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Cabinets of Curiosities at the Old State House

Back in the old days, before the idea of museums being educational centers became commonplace, most museums were more like some rich person’s trinkets collected during vacations packed into glass cases so people could see them. They rarely had signs telling people what anything was, nor was there oftentimes any attempt at organization. Because of the rather haphazard and all-encompassing nature of the displays, they got the name Cabinets of Curiosities.

As time went on, they became more thoughtful and organized, with more attention being spent on telling people what the objects were, teaching people about them, and properly preserving the objects for posterity.

The Old State House Museum in Little Rock honors that tradition with an exhibit called “Cabinets of Curiosities: Treasure of the University of Arkansas Museum Collection.” I am sad to say that the exhibit has been up since March 11 of 2017, but I have only recently learned about it and have gone to see it. Truth be told, the only reason I found out about it was because I went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to see the Hazen Mammoth fossils and found that the lower jaw of that mammoth was on display in Little Rock.

The reason I am sad to say this is because the exhibit is well worth your time to go see. If I had known about it earlier, I would definitely have discussed it here by now. I was told it will still be at the museum for another year, so you still have time. It is free, so go. Spend a Saturday downtown and explore the exhibit. Then go see what else is down there, which is plenty to keep you busy over the weekend.

What will you see when you are there? To begin with, you might want to ask directions from their helpful and friendly staff, because the exhibit is upstairs in a side gallery that you might miss if you didn’t know it was there.

The objects are from the University of Arkansas Museum at Fayetteville, which, sadly, closed its doors in 2003. As a result, if you want to see their collections, you have to make an appointment to see the warehoused collections. Or you can see a small part of them in this exhibit. The museum had collections from all over the world covering many subjects, which the exhibit honors by having selections of a wide range. It is like a mini-museum of anthropology and natural history.

I am a fossil guy, so I am going to focus on the fossils you can see. The fossils are mostly in the first two rooms that you enter in the exhibit. In the first room, under the horns of a large cervid (the family containing deer, elk, and moose), are two cabinets of invertebrate fossils and minerals. There are some nice fossils to see. You can see a crinoid with the calyx, or body, and pinnules, or “fronds”. These are much rarer than the pieces of stalks we normally find throughout the Ozarks. There is also a starfish, ammonoids, and nice plant fossils, among others.

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To the right of this display is a cabinet containing the skulls of a musk ox and Smilodon (saber-toothed tiger), a couple of large, straight-shelled nautiloids, and one of the bones of Arkansaurus, which up until very recently, was the only known dinosaur found in Arkansas.

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On the other side of the room, you can see the bones of an elephant leg and a cabinet full of geology specimens, including one enormous quartz crystal that would not be allowed as a carry-on for some planes because it is too big to fit.

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The next room contains  case with the leg bones of a camel, lion, dog, and cat. It also contains the pieces of mammoth that I came to see. But before you get to that case, you have to pass a giant clam that could fit a child, or even a small adult if they curled up.

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The other side of the room contains the skulls of a bison and rhino, a whale rib, and an entire icthyosaur from Germany. The end of the room has the skulls of a bear and walrus, complete with tusks, and the skeletons of a bat and snake.

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The final part of the fossil and biology section that I was most interested in was an old display of horse evolution. If made today, it would probably look substantially different because of all the new data we have gotten since that display was made; but except for a few very minor details, the essential facts would be the same.

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Of course, there is much more to the exhibit than what I have presented here, such as this cool whalebone armor and cavalry sword, so spend some time checking out the rest of the exhibit and the museum.

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There is one thing that the exhibit could have capitalized on, but didn’t (mainly because they didn’t know about it, but also because they were trying to stay with the whole cabinets of curiosity motif), was that many of the fossils and biology specimens have fossil counterparts that have been found in Arkansas. For instance, we have fossil Smilodons, musk oxen, whales, several mastodons, giant deer and giant snakes, and much more.

So here is my question to you. How many people would pay for a special tour of the exhibit that discussed all the cool Arkansas fossils that matched up with the ones on display here. How much would you pay? $10/person? More? Less?

The giant Arkansas fossil catfish

Did you know that Arkansas once had catfish more than three meters long and weighing, depending on who you believe, as much as 450 kg? That makes the world record catfish of today look positively puny.

