The Third WABO Expedition

blogpost by Emanuela Di Martino & Mali H. Ramsfjell

Visit our lab at the Natural History Museum in Tøyen, you will be struck by the number of boxes populating the shelves of our office. Opening a box is like opening a window into the past 2.5 million years of bryozoan diversity in the Wanganui Basin, on New Zealand’s North Island. Our paleontological ‘treasures’ in boxes are the result of two previous WABO (Wanganui Bryozoan project in Oslo) expeditions undertaken in 2014 and 2017. After three years of curation and specimen-based research, it was time to hunt fossil bryozoans again in Hobbit country.

The 2020 WABO team was led by Kjetil L. Voje and consisted of a European party (us from Oslo, and Paul D. Taylor from London) and a kiwi-squad (Seabourne Rust, Dennis P. Gordon, and Diane Yanakopulos).

The WABO III Team. From left to right: Dennis, Seabourne, Diane, Emanuela, Paul, Mali and Kjetil

Our first port was Christchurch and our purposes, manifold. Jetlag recovery, a Canterbury Museum visit (for their lovely bryozoans of course), the Australarwood meeting, topped by a visit to Miocene limestone quarries that Paul and Dennis remembered to be extremely rich in Celleporaria and other bryozoans.

CANTERBURY MUSEUM. Paul Scofield was our host and Uttley’s material was the cream on top of a great collection of both fossil and extant bryozoans. As Microporella fanatics, to find the type specimen of M. discors, a species living today in New Zealand waters but also common in our fossil samples, made our day!

One of the drawers full of bryozoans in the collection of the Canterbury Museum

AUSTRALARWOOD. The 9th edition of this meeting took place at the University of Canterbury with 13 attendees who, except us, were all from Australia and New Zealand. Everyone talked about bryozoans (of course)….lovely!

9th Australarwood attendees outside the Canterbury Museum

WHITEROCK QUARRY. The day-visit to the early Miocene Whiterock Quarry at Loburn in the Waipara Valley was  exploratory. We hoped that visiting these ‘older’ localities would yield fruitful material for some future studies we are planning. Unfortunately, those large Celleporaria colonies richly encrusted by Microporella that Paul and Dennis collected many years ago were no longer exposed. We could not hide our disappointment but as paleontologists we know that mining sites are a ‘dynamic environment’.

Dennis and Emanuela wondering where all the Celleporaria went!

WABO III. With the team fully assembled in Wellington, we headed towards Wanganui, our basecamp for a week of fossil hunting. Wanganui cliffs are heaven! And the extensive shellbeds great for some bryozoan science (check out our papers!).

Tainui Shellbed at Castlecliff Beach

As before, we sampled like crazy, but our sampling strategy was slightly different from WABO I and II. We focused on some key-taxa, namely Steginoporella and Microporella, in order to boost our sample sizes to investigate detailed evolution of these very successful genera. We were not disappointed. Kjetil and Dennis even found a new species of Steginoporella in the Tanui Shellbed (0.4 million years)!

Magnificent Steginoporella bryolith, Nukumaru Brown Sand, Waiinu Beach

We also found  the first fertile colony of Microporella rusti named after our beloved local guide, Seabourne. We thought we would never find ovicells after looking at hundreds of colonies when we described this species (paper). And they cannot be overlooked, they are huge! We were elated! Virgin birth mystery solved!

Scanning Electron Micrograph of Microporella rusti with big ovicells
Scanning Electron Micrograph of Microporella rusti with big ovicells

One week of wind, sun and sand went pretty fast. In addition to tons of bryozoans, highlights included stunning views, bumpy off-road tracks, four-wheel driving along the beach, mud pits, delicious strawberry ice-creams, long evenings wrapping thousands of fossils topped with Paul’s artfully made G&Ts!

We shipped two jumbo boxes full of kiwi bryozoans back to Oslo just before the previous world order went awry. Arriving in Europe, we were forced to quarantine followed by social distancing thanks to Covid-19. Our fossils are in the lab, but we are not. Hang in there bryozoans, we will soon be home to unwrap you and unravel your mysteries!

The last supper: the WABO III team in all its glory!

Bryozoan Hunt in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

blogpost by Lee Hsiang Liow

Field paleontology is hard. Really hard. Literally. I spent much of my career as a shielded desk- and library-bound paleobiologist. In the last three years, however, I daringly put a serious field component into my research. This is in part because I was shown one of the most bryozoan-rich sedimentological sequences in the world when I was introduced to bryozoology, namely the Wanganui basin Pleistocene outcrops. Wanganui’s beautiful cliffs oozes bryozoans and their competitive interactions in endless volume. But Wanganui only presents about 2.3 million years of evolutionary history for its bryozoans.

