Posts Tagged ‘Paleontology’

Predators In The Sand, Or…

Monday, September 5th, 2011

Thoughts On The Evolution And Natural History Of Scaphopods.

Why Here And Why Now?

This post is, obvously, the continuation of a series dealing with scaphopods and some  of the data I will be posting subsequently are also to be found on one or another of my website’s scaphopod pages.   However, these blog entries are not strictly duplicative; I have added a number of new data and I have  altered some of  the information to reflect my present thoughts.   Some of the ideas and data to be  presented here are somewhat iconoclastic, and contrary to what some authorities have proposed.  It is unlikely I will get the opportunity to publish these ideas in more formal, peer-reviewed, jounals, and as a result I thought this is an appropriate place to let the ideas see some glimmer of the light of day, albeit dimly and through some wet mud.  To the questions of “Why Here and Why Now?”  I think the reasonable answers are, “Because I think  this is an appropriate place and it is time.”  Or phrased another way, “Why Not?”

 One of Three Groups…

The scaphopods are the last of the classical molluscan classes to show up in the fossil record, with arguably the first unequivocal scaphopod being Rhytiodentalium kentuckyesnis Pojeta & Runnegar, 1979.  However, this unequivocality is not likely the case; the specimens of Rhytiodentalium are all significantly altered fossils, and from personal examination, it is impossible to tell exactly what they are.  Although some of them match the general shape of modern – and presumably – highly derived scaphopod shells, these “shells” appear to be comprised of small pelletized material.  It is unclear if these pellets are the result of significant or minor diagenesis.  In the first case, the shells could considered as scaphopods.  In the second, they would have to be something else, perhaps, some sort of worm tube.  I think the latter is much more likely than the former.

The term “armchair quarterback” has been coined to describe those individuals who after watching a football game at home on the “aptly-named” boob tube, dissect a quarterback’s performance and describe, a posteriori, what he should have done.   Of course, such a critique, if that’s what it may be called, is done without the experience of being under the tremendous pressure of the momnet on the field of play, without the sport’s equivalent of the “fog of war” clouding information input and, most importantly, it is done with the precision vision of hindsight.  Of course, in the armchair experience, errors made on the field become glaringly obvious.   One of the prime theories of scaphopod evolution is that scaphopods arose from an ancestor that either was in the extinct class, Rostrochonchia, or pehaps in its ancestral group, is the malacological equivalent of such airchair quarterbacking, however, with one glaring exception.  It is undoubtedly wrong, most likely as a result of being proposed by individuals who have had no experience examining or studying live scaphopods or, indeed, live animals of any sort..

There are a number of very serious problems with the Scaphopods from Rostroconchs derivation, not the least of which is that the scaphopod shell is univalved and tubular, while the rostroconch shell is bivalved of various non-cylindrical shapes.   Additioanally, the scaphopods are all predators or scavenger/predators; as a result, they must move; no predator on infauna waits for the prey to come to it.  Then, the scaphopod radula, the structure used to macerate, break, crush  or smash prey is the largest radula relative to the adult body size in all the mollusca.  On the scale of the organisms, it is a truly massive structure.   This massive radula is presumed to have been derived from an ancestor in the same group that is supposed to have given rise to the bivalves.  However, not only do the bivalves  lack the radua, but also any remnant of the head it is found in.  While the scaphopod head is reduced and kept within the shell, it is present, and has a relatively large brain, also a structure missing in the bivalves – and presumably their rostroconch ancestor.  The rostroconch shapes vary quite a bit, but one thing that is evident in all of them is that they are not streamlined and capable of easy movement through sediments.   Indeed, with the shapes typically found  in rostroconchs, it is quite likely, that like some oddly shaped infaunal bivalves today, they did not move at all as adults.  Scaphopods, on the other hand, are all mobile and many of them, given the appropriate stimulus, are capable of bursts of relatively rapid motion, after which they often stop, construct a feeding cavity and feed.  Given the sizes of the adult scaphopods, the  number of body lengths that they are able to move in any given amount of time, and the media that they move through, it is quite reasonable to consider many of them to be “high speed” predators.  Finally, recent molecular genetic work shows them to be grouped with the cephalopods, not the bivalves.

I think it is likely that one of the first branchings of the ancestral molluscan stock gave rise to a predatory organism that had a tendency to develop or elongate in a dorso-ventral direction.   In turn, this ancestor, over time, gave rise to three successful clades, eventually leading to the crown groups of the cephalopods, gastropods, and scaphopods.  All of these groups are all characterized by dorso-vental flexing in the visceral region, a well-developed radula, and elaborations of the cephalic tentacles.

Each of the three dorso-ventrally flexed groups shows particular adaptations and modifications for its primary habitat.  The cephalopods are highly successful predators in the pelagic enviroment.  Gastropods have radiated into virtually every possible niche except aerial flight, and are found in all terrestrial, fresh-water, and marine environments, although their ancestral habitat was the marine benthic epifaunal environment.  Scaphopods have become highly adapted for predation on organisms living in unconsolidated marine benthic sediments.

