Tuesday, February 23, 2010

GIANT, floaty, swimmy fossil CRINOIDS! The Dinosaurs of the Fossil Echinoderm World!

Today's post is BIG!

These fossil echinoderms are not ONLY freakishly BIG, BUT to add a little "weird" to it...THEY FLOAT!!! (most echinoderms almost always live on the sea bottom)

So, that you can see how different these critters are relative to the "normal" ones... some introductory crinoid background.

Here is what the most commonly encountered "feather star" aka an "unstalked crinoid" looks like...
(from Chuck Messing's crinoid website)

...and here's some basic anatomy and etc. about the other body form of crinoids with a stalk. These "stalked" crinoids are the ancestral forms and are what you see in the fossil record.

(from the Echinoderm TOL website)

Most of them live on the sea bottom. Sometimes attached and sometimes with a long tail. Go HERE to an older blog I wrote, which has a little bit about their ecology.

What I'm about to say may turn what you know...UPSIDE DOWN!!!

It turns out FOSSIL crinoids from the Jurassic (about 145-200 Mya) and the Devonian (360-416 Mya) did something that NO modern crinoids are known to do!! They were PELAGIC.
in other words...THEY COULD "SWIM". (well..some only float) :-)

Much of the info for this section is from this paper by Seilacher & Hauff 2004.

Basically, there were FOUR kinds of floating crinoids. Here is a handy guide from Seilacher & Hauff (Fig. 1) with the water current flow (added in blue) for emphasis.

Crinoids are all filter feeders.

So, those big cups with all of the arms on them??

They hold them into the water current and food as the water passes through them. The crinoids that float do essentially the same thing but sit in the middle or the top of the water column instead of the bottom.

Here's the different kinds of floating aka pelagic crinoids.

1. "Floaty" crinoids that float on driftwood.

(modified image from Seilacher & Hauff 2004)

These are the best known planktonic crinoid and occur in the Jurassic (145-200 mya) rocks of Germany but have also been collected from China.

They are often preserved attached to driftwood. The stalks were thought to be kind of elastic and used as sort of a filter-feeding "drag net" as they floated through the water..

The fossil deposits of these animals are often excellently preserved.
This includes several genera including Seirocrinus, Traumatocrinus, and Melocrinus and several of them are often found together in huge colonies.

The other really obvious thing about these floating crinoids is that they are HUGE!! They are probably the LARGEST crinoids known!!

IN FACT, they are probably the largest (or at least the longest) ECHINODERMS that the world has ever seen!

See the slab above? There must be at least 50 individual animals (counting the filter feeding cups) on this floating log.
How big are they?? The stalks on these crinoids can approach TWENTY METERS (60 FEET!). The filter feeding cups get to be easily a METER (about 3 feet) in diameter. Here's ME next to a single fossil of Seilocrinus in the museum for scale. Its not as big as some..but STILL....its LARGE.

2. Crinoids with BUOYANT floats!

(modified image from Seilacher & Hauff 2004)

These are interpreted as actually having a FLOAT!!!

That's RIGHT.

They are positively BUOYANT. Similar to the ones above, these were thought to drag their feeding arms, sort of like a tow-net, filtering food from the water.

These were called Scyphocrinites and they were from the Lower Devonian. The big "floats" of these animals are actually fossils called loboliths. They're filled with big porous, presumably air or gas filled calcium carbonate balls. Wow.

3. Stemless floaty crinoids!
(modified image from Seilacher & Hauff 2004)

These are unusual STEMLESS crinoids..but they aren't comatulid crinoids (i.e., not the same as the ones around today)

Genus name is Saccocoma and these fossils are found from the Upper Jurassic Solnhofen limestone in Germany. Its thought by some that these were free-swimming..possibly floating in the water column.

4. Floating Bottom "dredge" crinoids!
(modified image from Seilacher & Hauff 2004)

This is one is just crazy (or at least the interpretation is!).

This one is called Uintacrinus from the Upper Cretaceous and its thought that these had a gas or air-filled cup and that they DRAGGED their arms along the bottom.
Functionally, this makes for one of the strangest terms I've ever heard.."Hemipelagic dredger".