The proof can be found at the Arkansas Geological Survey. The skull of one such monster is on display in the second floor display case. It was found in 1983 off Highway 79 near Camden. The bones were pulled from the Claiborne Formation, or more specifically, the Sparta Sand.

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The Claiborne Group can be found in much of the South-Central part of the state, as well as on Crowley’s Ridge. It is Eocene in age (34-56 Mya). According to the Arkansas Geological Survey, the Claiborne is primarily non-marine and is comprised of mostly fine-grained rocks ranging from silty clays to medium-grained sandstones, with the occasional lignitic coal bed. The shales usually have the variegated tans and grays often seen in terrestrial  sediments, with brown and black organic-enriched layers intermixed. Fossils are common from the units, with plant fossils common, as well as trace fossils. Of particular interest here are the reptile and fish bones that have been found here.

The Sparta Sand in particular is a thick bed that can be several hundred feet think. It is a fine to medium-grained sandstone that is typically light-colored, either a whitish or light gray, with thin beds or brown or grayish sandy clay and lignite. It has been considered an important aquifer for the region. The sediment is thought to have been laid down by rivers during a regression of the marine shoreline farther south. In other words, we are looking at the flood plain of a river meandering its way to the ocean, much like southern Arkansas and Louisiana is today. Only back then, the catfish grew much bigger than they do now.

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So what do we know of this fish? We know it was a siluriform catfish, most likely in the Ictaluridae family, along with all the other North American catfish. It was probably something like the giant Mekong river catfish and lived in similar environments. The Eocene was warmer than it is now, so it was likely even more tropical than it is today. Beyond that, we don’t know a lot. The fossil has never been fully studied and described as far as I am aware. In 1983, Dr. John Lundberg, a noted expert in fossil catfish and currently chief curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, corresponded with the AGS about studying it, but thus far, I don’t know what, if anything, came of it.

National Fossil Day

NFD_-2017_Poster-96dpi-613pxtallToday is National Fossil Day™. The National Park Service holds this annual event on the second Wednesday every year to coincide with Earth Science Week sponsored by the American Geosciences Institute. Earth Science Week highlights the important role of earth sciences in our everyday lives and “to encourage stewardship of the Earth.” National Fossil Day is, as NPS says, “held to highlight the scientific and educational value of paleontology and the importance of preserving fossils for future generations.”

In honor of the day, I am going to give you a whirlwind tour of some of our most outstanding fossils from all over the state. People may not think of Arkansas as being rich in fossils, but we have a rich natural history spanning 500 million years. To give you a quick summary of the wide array of fossils, just check out the map on the fossil page, reproduced below.

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Arkansas Geological Survey regional map, annotated with reported fossils.

The most fossiliferous region in the state is the Ozarks, without a doubt. It is a favorite fossil collecting spot for many people, even though much of the area is national forest or national park owned, which prohibits fossil collecting. Nevertheless, fossils may be collected on any roadcut. I-65 near Leslie has several fossiliferous roadcuts. You are most likely to find abundant examples of crinoids, bryozoans like the screw-shaped Archimedes, clams and brachiopods, ammonoids (mostly goniatites), corals such as horn corals and tabulate corals, as well as the occasional echinoid and trilobite, along with many other types of fossils. This list of fossils makes it plain that the Ozarks are dominated by marine deposits, but you can find the occasional semi-terrestrial deposit loaded with plants like Calamites and Lepidodendron.

Top, left to right: Calamites, spiriferid brachiopod, blastoid echinoderm, goniatite ammonoid. Bottom left to right: Archimedes bryozoan, crinoid with calyx and fronds (very rare, mostly you just find pieces of the stalk).

There are a few fossils that particularly stand out. One is Rayonnoceras, a nautiloid ammonoid, which reached lengths of over two meters, making it one of the longest straight-shelled ammonoids ever found. The other is a shark named Ozarcus. While shark teeth are common, it is rare to find one that preserves parts of the skull and gill supports. At 325 million years, Ozarcus is the oldest one like this ever found and it changed the way we viewed shark evolution, indicating that modern sharks may be an offshoot of bony fish, not the other way around.

bc-067t-lgWe can’t leave the Ozarks without talking about Conard Fissure, a spectacular collection of Pleistocene fossils. Barnum Brown excavated the first chamber of the cave in 1906, pulling out thousands of fossils or all kinds, many of which were new to science. Of course, of all of them, the ones that most people remember were 15 skeletons of Smilodon, the largest of the saber-toothed cats. The one pictured to the right is a cast of one from La Brea, California. All of ours are held at the American Museum of Natural History.

