Amateur Spotlight: Steve Vanlandingham

Editor’s note: This issue, FOSSIL Project postdoc Jen Bauer interviews Steve Vanlandingham. Steve is a volunteer in the invertebrate paleontology collections at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History at the University of Oklahoma. Steve is an avid fossil collector and has helped renowned echinoderm experts and junior scientists better understand the early evolution of this group. 

Steve in the field with his magnifying visor.

How did you get interested in collecting fossils and how long have you been interested in paleontology?

I think I’ve always been interested in paleontology and all things ancient, strange and obscure. Like many kids, I went through a big dinosaur phase at about age 5 or 6. I learned some of the names and remember making up songs and stories in my head about a character named “Bronty the Brontosaurus.” Last year I published a book about a trilobite name “Tony”, so I really haven’t changed all that much. But it was only in the last 5 to 6 years that I became seriously interested in collecting fossils. Before that, I worked in archaeological and seismic survey, as a special education teacher, and as an artist in residence in public schools playing traditional folk music. I went through a period of time where I found it difficult to play music due to tendinitis problems. It was during this time that I caught the fossil bug – I guess I should say it caught me. There doesn’t seem to be any cure for it, except more fossils… 

What are your favorite fossils and what draws you to them?
 When I first started collecting, my favorite fossils were the Devonian trilobites that Oklahoma is known for. Now I have become fascinated by the bizarre echinoderms of the Ordovician Bromide formation- the paracrinoids, rhombiferans and early crinoids, plus eocrinoids and edrioasteroids as well. I was drawn to their strangeness – there is nothing like them around today – but also to their beauty. The paracrinoids, like Oklahomacystis in particular, are amazing!

I-35 roadcut through N. Arbuckle mountains.

When I discovered a few at a nearby road cut, I found myself wanting to know more about them: How did they live? Why did they go extinct? Were they held off the seafloor by a stem, or did they rest on the bottom? Why did they form these complex “rosettes” of plates, what were their purpose? So many questions, so much time and water under the bridge. The fact that even the experts don’t understand much about these ancient echinoderms draws me to them even more.

A paracrinoid called Oklahomacystis from UEZ Bromide FM Murray Co., OK. Scale bar in mm.
A paracrinoid called Sinclairocystis from UEZ Bromide FM Murray Co., OK. Scale bar in mm.
A paracrinoid called Platycystites from UEZ Bromide FM Murray Co., OK. Scale bar in mm.

How long have you been working with Dr. Roger Burkhalter and what do you do as a museum volunteer?
I volunteered at the Sam Noble museum a little over four years ago, in the summer of 2014. Most of my work in the invertebrate paleontology collections involves photographing fossils for the “Common Fossils of Oklahoma” website. Dr. Burkhalter and Dr. Westrop have given me a wonderful opportunity to work with and learn more about the fossils I love. One of the great things about paleontology is that it is relatively easy for beginners to make a contribution to science. You don’t necessarily have to have advanced degrees. Dedicated collectors can find new types of fossils, teach themselves about them, and be a resource to the scientific community. I have found the professionals in invertebrate paleontology to be very accessible and willing to work with amateur enthusiasts. Especially the echinoderm people! (see “Additional Note” below)

I know you do a lot of collecting in Oklahoma, what does a normal field excursion entail for you? What do you hope to discover in the field?
 Some people may not know that Oklahoma is a veritable Paleozoic Paradise, with a nearly unbroken record of rock strata stretching 250 million years, from the Cambrian to the Permian. Much of it is exposed in the Arbuckle Mountains of southern Oklahoma about an hour drive from my home. A normal field excursion for me entails collecting at one particular site- a public road cut- that has a great exposure of the upper echinoderm zone (UEZ). (Upper Mountain Lake member, Bromide formation) Since most of the fossils are small, I don’t need a lot of equipment. Just some collecting bags, a small probe and my trusty magni-visor, which I wear in the field.

It has been a big help in finding things since I don’t have the greatest eyesight anymore. I return to the same spot again and again, picking through the rubble of a lost world hoping to find rare and unusual specimens. So far, I have collected 13 different genera of extinct echinoderms at this one locality, many of them well preserved in the crumbly shale of the UEZ.  I’m lucky to have stumbled on to this treasure trove in my own backyard! Every time I go back, I feel like great discoveries are waiting…

Tell us a little bit about your book, “Good Night Trilobite” and your motivation to bring the Paleozoic to young minds.

Cover shot of Good Night, Trilobite

Inspired by the Paleozoic fossils I was finding, I started writing about them. At first a few lines in a journal – “good night trilobite, sleep tight”- then a song, and eventually a book about a trilobite and his friends, including a brachiopod and a bryozoan, plus a villain named “Seth the Cephalopod.” (I’m working on a new one about a paracrinoid named Perry) Colorful illustrations by a friend who is a talented artist made the 400-million-year-old creatures come to life. The book project was a way to bring my interests in fossils, music and poetry, teaching and writing together. Chickasaw press of Oklahoma published it last year and I think they did a great job. It was an Oklahoma Book Awards finalist this year for “best illustration/ best design.” You can watch an animated version of Tony the trilobite on the book page of Chickasaw press.

My motivation with the book is to bring these Paleozoic fossils to life in young minds, to capture their imagination the way that dinosaurs have. Maybe it will broaden their horizons a little, help them see that there is more beneath our feet than meets the eye, that the world is a wondrous place and great discoveries are always waiting.

Additional note: my mentor

Every student, young or old, benefits from a good teacher or mentor. Dr. Jim Sprinkle, retired professor emeritus from Austin Texas, one of the world’s foremost experts on extinct echinoderms, has been a mentor to me and many others. His monograph on echinoderms of the Bromide Formation, published in 1982, served as my text and “Bible” when I started collecting in the Arbuckles.  After I began finding some good specimens, I wanted to contact him but wasn’t sure if he would be receptive or not. Dr. Westrop at the museum knew him and encouraged me to reach out to him. I sent some pictures of a crinoid cup I had found, and he wrote back right away, tentatively confirming my guess about what the genus was and asking if we could meet in the field at my favorite road cut! The man who taught me how to find the upper echinoderm zone wanted me to show him where it was at this particular site. We ended up collecting together in this and other localities several times since, I have donated some of my specimens to him for study and to be described in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Paleontology. Jim is one of the giants of the field, but o one of the giants of the field, but one of the nicest guys around. It’s been a real honor to get a chance to meet him and learn from him in the field.

Top view of a recently collected Cleiocrinus species. Scale bar in mm.
A paracrinoid called Platycystites from UEZ Bromide FM Murray Co., OK. Scale bar in mm.

To learn more:

Sam Noble Museum Common Fossils of Oklahoma website