Fossil Visions in the Two Medicine

(This post is the third in a series of three about my field work on the trace fossils of the Late Cretaceous (75 million-year-old) Two Medicine Formation, which I just completed a week ago. My previous two posts, which mostly explain the scientific importance of this field work, are Tracing the Two Medicine and Burrowing Wasps and Baby Dinosaurs.)

Looking back on three weeks of field work in the Late Cretaceous Two Medicine Formation, one of the realizations I had was how long it took before I could see more of what was there. The most frustrating part of this realization, though, is also knowing that I still missed plenty. This mix of satisfaction and unease is the duality that often accompanies the birthing and honing of search images, a visual training that enables paleontologists to find the fossils we want to find whenever we walk around a field site and look.

Tony-Martin-Searching-Fossils-Two-MedicineThis outcrop of the Late Cretaceous (75 mya) Two Medicine Formation in central Montana is chock-full of fossils, but you might not know that from just looking at this picture. That means you have to get out onto the rocks and look closely for them, but first make sure you have the right search images for finding them. (Photograph by Ruth Schowalter.)

The Two Medicine Formation in particular presents a major challenge for cultivating search images because of the variety of fossils in it. Moreover, most of these fossils require very different search images. For example, over my three weeks of prospecting, I looked for the following fossils:

  • Plant root traces
  • Invertebrate burrows and tracks
  • Insect cocoons and pupal chambers
  • Dinosaur tracks
  • Dinosaur nests
  • Dinosaur eggshells
  • Dinosaur coprolites
  • Dinosaur bones
  • Dinosaur toothmarks (on dinosaur bones)

I also found a few other fossils I didn’t expect to find, but there they were. This happenstance served as a good reminder that simply going out into the field with a bullet-point checklist of what you think you’ll find (like what you just read) isn’t good enough. In other words, you also need to see what’s there, rather than just what you expect to be there.

On top of looking for these fossils, I’m a geologist, too. This means I also paid close attention to the rock types in the Two Medicine Formation – sandstones, mudstones, conglomerates, limestones – and their physical sedimentary structures – such as cross-bedding or graded bedding. Moreover, Two Medicine strata in the field area are not necessarily in their original horizontal positions, but instead are bent, tilted, and faulted in places. This is where training I had in structural geology – the study of how rocks were deformed – came in handy.

Geologic-Anticline-Two-MedicineOriginally horizontal sedimentary strata were bent upward into a fold, which we geologists normally call an anticline. In such folds, the fossils in the center of the fold are geologically older, whereas the fossils on the outside of the fold are younger. That is, unless the strata were overturned, in which case we’d call it antiformal syncline, then the fossils would have the opposite age relations. Thank you for teaching this, structural geology professors! (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Geologic-Fault-Two-MedicineIt’s not my fault, so we’ll blame the Two Medicine Formation for this breakage of sedimentary rocks. Based on how it looks like the fault block on the right moved up relative to the one on the left, I think this is a reverse fault, which – like the anticline and almost everything else on earth – was caused by plate tectonics. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Thus whenever I stepped into the field each day, I had to rapidly switch, combine, or otherwise tap into different types of vision. I’ve often jokingly referred to my ability to spot traces and trace fossils in the field as “ichnovision” (my most likely comic-book hero superpower), and my geological training means I’m using “geovision.” Yet in the Two Medicine Formation – a rock unit world-famous for its dinosaur bones and eggs – I also had to use “osteovision” (seeing fossil bones) and “oovision” (seeing fossil eggshells). These forms of fossil vision are tough for me, as I never see dinosaur bones or eggshells in the southeastern U.S., which is where I spend most of my time in the field.

So just to give you an appreciation of what it was like during my three weeks of looking for fossils in the Two Medicine Formation, here are a few photos and brief descriptions of some fossils I found. To be sure, there was much more than this, but at least I can share these for now so you can begin to see through my eyes.

