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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?
Now that Labor Day has come and gone, everyone should be back to school by now. I have been absent for much of the summer and not posted nearly as much as I had hoped to. I have been working on some projects which I hoped to have up by now, but are still in process. Working two jobs right now while trying to maintain some semblence of a personal life has left me precious little energy to work on Paleoaerie. But hopefully, that should end soon and I will be back to posting on a regular basis.
In the meantime, there are some news and upcoming events I would like to share so you can put them on your calendar.
- I have received the audio for my talks at the Clinton Presidential Library. Unfortunately, the video was not successful. So as soon as I get the chance to sync the audio to the powerpoint, I will post it here.
- I have joined forces with TIES, the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. They have a number of excellent resources on their webpage and will allow an improved opportunity to offer workshops on evolution to teachers and other interested parties. These workshops are designed by teachers for teachers and are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. If you are interested in a workshop, please either contact me or Bertha Vasquez, the TIES Director. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.
- I will be appearing at the Forest Heights STEM Academy in Little Rock on Friday, September 11, to discuss how the scientific method is really used by scientists.
- I will be appearing at the next quarterly meeting of the Arkansas STEM Coalition meeting on September 25 to talk about TIES and National Fossil Day.
Speaking of National Fossil Day, make sure to put Saturday, October 17th on your calendar. The Museum of Discovery is hosting the second annual National Fossil Day event, even bigger and better than last year. Don’t miss it. National Fossil Day is a part of Earth Science Week, sponsored by the American Geosciences Institute, designed to “help the public gain a better understanding and appreciation for the Earth Sciences and to encourage stewardship of the Earth.”
Now that all the business is out of the way, I will get on with more educational material. In honor of everyone going back to school, I thought I would start a few posts about some definitions that most people generally get wrong. Today, I am going to discuss a few of the types of scientists that study past life.
Whenever a scientist tells people they are an archaeologist or paleontologist, they tend to brace themselves for the almost invariable questions about the other field. In most people’s minds, all the different sciences seem to be interchangeable, with little understanding that just because someone studies the past, they don’t necessarily study everything in the past. I won’t even get into the difference between scientists who study past life and historians. I will leave that for any archaeologists who wish to tackle that issue. I get this question so often that I bought this Tshirt.
Even though we all study past life, there are important differences. Here is a Venn diagram I created that may help explain how they differ.
As you can see, there are two main divisions in scientists who study past life: those who study humans and those who study everything else.
Anthropologists study humans, so don’t ask them about dinosaurs or mammoths or giant sharks. Don’t bring them a fossil you found. If you find a pottery shard or an arrow head, find an anthropologist. If you found a book, you might also try a historian. Ok, I said I wouldn’t get into this, but maybe just a little bit. Historians deal with written human history. So one might say that historians are a subset of anthropologists, in that they only deal with relatively recent anthropology. Many would also argue that they should not be included at all because they do not approach the endeavor with a scientific approach. While I can see the point, I can also see the point that this would also include many anthropologists, so comes across as sounding like the argument about can bloggers be considered journalists. The correct answer is that it is not as simple as that. But it’s not my field and my view of the topic is strictly as an outsider.
Paleontologists study everything that does not include humans. So please feel free to ask us about extinct organisms, as long as they don’t make pottery or arrow heads.This doesn’t mean to say that every paleontologist studies all extinct organisms. There are innumerable specialities within the field. If you ask a paleoclimatologist to identify a bone, he won’t have a clue what you are talking about. They study past climates, not bones. Just like one wouldn’t ask a podiatrist (foot doctor) to do brain surgery, don’t expect an expert in Pleistocene pollen to help you identify which type of trilobite you have, although I expect they could tell you that you do indeed have a trilobite.
But what do you do if you find a fossil of a hominid, something not quite human, but not quite an ape? That is where paleoanthropologists come in. They deal with that intersection between paleontology and anthropology, where the lines blur into shades of grey. In point of fact, all these terms are arbitrary boundaries and only serve to help us break up the studies into something manageable. Like everything else in nature, we have taken a continuous spectrum and cut it into defined sections to satisfy our need to categorize everything.
