Guest Blog: Paleozoic Treasures at the Virginia Museum of Natural History

Today’s Guest Blog Post is by Bill Schmachtenberg, a VMNH Research Associate. In this blog, Bill shares his findings and experiences since working with me in the Invertebrate Paleontology Collection this summer.


I am Bill Schmachtenberg, a research associate at VMNH. My interests include Cretaceous bivalves and Paleozoic invertebrates. I teach high school Earth Science at Franklin County High School and geology and paleontology at Ferrum College in Southwest Virginia. I am also an app developer, and I am interested in creating an app that identifies a fossil invertebrate from only a picture and a few measurements. If that sounds far fetched, it is not. I have a prototype of such an app on my website at: Just click on the FREE Fossil App link at the top to try it.

In 2004, Virginia Tech donated a large collection of Paleozoic invertebrates to VMNH, and museum staff loaded it into metal drawers in Room 202. The problem was that the collection was not organized, and I wondered what treasures might be in those trays. During July of 2015, with the help of Paleontology Technician Christina Byrd, the collection was organized stratigraphically and/or taxonomically. The most exciting find for me in the collection was Olenellus trilobites that were the largest I have seen. These trilobites are 545 million years old.


Olenellus trilobite cephalon (head) from the Rome Formation near Roanoke, Virginia.

The Cambrian trays also included Archaeocyathids, which have been identified as fossil sponges, and an unusual cone-shaped fossil called Saltella, which resembles a horn (Rugosa) coral or fossil jellyfish (Conulariid). Some workers have placed Saltella in their own phylum!

For thirty years, the geologic age of the Knox Dolomite exposed near Salem, Virginia has been debated. I have studied that white rock formation with students for some time, but have not found a single fossil in that unit. To my surprise, I found Orospira, a simple snail (gastropod) in the collection from the Knox Dolomite.

Knox fossil

Orospira snail from the Knox Dolomite.

This innocently looking gastropod provided the geologic age of this rock unit. This snail is an index fossil from the Early Ordovician, which finally provides evidence of the age of the Knox Dolomite.

Then there was a tray of fossils that contained these spherical fossils:

stone potato

Echinosphaerites fossils are cystoids and related to modern day starfish.

Although I had never seen these fossils before, I had heard reports of “stone potatoes” from Sweden. In fact, in Sweden they are common along bedding planes in rocks from the Ordovician. These fossil in the Virginia Tech collections came from the BenBolt Formation, which is Late Ordovician in age. These unusual fossils thus provide a way to correlate between Laurentia and Baltica.

The high school resumes classes in a few weeks, but I plan to return to the Paleozoic collections on the weekend. There are phacopid trilobite samples from Early and Middle Devonian rocks that can be used for evolutionary studies. There are also stratigraphic and taxonomic samples of extinct strophomenid brachiopods that can be useful in taxonomic, ecologic, and evolutionary studies. To be honest, some of the samples lacked locality and formation information, and it was challenging to establish the geologic age of the fossils. Index fossils in the samples helped with establishing the age, but there are still specimens that need further study before they can be put in the correct geologic order. But the majority of the collection has been organized and is ready for future research by students, teachers, and other paleontologists. It was time well spent this Summer.

This entry was posted in From the Collections Room, Invertebrate Paleontology, Science, education, and philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Guest Blog: Paleozoic Treasures at the Virginia Museum of Natural History

  1. Wow! A fossil app?! Good timing: I have donated some stromatolite samples from the Elwood or Conococheague formations near Blacksburg, VA and have found some odd looking samples I wonder might be thrombolites or leiolites (hopefully not breccias!). Cool stuff. PS I hope the VMNH is willing to take my whole cabbage-head stromatolites too when its time for my dirt nap!

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