A swimming bottom, deposit feeder. The arms DRAG along the bottom like a frakkin' DREDGE net!!!
Do ya' see that big mess behind my head?? That's because my mind is BLOWN!

(Thanks to Mary Sangrey and the IZ Paleontology department for assistance with photography and specimens!)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"How I became an echinoderm scientist" pt. 2 How the experts got their start!

Within the echinoderm research community, there has for many years, existed The Echinoderm Newsletter, a way for echinoderm scientists around the world, to stay in touch and communicate needs and information. The modern online "Echinoderm Newsletter" is here. The Older "Virtual Echinoderm Newsletter" is here.

One of the GREAT parts of this newsletter was a section called "How I became an echinoderm scientist" in which various professional scientists and students wrote short essays on HOW they came to study echinoderms. Some were paleontologists, others were deep-sea biologists, coral-reef ecologists and MANY more. These were interesting accounts-as people who study echinoderms often require...how shall we say, a unique perspective!

Why present these stories? The aspiration of these accounts is not only to provide INSIGHT but also to INSPIRE new generations of echinoderm biologists!

Appropriately enough, today we have FIVE marine biologists (including physiologists, geneticists, taxonomists, and coral ecologists) who have volunteered their stories!

R. Andrew "Andy" Cameron. Director, Center for Computational Regulatory Genomics, Beckman Instititue, Cal Tech

In the 1960’s after the Sputnik surprise there was a great flow of funding into scientific research. I was a naïve student at Hartnell College, a a junior college in central California where two faculty members held NSF research grants. Imagine that today with the teaching load at California’s two-year colleges! I got a part time job working for Howard Feder on his NSF project to identify the chemical substance from starfish which causes an escape response in snails. I couldn’t believe that a person got paid to do this sort of work. To me it was like playing in the laboratory! Howard invited me to work as his technician while he was on sabbatical at the University of Copenhagen Marine Laboratory in Helsingør, Denmark. That laboratory was the home of Gunnar Thorson, the “father of larval ecology”. While there I worked for Howard on feeding responses in the local brittle star that covered the sea floor of the Øresund, the narrow sound that connects the Baltic and the North Seas. When I returned to the US in a few months, it was hard to go back to the junior college. Courses to complete the degree didn’t compare with working in an international marine laboratory; even if it meant feeding clay balls to voracious ophiuroids. I knew I wanted to study marine invertebrates. But I really didn’t realize how influential Thorson was on my thinking.

With graduate school as a goal, I completed the junior college curriculum and went on to San Jose State College. The in 1965, when it was time to choose a graduate school I was looking at UC Santa Cruz and other west coast schools. UCSC was close to San Jose a so I visited there first. There were two faculty members studying invertebrates. (John Pearse didn’t arrive at Santa Cruz until 1971, I think). Ralph Hinegardner had just perfected a laboratory culture technique for sea urchins and he showed me some Lytechinus pictus larvae in his laboratory. I was astonished. How could such a filmy ciliated object become a round dense sea urchin? How does an odd shaped creature like this develop? I knew what I wanted to do. Ideas from larval ecology to developmental biology all seemed so interesting when viewed from the perspective of that minute larva under a stereo-microscope. And even now there is still so much to learn.

Andy Cameron's website: http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~acameron/andy-mirsky-info.html

Dr. Chantal Conand,
Co-ordinator,Université de La Réunion, Laboratoire de biologie marine

When I arrived from France and Senegal in New Caledonia in 1979, I wanted to continue studying fish biology. As in other tropical islands, the fishery in New Caledonia was considered at that time as not important enough to require scientific management. The New Caledonia economy was based on nickel mining and due to the nickel crisis, the authorities wanted to diversify the sources of income and the artisanal fisheries. One of them, the behce-de-mer, was said to have been prosperous once but there was no information! I was asked by ORSTOM (Institute Francias de Recherches pour le Developpement en Cooperation) to undertake studies to determine which holothurian speices were valuable, where they lived, how they grow, reproduce, die, how much could be fished… I started sampling on reef flats and diving in the lagoons with admiration. It was been the start of my association with these wonderful creatures, although mostly depreciated by “non connoisseurs”! I soon met my new echinoderm colleagues at the Seminaire organized in Paris by Alain Guille and we became friends.