The Ouachita Mountains are not nearly as fossiliferous, but they have two important types of fossils that are commonly found: graptolites (below left) and conodonts (below right, not from AR, Scripto Geologica). Graptolites are thought to be closely related to pterobranchs, which are still living today, even though the graptolites themselves are all from the Paleozoic Era. Most of the time, Graptolites look like pencil marks on slate, but if you find a good one, you can see they are often like serrated files that may come branched or coiled. The reason these are important is because they are hemichordates, the closest group to the chordates, all animals with a spine (either a stiff rod or actual bone). Conodonts, on the other hand, are the closest we have to the earliest vertebrates, looking like nothing so much as a degenerate hagfish.

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The coastal plain is quite fossiliferous and has attracted the majority of press because it is here where you will find Cretaceous aged rocks and that means dinosaurs and their compatriots. Here you will find thousands of Exogyra oysters. Scattered among them, you can find numerous shark teeth, along with teeth from Enchodus, the saber-toothed herring (although not really a herring), especially if you look in the chalk beds. You can also find the rare example of hesperornithids, extinct diving birds, as well as fossil crocodilians.

But of course, the main draws here are the marine reptiles and the dinosaurs. Mosasaur vertebrae are not uncommon, although the skulls are. More rarely, one can find plesiosaur (the article only mentions elasmosaurs, which are a type of plesiosaur, but most plesiosaur fossils in Arkansas cannot be identified that closely) vertebrae as well.And then of course are the dinosaurs. We only have a few bones of one, named Arkansaurus, but we have found thousands of footprints of sauropods, the giant long-necked dinosaurs. Since the sauropods that have been found in Texas and Oklahoma are titanosaurs, such as Sauroposeidon, it is a good bet the footprints were made by titanosaurs. A few tracks have also been found of Acrocanthosaurus, a carnivorous dinosaur like looked something like a ridge-backed T. rex. Acrocanthosaurus reached almost 12 meters, so while T. rex was bigger, it wasn’t bigger by much.

Top left: Mosasaur in UT Austin museum. Top right: Plesiosaur vertebra from southern AR. Middle left: reconstruction of Arkansaurus foot. Middle right: statue of Arkansaurus (out of date). Bottom left: Sauropod footprints. Bottom right: Acrocanthosaurus footprint, Earth Times.

The eastern half of the state is dominated by river deposits from the Mississippi River, so the fossils found there are mainly Pleistocene aged, with the exception of a few earlier Paleogene fossils near Crowley’s Ridge. Pleistocene deposits can be found all over the state, as they are the youngest, but are most common in the east. In these deposits, a number of large fossils have been found. A mammoth was found near  Hazen, but we have almost two dozen mastodons scattered over the state. I already mentioned Smilodon, but we also have  , the giant short-faced bear, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, and even a giant sea snake named Pterosphenus. Most unusual of all is a specimen of Basilosaurus, which despite its name meaning king lizard, was actually one of the first whales. Considering the month, I would be remiss not to include Bootherium, also known as Harlan,s musk ox, or the helmeted musk ox.

Top left: Mastodon on display at Mid-America Museum. Top right: Basilosaurus by Karen Carr. Bottom left: Arctodus simus, Labrea tar pits. Wikipedia. Bottom right: Bootherium, Ohio Historical Society.

This is nowhere near all the fossils that can be found in Arkansas, but it does give a taste of our extensive natural history covering half a billion years. After all, we wouldn’t be the Natural State without a robust natural history. Happy National Fossil Day!

Monday Mysteries

It is long past time I resurrected Monday Mystery fossils. So to celebrate the season, here is a little animal whose relatives, or at least representations thereof, shall be widely seen over the next month.

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If you think you know what this is, please leave your identification in the comments. I will let everyone know what it is and where fossils like this have been found in Arkansas on Friday. Have a great October!

Arkansas law: The Good Dinosaur and the Ugly

There are a number of things going on in the Arkansas legislature right now that deserve attention here. The first thing I want to mention is that Arkansas now has its own official state dinosaur.