Fossil-Plant-Root-Traces-Two-MedicineThese odd-looking structures weathering out of an outcrop in the Two Medicine Formation had variable diameters, central cores filled with calcite, and branched in places. I’m fairly sure these are fossil plant root traces, but they were the only ones I saw like them during three weeks of field work. So I remain a little skeptical of my identification, and remain open to their being some geological features I’ve just never seen before then. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Horizontal-Burrows-Two-MedicineThese are longitudinal sections of horizontal burrows in a sandstone, showing off their beautifully expressed internal structures called meniscae. Meniscae are formed by burrowing invertebrates – such as beetle larvae or cicada nymphs – that pack their burrow with sediment behind them as they move. This means the convex side of the meniscae points in the direction the animal was moving. Go ahead, apply that principal and see what you figure out for yourself. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Vertical-Burrows-Two-MedicineThese are more invertebrate burrows, but they’re vertically oriented, meaning you only see their circular cross-sections when you look at the top bedding-plane surface of this sandstone. Notice how some of them are open but others are filled with sandstone. The open ones were filled with mud originally, but that softer sediment has since weathered out, leaving them hollow. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Limulid-Tracks-Two-MedicineThese are invertebrate tracks, and they form a distinctive enough pattern that I recognized them as a trackway, where the trackmaker (probably a freshwater horseshoe crab) turned. But they’re also preserved in positive relief (“sticking out”) because the original traces were filled with sand, which made a natural cast of the tracks. Think about how you have to reverse your concept of tracks to recognize these. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Fossil-Cocoons-Two-MedicineOne of my main research interests in the Two Medicine Formation is its insect trace fossils, which include some of the best-preserved fossil insect cocoons I’ve ever seen in the geologic record. See where the patterns of their original weaves? These cocoons were likely made by wasps – or something acting very much like wasps – 75 million years ago. I usually prospected for these cocoons by looking for their distinctive oval shapes on the ground, then looked more closely for the weave pattern. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Fossil-Cocoon-in-situ-Two-MedicineThis is what a fossil insect cocoon looks like in an outcrop. Sometimes a burrow would be connected to the cocoon, showing where the original mother insect dug a brooding chamber for its intended offspring. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Dinosaur-Bone-Two-MedicineA rare piece of dinosaur bone that actually looks like a bone, even to an untrained eye. Although this one is white, the dinosaur bones in the Two Medicine Formation varied wildly in their colors. So spotting these fossils was more a matter of looking for both a shape and texture that translate into “bone.” (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Fragmented-Dinosaur-Bone-Two-MedicineThis is more what most dinosaur bones looked like when I found them in the field area. You probably spotted the big chunk right away, but how about the smaller ones that tend to blend in with the non-dinosaur-bone rocks around them? (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Adult-Hadrosaur-Track-Two-MedicineHere’s another example of how fossil tracks are not like modern ones in size, shape, and how it’s preserved. This is a three-toed dinosaur track (probably made by a hadrosaur), but it was originally made in mud, then sand filled in the track-sized hole to make a natural cast, which 75 million years later weathered out so that it’s sitting by itself on the eroded surface of a mudstone. What’s the scale? My boot’s a size 8 1/2 (men’s). Yes, I felt a little inadequate.  (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Hadrosaur-Track-in-situ-Two-MedicineWhat does a natural sandstone cast of a dinosaur track look like when it’s still in outcrop? Look for a lump on the bottom of a sandstone bed. From a side view, you might then see a couple of “toes” pointing in one direction, like in this one: the central toe is to the left and one of the outer toes is on the side, clser to you. Note how the sandstone bed also has a few open invertebrate burrows in it, too. Ichnobonus! (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Hadrosaur-Coprolite-Two-MedicineCheck out this big piece of, well, dinosaur coprolite. These trace fossils contained blackened (carbonized) wood fragments that originally passed through the gut of a dinosaur (probably a hadrosaur), and were later cemented by calcite. But you had to look at them doubly, because some of these trace fossils included their own trace fossils made by insects, namely dung beetle burrows. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Field-of-Feces-Two-MedicineYou’ve heard of ‘Field of Dreams’? This is a ‘Field of Feces.’ The ground here is adorned with dinosaur coprolites, which are weathering out of the mudstone and breaking apart on the surface. This serves as a good example of how once you know what the dinosaur coprolites look like in this area, you’re less likely to just walk by them, singing “Where Have All the Coprolites Gone?”. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Eggshell-Fragments-Two-MedicineThe Two Medicine Formation is famous for its dinosaur eggs and babies, but even more common than those are bits and pieces of dinosaur eggshells. These show up as black flakes on ground surfaces and sometimes in a rock, which you then must distinguish from all other black flakes that are not dinosaur eggshells. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Find-Dinosaur-Eggshell-Two-MedicineCan you find the dinosaur eggshell in this photo? I’ll bet the answer was “yes,” but I made it a little easier for you by cropping the photo, placing the eggshell near the center of the image, and oh yea, showing you what typical eggshells look like in the previous photo. Now think about detecting this bit of eggshell from a standing height and while walking. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

After viewing the photos and reading the descriptions, do you think you could recognize each of these fossils if you were somehow magically transported to the Two Medicine Formation in Montana?

