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Fossil named after Pomona College professor

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

Three years after Pomona College geology professor Robert Gaines discovered a 500-million-year-old fossilized species during an expedition to the Burgess Shale, the once-untitled discovery was recently and honorably named after the geologist in a paper published on September 8.

“Obviously, you can’t name a fossil after yourself, that’s against the [International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature’s] rules. But my closest collaborator and one of his graduate students who wrote the [research] paper were kind enough to name it in my honor,” professor Gaines explained last Friday.

The story begins in 2008, when Gaines received an invitation from a colleague who worked at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. The museum was planning fieldwork in the Burgess Shale, an area high in the Canadian Rocky Mountains known for its preservation and deposit of jellyfish and worm fossils. “Things that are not supposed to make fossils,” Gaines explained.

While the area had been known to geologists and paleontologists for a century, fieldwork had not been undertaken in the Burgess Shale for about a decade. After centuries of excavating near the main deposit of the Burgess Shale, more than 200,000 fossils were found.

“So, we decided … instead of focusing on that one area, we wanted to really work the area around,” Gaines said. In 2012, on another expedition to the Burgess Shale, he and the other paleontologists “hit it big in a different national park, about 40 kilometers away.”

“We found a deposit of fossils in the same rock formation but in a different area … somewhere between a quarter and a third were just totally new species,” he explained.

While Gaines and his crew made plentiful discoveries, it was not as if they just stumbled upon greatness. Navigating the Burgess Shale during their various expeditions was complex. Essentially the recon scout of the group, Gaines — one of five paleontologists in the group — plotted and guided the group through the jagged, rocky mountain terrain on each trip to reach a new fossil-rich deposit. During each expedition, Gaines had to picture what the dry, arid area of today looked like eons ago, when all land was still under water.

“We’re trying to, first of all, get a handle on how big the area is, where the fossils are coming from and what were the prospects. That’s, to some extent, just controlled by where the Strata are sticking out and whether they’re buried under a rockfall or buried under a glacier or under trees and forests. You kind of follow the bands.

“[I was] just trying to understand how the ocean floor was distributed across these mountainsides and moving from spot to spot, that’s where we find the places where there’s more fossils coming out,” he said. “We have maybe 15 different locations within this whole new field that we found in 2012.”

In 2014, Gaines and his colleague began searching one of the areas in Kootenay National Park. In 2018, he returned with some of his geology students, a decade after his original invitation to the Burgess Shale and made his signature finding.

Using helicopters, jackhammers, generators and giant metal pliers, Gaines, his students and a group of volunteers got to work prying open a mountainside rock in search of fossil specimens. As soon as they cracked the rock open, Gaines saw the preserved fossil that would eventually share his name, titanokorys gainesi. He said he knew right then that he and his crew had made a brand-new discovery.

Gaines said, “For me, it tells us about our own ancestry. In the same layers where this fossil that came to be named after me was found, there are our own ancestors of all the vertebrates, And so … It really tells us about the relatedness of animal life and the fundamental structure of our family tree, and I think that part of it is historic, but I think that part of it is important.”

The prehistoric fossil Gaines uncovered is an ancestor to arthropods including crustaceans and insects. Its name translates from Latin to “Gaines’s titanium helmet,” with titanokorys describing the creature’s giant, armor-like helmet which protected it.

“These [helmets] would have been made of something like a roach’s buggy skeleton, it’s organic material. It probably would have … had giant raptorial claws,” he said. The ancient creature also had large, compound eyes just protruding from underneath its helmet area with numerous flaps underneath to help it move, according to three-dimensional renderings later produced by the Royal Ontario Museum.

The species is categorized also as a radiodont as it had a mouth that looked like a pineapple ring with teeth “that were kind of poking towards the inside,” according to Gaines.

“These things would come and swoop and grab things off of the seafloor or out of the water and shoved them in this mouth of spiky teeth that kind of acted like Chinese finger cuffs,” he said.

The fossil was about two feet in length, he said, which could have made it at the time one of the largest predators.

The radiodont lived during earth’s Cambrian Period, when all life was still submerged and had yet to breach the surface. This particular era holds a special place in Gaines’s heart since his first fossil — given to him by his mother — was actually a trilobite from the same era some 540 million years ago.

“It immediately kind of turned me off of dinosaurs and got me thinking really about deeper time. I’m really interested in places in the world that have an extraordinary fossil record of this event,” he said.

Gaines said it took a while before the reality fully sank in that his name will forever go down in history. And there’s a possibility he will end up in a future biology book discussing the radiodont.

“When I was a kid and learning, looking at fossil names, I noticed that a lot of them are named after people. And as you get into … science in a serious way, you understand that these are people that have made important contributions,” Gaines said.

The fossil itself remains in Toronto, Canada at the Royal Ontario Museum, and will likely make an appearance in an exhibit about early prehistoric life planned for this winter.

To read the published paper written by Jean-Bernard Caron and Joseph Moysiuk, visit www.royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rsos.210664.

Gaines said that he hopes to return to Burgess Shale next summer, in search of more fossils.

“The thrill of finding something completely brand new that just really never gets old. That is the most exciting part,” he said.

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