University Studies of the University of Nebraska


Date of this Version



University of Nebraska Studies, March 1942. STUDIES IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY NO.2


(c) 1942 University of Nebraska


THE first paleontological expedition of the University of Nebraska State Museum was organized in the summer of 1891 and was led by Erwin H. Barbour, now Director Emeritus of the Museum. The most important and interesting discoveries made during the season were some very peculiar spiral fossils called by the field party "Devil's Corkscrews," or Daimonelix,l which were found in the Miocene deposits near Harrison in Sioux County, Nebraska. During the fifty years that have intervened scientists have tried to determine the origin of these strange forms. Several controversies arose, and although various theories have been proposed, none as yet has been demonstrated to the complete satisfaction of all concerned. Most paleontologists now believe, however, that Daimonelices are the casts of rodent burrows. This theory, together with various others, will be reviewed in the present paper and it is hoped that the accompanying discussion will aid in the clarification of the subject. The term Daimonelix was first used by Barbour in 1892 2 in describing the large, vertical, open spiral structures which he had located in Sioux County. That the discoverers were greatly impressed and somewhat puzzled by these unusual fossils is shown in the following passage from Barbour's type description:

"These fossils seem altogether so remarkable and of such imposing size and peculiarity of forms, that I have felt great hesitancy in offering any suggestions as to what they are or in describing them at all; and what I now venture to publish is proposed tentatively, till I can return to this spot and complete the work cut short last season. Not less than two genera and three species of the family were noted, and, because of their similarity to immense corkscrews, we dubbed them "Devil's Corkscrews" and I offer for them the provisional name Daimonelix. At least two gigantic and one small species were observed. They are almost mathematically exact and regular in form, and suggest a great four or five inch pole. . . . At the bottom of all is. a transverse piece, indefinitely long, and about ten inches in diameter, rendering the appearance of the whole like that of the veritable corkscrew. Just what this great "rhizome" is, remains to be learned. . . . While reminding one forcibly of some monstrous fossil bryozoan, it seems improbable that it is such, nor is it a plant, or mollusk, as I believe. Possibly it is the case of some ancient worm."

Later in the same year Barbour described five new "species" of Daimonelix and was inclined to believe that these strange "fossils" were fresh-water sponges. Barbour also reported in the same paper the discovery of a finely preserved rodent skeleton in the great stem of one specimen, and according to him it is possible that the rodent, after being "submerged in Miocene waters, became a suitable anchorage for the living, growing Daimonelix, which eventually enveloped it." At that time Barbour definitely believed in a lacustrine or "lake-bed" theory of the origin of the continental Tertiary deposits, which apparently influenced his early studies in Daimonelices and resulted in his opposition to the rodent burrow hypothesis. The "lake-bed" theory was abandoned, however, during the late 1890's and early 1900's, resulting in a changing of ideas concerning Daimonelix and a strengthening of the rodent burrow theory.

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