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On February 17, 2017, Governor Asa Hutchinson approved House Resolution 1003 to list Arkansaurus fridayi as the official state dinosaur. This bill was pushed by a high school kid named Cypress Oury and sponsored by Greg Leding, AR House representative for District 86. As those of you who have been here before may remember, Arkansaurus is the informal name of the only dinosaur ever found in Arkansas.

agsarkansaurusfootUnfortunately, we only have half of one foot, so identification has proved elusive. The best that can be said is that it is some kind of primitive coelurosaurian theropod. It is not as derived as tyrannosaurids and certainly not a maniraptoran theropod or any of the others near to the avian line. Thus, while the new drawing by Brian Engh above is better than previous versions, it is highly speculative. The arms are almost assuredly wrong and should be longer. We don’t know if it had feathers or not. It likely did, but those feathers would have been unlikely to be as long as those shown in the drawing. They would more likely have been shorter and fuzzier. This is not to say the feathers Brian Engh drew are wrong, they are certainly plausible, but a bit more advanced than is likely for a coelurosaurian that far down the family tree.

When picking a state dinosaur, Arkansaurus is certainly the most likely candidate, being the only one with an actual body fossil. But it was not the only candidate. Arkansas is known for having some spectacular dinosaur trackways. The tracks include two types. The very great majority are from a large sauropod, possibly Sauroposeidon (or depending on the taxonomy one follows, Pleurocoelus or Paluxysaurus, which may or may not be all the same or all different). Since Sauroposeidon is one of the largest known dinosaurs, this would have made a fine candidate, but the taxonomic uncertainties and the lack of actual body fossil material make it less viable. The other possibility if Acrocanthosaurus, an almost sail-backed theropod related to Allosaurus. Unfortunately, while we have footprints, we have no actual bones of this one either. We only presume it was the track maker because there have been fossils of it found in both Oklahoma and Texas and it is the only theropod of the right size known in the general area.

That is the good news. Sadly, there is also bad news. The Arkansas legislature is on a religious kick these days, proposing a number of unconstitutional bills. One such bill is HB 2050, “An act to amend the Arkansas code to allow public school teachers to teach creationism and intelligent design as theories alongside the teaching of the origins of the earth and the theory of evolution; and for other purposes.” They always add “and for other purposes,” no matter what the bill is, just to cover their butts. This bill is clearly unconstitutional, as already decided by McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education in 1982 and Ktzmiller vs. Dover Area School District in 2005. As Judge Overton said in 1982, “No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.” The theory of evolution is one of the best supported by mountains of evidence and exhaustive, thorough research of any scientific theory currently accepted by science, whereas creationism and intelligent design fail all efforts to make them remotely scientifically plausible. The idea they can stand side by side with the theory of evolution as valid scientific explanations in a science classroom is an insult to all thinking people.

Then there is SJR7, by Senator Jason Rapert (the same man who, among other things, was responsible for the Ten Commandments monument being built on the Capital grounds), calling for Congress to  propose an amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.  Because the Supreme Court of the United States has already made same-sex marriage legal throughout the country, the Arkansas legislature wants Congress to overturn their ruling. This is based on their religious beliefs and ignores a number of facts, such as it not actually being supported by the Bible, it violates the First Amendment by pushing a specific religious view onto everyone, and most importantly for our purposes here, ignores biological reality (and why I am talking about it here). Humans are not just male and female. There are several ways that genetics and development can intertwine that cause a mixture of male and female, making separation into a binary sex impossible. This bill would make it illegal for them to marry at all. Moreover, the bill does not define “man” or “woman,” making it ambiguous whether people who are biologically one sex, yet identify as the other, are banned from marriage. Considering that what gender one identifies with and is attracted to has a strong biological underpinning and is not a “lifestyle choice,” there is little to make this bill viable through any explanation other than prejudice.

In relation to that bill is SB346, by Senators Greg Standridge and Gary Stubblefield is a bill to require people in public schools to use the bathrooms that match their biological sex. To begin with, these two senators do not know the difference between gender (sociological) and sex (biological). Secondly, they have no answer for intersex individuals who cannot be easily classified as male or female other than they are not allowed to go to the bathroom at all, which has been the unfortunate situation at some schools for transgender children. This bill was pulled, but another was filed by Senator Linda Collins’ Smith targeting government buildings. Apparently, the backlash from the state LGBT supporters, business owners, and the governor were not sufficient to dissuade the legislature they needed to act against an imaginary scourge.

