Monday, March 27, 2023

Prasopora, with a comment on biostratigraphy

Prasopora, the "gumdrop bryozoan", is one of the most recognizable Ordovician fossils in Minnesota. Museum collections from Minnesota have boxes of the little darlings rattling around together. And I—I hardly ever see the dang things in the field.

Yes, one of these things; a bit more "chocolate kiss" than "gumdrop" but well within morphological variation.

While my competence in many fields is questionable at best, in this case you can be assured I would recognize a Prasopora if I saw one, even if it was years before I learned the stress goes on the second syllable rather than the third. (I have an unerring instinct for putting the stress on the wrong syllable for scientific names I've read but never heard.) No, the real issue here is one of biostratigraphy. My usual stomping grounds cap in the lower third of the Decorah, and Prasopora doesn't really kick in until the middle–upper Decorah. This has been recognized since the days of "The Geology of Minnesota" (Ulrich 1895; Winchell and Ulrich 1897). At that time eight species were recognized (P. affinis, P. conoidea, P. contigua, P. insularis, P. lenticularis, P. oculata, P. selwyni, and P. simulatrix), all of which were restricted to a range extending from the "Fucoid and Phylloporina beds" of the "Black River Group" (roughly Sardeson bed 5, middle–upper Decorah) to the "Fusispira and Nematopora beds" of the "Trenton Group" (as high as Sardeson bed 8, in the Prosser Limestone) (Winchell and Ulrich 1897; approximate correlations after Sloan 1987). None of them are listed in equivalents to Sardeson beds 3 and 4, in the lower Decorah, and only P. conoidea, P. contigua, P. lenticularis, and P. simulatrix were reported from the closest "Fucoid and Phylloporina beds".

Same specimen as above, which has a convenient break showing a partial cross-section; it's not solid all the way through.

Forty years later Stauffer and Thiel (1941) were not quite as dainty in their stratigraphic divisions, simply having a Decorah Shale Member of the Galena Formation and a Spechts Ferry Member of the Platteville Formation (approximately the Carimona Member of the Decorah). The "Spechts Ferry" gets Prasopora grandis, which had been Monticulipora grandis back in 1897, when it had been reported from the Stictoporella bed (lower Sardeson bed 3). P. grandis also appears in S&T's Decorah Shale Member list along with the four "Fucoid and Phylloporina beds" species, Stauffer presumably having stratigraphically higher specimens of P. grandis than W&U. Whether or not grandis pertains to Prasopora has been a matter of some dispute, and it seems to have wandered back to the metaphorical arms of Monticulipora. More importantly, it doesn't look like classic gumdrop Prasopora, instead being "irregularly massive, often tending to become lobate or subramose" (Ulrich 1895). In other words, it's not the kind of thing the typical fossil enthusiast would associate with the genus.

Wee little discoidal Prasopora.

My personal experience with Prasopora is limited to a few pieces in the Valentine box that appear to represent P. conoidea and a small discoidal species, a couple of small discoidal specimens that blur the line between early-stage Prasopora and "less famous bryozoan encrusting the external surface of an inarticulate brachiopod in an aesthetically pleasing Prasopora-like way", and one great honking lopsided hoof of a colony I found a few years ago at a basement excavation. I don't generally attempt to assign species to bryozoan fossils, but P. simulatrix is the only species described by Ulrich (1895) to attain dimensions even vaguely like it, so I'll go with that.

A top view of an unfortunately resolutely three-dimensional object.

And the underside, showing the distinctive layering and a few bits of other things that became part of the structure.

Bonus news: for those of you who've had your fill of gumdrop bryozoans, the spring 2023 edition of the NPS Park Paleontology newsletter is now available.


Sloan, R. E. 1987. History of study of the Middle and Late Ordovician rocks of the Upper Mississippi Valley. Pages 3–6 in R. E. Sloan, editor. Middle and Late Ordovician lithostratigraphy and biostratigraphy of the Upper Mississippi Valley. Minnesota Geological Survey, St. Paul, Minnesota. Report of Investigations 35.

