I have been quite busy for the past couple of months. In late May I had the chance to visit the state of Missouri to collect fossils and visit museums. Missouri is the farthest I have traveled so far to look for fossils. In this post I will highlight some of the trips I took and the fossils I collected along the way.
On Sunday morning we traveled up to Jefferson County, Missouri to collect fossils from the Decorah Formation. The Decorah Group was deposited in shallow tropical seas during the Late Ordovician Period (~445 million years ago). It is humbling to realize that what we were standing on used to be the seafloor. We found a variety of fossils such as brachiopods, bryozoans, bits of trilobites and corals. The biggest fossil found in the Decorah Group are the shells of huge straight shelled nautiloid cephalopods. These were top predators during the Ordovician Period. I did not realize the sheer size these animals could grow up to until Terry Frank showed me examples he collected on past trips.
We also went to search for shark and fish remains from the Salem Formation. These rocks were deposited in a shallow sea during the Lower Carboniferous (Mississippian) Period. We were guided by a former geology student Adam Marty. Adam knew the stratigraphy of the region like the back of his hand. He took us to a locality that was hard to get to but ended up being very rewarding. We had to hike up a steep hill and cross bushes to get to the collecting area. Adam told us to break open the limestone blocks and look for shark teeth. Not only did we find teeth but we found cartilage, which is hard to fossilize. Many of the teeth were round in shape due to the animals using them to crush shells such as brachiopods and ammonoids. These were the only vertebrate fossils we found on our long week trip. It was a special treat because my research papers are on cartilaginous fish teeth.
The trip was a great success. The geology was different from what I am used to seeing. Even the buildings that we walked by had fossils in them from the local rock that was used. The rocks in Missouri play an important role in the industrial growth of the state. I had a good time exploring parts of the Midwest and I plan on visiting again soon.
Fossil collecting can be fun and a rewarding experience. It helps us get a perspective of how rich and diverse the fossil record is. Some of us make personal collections of the fossils we find. Collections typically start with fossils and other rocks mixed together with little to no record of where the specimens you collected came from. My way of collecting fossils has changed over the years as simply piling rocks on my bed headrest to buying drawers and cabinets to store the specimens and keeping a record of them by creating a log book and keeping label cards with every specimen in each drawer. There are many different ways to curate your collection. At the end of the day, it is all up to you.
When creating a collection or collecting fossils, you want to make sure you know exactly where that fossil came from. Location is probably more valuable than the fossil itself. You can’t always rely on your memory. What I have done is printed out labels and write information down with a black ink pen. There are about 30 labels on each sheet so I have a good amount. I write additional information on the back such as the date, coordinates (if accessible) and more recently the drawer name in which that specimen is stored. It is OK not to have information about your specimen. You can always leave the location section with a question mark or “Unavailable”. Make sure you fill it out the card with information to the best of your abilities.
Finding things to store your specimens in depends on how delicate and how large the specimens are. Large to small boxes with padding are good things to have. You can find these boxes at hobby shops and arts and crafts stores. Clear jewelry and bead bags are also very useful as well. With all of these boxes and bags combined I keep most specimens in cabinets and drawers. I label each drawer sometimes by location, age, phyla, or by fossil content. It is all up to you. The majority of my drawers are ClearView desk organizer drawers. You can find these at a Walmart in the craft sections and craft stores.
Organizing a collection can be fun but it can also take up space. Make sure you do have room and not stack things too much on top of each other. I have had almost half of my collection collapse on me for doing that. Have fun with it!
On June 3rd and June 4th of 2019 I traveled to Tupelo, Mississippi with another fellow fossil collector to collect Cretaceous marine fossils. This was the first time I have collected fossils dating back to the Mesozoic Era. The first location we visited was part of the Ripley Formation in Blue Springs, Mississippi. The Ripley Formation was deposited a few million years before the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs about 71 million years ago. During this time, Mississippi was submerged under a shallow sea, and North America was cut by a large inland seaway known as the Western Interior Seaway. Mississippi’s Cretaceous oceans were teeming with life. The most common fossils found were oysters and clams that were plentiful in those ancient seas.