And of course, this list would not be complete without trying to make the Bible the official state book, as attempted by Rep. Tosh in HR 1047. He, of course, touts the myth that “the Bible form the basis upon which our modern civilization is structured,” pretending that he is simply supporting the Bible for purely historical reasons. He goes on to say that the Bible is “considered by many to be a book of truth,.. is widely read,” and why not throw in that we have a bunch of other state symbols, why not a religious book too?

All of these bills at the very least face constitutional challenges and have already been ruled as unconstitutional in other court battles. All this will do is cost the state a fortune in legal bills and drive away tax dollars as businesses leave the state and tourists opt to go elsewhere. Moreover, it seriously harms science education as we continuously have to battle this form of ignorance.

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UPDATE: Now that the legislature has finished this session, how much damage did they get done? In terms of what has been mentioned here, not a lot, thankfully.

HB 2050: This bill to allow creationism in the schools died on the vine. It was referred to committee, but the author of the bill never provided a full bill for the committee to read, so the session ended without further progress, meaning that the process will need to be started from scratch next year. WIN

SJR7: This resolution to ask the US Congress to approve an amendment to the constitution making marriage as between one man and one woman failed to pass after three attempts. The truly scary thing is that it got 50 votes, only 1 short of passing. WIN

SB346: The notorious bathroom bill never made it out of committee. WIN

HR 1047: The House resolution to make the Bible the official state book passed the House with a unanimous vote. Yes, you read that right. Not a single representative voted against it. Thankfully, this was only a resolution with no legal authority and the Senate will not vote on it until the next session, but still. Of course, what can one expect in a state which still says in the state constitution that an atheist cannot hold public office nor be considered competent to testify in court? LOSE.

In other news, HB 1040 prohibiting Sharia law from being enforced passed both houses of the legislature and signed by the Governor. The irony of this is that it was never legal in the first place. Our legal system just doesn’t work that way. This was just another bill to demonize Muslims. LOSE.

If you are teaching in a college, pay close attention to your students and don’t rile them up. A new law passed by the legislature and signed into law allows students to carry guns on campus, but good news, they still are not allowed to bring them into football stadiums because allowing them to do so might jeopardize Arkansas’s standing in the Sun Belt conference. Seriously.

Prehistoric Shark Week, Day 5: From Whence the Great White?

Greetings and welcome to the final day of Prehistoric Shark Week! All week we have covered sharks that swam in Arkansas during the Cretaceous Period. The dinosaurs get all the press, but we had a diverse marine ecology during that time. Last week, we met a few of the non-shark denizens, such as mosasaurs, elasmosaurs, and more. This week, we have seen nurse sharks, goblins, sand tigers, and an array of rays, skates, and angel sharks. We wrap up the festival of marine animals with the question that everyone wants to know. Where did the most famous sharks of all time, the Great White and Megalodon, come from and how does Arkansas play into this?

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A collection of galeomorph sharks that made their home in Cretaceous Arkansas and much of the world’s oceans, appropriately scaled.

The Great White, or simply White Shark, is named Carcharodon carcharias, meaning sharp tooth pointer, although more popularly named for its white belly, is well known as the largest living predatory fish in the sea, reaching up to and, probably over, 20 feet. Megalodon, listed either as Carcharocles megalodon or Carcharodon megalodon, depending on whether or not one believes it is directly related to or convergent with White Sharks, is the largest known predatory fish ever, reaching sizes up to three times that of the White Shark. It appeared in the fossil record about 16 Mya, but went extinct 1.6 Mya (contrary to what a fictitious documentary on the Discovery Channel claimed).

During the Cretaceous, the southwestern part of the state was covered by the Western Interior Seaway, which for us, was essentially equated to having the Gulf coast not just on our doorstep, but flooding it. Those waters were warm, rich in nutrients, and a hotbed of marine life. In those waters, a few sharks of interest made their home.

All of the sharks we will be talking about are lamniform sharks. These sharks are known for being at least partially endothermic, meaning they used their core muscles to create their own heat and maintain an elevated body temperature, giving them the ability to be active hunters even in cooler waters. Of course, it also meant they were hungrier, needing more food, keeping them always on the prowl. This is what allows the White to be such a fearsome hunter today, giving it the power and energy to breach completely out of the water during attacks.

