Today is International Fossil Day!
International Fossil Day is an initiative by the International Paleontological Association and the National Park Service (National Fossil Day in the U.S.), the idea is to spread the interest in the life of the past and many different organisations and museums around the world host events or activities today. Of course we, the Time Scavengers team, have to participate in this, there can never be too much paleo-related fun!
We want to celebrate IFD by showing off our team members’ favourite extinct species or individual fossils, some facts about the species or individual and why we picked them as our favourites.
Click here to visit the National Park Service website to learn more about National Fossil Day, and here to visit the International Palaeontological Association to learn more about International Fossil Day!
Most of my paleontology lectures during my undergrad took place in small rooms somewhere deep in the side wings of the institute building, on the edge of the paleontological collection/museum that is located within the institute. Whenever me and my friends were waiting for our professors to show up, we would stare and marvel at the exhibited specimens. I vividly remember walking into that area for the first time, it is dominated by a huge, mounted skeleton of an adult cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) and I was completely blown away by the sheer power it radiates. I didn’t care too much about the T. rex skull cast around the corner that most others found so fascinating. From that first day of paleo classes, having my own mounted cave bear skeleton has been on the top of my bucket list. U. spelaeus lived during the Pleistocene across both northern Asia and Europe and went extinct during the Last Glacial Maximum about 24,000 years ago. They are closely related to brown bears (Ursus arctos), the two species have a last common ancestor about 1.2 million years ago. Even though they were huge, powerful bears that were reaching 3.5m (11.5ft) when standing upright, with large teeth and fearsome claws, it’s currently thought that the majority of the western populations were eating an almost exclusively vegetarian diet! Recently, two very well preserved frozen cave bear carcasses have been discovered in two separate areas of thawing permafrost in Russia, an adult and a cub, both with almost all soft tissue present and intact. I’m already excited and looking forward to reading all the new research that will be done on these specimens!
I worked at the Field Museum of Natural History during the summer of 2015 and that experience was what solidified my interest in paleontology. I worked with my supervisor on Eocene mammals from the western United States and had some of my first experiences doing large scientific outreach events during that summer. Because of that summer I will always have a soft spot for Uintatheres!
Uintatheres (U. anceps) lived during the Eocene in North America and were large browsers. These animals looked similar to rhinos but male U. anceps had six knob-shaped protrusions coming off of their skulls. Part of my experience working with these fossils was reorganizing the collections space that housed the skulls, they are incredibly heavy! I mentioned that U. anceps were browsers, but they also had long canine teeth that resemble the canines of saber tooth cats. These teeth may have been used as a defense mechanism but also may have played a role in how they plucked leaves from plants. While I don’t work on Eocene mammals now, Uintatheres will always be special to me for the role they played in getting me excited about paleontology and scientific outreach!
I cannot pick just one fossil to highlight right now, so here are two of my favorites! In 2016, I was studying in England and visited the Natural History Museum in London where I saw an incredible ammonite, Asteroceras stellare. Asteroceras was a large ammonite that lived during the Early Jurassic and whose shell reached nearly three feet in diameter. Asteroceras was a nektonic carnivore who might have fed on fish, crustaceans, and bivalves.
My favorite vertebrate fossil is the Ichthyosaur. I loved visiting the Jurassic Coast in England and got to explore Lyme Regis, both the birthplace of Mary Anning and a town that had references to paleontology everywhere you looked. You can see ichthyosaur fossils in both the Lyme Regis Museum and the Natural History Museum in London and at the NHM, you can see some of the specimens that Mary Anning and her family had collected along the Jurassic Coast. Ichthyosaurs (Greek for “fish lizard”), are marine reptiles that lived during much of the Mesozoic and were thought to be one of the top aquatic predators of their time.
I have three favorite extinct species: the American mastodon (Mammut americanum), the dinosaur Parasaurolophus, and the chalicothere Moropus elatus. Mastodons are distant relatives of the elephants, and they seem to be overshadowed by the wooly mammoth. However, both lived in North America until the end of the Pleistocene epoch. I’ve always thought that Parasaurolophus was an elegant duck-billed dinosaur, and I’ve seen them featured in several movies in the Jurassic Park series. I think that chalicotheres are so bizarre! Distant relatives to horses, rhinos, and tapirs, imagine a big draft horse with giant claws instead of hooves! I’ve seen several skeletons of these over the years. Moropus elatus went extinct in the Miocene epoch.
Like anyone in paleo would tell you I can’t pick one particular fossil organism as my favorite. Currently my favorite fossil organism is the “bear-dog” known as Amphicyon ingens which would have been a formidable predator during the Mid-Miocene. The cenozoic was a time for innovation in mammals and bear-dogs were the best of both worlds. All the stoic grandeur of a bear and all the cute charm of a dog, what more could you want? The picture shown was taken at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Jonathan Jordan (Paleo Policy Podcast)
For me, the Mesozoic reigns supreme. However, my recent trip to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles gave me a greater appreciation for the Cenozoic era and mammalian evolution in general. While it may not be my favorite fossil ever, I was captivated by Panthera atrox’s look and the idea of an American Serengeti 340,000 to 11,000 years ago. Genetic analysis suggests with high likelihood that Panthera atrox is a close relative of the Eurasian Cave Lion (Panthera spelaea). After the Bering Strait land bridge was submerged by rising sea levels, Panthera atrox was isolated from its Eurasian relatives and became a distinct species that has been found as north as Alaska and as south as Mexico. Neat! Check out an image of Panthera atrox’s skull on the Smithsonian Learning Lab site!
I’m fortunate to have worked on many different types of animals during my career, starting with dinosaurs, then moving to Devonian brachiopods and their encrusting organisms, and now working on much younger Pleistocene-aged animals that are still alive today. I mostly study biotic interactions, such as predation, so I thought I would share my favourite trace fossil (ichnotaxon), Caedichnus! Trace fossils are different than a body fossil because they show evidence (or traces) of an organism or its behaviour. In the case of Caedichnus, this trace fossil is created by a crab trying to break into the shell of a snail by peeling away at the shell opening (aperture) until it can reach the snail’s soft body. Imagine having a crab try to peel your shell back like an orange – scary! Caedichnus traces are useful for determining how many crabs were in an area, and identifying patterns of crab predation through space and time. I’m now using them to determine the impacts of climate change and human activity on crab fisheries since pre-human times.
Like most of my colleagues above, it is incredibly hard for me to say which fossil is my favorite! So instead, I’ll talk about my favorite fossil group, the foraminifera. Foraminifera are single-celled protists that live in the surface ocean (planktic foraminifera) or in/on ocean sediments (benthic foraminifera). Planktic foraminifera are my favorites; they evolved about 175 million years ago, and still live in the global ocean today! One of the ways which we know about past climate states how the ocean behaved to such warming and cooling events of the geologic past is through analyzing the chemistry of fossil foraminifera shells, or tests! Foraminifera are also incredibly useful in studies of evolution, as they have a robust fossil record. Learn more about Foraminifera here!