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blob, blob, blob, …

July 21, 2010

Stacked on pallets, Peter's slabs await our inspection.

After vacation time enjoying the good life, there’s nothing like a little bit of manual labour to get the body and soul back on track.

Last week, on a stopover while returning from Europe, I spent a couple of days doing paleontological field collecting in south-central Ontario. As some of you know, I have been working for quite some time to understand fossil jellyfish that occur in various places, most notably in central Manitoba. Dave Rudkin of the Royal Ontario Museum had told me about some structures in Silurian rocks of Ontario that bear at least a passing resemblance to the Manitoba jellies, and a year ago he sent a few specimens to whet my appetite. Although the fossils he sent look not dissimilar to amorphous inorganic blobs, they had enough jellyfish character to make a visit to the site essential. There are no definite jellyfish fossils known so far from the Silurian (444 to 416 million years ago), so these could fill in a significant gap in the jellyfish record.

So last Thursday lunchtime, there I was in the hot Ontario sun, jetlagged and shifting rock. The site is one of several currently being studied by Peter von Bitter (of the ROM) and his colleagues, and Peter had kindly agreed to let me look at the fossils in conjunction with him, Dave, and Henry Choong (also from the ROM). The rock there is a finely laminated carbonate, and over the years Peter and his associates have mined out an almost infinite number of thin platey slabs, stacking them on pallets so that they can weather for further evaluation.

Dave and Henry are prepared for some quality fossil-hunting time.

In addition to the “amorphous blobs”, the rock holds a great variety of fossils both commonplace (brachiopods, trilobites) and unique (very unusual arthropods and possible conodont animals). The latter are, of course, the reason Peter has been studying this place. The blobs have been of minor interest to previous workers, other than for the fact that some of them contain what seems to be a great variety of different minerals: sulfides, calcite, and possibly fluorite.

At first glance, most of the blobs are featureless and unprepossessing. At second glance I begin to pick out some features, but they are still far from "possessing."

The procedure for examining these slabs can be described thus:

1. Lift heavy slab from layer low on pallet to a level where it can be considered;

2. Mash fingers with slab while attempting to stabilize it on top of stack of rock;

3. Curse, then blow dust from surface of slab, managing to get most of the dust into eyes and nose;

4.Wipe eyes, smearing sunscreen from forehead into eyeballs;

5. Repeat cursing;

6. Rotate slab surface carefully in the blinding light, trying to determine if it holds any interesting fossils;

7. Put nose close to rock to observe amorphous blob through hand lens, inhaling a whiff of sulfur from the bituminous material in the carbonate;

8. Turn slab over to examine other side;

9. Repeat steps 2 to 7;

10. Place slab on stack of examined slabs, mashing fingers once again;

11. Re-repeat cursing;

12. Repeat steps 1 to 11.

Viewed edge-on, the beds show a fine-scale alternation of light-coloured carbonate and darker bituminous layers.

Now, imagine doing this for two days solid (or more, if you like). If you, like some people, consider paleontological fieldwork to be “exciting” or “exotic” or “romantic,” just remember: the above description is really quite accurate. Except that we were in a relatively civilized location and had the luxury of not dealing with snow, or torrential rain, or high temperatures, or hail, or sleet, or mosquitoes, or bears. Add in any or all of those exciting variables if you want to get a feel for the true romance of fieldwork.

The first 10 or 15 minutes of a field collecting project can be quite exciting. The next 10 or 15 hours … less so. But if the work produces results, it is worth whatever effort is required.

By the end of the second day, I had examined many dozens of amorphous blobs.  Most of them are just that: amorphous blobs. I suspect that they were originally jellyfish, but any recognizable features were long ago lost to the (evil) forces of taphonomy and diagenesis. Nevertheless, I was able to find 20 or 30 blobs that are at least somewhat morphous, and I have hopes that, when examined in exhaustive detail, they will reveal their true jellyfish nature. Stay tuned …

© Graham Young, 2010

Addendum (July 22) provided by Dave Rudkin:
“There’s a 12th stage that Henry documented quite nicely: Sit outside motel room – drink beer, ponder blobs while watching torrential rain.”

There are obviously some very good fossils hidden in southern Ontario ...

19 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2010 11:03 am

    Great post, Graham! It’s great to get an insider’s view of the reality of fieldwork. I was recently able to go on a botany fieldwork trip this week, and I have a whole new appreciation for the patience, effort, and time it takes to be a scientist.

    Welcome home.

    • Graham permalink*
      July 22, 2010 11:06 am

      Thanks Holli. You are very kind!

  2. August 4, 2010 12:14 pm

    Thanks, Graham. I won an award, and I’m passing it on to you. Congratulations, Versatile Blogger! See here for more details:

    • Graham permalink*
      August 4, 2010 5:36 pm

      Thank you, Holli! And congratulations on the well-earned recognition!

      • August 4, 2010 7:01 pm

        Thank you! But it’s also your recognition now. Part of winning this award is awarding it to other worthy bloggers. 🙂

  3. Peter Lee permalink
    August 27, 2010 11:06 am

    Hi Graham: Enjoyed your article. Jelly fish are soft bodied and do not preserve well. I am from Ontario…. the only site I know of that has potential soft bodied preservation is the Silurian Eramosa Lagerstatte as described by Peter Von Bitter of ROM a few years back. I presume this the location you are searching. The search for Silurian Jellyfish intrigues me. Since jelly fish can be found in the Cambrian and Carboniferous era … they must have survived the Silurian period. Another potential place to hunt would be the Silurian Bertie Lagerstatte in Fort Erie ON where there are amorphous blobs in the Bertie Limestone along with eurypterids and cooksonia plants.

