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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.

Date: 4/1/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Dottie Stover and
Dave Meyer, professor of geology, concentrates his research on paleobiology and the study of ancient organisms in relation to their evolutionary history. Recently, Meyer coauthored A Sea Without Fish: Life in the Ordovician Sea of the Cincinnati Region. The book is a comprehensive look at the Ordovician period, released in January by Indiana University Press.

Dave Meyer.
Meyer's interest in paleoecology pushed him to look at the Ordovician period.

You recently published A Sea Without Fish. Tell us a little about the book and what you’ve found.

The Tri-state region of southwestern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana, is world famous as a rich source of fossils of marine animals that lived when a shallow sea covered most of North America during the Ordovician Period, about 450 million years ago.

There has been great interest in these fossils since the early 1800s, and many naturalists, geologists and paleontologists have come to this region to study the Ordovician fossils and rocks, and the region nurtured many native Cincinnatians who became amateur and professional paleontologists. Hundreds of papers have been published about these fossils and the local geology, but there has never been a comprehensive synthesis of the entire Ordovician fauna, the nature of the Ordovician environment and the evidence for our knowledge of this ancient time.  

Richard Davis (College of Mount St. Joseph) and I wanted to write a book that would provide this synthesis for readers with a general interest as well as those with some background in paleontology and geology. We wanted the reader to understand what kind of marine life populated this ancient sea, what the environment was like, and how these animals made their living. So a broad theme of our book is paleoecology, and the evidence from the fossils and rocks that enable us to reconstruct it.  Many who have grown up around here know that fossils are abundant in our local hillsides and take them for granted, not realizing that the region is uniquely endowed with fossil treasures that are rarely as common elsewhere across the country. Our book features many photographs of Cincinnatian fossils, including many rare or exceptionally well-preserved forms, in color and black and white, as well as maps and line drawings.

What interested you in the topic?

Much of the fascination of studying fossils is to understand fossils as once-living animals, how they interacted with other species and their environment to form an ecosystem. How did this marine ecosystem differ from what we find in present day seas? What was the food chain like; who was eating whom?

A Sea Without Fish.
The book is a comprehensive look at the Cincinnati strata during the Ordovician.

Why did you decide to focus on this topic over your other areas of research, such as coral-reef ecology?

Actually, my work on the Ordovician benefited a lot from my interest in living marine animals in coral reefs because we find many fossil ancestors of modern reef animals, like sponges, corals, mollusks, and sea stars and their relatives. The Cincinnatian fossils did not live in an ancient coral reef, although many of the same kinds of animals did build reefs in the Ordovician Period. In the book we discuss the difference between our local fossils and rocks and those forming reefs. We included our own color underwater photographs of living relatives of Cincinnatian fossils.

What is the significance of the Ordovician period in the study of Earth?

The Ordovician Period was a significant stage in the evolution of marine life in which many different animal groups worldwide developed hard shells and skeletons that were easily fossilized. We also find many kinds of tracks, tails and burrows in the local rocks that tell us that soft-bodied creatures were also becoming more diverse and abundant during the Ordovician. Thus the Ordovician is recognized as a time of great increase in the biodiversity of life in the world’s oceans (life on land was only barely getting started then).  

Our local fossils provide some of the clearest evidence of this early proliferation of marine life. Geologists use the term “Cincinnatian” for strata of this age all over North America. In the Ordovician, marine life began to look more like what we see in modern seas, but in the Cincinnatian sea, one major modern component was absent: fish—hence the title of our book.

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