Even though there is far more life that is not human than there is that counts as human, for obvious reasons. The study of humans is more discussed than anything else. So while it is not my field, i will attempt to separate the major divisions within anthropology. Anthropologists, as mentioned study anything to do with humans. This can be broken down into two main categories. Physical anthropologists study the biology and evolution of humans. If you have human bones, they are the ones to talk to. Cultural anthropologists study human culture, their behaviors, what they make, how they interact with others. If it’s not a bone, but related to humans, ask a cultural anthropologist.
But what then are archaeologists? Do they not do the same thing as anthropologists? Yes, because they are anthropologists. They are just a subset that happens to be so well known that many people lump archaeologists and anthropologists together as if they are the same thing. But they aren’t, not quite. All archaeologists are anthropologists, but not all anthropologists are archaeologists.
Archaeologists study past human life through physical remains. Thus, they include some of both physical and cultural anthropology. They are the ones to talk to about pottery shards, arrow heads, and the like. Any physical evidence of a preexisting culture could be brought to the attention of an archaeologist. However, anthropologists cover a lot more ground, so to speak. There are cultural anthropologists that study current, existing culture. This is in fact a large field within cultural anthropology. There are even physical anthropologists that study evolutionary changes taking place within humans right now. Neither of these would count as archaeologists though.
Just as in anthropology, as I mentioned earlier, there are several different subspecialties within paleontology. Here is how the University of California Museum of Paleontology breaks it down.
Paleontology is traditionally divided into various subdisciplines:
- Study of generally microscopic fossils, regardless of the group to which they belong.
Paleobotany: Study of fossil plants; traditionally includes the study of fossil algae and fungi in addition to land plants.
Palynology: Study of pollen and spores, both living and fossil, produced by land plants and protists.
Invertebrate Paleontology: Study of invertebrate animal fossils, such as mollusks, echinoderms, and others.
Vertebrate Paleontology: Study of vertebrate fossils, from primitive fishes to mammals.
Human Paleontology (Paleoanthropology): The study of prehistoric human and proto-human fossils.
Taphonomy: Study of the processes of decay, preservation, and the formation of fossils in general.
Ichnology: Study of fossil tracks, trails, and footprints.
Paleoecology: Study of the ecology and climate of the past, as revealed both by fossils and by other methods.
Each one of these can be broken down into even more specific specialties. Paleoecologists can specialize in biogeography, limnology, pedology, tempestology, schlerochronology,and many others. Vertebrate (and invertebrate) paleontologists can specialize in taxonomy, systematics, functional morphology, etc., but I think you get the point. There is far more that can be studied by any individual. paleontology, like any other science, is a team sport.
There are no hard and fast boundaries between these of course. Vertebrate and invertebrate paleontologists can and do study taxonomy, biogeochemistry, paleoecology, and taphonomy, and others all at the same time. Paleontology is highly interdiscplinary and requires knowledge in a lot of different fields. But many scientists tend to spend most of their time in a specific area.
So if you have a question, you will get the most detailed answers from someone in the right specialty. Choose wisely and you will get your questions answered. If you don’t, go to grad school, discover them for yourself and let everyone else know about it.
Tomorrow is the day to see tons of fossils at the Museum of Discovery. Come out and see what Arkansas has to offer in fossils. We have a far more diverse array of fossils than most people realize. Here are a few dinosaurs you will see.
Here are some casts of Allosaurus bones, a foot and a humerus. Allosaurus itself didn’t live here, but its descendant, Acrocanthosaurus, did.
Here is an ischium of an Apatosaur, which did not live here either. But its titanosaur relatives did.
Here are some hands and claws of Allosaurus and Utahraptor, a giant version of Velociraptor.
Not interested in dinosaurs? How about a Smilodon, one of the biggest and most iconic of mammalian predators?