Stauffer, C. R., and G. A. Thiel. 1941. The Paleozoic and related rocks of southeastern Minnesota. Minnesota Geological Survey, St. Paul, Minnesota. Bulletin 29.

Ulrich, E. O. 1895. On Lower Silurian Bryozoa of Minnesota. Pages 96–332 in L. Lesquereux, C. Schuchert, A. Woodward, E. Ulrich, B. Thomas, and N. H. Winchell. The geology of Minnesota. Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey, Final Report 3(1). Johnson, Smith & Harrison, state printers, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Winchell, N. H. and E. O. Ulrich. 1897. The lower Silurian deposits of the Upper Mississippi Province: a correlation of the strata with those in the Cincinnati, Tennessee, New York and Canadian provinces, and the stratigraphic and geographic distribution of the fossils. Pages lxxxiii–cxxix in L. Lesquereux, C. Schuchert, A. Woodward, E. Ulrich, B. Thomas, and N. H. Winchell. The geology of Minnesota. Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey, Final Report 3(2). Johnson, Smith & Harrison, state printers, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Brooksella: what are star cobbles?

Back in the far-off year of 2012, when I was helping to compile instances of paleontological type specimens found in National Park Service units, we had to make decisions about various edge cases. One of these was how to handle names for what later turned out to be pseudofossils. We decided to record the information as historically relevant but did not include the "taxa" in any counts. On this blog we've actually covered a couple of them already, "Lingula calumet" and "Paradoxoides barberi" from within or very near Pipestone National Monument. Another is "Brooksella canyonensis", a putative jellyfish from the Proterozoic Nankoweap Formation of Grand Canyon National Park. It was first reported as such in Van Gundy (1937) and then named, not entirely enthusiastically, in Bassler (1941). "B. canyonensis" has fared poorly as a jellyfish, but has had its supporters as an organic feature (e.g., Glaessner 1969; Kauffman and Steidtmann 1981; Kauffman and Fursich 1983; tentatively Ciampaglio et al. 2006). However, I favor an inorganic interpretation. Admittedly, there are several to choose from: gas-escape structures or compaction (Cloud 1968), "sand-volcano"-type fluid escape (Ford and Breed 1977; Ford 1990), and mud rolls (Fedonkin and Runnegar 1992).

"B. canyonensis" was not the first species in the genus Brooksella, though. Brooksella was named by Charles Walcott for "star cobbles" from the Coosa Valley of Alabama (Walcott 1896), now attributed to the middle Cambrian-age Conasauga Formation (Nolan et al. 2023). In fact, he named three taxa for different forms of cobbles: B. alternata, B. confusa, and Laotira cambria (Walcott 1896). Star cobbles got their name because at their best they look like the stereotypical twinkly pointed things you might doodle. Some of them even have five rays, although six is more typical and they are more lobed than pointed, so it's not a perfect match.

Brooksella (A–D, K) and Laotira (E–H, J) as illustrated by Walcott (1898) and reproduced as Figure 1 in Nolan et al. (2023) (which see for full caption). CC BY 4.0.

Walcott interpreted the objects as representing jellyfish, which are probably not the first thing you think of when fossils come to mind, but jellyfish fossils are in fact known elsewhere. In this case, though, the interpretation hasn't proved tremendously popular over time, and numerous alternatives have been proposed. These alternatives, though, generally involve some kind of organic origin, either as a true body fossils or a trace fossil of some sort. It's not hard to see why: they look like something that *ought* to be organic, even if the identity of that something is unclear. (Anyone who has gone out fossil hunting will probably recognize this feeling. Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong.)