The largest oyster found in the Ripley Formation was Exogyra costata. Other fossils found in that rock unit were marine snails called Turritella vertebroides, which were the most well preserved fossils from the Ripley Formation. Another common fossil unearthed as we dug under the Ripley Formation and approached the Coon Creek Formation were crab carapaces. One species of crab that I found reach to about 5 inches in length. I was nearly in shock as I was excavating it from its silty tomb. After we spent a few hours collecting, we began to wrap up our fragile finds in tin foil and put them in crates for safe transportation back home. Our last site we visited was an open field with exposures of the Demopolis Chalk Formation. This rock unit is a few million years older than the Ripley Formation. Nevertheless, this rock unit is rich in marine fossils.
It was in the beginning of summer and it was about 90 degrees, but what we were out looking for were shark teeth. In order to search for them we had to get on our hands and knees and crawl on the white hot ground. As uncomfortable as it may seem, this is how some of the best fossils are found. When collecting fossils the best thing you need to have is patience. After about 4 minutes of searching I saw something brown and shiny glinting in the sun. It was my very first Late Cretaceous shark tooth! The tooth belonged to the genus Squalicorax. This was about a 7 foot shark that swam the seas of Mississippi about 75 million years ago. It wasn’t long before I came across my second shark tooth, but it wasn’t as complete. Besides fossils we both found beautiful iridescent crystals of the sulfide mineral marcasite. After we spent an hour searching for shark teeth and other marine fossils in the Demopolis Chalk we decided to call it a day and head back to Huntsville, Alabama to start the next day of adventures.
I love to educate the public on how important geology and paleontology are. Two Saturdays every month I volunteering my time at my local science center to set up of table of samples of fossils and other geological. I started volunteering for the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia back in 2016. Rick Spears who is a paleoartist and the designer for the science center invited me to give a talk for Earth Science Week.
I gave two main talks, one on trilobites and the other on crinoids. Everyone seemed to really enjoy looking at specimens. I find it very important that everyone has a chance to touch and pick up a fossil. Some fossils in museum are behind glass and in storage tucked away. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make sure that children and even adults have the chance to touch and hold fossil specimens. Children are natural born scientists; they love to touch and interact with things in their environment. For example, that could be a child picking up a rock off the ground or catching and freeing lizards.
I switch up my exhibits a lot. I love to teach about deep time and how vast the fossil record is. I do this by setting my fossil specimens in chronological order. Each specimen has its own label card and the period in which that fossil is from. This is gives visitors a perspective of old our planet is and the various geological events that happened during that time the fossil plants and animals were alive at the time. People are blown away when they learn that a stromatolite fossil that I have on display is 3.4 billion years old! Not a lot of people have the opportunity to hold the oldest fossil on earth. Each Saturday I switch from the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. I could also lay out the entire 4 billion years of earth on the same table at once as well!
I don’t just feature fossils as well. I exhibit rock and mineral specimens as well. In fact, that will be my next exhibit coming up in a few weeks! Adults and parents learn about the various rocks and minerals that are found in Georgia. They get to touch the oldest rock in Georgia which is 1.2 billion years old! Again, not a lot of people have the opportunity to interact with the oldest rock in Georgia. They even get to hold the oldest crustal rock on earth which is the Acasta Gneiss. This rock is 4.2 billion years old. It is always a pleasure to see a person walk away with a smile knowing that were able to hold the oldest rock on earth. It makes me feel that I am making a difference with 1 fossil or rock sample at a time.
This past March we attended the Southeastern Geological Society of America Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Adriane and Jen set up a GoFundMe account to help raise money to support Cam’s travel to the event. This endeavor resulted in a fully funded conference for Cam – and his first professional geology conference experience. If you are interested in reading the abstract we submitted click here.
