure to say hello and congratulations!

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Don't forget this weekend is the Museums annual Holiday Party!


Saturday, December 5
11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Join us this holiday season for our annual Holiday Party! Visit Cecil the Museums Dinosaur mascot and his friends to celebrate the winter season, make some holiday crafts -- like your very own ice age snow globes and holiday card, attend a super cool presentation about Penguins from Beth Bunting of Cornell University at noon and a very special performance from Tom Knight Puppets at 2:30!


Be sure to get your photo taken with the Cecil! He will be posing from 11-11:30, 12:30-1, and 1:30-2!

Cecil


This event made possible with support from the Cayuga Medical Center

Cayuga Medical Center Logo


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fossil of the Week


In March 1919, Katherine van Winkle Palmer wrote that after a lapse of 20 years, she was returning to a study of eastern American Tertiary fossils. In so doing, she found "accumulated in our laboratory several little lots of fossils, odds and ends, so to speak, that will scarcely fit into the general systematics studies here being undertaken, for some time to come." So she and coauthor Gilbert Harris [these two would become the first two directors of PRI in subsequent years] described them [in Bulletins of American Paleontology no. 33].

The species: This is Corbula (Anapteris) regalis Palmer & Harris, 1919, a member of the bivalve family Corbulidae, whose members also survive today. It is a syntype (one of several original specimens from which the species was described), originally part of the Cornell University paleontology collection. A figure of another specimen, viewed from the interior, shows the most important characteristic of this species, and of its subgenus Anapteris, which was also described as new in this monograph. This feature is a wing or flare on the anterior dorsal part of the shell (missing at the upper left corner of the specimen in the photograph). This and other sculptural features are usually stabilizing mechanisms in bivalves, allowing the clam to secure itself more firmly within the sand. This is a small specimen, only 17 millimeters (slightly more than one-half inch) long in the photograph. This is the left valve of the bivalve, which at the time of description was the only valve known. Corbulids are "inequivalve," that is one valve is larger than the other, and often differently sculptured - this left valve was the smaller of the two valves.

The collection: Corbula regalis is from the St. Maurice Horizon of the Eocene Epoch, 40-50 million years old. It was collected from Newcastle or Piping Tree, near Mechanicsville, Virginia, during the first Ianthina Expedition in 1897. This expedition was apparently one of several annual geological expeditions undertaken from the private launch "Ianthina" (named after a pelagic snail) by Cornell University.

Text by Paula Mikkelsen