And I am greedy. 2.3 million years are not enough, neither is stunning Wanganui. Having heard about limestones and shellbeds in Hawkes Bay of New Zealand that may offer a deeper view into the evolutionary history of New Zealand bryozoans, I summoned the help of GNS geologists (James Crampton, Alan Beu, Kyle Brand and Tom Womack) and my bryozoology colleagues (Dennis Gordon and his Ph.D student Carolann Schack) from NIWA, Wellington, to venture into the Pleistocene and Pliocene of Hawkes Bay. I was to figure out, in a week, if Hawkes Bay was an area that we could mine for fossil bryozoans in order to study their morphology, life history and evolution.

Pleistocene marine outcrops in Hawkes Bay. Mostly limestone consisting of molluscs.

Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. It is famous for its wines, but it is also a mind-boggling spread of farmland and rural areas that also offers outcrops on dangerously windy, narrow roads, with frightening names such as “Devil’s Elbow” and immense lime quarries. The hard and cemented limestones were nothing like those in Wanganui and outcrop after outcrop only yielded “melted” bryozoans, “upside-down” bryozoans, cemented bryozoans or bryozoan traces and etchings. In other words, they were there, but they cannot be used for my purposes. There were also live-demonstrations that “detection probability” is a really dirty term in paleontology. I took this photo of Heteropora neozelanica on a fallen block in the field to document the new record of this bryozoan in the Tangoio Limestone (1.8 million years old).

Spot the inside down “Y” shaped erect colony of Heteropora neozelanica (about 1 cm in length) in the bottom right of this photo, then pick out the rest of the bryozoans that we did not see in the field.

Six pairs of eyes, three of them belonging to bryozoologists, and three to paleontologists who were looking for bryozoans, looked at this rock. We all saw this specimen of H. neozelanica when Dennis Gordon pointed it out, but not one of us saw the 5-6 other bryozoans that are also on the outcrop. Shocking? Not. That’s the rarely directly modelled “detection probability” in paleontology for you.

Hardhats, not wine. I was not in Hawkes Bay for their wine but it turned out I was there, unexpectedly, for the hardhat. Quarries are often a haven for paleontologists hunting for small fossils because of their exposing and breaking up of sediments and subsequent natural weathering and erosion.

From left to right: Victoria University of Wellington graduate student Carolann Schack, NIWA scientist Dennis Gordon, and Robert Webster at his Havelock North Lime Quarry.

From left to right: Clifford Topp of Hatuma Lime Company Ltd, Dennis Gordon and Lee Hsiang Liow (with a fossil in hand).

Quarry directors Clifford Topp and Robert Webster kindly allowed Dennis, Carolann and me to come onsite to pick through material. They also allowed us to tell them about the intriguing marine creatures, many species of are not only much older than our own species but also continue to be alive in the seas of New Zealand and further afield today, such as Steginoporella magnifica and Odontionella cyclops. It was truly awe-inspiring to realize that the massive quarries we drove through are made of encrusting bryozoans and their substrates (special apologies to malacologists) and tons of erect, habitat-forming bryozoans.

Three million year old bryozoan colonies encrusting an equally old shell fragment (about 2 cm across), preserving their competition for space on a small substrate.

Science is about asking questions and learning. I have emerged from a whirl wind tour of Hawkes Bay with new knowledge that can only be gained by being in the field. I have so many new questions. How many bryozoans alive in New Zealand today were also alive in the Pliocene of New Zealand (I saw a few with my own eyes, but how many?) Why are they alive and not the others? Is it their life-history? Is it bad luck? How much does a species evolve and does that evolution really aid in evolutionary success? Slowly, but surely, we will inch towards revealing more about the secret lives of bryozoans.

What was Haeckel smoking when he drew these ectoprocts?

Hello world.

This is our very first blog.

Communication and visualization go hand-in-hand with science.

BLEED icon
by cubito for BLEED

In our efforts to design our logo in collaboration with cubito, we studied stylized representations of bryozoans. One of the most well-known polymath among biologists is Ernst Haeckel who was also an amazing artist. Bryozoans are one of the most quietly charismatic phyla the world has seen and Haeckel did not miss out on the opportunity to illustrate these ectoprocts (aka bryozoans). Curiosity is a prominent trait among us at BLEED, and we wondered if the bryozoans he illustrated are assignable to “real” bryozoans, and so turned to Paul D. Taylor, our collaborator at the Natural History Museum in London, one of the gurus of bryozoan systematics.

And Paul’s reply? “I wonder what he was smoking when he did this.” Bryozoa-enthusiasts out there, could you fill in the blanks? Slide1