Cam presented a poster on our use of the #FossilFriday hash tag on social media. His poster was on Thursday morning and he was constantly busy! The data we collected to assess the success of the hash tag was from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Analytics. We looked at how many people the Fossil Friday posts reach and then how many people interacted with the posts – this includes shares, reactions, comments, and clicks on the post. The metrics are slightly different for each social media platform. We also wanted to see if these posts were increasing traffic to the site or if the engagement was mostly constrained to the social media platforms.
These posts are often our highest performing posts – meaning they reach a large amount of people and many of these people interact with the content. So we gathered all of the social media data, calculated a rate of engagement for each post on each platform, and then compared this to our overall site traffic data from Google Analytics. We found that this hashtag did not bring more traffic to our website, even though they are reaching many people outside of our normal community.
This was the very first scientific conference I (Cam) was able to have the pleasure of attending. It was also the first time I did a poster presentation. At the beginning I was quite nervous. I didn’t know what to expect from SE GSA. It wasn’t until I met Jen Bauer that I become comfortable. I did practice sessions with Adriane and Jen many times via Google Hangouts, but I still had a difficult time explaining the information on the poster. When the day for me to present my poster came, I was excited and yet still nervous. I did a practice session with Jen early in the morning and I finally felt confident and motivated. While at GSA I met so many paleontologists. Many of the paleontologists I met already knew me from my constant activity on social media. This just shows how many positives outcomes can come from social media and networking. I didn’t feel out of place at GSA either. Everyone was so nice and welcoming. It was like a big family. There was also a good amount of diversity as well. There was a great amount of scientists with so many different research backgrounds. I received many encouraging words and advice as well.
On the last day at SE GSA I was invited by my good friends and paleontologists Bobby and Sarah Boessenecker to the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History which is part of the Charleston College to check out the fossil preparation lab and the vertebrate fossil collections. The cetacean (whale, dolphin, and porpoises) fossils were absolutely stunning. I was able to see Dr. Boessenecker clean a whale skull still encased in matrix (rock or sediment that the fossil was found in) that has not yet been published. I was told that the whale was not only a new species but it probably belonged to a new group as well. It’s not everyday you get to see a new species of fossil organism being cleaned right in front of you. Overall, my first GSA trip was great and I can’t wait to embark on other scientific conferences in the future.
Check out Cam talking more about his experience here:
We (Jen and Adriane) hope that one day we can provide more opportunities like this for up-and-coming geologists and paleontologists through Time Scavengers! It was a whirlwind of a few days but Cam greatly benefited from the experience of engaging and networking with so many professionals. He has a wide network of friends on Facebook and many people were very excited to see him in person! One Facebook friend even brought him supplies for his outreach work.
Jen recorded herself describing the poster, check it out here:
A few of our shark friends came up with us too from the department you can read their abstracts here and here.
It was really great getting to see some old friends from the University of Tennessee at the meeting. I got to catch up with a lot of close geology friends. These small meetings are so excellent and I really enjoy helping prepare students for their first academic conference!
On May 7th I lead two fossil hunters to an accessible fossil locality in Murray County, Georgia. The locality is part of the Conasauga Shale Formation. This rock unit runs through Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. It is made of shales and mudstones that were deposited during the Cambrian Period (~541-485 million years ago). During this time, Northeast Georgia was under a shallow sea known as the Iapetus Ocean. This ancient sea was located deep in the Southern Hemisphere. Animals living in these waters included sponges, brachiopods, hyoliths, and the famous trilobites.
The most abundant fossils in this portion of the Conasauga Formation are the shed exoskeletons of trilobites. Trilobites are arthropods that were very common animals during the Paleozoic Era (~550-250 million years ago). The trilobites found in Murray County, Georgia died from rapid mudflows that came from a deep marine basin and anoxic (lacked oxygen) environment. Because of this, the trilobite fossils from this site are preserved very well and occur in body clusters with halos of iron oxide surrounding their bodies.
