With the publication of “A Sea Without Fish,” in February, there are now two paleontological books that have my work on the cover. The first was “The Dinosauria,” an academic tome not designed for general consumption, but rather as a textbook for serious students of dinosaurs. The cover image was from a mural of Deinonycus and Tenontosaurs that I did years ago for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science.
“A Sea Without Fish” gave me the excuse I was looking for to begin my project of painting each of the geologic periods represented in Ohio rocks. Our fossils here range from the Ordovician to the Permian, so there is a rich tapestry of life available to me. All I need are more sugar daddies to fund the project. You know where to find me. I enjoyed working on the Ordovician project, mostly because I got to hang out with some local paleontologists and talk about fossils. Richard Davis was my invertebrate paleo prof in college. He isn’t spineless as far as I know, but was one of the best teachers I ever had. Dave Meyer is an expert on echinoderms, especially crinoids, which I love.
My interest in fossils goes back to my childhood. Growing up in Dayton, which also has extensive Ordovician deposits, it was hard not to find fossils. While I might have preferred dinosaur bones as a 6 year old, the fossils we had were far older, by at least 230 million years. My father took us on fossil hunting expeditions to the road cuts for the new interstate highways. Brachiopods, horn corals, trilobites and cephalopods decorated the mantle, and the Dayton Museum of Natural history had a great Ordovician diorama, “Dayton Under The Sea,” which fascinated me. My first science fair project was an Ordovician “diorama” made with clay models of trilobites, cephalopods, and horn corals. Plastic wrap over the top of the cardboard box was supposed to represent water. I think my paleo art has advanced some since then.
My daughter’s comment about my painting, referring to the Cephalopod attacking an Isotelus trilobite: “Just like a boy; you put two animals together and you have to make them fight.”
The fossils in my backyard seem both alien and familiar. The fossil animals belong to phyla still present in today’s oceans, but the families and species are much different. Don a mask and snorkel in the Ordovician sea, and it would seem familiar at first, and then weirdly different. Instead of fish, there are groups of cephalopods. Instead of crabs, lobsters or shrimp, there are trilobites and eurypterids. Stemmed crinoids are common here, but absent in the shallows of modern seas. There are bryozoans instead of corals.
Each of the geologic periods from the Cambrian on is separated by an extinction event. So I have to wonder what will come after the Great Extinction we are living through right now. Species are going extinct at a faster rate than at the end of the Cretaceous. Not only are species disappearing, but there is a great geographical mixing of species happening as well. Plants and animals are being moved around the planet by humans so fast, it’s as if the world has become a giant land mass again. Our effect on the future evolution of life on this planet is profound, and could unfold in entirely unpredictable ways. I’ll leave it to the sci-fi writers to speculate about what will come next.