Tomorrow is Halloween, so I thought this week’s mystery fossil is particularly appropriate. Herman Diaz was able to guess that it was some sort of bovid, something along the lines of a bison. Were you able to get any closer?
This picture is indeed a bovid, although it’s not a bison. The skull cap, adorned with horns is from an animal called Bootherium bombifrons, also known as Harlan’s muskox, , woodland muskox, bonnet-headed muskox, or my personal preferred term second to the great Bootherium, the helmeted muskox.
Muskox are ungulates (hoofed animals) in the order Artiodactylia, even-toed ungulates such as pigs, deer, camels, and antelopes. Artiodactyls also include hippos and whales, which is why some people prefer the term Cetartiodactylia. Bovids are a group of artiodactyls known for having blunt snouts and unbranched horns. In addition to the ever-popular cows, they include bison, sheep, goats, antelopes, and of course, the muskox. It is a large group, with over 400 known species.
Muskox today consist of a single species, Ovibos moschatus. Muskox are commonly misunderstood to be related to oxen, which are really just cows (or more correctly, cattle, as cow technically only refers to females) that have been trained as draft animals and not a separate species at all. Muskox are really more closely related to goats than cattle. They are adapted for cold weather and live in Arctic regions of North America, Eurasia, and Greenland.
Bootherium, unlike its modern cousin, lived in more temperate climates. It lived throughout North America during the Pleistocene Epoch between 300,000 and 1.8 million years ago, but was most common in the southern United States. It is not a common fossil in Arkansas, but has been identified from Newton County in the northern part of the state along the Buffalo National River. Sadly, the paper referencing this find is chiefly about a cave in Maryland from 1938, which is a great indicator of a lack of decent mammalian paleontological research in Arkansas. Nevertheless, during the Pleistocene, Bootherium has been listed as the most common form of muskox in North America.
Bootherium is reported to have been taller and thinner than modern muskox, with a finer and shorter fur coat, as befitting the warmer climate. They also had large horns that were fused together across the top of the skull.
Considering that it shared a similar habitat with mastodons, which we have in a fair abundance within the state, it would be expected that there should be more evidence of them being in Arkansas. It may be that they are usually mistaken for the bones of modern cattle, which are not uncommon throughout the state. So perhaps there are more around here than we know about.
For more information on Bootherium, check out the website of the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre.
I haven’t posted a mystery fossil this fall, much to my own disappointment. But I have the perfect specimen for this week. With Halloween this Saturday, I had to post this one. See if you can figure out what it is. Check back Friday for the answer.
I couldn’t find a picture of the Arkansas fossils, so one from Ohio will have to do.
National Fossil Day is today. The Museum of Discovery is having their second annual National Fossil Day event this Saturday. In celebration of these events, I am reviewing important fossils of Arkansas. Last post I stated my picks for the most famous fossils of Arkansas. This time I will discuss what I think are the most common fossils in particular regions of the state.
In the Ozarks, you can find an abundance of marine fossils. There are ammonoids, bryozoans, brachiopods, clams, corals, echinoids, and many others. The Pitkin limestone is so chocked full of Archimedes bryozoans that it is sometimes referred to as the Archimedes limestone. But overall, I have to go with crinoids as the most commonly found fossil in the Ozarks. Crinoids lived throughout the Paleozoic Era, making them potential finds throughout the region. They survived even up to the present day in deep marine settings, but in the Paleozoic, they lived throughout the shallow marine realm, which is where fossils are most common.
Known as sea lilies today due to their plant-like appearance, they are actually echinoderms, making them relatives of sea urchins and sea stars. While not common today, they were quite abundant during the Paleozoic. Most of the fossils of crinoids are of their stems, which look like stacks of circles with the centers punched out, sort of like flattened rings. But occasionally, you can find the tops of the crinoids with the body (called a calyx) and the arms still intact. These are rare because, like all echinoderms, the body is made of plates that fall apart into indistinguishable fragments shortly after death.
You will not find many fossils in the Ouachitas, but two types of fossils are commonly found there, conodonts and graptolites. Conodonts are the toothy remains of the earliest vertebrates. Unfortunately, you can place several of them on the head of a pin, so unless you are looking at rocks under a microscope, you probably won’t see them. That leaves graptolites, which can be found in several places fairly easily. Unless you know what you are looking at, they can be easy to miss. On black shale, they often appear as pencil scratches that are easy to overlook. But look closely and you will see that many of them look like tiny saw blades. These are what remains of animals we call today pterobranchs. These animals are the closest an animal can get to being a chordate, the group that includes vertebrates, without actually being one. So the Ouachita mountains have fossils that bracket that hugely important transition from spineless to having a backbone.
