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UI houses rare cephalopods donations

BY NATHANIEL OTJEN | NOVEMBER 01, 2012 6:30 AM

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Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Earth looked much different than it does today — an ancient sea teeming with life stretched across Iowa.

These sea animals died millions of years ago and sunk down to the bottom of the ancient oceans, where they became fossilized. The fossilized remains have been found in Iowa and are now the focus of a new study, which researchers say could lead to exciting information about life millions of years ago.

The remains were uncovered by accident in two limestone quarries in Independence, Iowa, five years ago.

“We hit a couple of bad shale pockets,” said Randy Reed, the quarry manager and member of the Black Hawk Gem and Mineral Society — an active group of 110 rock enthusiasts founded in 1951.

The quarry doesn’t mine shale, so the crew stopped their machines and just happened to stop digging right on top of the fossil deposit.

“If they’d have taken the dozer a foot deeper, they would’ve been gone,” Reed said.

Many of these sea creatures are cephalopods — an ancient animal that used to inhabit the world’s oceans. They are part of the focus by researchers from the Black Hawk Gem and Mineral Society.

“They’re sort of related to squid and octopi,” said Tiffany Adrain, collections manager at the University of Iowa Paleontology Repository.

The UI repository houses a portion of the extracted fossils.

“We’ve been able to work with the collections at the University of Iowa repository to make this possible,” said Tom Blume, president of the Black Hawk Gem and Mineral Society.

The fossils are estimated to be 370 million years old and are from the Devonian Period. Ancient bivalves — such as  clams — were also found, along with extinct trilobite and conulariids.

Black Hawk Gem and Mineral Society members are studying the findings from the foot-deep layer of fossilized remains.

“It’s an unusual number of cephalopods clustered in one layer,” said Jim Preslicka, a Black Hawk Gem and Mineral Society member who studies the specimens in the evenings at the repository.

Preslicka said specimens have already helped researchers make new discoveries and will continue to offer a unique insight into the ancient creatures.

“There are quite a few rare species not known to Iowa before discovered at this site,” Preslicka said.
Glen Rocca, a second vice president of the Black Hawk Gem and Mineral Society, said he and the research team think they’ve discovered several new species.

“There’s possibly three or four — maybe more — that have never been seen before,” Rocca said. “It’s exciting because we have new fossils. We have new fossils no one knew were here.”

The team has already discovered 13 known species.

Researchers from the group are also focusing on one specific species of cephalopods. It’s called Tornocerus iowaense and according to Adrain, there are only five documented specimens from this species in the world. The UI holds three of the five specimens — which were studied in the 1930s.

The recent discoveries add 109 new specimens, giving researchers a rare look into the average size and other characteristics of this species.

Already, the new specimens are proving useful in providing new information — the specimens collected from the quarries in Independence are twice the size of the original specimens studied at the UI in the 1930s — a major new discovery.

“The collections have encased the entire history of Iowa,” Adrain said.


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