The likely answer to that question is, maybe, maybe not. For instance, despite all of my previous paleontological and geological field experience, it took me about two weeks of being in the field before I started accurately identifying dinosaur bones and eggshells. This humbling situation gave me a renewed appreciation for the people who regularly work in the Two Medicine Formation, but also imparted a lesson about taking the time to learn from misidentified burrows, cocoons, coprolites, bones, and eggshells in it. Most things I saw in the Two Medicine were not these fossils, meaning my ways of seeing had to become more discriminating over time.

Thus given enough practice and “dirt time” seeking fossil in the field and correcting your mistakes – preferably with an expert peer-reviewing your finds beside you – the fossil visions will come to you. Then, next thing you know, you start noticing more of what you didn’t see before, expanding your consciousness of the lives that preceded your own.

* * *

Many thanks to Dr. David Varricchio for inviting me to be part of his NSF-sponsored research project in the Two Medicine Formation this summer, and by extension, my deep appreciation to Montana State University and Museum of the Rockies for their logistical support at Camp Makela. May it have many more successful field seasons.

Seven-Samurai-PaleontologyThe Seven Samurai of paleontology at Camp Makela, ready for action in the Two Medicine Formation of central Montana. These ruffians/malcontents/Guardians of the Cretaceous Galaxy are otherwise known as (left to right): Ulf, Jared, me, Ashley, Emmy, Paul, and Eric. (Photograph and choreography by Ruth Schowalter.)

For more about these people and other human connections between the paleontological research that took place in the Two Medicine Formation – and told from a non-paleontological perspective – go to Cretaceous Summer 2014, which had links to four blog posts done on site by my wife Ruth Schowalter. Also be sure to check out Brad Brown’s blog post from the Burpee Museum of Natural History about his experiences at the field site, Just What the Doctor Ordered: Two Medicine Delivers High Biodiversity in a Low Profile Area.

Mistaken Point and the Limits of Actualism

Sometimes we paleontologists, especially those who also study modern organisms and their behaviors, get a little too sure of ourselves, thinking we have a clear vision of life during the pre-human past. So it’s good to have that confidence shaken a little, made uneasy by a glimpse at a much deeper past, one that preceded the bulk of fossils that shape our accepted norms and basic expectations in paleontology.

Welcome to the Ediacaran Period, the span of earth history from 635-542 million years ago, and a time when actualism – the precept that the present is the key to the past – becomes a naïve, idealistic dream, a glib summary of a world that has only existed for a mere 12% of earth history.

What are these? They’re fossils, but otherwise I’m not sure what else to tell you: guess I’ve been spending too much time in the present. But for for those people who have studied them and know better than me, they’re called Charniodiscus, and they’re frond-like fossils with holdfasts (those circular parts connected to their stems) that kept them attached to the seafloor about 565 million years ago. All you have to do to see these fossils is go to Newfoundland, Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland, Canada, get permission from the Reserve to visit them, have a guide accompany you, and walk 40-45 minutes to the site from a car park. Incidentally, there will be absolutely no cafes or toilets on the way there. You know, just like how it was in the Precambrian. (Photograph by Anthony Martin; scale in centimeters.)

These discomforting realizations started a little less than two weeks ago, inspired by a field trip to the Ediacaran-Cambrian rocks of eastern Newfoundland, Canada. Why was I in cool, temperate Newfoundland, instead of sweating it out on the summertime Georgia coast? The occasion was a pre-meeting trip associated with the International Congress on Ichnology, simply known among ichnologists as Ichnia. This was the third such meeting, a once-every-four-years event (coinciding with years of the summer Olympics). The previous two were in Krakow, Poland (2008) and Trelew, Argentina (2004), and thus far these meetings also include fabulous field trips.

For Ichnia 2012, upon seeing an announcement of a field trip to Mistaken Point and other localities associated with the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary, I eagerly signed up for it. You see, Mistaken Point is world famous for its extraordinary preservation of more than 1,000 body fossils of those weird and wonderful fossils known as the Ediacaran fauna, Ediacaran biota, Vendian fauna, or Vendobionts (take your pick). This was the main reason why my fellow ichnologists on the field trip – 16 of us from 9 countries – were along for the ride, despite the trip’s clear emphasis on body fossils.