Recent papers: Uthicke, Byrne & Conand 2009, Stohr, Conand & Boissin 2008,

Dr. John Lawrence
. Professor, Dept. of Integrative Biology. University of South Florida

I was born and raised in the state of Missouri, in the center of the US. I planned to be a high school teacher in the state. During my studies for the master’s degree at the University of Missouri on the physiological responses of a fresh-water killifish to high concentrations of salt, I became aware that there was much more to the world than Missouri. My oder brother Addison, was also a biology graduate student at Mizzou and had just returned from a summer at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford Univeristy where he had taken a course in physiological ecology with Prof. Arthur Giese. I had never seen the sea, and it seemed a wonderful thing to do. At this time, Prof. Giese and his laboratory had initiated studies on the reproductive biology and physiology of echinoderms. I had never seen an echinoderm, not even a preserved one. But Prof. Giese accepted me into his laboratory. And I well remember a specific afternoon in September 1960 when I first saw the Pacific Ocean while crossing the pass at Los Gatos in the Coastal Range and later that afternoon when I first saw Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, Pisaster ochraceus, and Patiria miniata in the intertidal at Pacific Grove.

John Lawrence USF website: http://biology.usf.edu/ib/faculty/jmlawrence/

Dr. Horst Mooseleitner
Organismic Biology, University Salzburg, Austria

In the sixties and seventies of the last century I worked by snorkel and scuba diving on the interspecific behaviour of fishes (cleanerfishes, feeding associations etc.) in the Mediterranean Sea. Some of those commensal fishes led me to the sea stars on sandy bottoms, especially of the genus Astropecten which they followed in the same way they did with goatfishes, hoping for small invertebrates that were trying to escape. As Astropecten is not an easy genus, I had to learn quite a lot about their way of live and their determination. The more I knew, the more I’ve got interested in echinoderms. When I worked at the Maldives in the eighties, I began to study and to make underwater-photographs of the echinoderm fauna there and found some interesting species. Soon I was able to publish (with help of Loisette Marsh and Frank Rowe) a paper on the seastars of the Maldives. Works on Fromia maldivensis, the seastars of Bali, the colour pattern of Pentaster obtusatus followed. But some echinoderms brought me back to the fishes again, as they are the preferred food resource of some triggerfishes. Feeding associaitons with triggerfishes will be my next task before I’ll come back to seastars of the Philippines.

Dr. Dave Pawson

Curator, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

In 1958, during my last year of a B.Sc. degree at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, three things led me in the direction of the echinoderms. Firstly, for the invertebrates course I was taking, we were required to put together a collection of representative invertebrates from the local rocky shore. On numerous weekend field trips we collected many echinoderms-ubiquitous Patiriella regularis, marauding Pectinura (now Ophiopsammaus) maculata, and squashy Stichopus mollis. They seemed more interesting and exciting than most other animals (with the exception of the beautiful abalone Haliotis iris, which we collected and ate in vast quantities). Secondly, I participated in some of our Zoology Department’s ventures into deep-sea research-we would steam out into Cook Strait in a rented fishing trawler and fish in deep water using long lines, ring nets, try nets, and bottom traps. Bathyal echinoderms, such as Gorgonocephalus or Molpadia, would be collected, and would momentarily distract me from losing my lunch over the side of the vessel. Thirdly, I assisted our echinoderm specialist Prof. H. Barraclough Fell in first-year Zoology Laboratories, and we talked frequently about his favorite subject-echinoderms. As the year wore on, I became very interested in these animals, Barry Fell steered my interest in the direction of the holothurians at that time, probably because he had the other echinoderm groups of the New Zealand region pretty much at his fingertips, and he knew very little about sea cucumbers.