Squalicorax is an extinct shark of the time that is commonly thought to have resembled Whites. These sharks got up to five meters, although they were typically around two meters. Squalicorax is also called the Crow Shark, which some people have speculated it got that name from evidence of its scavenging. However, squalus means shark (and is the scientific genus name for dogfish) and corax means crow, so the name Squalicorax literally means crow shark. Squalicorax_pristodontus_Agassiz,_1843_1Now as to why it was named that way to begin with, no one knows because when Agassiz named it in 1843, he didn’t leave a record as to why. They hunted and scavenged a wide range of animals, everything from turtles to mosasaurs. Unfortunately, the relationships between Squalicorax and other lamnids is uncertain, so whether or not it could have been ancestral to anything, much less Whites or megalodons, is unknown at present.

Another candidate is a shark named Isurus hastalis, an Oligocene shark that lived 30 Mya. Isurus also includes the modern day mako shark. However, a researcher by the name of Mikael Siverson concluded that the Isurus teeth were not makos, but worn down teeth similar to modern Whites. So he changed the name to Cosmopolitodus. It has also been suggested that these sharks originated from a shark called Isurolamna, which lived in the paleocene 65-55 Mya.

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Possible evolutionary sequence of the Great White. http://www.elasmo-research.org

A more recent view, and one which I back (with freely admitted bias because it allows me to say they evolved from Arkansas sharks:) ), is that both Whites and megolodons evolved from an extinct lamnid called Cretolamna, the Cretaceous lamna. This shark had large, strong teeth and was very successful. It had a worldwide distribution and lived from the Cretaceous to the Paleocene. Cretolamna fossils have not been reported in Arkansas thus far, but they were a member of the family Cretoxyrhinidae, of which the shark Serratolamna was a member. The teeth of Cretolamna and Serratolamna are extremely similar, as one might expect from genera in the same family. However, Serratolamna teeth have serrations and Cretolamna does not, making Serratolamna teeth closer in shape to the White Shark. Serratolamna did not have the same worldwide distribution and did not last as long as long as Cretolamna, though. It is impossible to tell which one was directly ancestral to the later sharks, but Cretolamna, due to its more cosmopolitan range, has gotten the nod. It was named first and is much better known than Serratolamna, giving it an edge when people find and identify fossil shark teeth. Thus, it is not a big stretch to say that Serratolamna, or a very close relative, eventually evolved into Carcharodon carcharias as well as Carcharocles (or Carcharodon) megalodon.

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Serratolamna gafsana. Wikipedia. Photo by Hectonichus.

I hoped you have enjoyed Prehistoric Shark Week and the previous week of Cretaceous Arkansas marine predators. Let me know if there is another group that you think deserves special consideration for a celebratory week.

Day 4 of Prehistoric Shark Week: Sand Tigers

For Day 4 of Prehistoric Shark Week, I would like to mention another modern day shark that has been around since the Cretaceous: the sand tiger sharks. Tomorrow, I will discuss a couple of Cretaceous sharks that may be the ancestors of the two most famous sharks in the world – the Great White and the giant Megalodon.

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Carcharias taurus. Wikipedia. Amada44.

carchariasThe Sand tiger is a common shark in the Cretaceous sediments, or at least, their teeth are, which means they were probably pretty common back then.  The teeth tend to be long and thin, with two small cusps on either side of the large, center blade. Elasmo-branch.org reports that the center blade is smooth-edged with a strongly bilobed root, large bulge in the center of the root (aka lingual protruberance), and nutrient foramen in the center.

There are actually two sharks that are often called sand tigers in the Cretaceous rocks. One is Carcharias holmdelensis, the Cretaceous version of Carcharias taurus, the modern day sand tiger shark. Also going by the name grey nurse shark, amid several others, sand tigers are large-bodied sharks that will eat pretty much anything, but since it is a fairly slow and placid shark most of the time, it doesn’t seem to go after anything that requires a lot of effort. They are known for gulping air to allow themselves to float in the water column without expending much effort. So although they look scary, they appear to be too lazy to live up to appearances.