A rare photo of ichnologists getting really excited about seeing body fossils, which is totally understandable when we’re talking about the Ediacaran fossils at Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. Eventually, though, they later became unruly and started demanding, “Show me your trace fossils!” Fortunately for the sake of international ichnological relations, the field-trip leaders happily obliged that same day. (Photograph by Ruth Schowalter.)

These rare fossils, which are strange enough to even cause paleontologists to question whether or not they are animals (hence the cautious use of the more inclusive term “biota” instead of “fauna”), are abundantly exposed on broad bedding planes in Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve on the southeastern coast of Newfoundland. Discovered in 1967, these fossils have since proved to be one of the best examples of easily visible body fossils from more than 542 million years ago, and the Newfoundland fossils comprise the only such assemblage that originally lived in deep-marine environments. They evidently died in place when suffocated by a layer of volcanic ash that settled onto the seafloor, hence the fossils reflect a probable sample of their original ecosystem. This ash layer neatly preserved the fossils, and its minerals provided a means to calculate absolute age dates for the assemblage, which is from 565 +/- 3 mya (million years ago).

Bedding-plane exposure at Mistaken Point with many frond-like fossils, broadly referred to as rangeomorphs. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, Canadian-themed scale is in centimeters.)

A close-up of one of the more exquisitely preserved rangeomorphs, which I think is Fractofusus misrai. But you really shouldn’t trust this ichnologist with that identification, so it’d be wise to double-check that with a real expert. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Just a few years ago, though, Mistaken Point became paleontologically famous again, and this time for its trace fossils. Researchers from Memorial University in Newfoundland and Oxford University looked at bedding planes near those holding the the body fossils, and were surprised to find a few trails there. At that time, it was the oldest evidence of animal movement from the fossil record, and although these finds have been disputed and others have tried to stake this claim for trace fossils elsewhere, it is still holding up fairly well.

A surface trail, probably made by a < 1 cm wide animal moving along the seafloor about 565 mya. The animal moved from left to right, which is indicated by the crescentic ridges inside the trail, which open in the direction of movement. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken at Mistaken Point, Newfoundland.)

Another surface trail, but this one without the internal structure of the other one, and with levees on either side of the central furrow. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken at Mistaken Point, Newfoundland.)What’s this? Don’t have a clue. It looks like a series of overlapping trails, some looping, but would have taken me several hours to unravel. Anyway, it generated some good discussion at the outcrop, and they’re probably trace fossils, which made us ichnologists both happy and perplexed. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken at Mistaken Point, Newfoundland; scale in centimeters.)

What made these trace fossils? It’s hard to say, and that’s a humbling statement for me to make. In public talks I’ve given about my upcoming book, and in a presentation I gave the following week at Ichnia on the Memorial University campus, I’ve assured how the actualism of the Georgia barrier islands and its traces can reliably serve as models for interpreting many trace fossils formed in different environments, and trace fossils of various geologic ages from around the world. But in this instance, I didn’t have a inkling of what made the Mistaken Point trace fossils. These trace fossils were also made in deep-marine environments, which are lacking from the Georgia coast, and I haven’t learned much about deep-marine trace fossils from elsewhere.

In short, my ignorance was showing, and these trace fossils were completely out of my realm of experience. The only feeble hypothesis I could conjure on the basis of what I’ve seen in modern sediments of the Georgia barrier islands are small marine gastropod trails. Sorry, that’s all I got.

Oooo, look, it’s snail! Making a trail! Isn’t that neat? And if you squint really hard and have a couple of beers, you might agree that it almost resembles one of the fossil trails from Mistaken Point. Don’t see it yet? Here, have another beer. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken at Sapelo Island, Georgia; scale in millimeters. )

But if ignorance loves company, I can feel good in knowing that others have grasped at the same straw of actualism and found it far too short. I could tell a few of my ichnological colleagues were likewise a little challenged by what they saw at Mistaken Point, and I knew that for some of them – like me – they normally deal with trace fossils in much younger rocks. But hey, that’s what geology field trips are supposed to do: challenge us with what’s really there in the rock record, right there in front of us, rather than what we wish were there.