    Peter Lee
    Burlington ON

    • Graham permalink*
      September 2, 2010 6:44 pm

      Thanks Peter. I would love to see jellyfish in the Bertie, and I guess it could happen. So far, any blobs I have seen from there are other things, but please keep your eyes open for them. Remember that fossil jellies look like DEAD jellyfish; many people go looking for things more like live ones, and therefore don’t find them.

      • Peter Lee permalink
        September 5, 2010 5:18 am

        Thanks for the reply/ tip Graham…. “Look for Dead floppy Jellyfish”…. distorted twisted floppy blobs with hopefully some preserved traces microstructures to be seen under the microscope. Would you anticipate Jellyfish fossil preservation in the form of carbonized film on limestone matrix? Do you have a guide / link or be able to post a typical holotype example picture of a preserved Jellyfish in the fossil record…. just trying to educate my eyes to look for certain structures….. lots of fun… I am already looking forward to visit the Bertie next year….

        A side note:
        The Devonian Bois Blanc formation that overlays the Bertie has chert deposits…. fine preservation details of white coloured Bryozoans can be seen a striking blue chert matrix…. wonder if the potential of Jellyfish could also be trapped and preserved in this chert formation…… hmmm…. just thinking out load…. lots of places to explore in Ontario.

        (A bit about my background…. for the past 6 yrs I am a hobby weekend fossil collector (not for profit as I will be donating the entire collection eventually to the local museum just incase there may be some item of some interest) exploring Ontarios rich paleo -past).

        Peter Lee
        Burlington ON

  4. September 7, 2010 9:25 pm

    Great site, and I hope you will have more fossil photos, I mean photos of fossils so we all know what we are looking for. Peter, thanks for your remarks and hope to see you at THE quarry, soon. After 40 years of collecting the Bertie Group, I have one fantastic fossil that may be a ‘jelleyfish’ – thus far, no one seems to know what it is. And it is from our favorite eurypterid bed, Williamsville ‘A’ Waterlime, Bertie Group at RQS.

    • Graham permalink*
      September 7, 2010 10:18 pm

      Thank you Sam and Peter. Yes, I fully intend to put up more photos of jellyfish and other odd fossils – it is one of those “when time permits” sort of things! Peter, Whitey Hagadorn and I have a manuscript in press that talks about how to identify fossil jellyfish, and we plan a longer review of fossil jellies. Perhaps I will put up an abbreviated version of our criteria for jellyfish identification, when that first paper comes out (which should, I hope, be very soon!). Sam, you have a lot of strange things in the Bertie, but I have also never seen jellyfish from there. Is that fossil of yours like the ones I have seen in your photos, or is it something different?

      • Peter Lee permalink
        September 9, 2010 5:39 am

        Thanks very much Graham! A guide would indeed be extremely useful!
        Looking forward to your publication on Jellyfish…. blobs are interesting!
        Best Regards,
        Peter Lee
        Burlington ON

  5. Peter Lee permalink
    October 4, 2010 3:04 pm

    Hey Graham:
    Got a special invite to the same Dig site by Dr. PHvB (ROM)… will be splitting Silurian limestone looking for unique fossils … so next week I will get my first chance peak at this unique Lagerstatte site one week from now on the Thanksgiving day… dreams do come true…. I am really excited … on this once in a life time trip / experience.

    Peter Lee
    Burlington ON

    • Graham permalink*
      October 4, 2010 9:27 pm

      Peter, I hope you enjoy it. The onychophorans are gorgeous, if you are lucky enough to see one! By the way, I am working on that post on how to identify fossil jellyfish, and hope to have it up in a few days.

      • October 4, 2010 9:51 pm

        Also looking forward to the jellyfish post. Good luck, Peter. I have saved almost every ‘blob’ I have found in the Bertie Group – a lot of problematica – love it!

      • Graham permalink*
        October 4, 2010 9:54 pm

        Sam, now I am feeling the pressure from you and Peter! The paper I did with Whitey Hagadorn on the jellyfish fossil record will be out shortly, so I am hoping I can also post a pdf of that. I just have to review the copyright agreements once again …

      • Peter Lee permalink
        October 5, 2010 5:30 am

        Thanks Graham…the weather projection is calling for sun 17C… ideal conditions to fossil hunt.

        I am really looking forward to your publication on a guide to ID jellyfish. Blobs are neat to look at under a microscope… in search of microstructures.


  6. October 4, 2010 10:00 pm

    Before I forget it. There are countless ‘blobs’ in the Fiddlers Green waterlimes (Bertie Group) that I interpret to be algal clasts ripped up from mats – some of which have impressions of salt hoppers (relict halite). These are also present on the associated eurypterid carapaces, etc.

  7. Peter Lee permalink
    October 5, 2010 5:47 am

    Hey Sam: Thanks for the well wishes on my upcoming trip…. Hoping that some of your Bertie blobs are potential jellyfish canidates. If you have time Sam… could you email me a pic of that potential jellyfish blob from the Bertie. Hope to see you at your favourite quarry RQ in the Bertie next year….

    Graham: Definately will be great if you are able to post that pdf jellyfish guide…. Thanks.



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