Smalltooth-sand-tiger-shark-portrait

Odontaspis ferox

The other shark that gets called a sand tiger, is Odontaspis aculeatus, one of the ragged toothed sharks, which also go by the name sand tiger. These sharks were until recently in the same family as Carcharias, but have since been pulled out into their own family. They are very similar, as one might has guessed from the numerous times these sharks have been grouped and split over the years. As Elasmo-research.org put it, “Chaos reigned until Leonard Compagno examined museum specimens from all over the world, corrected misidentifications and sorted out synonyms.”

 

Prehistoric Shark Week, Day 3: Flat Fish

For Day 3 (a little late, yes) of Prehistoric Shark Week, I want to bring to your attention the diversity of chondrichthyans that have opted for a flatter bauplan.

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Ray tooth

Sharks are generally split into two groups, the galeomorphs, which are mostly the more typical torpedo-shaped sharks, including the sharks that most people think of when they envision a shark. The other group is the squalimorphs. These sharks lack an anal fin and many of them have developed a penchant for flatter bodies and broad pectoral fins, and in some cases pelvic fins as well (although not all, such as the dogfish and frilled sharks). Up until recently, the batoids, otherwise known as skates and rays, were considered part of this group, the consensus being that they were a more specialized type of squalimorph shark that had taken flat to an extreme. But the most recent molecular studies have indicated that they are a group unto themselves. The batoids have a long fossil history, with a number of ray teeth found in the Cretaceous deposits of Arkansas, particularly the eagle ray family Myliobatidae. Their teeth are typically flat rectangles on top with a comb-like surface below. Another type of ray that can be found are the guitarfish, or Rhinobatos casieri. These pectoral fins of these fish extend to their head, giving them a triangular shaped front end of a more traditional shark-like back end.

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Shark classification. 

http://www.mesa.edu.au/seaweek2005/pdf_senior/is02.pdf

 

Skates and rays are generally very docile and would not be very threatening, spending their time scrounging about on the sea floor for benthic (living in or on the sea floor) invertebrates and the occasional fish. The same can’t be said for the last member of this group, the sawfish. Armed with a rostrum (its elongated snout) with teeth out to the side, the fish looks like it has a chain saw for a nose. The sawfish will swim into a school of fish and thrash its rostrum rapidly back and forth, spearing and stunning several fish, which it can then gobble up. They can also use it to dig up clams and crabs from the sediment. While they won’t attack humans, any human who provoked one may easily wind up perforated by the rostrum, probably not deadly but certainly painful. Most modern sawfish reach a respectable two meters, but the largest species, the green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) can top seven meters (24 feet). This is as large as the Cretaceous versions. Modern sawfish are typically put into the family Pristiformes. The Cretaceous ones are in their own family, called Sclerorhynchiformes and are not directly related, in that the Cretaceous ones are not thought to be ancestral to the modern ones. They are both put into the group Pristirajea, so they are thought to at least be related. But with the uncertainties in the relationships of the modern fish, the relationships with fossil forms are necessarily less certain. In any case, Arkansas sports several different species from this group, including Schizorhiza stromeri, Sclerorhynchus sp., Ischyrhiza mira, Ischyrhiza avonicola, and Ptychotrygon vermiculata. We were postively awash in sawfish.

Onchopristis numidus black JCS

Onchopristis. Cretaceous. Sawfishconservationsocietyblogspot.com

The true squalimorph sharks that have shown up in the Arkansas Cretaceous rocks are best represented by the Angel shark (Squatina hassei), which looks like an early rendition of a skate, so it is little wonder that most researchers viewed skates and rays as simply more specialized versions of these sharks. Nevertheless, it appears this is case of convergence, not homology (similarity due to relationship). If it is homologous, it isn’t directly so. It is possible both groups had a common slightly flattened ancestor and each took their own route from there.

cretguitarfish

Rhinobatos hakelensis. Cretaceous guitarfish. Fossilmuseum.net

All of these fish are pretty docile hunters, scrounging around the sea floor for benthic organisms, all those animals that make their home in or on the sea floor sediments. They spend their time digging around the sand for crabs, clams, and other invertebrates, the occasional fish. When threatened by the presence of a predator, they hide on the bottom, using their shape to help them blend in with the seafloor. Neither the ones today or the ones in the Cretaceous would have bothered a human swimming around them.