Cadulus tolmiei in situ, modified from Poon, 1987.

The above image shows Cadulus tolmiei feeding in sediment, cb= captacular bulb, dd= digestive diverticula, fc = foot cavity, g = gonad,  m= mantle,  pa = posterior aperture,  s = shell,


Pojeta Jr., J. et. al. 1972. Rostroconchia:  A New Class of Bivalved Mollusks. Science. 177: 264-267.

Poon, Perry A. 1987. The diet and feeding behavior of Cadulus tolmiei Dall, 1897 (Scaphopoda: Siphonodentalioida). The Nautilus: 101: 88-92.

Steiner, G. and H. Dreyer.  2003.  Molecular phylogeny of Scaphopoda (Mollusca) inferred from 18S rDNA sequences: support for a Scaphopoda–Cephalopoda clade.  Zoologica Scripta. 32:343-356.

More to come…

Until then,


More Scaphopod Information – Including Some Ancient Scaphopod Jewelry

Friday, August 26th, 2011

 Scaphopod Connections

Over the past few days, I have finished scanning my images of Native American scaphopod jewelry and decorated clothing, all of which were photographed in 1987 in the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.  Some of the Native American dentalium jewelry/clothing images that I have are REALLY impressive, not only for the wealth they contained, but also for the tremendous skill of the remarkable women who made them.  Somehow, I wish I could find something like the shawl in the image below in an old trunk in my garage, and take it to the appraisers on The Antiques Roadshow.  It would get the attention it really deserved.  Ah… well.  All I am likely to find in old trunks in my garage is old trash covered in old dust.

 A shawl, made by a seamstress and master craftswomen from one of the Plains Tribes, in the mid-to-late 19th century.

This is a shoulder wrap or some sort of vestment, I neglected to photograph both sides in 1987, when I took the image.  I would estimate that there may be close to a 1000 Antalis pretiosum shells in this item.

Not surprisingly considering their shapes and durability,  scaphopod shells were widely used in ornamentation elsewhere and elsewhen throughout history.   The following image was taken by Don Hitchcock in from the Dolní Věstonice Museum in the Czech Republic, which has some wonderful artifacts recoverd from an ice age mammoth hunter’s site.  


A reconstructed necklace made from fossilized Dentalium badense shell fragment artifacts recovered at the Dolní Věstonice site in the Czech Republic.  The artifacts at this site have been dated with Carbon-14 to about 29,000 years ago.  Photo: Don Hitchcock

In one of the more bizarre coincidences I have had recently, I found the above image and information with the assistance of Mr. Google and associates.  I hadn’t seen it prior to findinig on the web, but I knew that there should be ancient European, Asian or African dentalium work illustrated somewhere on the web, and charged ahead to find something I might use.  I found this image, and it fit the bill of what I wanted, and I went to track down some information about it, including where the Dolní Věstonice site (which, from reading the information at the site, I realized I must have read about it sometime ago, I recollected nothing at all about it ) is located. 

This Google Earth image shows where the Dolní Věstonice site is located.  The other site indicated, the Frydek-Mistek region, is  where my ancestors, at least back to before the mid-1700’s, lived. !!!  My great-great-grandfather was one of four brothers that migrated together from this area to the US (Texas) just after the Civil War.

Nobody knows, of course, what happened to the descendents of the people who made and used the scaphopod shell necklace, or even if they left descendents at all.   But I think it could be possible -stretching possibilities very thinly- if those descendents remained in that area, that maybe some of the genes of the person who made the scaphopod necklace may have decended to be in the genome – some 28,000 years later – that directed the growth of my scaphopod-studying body.

In closing this entry, I must thank Don Hitchcock for his gracious permission to use his fine image of the scaphopod necklace.  Don has an immense array of web information about the paleolithic period throughout the world, and I have linked to his site in my blogroll.  It is well worth a visit.

Until later,


Pre-Iridiana, A Found World

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Early in the last century Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Professor Challenger, a “scientist” who found bits and snatches of the world of dinosaurs still living, most famously, on plateaux in the Amazonian jungle. There he found living pterosaurs, dinosaurs,  and all manners of strange and wonderfully monstrous animals. Alas – maybe – the animals that Doyle wrote about vanished from the living world in the aftermath of an impact of a rather small asteroid with the Earth, some 65.5 million years ago. During the vast span of intervening years, the Earth has changed. Very dramatically!! The world of the dinosaurs really was not the world of man, but it has only been in the last couple of decades have we been truly able to realize how different these two worlds were from one another.

Until recently, except for the foolishness of the massive floods and perfect gardens found in some of the religious mythologies of the world, if people thought about what the world was like in the distant past, they visualized it pretty much as the world they saw around themselves.   As a scientific viewpoint developed in the nineteenth century, particularly within the basic science of geology, there were many acrimonious debates between those individuals who contended that all changes were gradual and based on the same or similar processes as were seen in action today, the uniformitarianists, and the catastrophists, who contended that many calamitous changes, mostly floods of a truly biblical nature, radically altered and changed both the landscape and the life on it. By the beginning of the 20th century, the catastrophists were pretty much considered to be all wet, and uniformitarianism carried the day, the week, the month, the year, the decade, the generation… but not quite the century.

