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Scientists Bring New Life to an Ancient Ocean — Covering Cincinnati and the Tristate

David Meyer and Richard Davis bring 'A Sea Without Fish: Life in the Ordovician Sea of the Cincinnati Region' to Joseph-Beth Booksellers for a book signing on Sunday, April 26, at 1 p.m.

Date: 4/20/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover, photojournalist

UC ingot   Authors Discuss and Sign Book About World-Renowned Cincinnatian Fossils

Few people living in Cincinnati fail to notice the ever-present fossils: brachiopods in the backyard or crinoids crowding the doorway in the limestone blocks of our homes. But did you know that few people outside the Cincinnati Tristate area enjoy such a rich abundance of fossils in their everyday surroundings?

David Meyer coaching students.
David Meyer coaches students preparing presentations for the Geological Society of America conference.

Now thanks to David Meyer of the University of Cincinnati and Richard Davis of the College of Mt. St. Joseph, “everyday” backyard finds like brachiopods, crinoids and trilobites can be understood by everyday people and not just professional paleontologists.

With the publication of "A Sea Without Fish: Life in the Ordovician Sea of the Cincinnati Region," Meyer and Davis bring the world of 450 million years ago to life. Now they will be bringing their book to the Joseph-Beth Booksellers for a book signing on Sunday, April 26, at 1 p.m.

What: Book signing, "A Sea Without Fish: Life in the Ordovician Sea of the Cincinnati Region"
When: Sunday, April 26, at 1 p.m.
Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion, Norwood
Who: David Meyer, UC professor of geology, and Richard Davis, Mt. St. Joseph professor of geology and biology

(One chapter of A Sea Without Fish was written by UC Geology Department alumnus Steven Holland, now a professor of geology at the University of Georgia in Athens, but he will not be present for the signing.)

In writing the book, the authors attempted to make it valuable to both the amateur or youthful fossil hunter as well as the professional paleontologist. A tall order, but they were clearly up to the challenge. As the authors state in the book, “The book is not intended as a textbook of geology or paleontology, but we present sufficient background information on each fossil group and the geological context for readers unfamiliar with fossils and geology. We explain what kind of animal each fossil represents and how it lived and interacted with other organisms….”

“We try to explain things to help the person who is perhaps unfamiliar with the technical aspects of paleontology become acquainted with its terms,” Meyer says. “The book has an extensive glossary, for example, and many illustrations.” The illustrations are both black and white and in color, including the authors’ own underwater photos of living relatives of local fossils, and are composed of both drawn as well as photographic art.

Dave Meyer with a trilobite fossil.
Trilobites, like this one, had to shed their exoskeleton, which Meyer and Davis described as 'an especially trying time for the trilobite.'

The tone of the writing is that of two dedicated teachers who love to help people learn. Here’s just one example of the treasures a reader will find within its covers:

“Science is replete with technical terms that do not appear commonly in non-scientific contexts. To make matters worse, scientists often use common, everyday terms in ways that are not their common, everyday usages…. College professors, like us, sometimes are accused of stating the obvious.”

So just what is the “Cincinnatian”? Local geologists from the 18th century and geologists from around the world since the 19th century (such as British geologist Charles Lyell in 1842) have studied the fossils and rocks. Ordovician rock layers throughout North America of this type and age are referred to universally as "Cincinnatian." During the Ordovician period, between 450 and 420 million years ago, southwestern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana were covered with an aquamarine ocean, perhaps “like the waters over the present-day shallow Great Bahama Bank,” as the book describes. So what’s so great about it?

“The vicinity of Cincinnati… is among the most fossil-rich regions in North America, if not the entire world,” the book states. “The profusion of fossils in the local limestone and shale attracted many pioneering geologists and paleontologists of the nineteenth century, and much fundamental work in American paleontology and stratigraphy was accomplished here. Hundreds of fossil species were first discovered and named from these rocks.”

So part of what makes the Cincinnatian extraordinary is the abundance of fossils in this area. However, there is another aspect to it as well: immediately following the Ordovician Radiation (a term used to describe the rich diversity of life in this time period), was a period of global mass extinction in the Silurian Period. So the physical region of Cincinnati and the time of deposition of the Cincinnatian were both special. But there’s still more.

“You can’t discuss what is so great about the Cincinnatian without touching on what’s so great about Cincinnati, also,” says Meyer. “This book is testimony to that. Besides the collaboration between Richard and me, we also had input and suggestions from our colleagues at the Cincinnati Museum Center and Miami University, for example, as well as the Dry Dredgers, a very active local group of both amateur fossil hounds and professional paleontologists. And the cover art of the book itself is an original ‘seascape’ of the Cincinnatian sea by Cincinnati artist John Agnew.”

In his humility, Meyer is not pointing out that one of the other things that makes Cincinnati so great for paleontology: the University of Cincinnati’s graduate paleontology program is ranked seventh in the nation by U.S. News & World report.

Not necessarily because of the ranking, but as manifested by that ranking, UC’s paleontologists are held in such high regard that they were also requested by the Paleontological Society to host the North American Paleontological Convention 2009 this summer, in the “Darwin Year.”

“I am also pleased that we worked with a regional press,” says Meyer. The book was published by Indiana University Press in January 2009, produced by a very local collaboration with very global appeal.

So what’s next? Oprah?

“Who knows where this may lead?” Meyer says with a chuckle.

More About David Meyer

Mark Perzel Interviews David Meyer for WVXU's "Cincinnati Edition"

Professor Publishes Book on Geology of Cincinnati
Geology professor Dave Meyer takes a look at local fossil records for clues on ancient marine life in the region.

About Paleontology at the University of Cincinnati
It's a 'Threepeat' for UC's Paleontology Program
UC’s paleontology program, within the Department of Geology of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, continues to be recognized as one of the nation's best.

What Makes a Fossil?
It is the rare plant or animal that becomes a fossil, in the form of a mineralized Doppelganger of its former self. To then become part of the published fossil record is an even rarer occasion in that someone had to find that fossil and document it in writing somewhere.

Kate Bulinski — A Great Find
A diamond in the rough might be an appropriate description for a geologist. Diamond is the hardest naturally occurring substance, created by intense pressure. But Kate Bulinski is not rough. And she’s not a mineralogist; she’s a paleontologist.

Paleontologists Honor UC’s Arnie Miller for Significant Work
The Paleontological Society has awarded UC scientist Arnie Miller with the prestigious Centennial Fellow title in recognition of his contributions to the field of paleontology.

More About the North American Paleontological Convention 2009 (NAPC)
The 9th North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) will be held on the campus of the University of Cincinnati, June 21-26, 2009. The centrally located Cincinnati region is world renowned for its Upper Ordovician fossils and strata, and has a long-established heritage of paleontological research and teaching.