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The Mystery Behind The Devil’s Corkscrews: What Made These Ancient Fossils?

Devil’s Corkscrew fossils nebraska

The Puzzling Spirals of Nebraska: A Century-Old Fossil Mystery

In the northwestern badlands of Nebraska and parts of Wyoming, an unusual set of fossils have puzzled scientists for over a century. These strange, tall, spiral structures known as Devil’s Corkscrews primarily occur in the 20-23 million-year-old Harrison Formation, dating back to the Miocene epoch. First discovered by paleontologist Erwin H. Barbour, these fossils sparked a scientific debate that lasted for decades.

The Devil’s Corkscrews Debate: Plant Roots or Rodent Burrows?

Barbour initially believed that the Devil’s Corkscrews were remnants of plant root systems, but his interpretation was challenged by other notable paleontologists. Edward Drinker Cope and Theodor Fuchs, for example, both proposed that the structures were actually burrows of large Miocene rodents, such as pocket gophers. Barbour, however, stubbornly defended his hypothesis and refuted their claims.

Ancient Beavers and the Burrow Hypothesis

Olaf Peterson, another paleontologist, supported Cope’s reinterpretation after discovering that Devil’s Corkscrews often contained the skeletons of an ancient beaver called Palaeocastor. This evidence, along with strange grooves found on the burrows’ infillings, led many researchers to accept the structures as fossilized rodent burrows.

Daemonelix (fossil beaver burrows) (Harrison Formation, Middle Miocene; Sioux County, Nebraska, USA) 3
credit: James St. John/Flickr

A Groundbreaking Investigation: Larry Martin and Deb Bennett’s In-Depth Study

In the early 1970s, Larry Martin, an expert on fossil mammals at the University of Kansas, and his student Deb Bennett embarked on a comprehensive study of the Devil’s Corkscrews. Their extensive fieldwork involved visiting the badlands of Nebraska and Wyoming to examine the fossils in situ. In the laboratory, they closely analyzed the specimens to better understand the structures and their characteristics.

Their groundbreaking research, published in 1977, provided a fresh perspective on the enigmatic fossils, addressing the long-standing debate and offering compelling evidence for their origin. Their findings would ultimately change the course of scientific understanding of these peculiar structures and contribute significantly to the field of paleontology.

The Ingenious Burrow System of Palaeocastor

Palaeocastor (credit: Nobu Tamura)

Martin and Bennett discovered that the incisor teeth of Palaeocastor matched the grooves on the burrow infillings. These tooth marks, along with claw marks on the sides and bottom of the burrows, confirmed that the structures were indeed spiraling tunnels built by the ancient beaver. The tightly coiled spiral entrance at the top of the burrow is now thought to have been an innovative way to retain moisture and control temperature.

Tooth marks of the Palaeocastor – credit: Experiencing Life Trips/Flickr (cc)

Palaeocastor Colonies and Burrow Invaders

The ancient beaver Palaeocastor created numerous burrows, forming extensive colonies that were strikingly similar to modern prairie dog towns. These large clusters of interconnected burrows provided shelter and living space for the beavers, as well as a unique ecosystem for various other species.

Among the visitors to these burrows were extinct relatives of martens and weasels, who likely ventured into the spiral tunnels in search of food. The Palaeocastor colonies would have attracted these predators, creating a dynamic interaction between the inhabitants of the burrows and their uninvited guests.

credit: James St. John/Flickr

In addition to predatory visitors, the burrows may have also hosted other smaller species seeking shelter and protection from the elements or other predators. The presence of these additional species would have contributed to the overall biodiversity of the area and provided further evidence of the complexity of ancient ecosystems.

In conclusion, the Palaeocastor colonies not only served as homes for the ancient beavers but also played a crucial role in shaping the ecosystem around them, fostering interactions between various species and providing insights into the ecological dynamics of the Miocene epoch.

Unraveling the Plant Tissue Enigma in Devil’s Corkscrews

The plant tissues discovered by Barbour inside the Devil’s Corkscrews perplexed scientists for years. However, Martin and Bennett’s research offered a compelling explanation. In the seasonally dry environment where these ancient burrows were found, plants struggled to find sufficient moisture. To survive, moisture-seeking plants extended their roots into the walls of the burrows, where higher humidity levels were present.

As the plants continued to grow, their roots penetrated deeper into the burrow walls. The surrounding rocks of the Harrison Formation, rich in volcanic ash, caused rainwater to saturate the soil with silica. The plant roots absorbed this silica, and over time, the root-lined walls became mineralized. This process eventually led to the complete filling of the burrows with silicified roots, preserving the remarkable spiral structures we see today.

From Fossil to Ecosystem Reconstruction: Unlocking the Past Through Ancient Clues

The journey from the discovery of enigmatic fossils, like the Devil’s Corkscrews, to the detailed reconstruction of an ancient ecosystem showcases the incredible value of paleontological research. By studying these peculiar fossils, scientists not only unraveled the mystery surrounding their origin but also gained valuable insights into the climate, flora, and fauna of the region millions of years ago. Although Barbour never accepted the rodent burrow hypothesis, the Devil’s Corkscrews stand as a testament to the power of scientific inquiry and collaboration. As researchers continue to investigate other fossils, they further our understanding of Earth’s history and the complex relationships that existed among ancient organisms and their environments.

Untangling The Mystery of The Devil’s Corkscrew

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