The Raft of the Medusa
There is really no way of knowing what the media, scientific or otherwise, will grab onto.
A week ago, at the Geological Society of America meeting in Vancouver, I presented a descriptive talk that may well have been the simplest I had ever given to a scientific audience. We had just listened to a series of presentations, many of them by students and postdocs, which incorporated considerable amounts of “big science”: sophisticated imaging techniques, chemical analyses of fossil preservation, or multivariate statistical studies of large numbers of specimens.
When I got up in front of the same audience, I was a bit worried because I realized that my talk could have been just as easily presented in 1914 as 2014: I was describing a single specimen, illustrated with photographs. Nineteenth century Natural History, really. But it was such a strange specimen that it seemed worth presenting, and as it turned out, the reporter from Science News thought so too (here is his short article, freshly out).
Those of you who visit this page occasionally will know that I am, perhaps, obsessed with the topic of jellyfish fossilization. In addition to ongoing detailed work on Ordovician-age jellies from the William Lake site in Manitoba, I have been collaborating with my colleague James Hagadorn of the Denver Museum to figure out the global fossil record of medusae.
Jellyfish are rarely fossilized; many things have been published as fossil jellies, but few of those actually are preserved medusae. So we have been working through the world literature of all papers published describing “fossil jellyfish.” As we have studied the literature, James and I have determined which museums hold collections that need to be examined, and when the opportunity arises we will go and spend a day or two on a collections visit. When necessary, we will borrow material for further study: some of the fossils are easily interpreted, but others are problematic.
The presentation in Vancouver was about one of the specimens we had found in the huge collections of the Field Museum in Chicago. Preserved in a slab of the Carboniferous Mecca Shale from Indiana, it looked like a blob of pure white quartz sand surrounded by thinly bedded black shale. Except this was a sand blob with tentacles.
Spending many days with the specimen, photographing it in every possible way (double polarized photography is our friend!), we were able to recognize many features that allowed us to identify it as a chirodropid cubozoan (a group of box jellyfish still abundant in modern oceans). It is the same age as the box jellies in the well-known Mazon Creek Lagerstätte of Illinois, and it is very similar to the Mazon Creek box jelly Anthracomedusa turnbulli, but preserved in a very different way. We explained its unusual preservation in this manner: A body of pure quartz sand is very unusual in the middle of a black shale bed; this resulted from sediment rafting by the jellyfish, a process analogous to ice rafting. The medusa apparently stranded on a beach, ingested sand as it attempted to free itself, and then was washed or rafted into a lagoon where it was buried in anoxic mud.
The scientific manuscript describing this remarkable fossil is almost complete. Maybe this publicity will motivate me to get it out the door and move on to the next batch of “fossil jellyfish”!
© Graham Young, 2014