North and west of Mason City, Iowa, there is a quarry belonging to the LeHigh Cement Company. It's huge. In a "what I did on my summer vacation" moment, ISU Geologist and Paleontologist James "Jed" Day said he found something very cool there.
Day was on a hunt for the presence of rare earth minerals. China has a near monopoly on rare earths, critical for the electronics industry and finding them in parts of the world more accessible to U.S. companies would be highly desirable, said Day. That was not what he found. He was looking through some of the blasted rock and thought to himself, hello! Those shouldn't be here.
"We made a couple of discoveries of new tropical marine animals we had never encountered before," said Day.
The particular group of animals Day specializes in are called brachiopods. They are still alive in modern oceans, mainly in the polar regions.
“They were much more abundant 360-370 million years ago on ancient tropical sea floors," said Day.
Brachiopods are bivalve invertebrates that have tentacle feeding organs. Their shells hinge vertically at the back instead of horizontally on the left and right like clams, oysters, and scallops.
Hundreds of millions of years ago the area that would become northern Iowa was part of a large continent in the southern hemisphere. Day said the climate would have been like living in the Florida Keys today.
Day said he had done a lot of work in the northern territories of Canada which has a lot of fossils of similar species to the ones he found in the quarry.
"This was a really interesting and important discovery in terms of how these animals migrated in these ancient tropical shallow seaways," said Day. "Species as they evolve disperse in marine environments by riding currents as larvae and this indicates these animals were clearly capable of long-range migration in these shallow oceans and they did it in a relatively short period of time.”
He said the ones he found in the genus Radiatrypa are quite different from any known species he has seen from that group in the western north America from Nevada up to arctic Canada. Another fossil found, he said, is very similar to a known species from the Hay River area in western Alberta.
In 35 years of looking at these kinds of rocks, Day said he had never seen a fossil quite like this one. There are related species in rocks that are several million years younger. He said the discovery pushes back the timing of the brachiopod migration.
One of the percs of discovering a new species is you get to name it. Day said he will name it after the quarry foreman whom day has known for a quarter century.
“His name is Foss. So, it will be Radiatrypa Fossi,” said Day.
Day is also a keen Star Wars fan. You aren't allowed to name a species after yourself. But if you could, Day said, given his nickname, it would be Radiatrypa Jedi.
Day said the find suggests further lines of inquiry, because if there is one new species, there might be more in that quarry. He said he wants to go back and carefully document what else is there. Day is preparing an article on the fossils for the Journal of Paleontology.
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