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Fossil Friday, Written in Stone

On Monday, I said that the mystery fossil this week takes us back to the beginning and ties us to the present. I also said the answer was written in stone. Could you figure it out? Katharyn D. was the first to get it this week.



The picture shows a graptolite. This particular one is likely a species of Cyrtograptus. Most specimens of this type of graptolite are from Europe, they do appear in Canada and parts of the United States, including Oklahoma, according to Did it appear in Arkansas? We don’t know. Other graptolites did, but then the book of Arkansas graptolites has not yet been written, so the true diversity of graptolites within the state is not really known.

Acorn worm.

Acorn worm.

So what are graptolites? The name means  “written in stone” because they reminded people of hierogylphs or petrographs, writing or pictures scratched into stone. The first graptolites I remember seeing in the Quachita Mountains reminded me of nothing more than pencil scratches. Others, better preserved, look like saw blades or little tubes. For a long time, no one really knew what to make of them, regarding them as cnidarians, or plants, or even inorganic mineral formations. But with the advent of electron microscopy, most workers have come to the conclusion they are actually members of the group Hemichordata. This conclusion puts them at the very beginnings of all vertebrates. Vertebrates evolved from a group called urochordates, the first animals with a stiffened rod for support, an ancestral spine. Today, urochordates are tiny animals called tunicates, or sea squirts. But even before these animals evolved, there were the hemichordates, meaning “half-chordate.” They share branchial opening, or “gill slits,” a collar-like pharynx, and the beginnings of a notochord, called a stomochord. The main hemichordates alive today are called enteropneusts, or acron worms. If you go any earlier than this, you find yourself in echinoderms.

Graptolites from the Womble shale.

Graptolites from the Womble shale.

Graptolites from the Womble shale.

Graptolites from the Womble shale.

Graptolites appeared in the Cambrian Period over 500 million years ago and were thought to have died out in the Mississipian Period (Early Carboniferous), roughly 320 million years ago. They are useful as index fossils, meaning they can be used to date rocks with a fair degree of precision, because they have a worldwide distribution and are common in the rocks, as well as evolving quickly so they have many species, many of which did not last long.

armapGraptolites started off growing on the ocean floor, but later ones floated freely in the ocean. When they died, they would sink to the bottom, becoming entombed in the deep ocean sediments. So today, graptolite fossils are usually found in shale formed from the deep ocean mud. Sometimes they can be found in marine limestone or chert, but they are less commonly found there. As a result, the best place to find them is in the shales of the Ouachita Mountains in west-central Arkansas. The best place to find them is in the Womble Shale, a black shale with thin limestone layers and a few small silty sandstone and chert layers. The Womble Formation was named after the town of Womble, which is now Norman, in Montgomery County, AR, so that makes that area a fine place to look. You can also find conodont fossils commonly in those rocks, which are tiny, tony, early chordates. Conodonts were the first animals in the vertebrate lineage with mineralized tissue. They had teeth, but no bone. Other places you can find them are the Arkansas Novaculite in the Ouachitas, although you will have better luck in the older rocks, such as the Mazarn or Collier Shales. You can also find them in any of the Ordovician or Silurian aged Ozark limestones in northern Arkansas, but they will be harder to find as those rocks were formed in shallower water, with many more fossils of many other animals which are far more common, whereas the graptolites will be much rarer than in the Ouachitas. For a full listing and description of the appropriate rocks and maps to their location, try the Arkansas Geological Survery website here.

Cephalodiscus, a type of pterobranch.

Cephalodiscus, a type of pterobranch.

I mentioned that graptolites were thought to have died out in the Mississippian Period. That is because no fossils are found after this date. However, it is thought by most workers that graptolites may still be living today. We just call them pterobranchs, another type of hemichordate and are acorn worm-like animals with plant-like fronds used to filter out plankton from the water.