Becker, Martin A., Chamberlain, John A., Wolp, George E. 2006. Chondricthyans from the Arkadelphia Formation (Upper Cretaceous: Upper Maastrichtian) of Hot Spring County, Arkansas

 

 

Prehistoric Shark Week

This week we will celebrate fossil sharks of the Mesozoic that have been found in Arkansas. Because all of our surface rocks of the period are from the Cretaceous, the sharks are limited to that time. There are other cool sharks from the Paleozoic, but they will have to wait for another time. Hunting for shark teeth in Arkansas can best be done in the chalk formations called the Annona and Saratoga in southwest Arkansas. But you can also find them in several other formations as well.

Many of the sharks found in the Cretaceous in Arkansas have contemporary species. While the species may vary, the genus name is very long-lived. For those who are unaware, scientific names follow a binomial system, with a genus and a species name, the genus being the first name and indicating a group of very closely related species. It is next to impossible to tell the difference between species of sharks just by their teeth unless, and many times even if, one is an expert, so I will be sticking with the genus names.

To begin the week, I present to you Ginglymostoma, the nurse shark.

sk-g-401

The scientific name comes from the shape of its mouth. The origin of the name nurse shark is not clear, but it is considered likely to have originated with the Old English word Hurse, for sea floor shark.

Known for its puckered mouth and barbels on the sides of its mouth, nurse sharks spend most of their time near the sea floor scrounging for whatever small animal they can catch. They are very docile and will only bite if provoked. Humans are far too big for nurse sharks to be interested in, so unless one really goes out of their way to annoy a nurse shark, you’re pretty safe, even from the largest ones, which can get over 4 meters.

Nurse-shark-swimming

Day 4 of Paleo-Animal Fest

Welcome to Day 4 of Paleo-Animal Fest, celebrating the creatures populating the Arkansas seas during the Cretaceous. Today we are going to look at a fish that has survived for an amazingly long time. They first appeared in the Late Cretaceous and have survived to the present day, still thriving. You can find them in many freshwater lakes and rivers, especially brackish and hypoxic (low oxygen) waters, even into marine waters on the occasion. They are a tough predator in many ways, from their durability in the fossil record to their physical defenses and their intimidating jaws. I am of course talking about gars.

gatorgar_taylor_trinity

This thing looks like a prehistoric crocodile. My.core.com/~garman/garanglershome.htm

Gars are piscivorous, meaning they eat other fish. The most common description of them is “voracious predator.” They are known for their tooth-filled jaws, scales of armor, and their fight. Their typical mode of attack is a lightning-quick sideways bite. Gar fishermen are often called “not right in the head.”

Gars can be found in many places within North America, but their fossils can be found all over the world. The vast majority of the fossils have been identified as Lepisosteus, which includes the longnose, shortnose, spotted, and Florida gar. However, most of their fossils are isolated scales, which makes it difficult to impossible to tell what type of gar it is from. So I am going to go with most people’s favorite gar, Atractosteus spatula, the alligator gar (pictured above). It is the biggest one reaching almost 3 meters. Another impressive armored, ancient fish that is still around is the sturgeon, which can get a lot bigger, but are nowhere near as impressive in the teeth department.

ganoid1

Ganoid scales

There are not a lot of skeletons of gars with heads and tails, but there are a lot of body pieces covered in scales. Gar scales are thick, rhomboid-shaped ganoid scales, meaning they are covered in what is effectively enamel. The scales form an excellent armor, making handling them hard on the hands. They are so tough and dense, in fact, that the scales have been used as arrowheads and make even CT scans on gars hard to impossible to get decent views. On the plus side, this results in them having excellent preservational potential and can be found quite commonly. The scales make the fossils really stand out and readily identifiable to at least the group Lepisosteiformes.

GarFishFossil

Lepisosteus simplex. FossilMuseum.net

By far, the most complete and detailed description of gars ever published is by Lance Grande, the universally acknowledged leading world expert on fossil fish, called “An empirical synthetic pattern study of gars (Lepisosteiformes) and closely related species, based mostly on skeletal anatomy. The resurrection of Holostei.” Special publication 6 of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, published in 2010. This is a massive tome, amassing almost 900 pages of detailed observation on gars. This book is a companion to a similar volume he did on bowfins. I can honestly say I have never seen a more thorough job on any group such as this in my life. Every time I look at it, I think wow, all this on just gars? This would make any scientist proud to have one of these capping their life’s work and this doesn’t even begin to touch the work put out by Grande. I am in awe.