So, for an M.Sc. degree, I studied New Zealand holothurians. Then, for a PhD, I became involved with echinoids as well, from the southern Pacific Ocean and elsewhere. During those years, from 1959 to the end of 1963, I learned much about living and fossil echinoderms from Barry Fell, and collaborated with him on a study of fossil regular echinoids for the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology. We exchanged what seemed like a million letters with Treatise editor Ray Moore on a bewildering variety of topics and issues; some of these, for example, the Holothuroidea/ Holothuiodea spelling debate, are unresolved to this day. At that time, 1961-1963, Fell was immersed in his controversial studies on fossil sea stars, and the interrelationships of echinoderm classes, living and fossil. He would meet with Helen Clark Rotman and I, behind closed doors, to reveal his various new ideas. Helen and I seemed to be stunned by it al. Early in 1964 came the Curator of Echinoderms job at the U.S. National Museum, and life has been pentagonal for me ever since.

Dave Pawson's NMNH website: http://invertebrates.si.edu/staf/PawsonFullPubs.cfm

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pt. 1 "How I became an echinoderm scientist" Geology-University of Illinois Edition!

Today. Something a little different.

Within the echinoderm research community, there has for many years, existed The Echinoderm Newsletter, a way for echinoderm scientists around the world, to stay in touch and communicate needs and information. The modern online "Echinoderm Newsletter" is here. The Older "Virtual Echinoderm Newsletter" is here.

One of the GREAT parts of this newsletter was a section called "How I became an echinoderm scientist" in which various professional scientists and students wrote short essays on HOW they came to study echinoderms. Some were paleontologists, others were deep-sea biologists, coral-reef ecologists and MANY more. These were interesting-as people who study echinoderms often require...how shall we say, a unique perspective!

I have REVIVED the "How I became an echinoderm scientist" feature HERE. And will be reprinting these for everyone to enjoy. Later this week-biologists but today some Echinoderm PALEONTOLOGY!

Why? The aspiration of these is to provide INSIGHT but also to INSPIRE new generations of echinoderm biologists!

TODAY. We start with "How I became an echinoderm scientist"-Three stories from alumni/echinoderm scientists from THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN!
How does a Big 10, MIDWESTERN University end up contributing so much to Echinoderm Biology?? Through the long Paleontological legacy at the University of Illinois-GEOLOGY department! Many paleontogists worked on smaller echinoderm stratigraphy type projects during the era when the department's primary expertise was in carbonate (i.e., limestone) and oil geology.

Among them was my advisor...

Daniel Blake, emeritus Professor in Paleontology-Dept. of Geology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
(photo by Hugo Gonzalez)

I liked both biology and geology from childhood, and paleontology was a good way to combine the two, and so I majored in geology at the University of Illinois. The midcontinent of North America is a setting of Paleozoic rocks, but for graduate school, I decided to see mountains, oceans, and younger fossils, and so I migrated to the University of California at Berkeley and J. Wyatt Durham’s laboratory. I intended to work on mollusks, but at that time Wyatt was working on Helicoplacus and the echinoid Treatise and I got caught up in all of that. As to asteroids, on my first field trip at Cal, one of the students picked up a fossil “blob," Wyatt looked at it and said “It is a starfish," and something as simple as that started me on the way. (The fossil proved to be an arm fragment of Luidia)."

Some Recent Papers: 1. Blake 2009, 2. Blake & Portell 2009, 3. Blake 2009, 4. Blake & Ettensohn, 2009

William I. Ausich, Professor of Earth Sciences and Director, Orton Geological Museum, The Ohio State University

"My maternal grandfather polished rocks, in retirement. As a teenager, I was fascinated by these attractive stones, which included specimens called “pudding stone”, “petosky stone”, and “alphabet rock”. Alphabet rock was a crinoidal limestone, white crinoid columnals in a dark-colored matrix. Crinoid columnals were cut at all angles yielding the O, C, U, C, B, I, etc. shapes, hence the alphabet rock. This alphabet rock was most intriguing. My grandfather and I did conclude that the “letters” in the alphabet rock were crinoids by consultation with Fenton and Fenton’s The Fossil Book. Although I did not pursue rock or fossil collection or rock polishing as a teenager, I did enter the University of Illinois as an undergraduate major in Geology. At Illinois, Dan Blake was studying fossil asteroids, and two of his graduate students, Dennis Kolata and Frank Ettensohn,
were studying crinoids (and other echinoderms). The seed of interest planted unknowingly by my grandfather took firm root. By the beginning of my junior year, I had decided to study crinoids. I entered graduate school at Indiana University specifically to study fossil crinoids under the direction of Gary Lane. "
Bill Ausich Ohio State website: http://www.geology.ohio-state.edu/~ausich/
Some recent publications: http://www.geology.ohio-state.edu/~ausich/Publications.html