Of course, what I have shown the past few days is only a few things that the University of Arkansas Earth Sciences Department is bringing. The Anthropology Department will also be there with their own fossils. The Arkansas Geological Survey will be there with a cast of the dinosaur, “Arkansaurus” and more. The Virtual Fossil Museum will be present with more than virtual fossils. Not to be outdone, the Museum of Discovery will have a collection of dinosaur skulls on display, which will be part of an upcoming dinosaur exhibit which you won’t want to miss.
The National Fossil Day event at the Museum of Discovery is almost here.Here are a few more things you might see at the event. Here is a cast of a coelacanth, a lobe-finned fish that is closely related to the fish that started the trek onto land, and a mesosaur, an early reptile before reptiles and mammals went their separate ways.
Want something with a bite to it? How about some teeth? Like Megalodon teeth, and a nodosaurid dinosaur, and how about the tooth of a giant ground sloth? What about primitive horse and rhino teeth?
Lots more to see. Come out and have a look. Bring your fossils and compare.
National Fossil Day is October 15th, but the Museum of Discovery, in conjunction with the Earth Science and Anthropology departments at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), the Arkansas Geological Survey, the Arkansas State University Museum, the Virtual Fossil Museum, and others (including of course, me) will be putting on an exhibit on October 11th. If you are in the neighborhood, please stop in. there is much to do and see for everyone from toddlers to grandparents and professional researchers.
This week I will be sharing a few photos of the collections at the UALR Earth Science Department as a preview of things you will see. We will start with echinoderms today. These include crinoids, sea urchins, starfish, and an array of others.
Welcome back! the new school year has started for most, if not all, people by now. Everyone is busily trying to figure out new schedules, new curricula, new people, sometimes even new schools. Changes are everywhere this time of year. Paleoaerie is no exception. We didn’t get quite as much done over the summer as we would have liked (does anyone?), but it was an interesting summer, filled with good and bad. To start with the bad, the UALR web design course that was initially going to work on revamping the website is no more due to unexpected shakeups at the school. Nevertheless, a different course will take a look at the site and see what they can do, although they sadly won’t have as much time to deal with it.
But there was a lot of good that happened. Big news for Paleoaerie is that we are now partnered with the Arkansas STEM Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group for STEM education within Arkansas. This is really important for us because this means Paleoaerie now operates as an official nonprofit organization. What does this mean for us and you? It means that any donation to the site is tax-deductible. It also means that many grants that we could not apply for before are now within possible reach. Fundraising should be a bit easier from now on, which means we may be able to do much more in the upcoming future. One of the things we will be doing in the near future is a Kickstarter campaign to buy a 3D laser scanner so that we can start adding 3D images of Arkansas fossils onto the website, which will be available for anyone to use. One might ask why not use some of the cheap or even free photographic methods that are available. In a word: resolution. I’ve tried other methods. When one is attempting to make a 3D image of an intricate object only a few centimeters across, they don’t work well. If you want details to show up, you need a better system. Stay tuned for that.
Paleoaerie is also partnering with the Museum of Discovery and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for a National Fossil Day event on October 11. Make sure to mark your calendars and come out to the museum to see the spectacle and diversity that can be found in Arkansas. There is much more than you think. We are also working with the museum on a new dinosaur traveling exhibit. It is very cool, so watch for it later this fall.
The last big news that happened recently is today’s Mystery Monday fossil. Someone brought me a fossil to examine a couple of weeks ago. The first amazing part of it is that is was actually a fossil. the vast majority of what people show me are just interestingly shaped rocks. This was a bona fide fossil. Not only was it a fossil, but a really cool one. The image below is a vertebra from a little seen animal in Arkansas and not at all for a very long time. The fossil is roughly 100 million years old, putting it in the Cretaceous Period. At that time, Arkansas was on the shoreline of the late Cretaceous Interior Seaway. Take a look at the image below and see if you can figure out what it came from. I’ll let you know what it is Friday. Thanks to Matt Smith for bringing this wonderful fossil to my attention. Come out to the National Fossil Day event and see it for yourself.