Fossil Friday, don’t be a wet blanket

Despite the snow, we didn’t get a chance to have any other posts this week other than the Monday Mystery fossil. We did, however, have three different school trips in the past couple of weeks to talk to kids about fossils, dinosaurs, and the skeletal system, as well as giving talks on the fossils telling us about the origins of crocodiles and dinosaurs, as well as attending a talk on the origins of birds. So a lot of paleo work, just not much showing up here. Fortunately, some of you had some time to examine our mystery fossil and congratulations to Laurenwritesscience for coming up with the correct answer.


It is indeed a stromatolite. Bruce Stinchcomb has a video on Youtube showing several examples of Ozark stromatolites and providing a good explanation of what they are.

Essentially, stromatolites are microbial ecosystems, built up of layer after layer of microbial mats. The general description is that of blue-green algae, which forms a sticky layer over the surface of a rocky surface in a shallow marine or coastal environment. Blue-green algae are not actually algae and are better referred to as cyanobacteria. These bacteria are photosynthetic, just like plants, so they need sunlight, thus limiting the depth at which they can be found. Actually, they are typically found right at the water’s edge in the tidal zone. This sticky substance, while maintaining their hold on the rock, also tends to collect sand, clay, and organic debris. Over time, all the stuff that sticks to the mat blocks the sunlight from the cyanobacteria and they migrate above the layer and build another mat, which collects more debris, which causes them to build another mat, etc. Stromatolites form much the same way as piles of laundry. By the time you finish washing one set, there is another pile forming in a neverending stream. The life of a cyanobacteria in a stromatolite is a depressing condition of always digging themselves out from under a pile just to get dumped on again. I am sure most people can empathize.Cycle

The sticky mucus (properly referred to as extrapolymeric substance, or EPS for short, but we can go with mucus here) forming the mat does more than just cause things to stick to it. The mat protects the bacteria in from ultraviolet radiation. It also allows the bacteria to control the microenvironment around them, keeping such things as pH levels in a good range. It also has an unfortunate aspect for the bacteria. The mucus allows the levels of calcium and carbonate ions to build up until they precipitate out of the water as calcium carbonate, also known as calcite (when referring to the mineral), or limestone (when referring to the rock). So not only are the poor bacteria constantly getting buried, they are getting turned to stone in their very own medusa nightmare. Life is hard as a cyanobacteria. But just wait, it gets worse.

stromatolitezonesThese microbial mats are not just cyanobacteria, though. There are lots of other organisms that live in and on them. There are many other types of bacteria. There are sulfate reducing bacteria, which use sulfur like we use oxygen, only they release hydrogen sulfide instead of carbon dioxide, causing a nice rotten egg smell. There are purple sulfur bacteria that eat the hydrogen sulfide, as well as colorless sulfur bacteria that eat both the hydrogen sulfide and the oxygen released by the cyanobacteria, thus free-loading off of everyone. In addition to bacteria, there are plenty of prokaryotes (organisms without nuclei that holds their DNA) and eukaryotic (with nuclei) single-celled and multi-celled organisms living in the mat. Diatoms, single-celled photosynthetic organisms that grow their own shell, live on top, while nematodes burrow through the mat. In addition to all this, a wide variety of animals love to chow down on the mats. Everything from snails, sea urchins, crabs, crawfish, and just regular old fish happily eat them. As a result, there are not a lot of places left in the world you can find stromatolites growing. The Bahamas and Shark’s Bay, Australia are the best areas to find them.

StromThey may be rare now, but at one time, they ruled the earth. As some of the oldest living communities in the world, they have been around for at least 3.5 billion years (that’s 3,500,000,000, or roughly 600,000 times the length of human civilization) and for more 2/3 of that time, they were the only game in town and in all probability served as the cradle for all eukaryotic and multi-cellular organism on the planet. These days, if you live in Arkansas, the only places you can find them are as fossils in the Cambrian age Cotter Formation and Ordovician age Everton Formation in the Ozark Plateau.

For further information (and the source of the images shown here), check out the stromatolite page at the Arkansas Geological Survey and the Microbe Wiki stromatolite page, as well as the site, which supplies a nice teacher’s guide to teaching all about microbial mats, designed for grades 5-8.