Chris Mah, Research Collaborator Dept. of Invertebrate Zoology, NMNH
"I grew up in SF, a city blessed with museums, aquariums, parks, and easily accessible intertidal and marine habitats. I spent many afternoons digging up insects, looking at fish, and trying to catch planarians and crayfish from the lakes in the park. At the same time, when I wasn't working at family pharmacy-I was at home enjoying Saturday afternoon monster matinees. Weird stuff, science and science fiction fascinated me as a kid. I used to spend hours going through my Dad's first edition of John Buchsbaum's textbook invertebrate text "Animals without Backbones". I was a hardcore volunteer/visitor at the California Academy of Science's Steinhart Aquarium.

I went to Humboldt State University to decide on what I would do with my life and was told that marine biology would probably not be fruitful. But I was stuck on working on invertebrates and nearly decided on a career of either Entomology or Parasitology. I had an internship working at Monterey Bay Aquarium in the Interpretive Programs Office. During the program I was introduced to many species of sea stars (aka starfish or asteroids) that I had never seen before. Pteraster tesselatus! Poraniopsis! Hippasteria! Brisingids!! Strange beasts! Living Monsters! Aliens among us!

My interest continued onto grad school at San Francisco State University and research at the California Academy of Sciences, followed by my PhD at the very distant University of Illinois in Champaign-Illinois, where I got a degree in GEOLOGY of all things! I studied marine animals far away from my ocean!
Since I started my degree I've seen fantastic things from submersibles at the bottom of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, from ships in the Antarctic and secrets of starfishes from deep vaults in the museums of Paris. As a student, I could never have believed I would ever be studying starfishes at the Smithsonian. I've had no regrets since....."

Chris Mah's website: http://invertebrates.si.edu/mah.htm


Friday, February 12, 2010

Echinoblog-Winter Special! Giant Snow Olmec Head!!



GIANT SNOW OLMEC HEAD is watching you!!
Thanks to Dorothy L. and the others who created this wonderful snow shot!!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Winter Interlude pt. 2: Sea Stars!! Pentaceraster and others!

and so the weather continues in the DC area with a blizzard dropping record breaking snow on the Metro area.. So, I continue to thank Posa Skelton for his pics of tropical echinoderms from Fiji as a pleasant distraction until things get back to normal next week!

Pentaceraster regulus
Linckia laevigata (with 4 arms!)
Choriaster granulatus

..and of course the crown of thorns! Acanthaster planci

...and here's an unidentified crinoid !!!

Winter Interlude pt. 1: Tropical Holothurians (sea cucumbers) from tropical Fiji!

Greetings to everyone! So, some of you may have heard about the trivial bout of weather we've been having with more to come! Life has been snow! snow! snow! for the last week or so..
I have literally been snowed out of the museum for the last few days!
(photo by Jim Diloreto USNM)

Enter Posa Skelton, the Coordinator of the Pacific Islands Network for Taxonomy, who is based in Fiji and had many pictures of sea stars to identify and other echinoderms to share!

Just the thing to break up the winter monotony!

UPDATE!!!! The knowledgeable Dr. Alex Kerr at the University of Guam has provided me with up to date identifications of the animals below!!! Enjoy them with authoritative confidence!!


Bohadschia vitiensis (Cuverian tubules are being emitted as a defence!!)
The oh-so sexy Holothuria (Halodeima) edulis
Actinopyga echinites

Stichopus herrmanii (and probably the one below it also) Pearsonothuria graeffei
Holothuria (Microthele) fuscopunctata (and the one below it)Holothuria (Microthele) whitmaei
Stichopus chloronotus