We began to plunge down a hill under a bridge where the outcrops are exposed to the surface. The exposures lie right near the Conasauga River (where the rock unit received its name). It didn’t take long to split the mudstone and come across the remnants of ancient Georgia’s inhabitants. The most common species of trilobite found in the outcroppings is Aphelaspis brachyphasis. They are so common that this locality has been referred to as the Aphelaspis Biozone. There are other species that were found such as agnostids like Glyptagnostus reticulatus which serves as an index fossil for the middle Cambrian and Agnostus inexpectans.
Agnostids are very small and only occur in rocks from the Cambrian and Ordovician period. Paleontologists have debated whether agnostids are even part of the class Trilobita at all. Agnostids had a head and a tail body parts with two or three thoracic segments. They also have have no eyes which suggest they lived in deeper waters where light did not penetrate the ocean. A lot of the trilobites that we found were disarticulated but some specimens recovered were complete molts. We all came back with well-preserved and numerous specimens.
I spend my time working on lectures, reading books, or annotating scientific papers. But, every once in a while, I get to collect fossils and do field work. I haven’t been out in the field since June of 2017. On January 13th and 14th of this year, I spent the weekend collecting fossils from Franklin County and Huntsville, Alabama. These areas around the state consists of limestones that date back during Mississippian period (Lower Carboniferous) ~355-325 million years old. These limestones formed in deep waters where at the time the geography of North Alabama was very different.
In these ancient shallows seas was a large diversity of sea life consisting of brachiopods, rugose corals, crinoids, blastoids, bryozoans, trilobites, and even a few early sharks. Now, their remains makeup the Lower Bangor Limestone Formation and the Lower/Upper Monteagle Limestone Formation of North Alabama. On January 13th the crew headed out to collect fossils from the Lower Bangor Limestone Formation. On our way the site, fossil collector Asa and I decided pull over at a local rock outcrop to save time. The outcrop is part of the Hartselle Formation which consists of fossiliferous and oolithic sandstones. Stratigraphically, the Hartselle Formation is right underneath the Bangor Limestone Formation. So, in other words, we were getting close to our main collecting site.
As we pulled up to the lakeshore, we began to pack up our tools and scout around to look for fossils. Limestones slabs were waiting for us to examine and chip away with our rock hammers. At the first site we found many fossils including a few crinoid calyces, trilobite fragments, Archimedes bryozoans, trace fossils, and one small shark tooth. Asa found a beautifully preserved echinoid and edrioasteroid. After the crew was done collecting at site one, we packed up and began to travel to site two of the Lower Bangor Limestone Formation. We pulled up to to the lakeshore once again. This time the men and women split up to look for fossils. Nathan, Asa, and Dylan scouted around to look for fossils.
It wasn’t until about 5 minutes later that I noticed that the the loose sediment on the ground contained a plethora of fossils that the lake water sifted back and forth over time. I spent a lot of my time lying on the ground picking up crinoid stems, ossicles, blastoid thecae (bodies), brachiopods, and even a few echinoid (sea urchin) fragments. After day one was over for fossil hunting, we began to day 2 of fossil collecting. On January 14th, Asa, Jess, and I went to fossil collect in the Upper/Lower portions of the Monteagle Limestone Formation. At location one we stopped by a small outcropping of limestone. We began looking up and down to look for fossils.
I found a good number of blastoids and great pieces of crinoidal limestone. After we collected material from site one, we began to travel to site two. Site two was much better for finding fossils. Asa and I began to inspect the very top of the rock outcrops. Fossiliferous sediment was then collected to sift through and use for educational purposes. I began to look for fossils from the bottom of the outcrop and collected crinoid stems and a large amounts of Pentremites, a common blastoid from the Mississippian. Just as we began to leave, Asa found a tooth from a Carboniferous aged cartilaginous fish called Chomatodus. The trip was a very successful one. We all spent the weekend and collecting fossils and enjoying each other’s company.