The Norman Transcript

N-town stories

June 13, 2014

Formed in stone

NORMAN —

According to Steve Westrop, University of Oklahoma geology and geophysics professor, 99.99 percent of all species that once inhabited the earth are now extinct. What they left behind are physical remains enshrined in stone. Often the photos of these contain strikingly beautiful images.

Select fossil photos will be on display at OU’s Sam Noble Museum of Natural History’s show titled “Formed in Stone: The Natural Beauty of Fossils,” July 4 through Jan. 19.

“A lot of the fossils look pretty cool,” said Westrop, museum invertebrate paleontology collection curator. “Photography plays a big role in our research that includes describing new species.”

Generally, the museum’s fossil photos are produced for use in scientific journals. For the exhibit, pictures of the tiny, long-dead beasts less than an inch long will be blown up to enormous poster size.

“I don’t want to use the term ‘art’ or ‘sculpture’ because that implies something man-made,” Westrop said. “But what you’ll be looking at is adaptations that have been honed by evolutionary processes and a lot of the bits and pieces have interesting geometry and patterns.”

Pulling up an image on his computer monitor, Westrop displayed the snapshot of an arthropod that gave up the ghost approximately a quarter billion years ago.

Its modern relatives are crabs and lobsters. Westrop pointed out the creature’s eyes and ocular nervous system. The fossil had a curious texturing that might suggest intricate beadwork or highly refined filigree jewelry. He clicked to another photo.

“These forms came about entirely naturally through processes such as natural selection,” Westrop said. “These are compound eyes you’re looking at with hexagonal geometry in sets of six. It was an adaptive solution for getting a large number of lenses on the visual surface of the eye.”

OU’s Invertebrate Paleontology collection currently has around a million specimens from all over the globe and much of it from Oklahoma. It has grown from the university’s earliest days and through the research of generations of students and faculty.

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