Nolan et al. (2023) have published a detailed reassessment of Alabama Brooksella. As part of it, they prepared a lovely supplemental figure of various hypotheses, with thumbnail evaluations (discussed at greater length in the text). (*Warning*: Hold off on clicking the link if you'd rather not get their solution immediately.) Studies of Brooksella from the past couple of decades have interpreted it as a trace fossil (either a feeding burrow or a coprolite) or a glass sponge (hexactinellid). Nolan et al. subjected star cobbles to about as many tests as can legally be done to rocks in their analysis of the various possibilities, and came to several conclusions, including:

  • Brooksella specimens do not have a sponge's anatomy. There aren't spicules, features previously interpreted as ostia (pores) bear a strong resemblance to pitting left behind when lichen are cleaned off, and lobes do not feature opening at their ends for radial canals (which were also not found).
  • The orientation of the specimens when found in situ was with the putative central osculum (excurrent vent) down in the sediment, which is an inconvenient place for an osculum. Furthermore, many examples did not even have an "osculum".
  • The specimens include internal voids and tubes, but these spaces do not correspond to the external form, unlike primary burrows (although this does not preclude the specimens having "captured" parts of burrows that were passing through). Furthermore, the internal features do not include common burrowing structures such as backfill.
  • The specimens have the same composition as silica concretions from the same rocks, and are very comparable overall, with the same kind of weathering rings, lichen pitting, and random internal voids and tubes.

Nolan et al. concluded that Brooksella is no different from the local concretions except for the lobes, and should therefore "be considered a pseudofossil until proven otherwise." A consequence of this conclusion is that Brooksella, not being a glass sponge, would not have been a source of silica for preservation of fossils in the Conasauga. (It's not stated, but it seems that it would have been a sink instead.) It further goes to show that you shouldn't trust strange things in the Cambrian.

Brooksella (A–E) and concretions (F–K) collected from the Conasauga Formation by Nolan et al. (scale bar 1 cm, or 0.4 in); Figure 5. CC BY 4.0.


Bassler, R. S. 1941. A supposed jellyfish from the pre-Cambrian of the Grand Canyon. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 89(3104):519–522.

Ciampaglio, C. N., L. E. Babcock, C. L. Wellman, A. R. York, and H. K. Brunswick. 2006. Phylogenetic affinities and taphonomy of Brooksella from the Cambrian of Georgia and Alabama, USA. Palaeoworld 15:256–265.

Cloud, P. E., Jr. 1968. Pre-metazoan evolution and the origins of the Metazoa. Pages 1–72 in E. T. Drake, editor. Evolution and environment. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

Fedonkin, M. A., and B. N. Runnegar. 1992. Proterozoic metazoan trace fossils. Pages 389–395 in J. W. Schopf and C. Klein, editors. The Proterozoic biosphere: A multidisciplinary study. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Ford, T. D. 1990. Grand Canyon Supergroup: Nankoweap Formation, Chuar Group, and Sixtymile Formation. Pages 49–70 in S. S. Beus and M. Morales, editors. Grand Canyon geology. Oxford University Press, New York, New York.

Ford, T. D., and W. J. Breed. 1977. Chuaria circularis Walcott and other Precambrian fossils from the Grand Canyon. Journal of the Palaeontological Society of India 20:170–177.

Glaessner, M. F. 1969. Trace fossils from the Precambrian and basal Cambrian. Lethaia 2(4):369–393.

Kauffman, E. G., and F. Fursich. 1983. Brooksella canyonensis: A billion year old complex metazoan trace fossil from the Grand Canyon. Abstracts with Programs - Geological Society of America 15(6):608.

Kauffman, E. G., and J. R. Steidtmann. 1981. Are these the oldest metazoan trace fossils? Journal of Paleontology 55:923–947.

Nolan, M. R., S. E. Walker, T. Selly, and J. Schiffbauer. 2023. Is the middle Cambrian Brooksella a hexactinellid sponge, trace fossil or pseudofossil? PeerJ 11:e14796. doi:

Van Gundy, C. E. 1937. Jellyfish from Grand Canyon Algonkian. Science 85(2204):314.

Walcott, C. D. 1896. Fossil jelly fishes from the Middle Cambrian Terrane. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 18:611–614.

Walcott, C. D. 1898. Fossil Medusæ. U.S. Geological Survey, Washington, D.C. Monograph 30.