By the beginning of the 21st century, thanks to some brilliant insight, and a lot of hard work, it had become clear that although the world’s environments had stayed rather consistent for long periods, there have been times of drastic change, after which literally everything, from climate to biota, changed. For most folks, the most notable of those drastic changes was the one that ended the domination of the world’s bioata by the larger non-avian dinosaurs, the Cretaceous epoch, about 65.5 million years ago. Although, by far and away, not the largest of these mass extinction events,  the devestating changes triggered by the impact of a small asteroid off shore of the northern presumptive Yucatan peninsula were damaging enough;  resulting in wholesale changes in the Earth’s biota, virtually every large terrestrial animal species went extinct, along with many marine species.  Subsequent changes in the Earth’s climate resulted in today’s world; a much different globe than that the larger dinosaurs dominated.

Although this event, the Cretaceous/Tertiary Mass Extinction, closed the door on the non-avian dinosaurs, it allowed mammals, more-or-less by default, to adaptively radiate and come to dominate the world.  Nonetheless, the extinction event, while it changed the biota, did not wipe away the evidence of the world that had existed.  That world holds, for many people, particularly evolutionarily oriented biologists, a fascination due the awesomely different biosphere that was present.  

About a month ago, I received as a gift, the book titled, The Cretaceous World, by Peter Skeleton and his coauthors. Over the last few weeks I have been enjoying learning about that long gone world. Very well-written, and exceptionally well-illustrated, the book is designed as a text, but unlike many texts, this one is as alive as the inhabitants of the world it describes are not. Pulling together geological, oceanographic, and biological data, much of it gathered in the last few years, the authors create a world that is awesome in its differences from the present one. From discussing in detail forests at the latitude of Pt. Barrow, Alaska, to describing ferocious storms in the central Tethys seaway, along with the immense deserts of the equatorial latitudes, the authors take the reader on a memorable mental tour of a long-lost world.

I have so enjoyed this book that I want to tell people about it.  In a way, it is the most wonderful type of science fiction, although I am certain the authors would not appreciate that description.  However, they describe in detail a world that changed over the 80 million year history of the Cretaceous, a world based on very hard, and very good science, and have assisted the reader to clothe this world with their mental images.  We really will never know what the Cretaceous world looked like, nor will we ever find out much about the vast majority of the animals that lived there (because they were invertebrates and didn’t fossilize), but we have a good basis for knowing the world itself.  So, what we see in our mind’s eye may be “science fictional,” but it is the hardest of science fiction, that based on and consistent with all the facts.  This world would not be the benign, kind and friendly world of  Jurassic Park.  Humans in the Cretaceous would find the climate oppressive, the flora unfamiliar, the oceans utterly strange, and full of dangerous reptilian predators, although those are not discussed in the book.  And, in general, the megafauna positively frightening and exceedingly dangerous; Cretaceous Park would be a great place for a well-prepared scientist to visit, but you really wouldn’t want to live there. 

The animal life, however interesting, is not the center of the discussion.  While putting the story together for their students, the authors have really given the rest of us a rare glimpse of an alien World, from a geologist’s perspective.   We become aware of the almost familiar orientation of the continents,  but the huge oceanic areas render the land masses of those continents much smaller than what is experienced today.  While the continents are tectonically moving, they haven’t – yet – encountered each other in the massive collisions that have characterized the last 50 million years.  There are not a lot of impressive mountains.  Lots of hills, to be sure, but nothing like the Himalayan plateau, and the Alps are in the future as well.   Coral reefs are the dream of the cnidarians’ future, but – Wow!, this is the world of the Clamrades!  There are huge expances of clam beds comprised of, in many cases, huge clams.  What most geologists don’t really seem to flash on, the author’s of this tome missed it as well, is the amount of biomass that must have existed planktonically in the shallow seas.  These seas were not the clear blue seas of today’s coral reefs, they were gorpy, green, and thick with life.  The huge carbonate “platforms” of the Cretaceous had to feed on something, and clams have a lot higher metabolic rate than do corals. 

And the temperatures!  Baby, it’s hot out there!!!  Diving in the shallow equatorial seas would kill a scuba diver.  There would be no way to dump the body’s excess heat, and any exertion at all would be lethal.  Rather like diving in the hottest extremes of the Persian Gulf today, one could not spend a lot of time in those oceans.  One probably wouldn’t want to, though, as humans could have been considered to a good snack for some of the mosasaurs and other swimming arrays of teeth; LARGE swimming arrays of teeth, that dominated those seas. 

The  Cretaceous world that the authors describe in detail, really for the first time, is in effect, like an extrasolar world, only one that is 65.5 million light years away in space and time.  This world would be a great star of documentaries, although you couldn’t pay me enough to go film the action; nonetheless, I would love to see it.

Enjoy the book and learn about a wholly new place, the Olde Earth.

Until later,