For the third choice, one could always argue for shark teeth, which are commonly found in southwest Arkansas, but can be found most anywhere in the state. But if we limit our discussion to the southwest part of the state, the easiest to find on the basis of quantity and size I think has to go to Exogyra ponderosa. These are Cretaceous aged oysters known for their thick shells adorned with a curled hornlike shape. They are big, sturdy, and can be found by the thousands. One can only imagine that the Cretaceous was a great time to be an oyster. At that time, southwest Arkansas was beachfront property. with lots of shoreline and shallow marine deposits of sand, shale, limestone, and the famous Cretaceous chalk deposits. Dinosaurs walked along the beach, marine reptiles like mosasaurs and elasmosaurs plied the waters, along with sharks and fish of all kinds. And between them lay mountains of oysters.
You may notice that I left out pretty much all of eastern Arkansas. That is because that region of the state is covered in fairly recent Mississippi river sediment, so you don’t find that many fossils in that part of the state. Some have been found, such as the Hazen mammoth, mastodons, sea snakes, and the occasional giant ground sloth or whale, but the fossils are few and far between. So while they have several fascinating fossils, they aren’t going to show up on anyone’s list of commonly found fossils.
So those are my choices. Do you have other suggestions?
This week is Earth Science Week, with National Fossil Day on Wednesday. The Museum of Discovery is holding its second annual National Fossil Day event on Saturday, the 17th, between 10 am and 3 pm. So in honor of the week and in preparation for the museum event on Saturday, I thought I would briefly talk about what I consider the three most famous fossils found in Arkansas. You may notice this list is exclusively vertebrates. That is because of the rather large bias in popularity vertebrates have over invertebrates. Vertebrates are much less common in Arkansas than invertebrates, but they get almost all the press. Let me know in the comments section if you have any other contenders.
The first contender for Arkansas’s most famous fossil is Arkansaurus, the only dinosaur to have been found in the state. Found in 1972 in Sevier County, the only bones found comprised the front half of one foot. Despite considerable searching, nothing else has ever been found. The lack of diagnostic bones has made it impossible to determine exactly what kind of dinosaur it was. All that can really be said is that it is some kind of coelurosaur, a type of theropod, but not a tyrannosaurid, ornithomimid, or any other more derived form related to birds. We can also say it was a medium-sized dinosaur, meaning it wasn’t terribly small, as the front half of the foot measures just over two feet long. A statue was made by Vance Pleasant, which was recently seen at the Museum of Discovery as part of a dinosaur exhibit. How accurate is it? It’s a reasonable estimate based on what we know right now, which is not much, except that the real animal probably had some form of feathers not seen on the statue. The fossils are currently housed at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
My vote for the Arkansas fossil that is more widely known outside the state better than inside it is Ozarcus, a primitive shark found by the paleontologists Royal and Gene Mapes in the Ozark Mountains near Leslie. The reason for the fame of this fossil is that it is the oldest known shark fossil that preserves the gill supports, known as the branchial basket. These normally do not preserve because they are made of cartilage, much like most of the rest of the shark skeleton. The gill supports here indicated that both sharks and osteichthyans, or bony fish, evolved from an ancestor that looked more like bony fish than it did the cartilaginous sharks, meaning that the original sharks were not primitive to bony fish, but possibly evolved after the appearance of bony fish. Due to this, Ozarcus got international coverage and became well known to paleontologists. The fossil currently resides at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The last contender for Arkansas’s most famous fossil is the Hazen Mammoth, the only mammoth known from the state. Found in 1965, it consisted of the skull, tusks, and some vertebra. There was a lot more of the skeleton found, but unfortunately, the bones were very soft and were severely damaged or destroyed before they could be collected. The bones were identified as Mammuthus columbi, or the Columbian Mammoth, a less hairy version of the more commonly known woolly mammoth, indicating warmer temperatures than found in areas in which the woolly mammoth is known. Even though only one mammoth has been found in Arkansas, upwards of two dozen mastodons have been found. Mastodons were smaller cousins of the mammoths and preferred forest habitats over the grassy plains in which the mammoths lived. This provides evidence that much like today, the state was mostly forested during the Pleistocene Period in which they lived. Today, the mammoth is a resident of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
So what would you call the most famous fossil of Arkansas?