Fortunately, a little more information provided during the meeting after the field trip helped my understanding of the trace fossils we saw at Mistaken Point, and actually connected to modern tracemakers. Alexander Liu, the primary author of the paper that first reported the trace fossils, gave a talk that reviewed the evidence for Precambrian trace fossils, including those from Mistaken Point. In experiments he and his coauthors did with living anemones in a laboratory setting, they were able to reproduce trails similar to the Mistaken Point trace fossil with the internal structure. Thus these researchers were able to use actualism to assist in their interpretation, which also meant that neoichnology was not so useless after all when applied to the Ediacaran. That made me feel a little better.

Let’s take a look at that first surface trail again, but this time with the help of my trustworthy colleague Paleontologist Barbie, who was along for the field trip. The crecentic ridges in the interior of the trail may represent marks where the basal disc of a anemone-like animal pushed against the surface as it moved. Even more interesting, the arrow points to an oval impression, which may be a resting trace that shows the approximate basal diameter of the tracemaker. What was the tracemaker? It’s currently identified as a small anemone, which is based on modern traces. Neoichnology rules! (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Ediacaran trace fossils still engender debate, though, and especially with people who don’t necessarily accept that animals made trails during the Ediacaran. For instance, about four years ago, some scuba-diving researchers observed a giant protozoan making a trail on a sediment surface in the Bahamas. Accordingly, they proposed that one-celled organisms – not animals – could have made similar trails during the Ediacaran Period. Interestingly, this shows how actualism can produce conflicting results when applied to Ediacaran fossils. After all, it’s still a big world out there, and we humans haven’t really observed everything in it yet.

So I’ll make one last point about Ediacaran fossils here, then will move on to more recent times. If you think that at the very least we paleontologists should be able to tell the difference between trace fossils and body fossils in Ediacaran rocks, you’re also in for some confusion. In the only research article I have ever attempted on Ediacaran fossils, which were much closer to Georgia – coming from the Carolina Slate Belt of North Carolina – my coauthors and I struggled with exactly that question with some fossils found in that area. In the end, we said they were body fossils, not trace fossils. And as everyone knows, I love trace fossils, and I really wanted these to be trace fossils. But they were not. That’s science for you: denying your deepest desires in the face of reality.

So surely the Cambrian would be easier to interpret, right? I meanl, after 542 mya, animals started burrowing merrily, to and fro, hither and tither, with uninhibited and orgiastic abandon, and, well, you get the idea. But, not really. Another part of the field trip involved looking at what happened with the departure of the relatively unbioturbated alien world of the Ediacaran, pre-542 mya, to the more familiar sediment mixing of the Cambrian and Ordovician Periods, post-542 mya. Yet even these rocks and their trace fossils were still not quite like what we see today.

This will be the subject of my next post, which will again explore the theme of how we should approach strict actualism like any scientifically based idea: with a mixture of astonished wonder, but also with a hard-edged look at what is really there.

As we bid adieu to Mistaken Point and began our walk back to the car park, we could swear we saw lifeforms emerging from the mist-covered rocks, resurrected from the deep time and deep water of the Avalonian Precambrian. Then we realized those were just some of our group behind us. Oh well. Maybe next time. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

(Acknowledgements: Much appreciation is extended to the field trip leaders – Liam Herringshaw, Jack Matthews, and Duncan McIlroy – for their organization and execution of a fantastic three-day field trip; to Valerie and Richard of the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve for guiding us to the site; to my ichnological colleagues for their cheery and knowledge-broadening company; and my wife Ruth for being with me and providing an artist’s perspective about her experiences with us crazy ichnologists, shared here and here.)

Further Reading

Fedonkin, M., Vickers-Rich, P. Grey, K., and Narbonne, G. 2007.The Rise of Animals: Evolution and Diversification of the Animalia. Johns Hopkins Press, Washington: 320 p.

Liu, A.G., McIlroy, D., and Brasier, M.D. 2010. First evidence for locomotion in the Ediacaran biota from the 565Ma Mistaken Point Formation, Newfoundland. Geology, 38: 123-126.

Matz, M.V., Frank. T.M., Marshall, N.J., Widder, E.A., and Johnsen, S. 2008. Giant deep-sea protest produces bilaterian-like traces. Current Biology, 18: 1-6

Tacker, R.C., Martin, A.J., Weaver, P.G., and Lawver, D.R. 2010. Trace vs. body fossil: Oldhamia recta revisited. Precambrian Research, 178: 43-50.

Vickers-Rich, P., and Komarower, P. (editors). 2007 The Rise and Fall of the Ediacaran Biota. Geological Society of London, Special Publication 286: 448 p.