Tag Archives: chalk

Identification – Sea urchin fossil

Did you know we identify items for free? Whether it’s a rock from a field or a mystery something from the back of the shed, just bring it in to the Museum and we’ll take care of the rest! (If it’s too big or heavy, just send us an email with a photo).

This piece of flint with a strange marking on it was found in Wethersfield, near Braintree.

The flint nodule has preserved the impression of part of a sea urchin, or echinoid (pronounced ek-in-oid).

The shape you see is the external mould of a single plate of the echinoid’s ‘test’, or shell. When a sea urchin dies or is eaten, the test will often break apart into the individual plates.
Flint is formed from a silica-rich goo which hardens over time, and must have formed on top of this echinoid plate and taken its shape. The plates are made from calcium carbonate and this one will have dissolved away over time, leaving the impression behind.

The shape of the plate suggests it belongs to a species in the genus Cidaris. Saffron Walden Museum has a similar echinoid, Stereocidaris sceptrifera, fossilised in chalk, on display as no. 23 in the How Did They Live display in the geology gallery (below, top). In life, the club-like spines would have been attached to the plates. One of the Museum’s volunteers took this photo of a similar echinoid found at a chalk pit in Grays, Essex (below, bottom).

Fossil in chalk of the extinct sea urchin Stereocidaris sceptrifera, on display in the Museum’s geology gallery. SAFWM : 2020.42.23

The plate in the flint nodule (and the plates in the photos) is an interambulacral plate, which make up most the test of a sea urchin. They fill the space between the ambulacral zones, which are the areas where the urchin’s tube feet pass through the test. Tube feet are used for movement and to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the water for respiration. Sea urchins have 5 ambulacra arranged in a star shape, showing that they are related to starfish.

The Natural History Museum has a good page showing the structure of a sea urchin test: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/echinoid-directory/morphology/regulars/intro.html

The British Geological Survey has an interesting page with good photos of similar fossil echinoids – look out for Temnocidaris (Stereocidaris) sceptrifera about halfway down, and Heterocidaris wickense at the bottom: https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discovering-geology/fossils-and-geological-time/echinoids/

Another link to the NHM with photos of Stereocidaris fossils: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/echinoid-directory/taxa/taxon.jsp?id=1115

 

 

 

Identification – flint, fossil sponge

Figure showing flint nodule from chalk

In Essex and south east England, almost every pebble on the beach and in gardens is flint. It’s a hard rock found in the Chalk, a soft, white, limestone layer that is up to 200m (600 ft) thick in north Essex and Cambridgeshire. In north west Essex, this chalk is between 90 million and 66 million years old and lies just below the soil, north of a line running from Stansted to Sudbury.

Diagram showing bedrock geology of Essex

Diagram showing the main bedrocks across a section of Essex. Chalk appears as the bedrock across northern Essex. Credit: reference 1.

Chalk started out as a thick mud on the floor of a tropical sea that covered most of Britain and north west Europe. This mud contained the remains of tiny sea creatures (plankton) which grew shells of calcium carbonate. When they died, these plankton and their shells fell to the sea floor to form a thick mud, which compacted into chalk over millions of years.

As it compacted, it squeezed out the seawater containing dissolved quartz, or silica (which comes from the skeletons of tiny sponges, a very simple animal).This silica was pushed out into gaps, cracks and burrows in the chalky mud to form nodules or layers of flint. These flints have a white outer layer (cortex), and are black inside. They can come in very complicated, bulging shapes, or with spikes, holes and cavities. Because of this, they can be easily confused with fossilised bones.

Figure showing flint nodule from chalk

An irregular flint nodule with a white cortex. Credit: reference 2.

Some flints do contain fossils, often urchins, or cockles or other small shellfish. Sometimes, the whole flint looks like fossil, and this may be because the silica that created it was forced into a hollow space in the hardening chalk which contained a sponge. Sponges are very simple animals which live on the sea floor. They still exist today, and the earliest known fossil sponges are  580 million years old.

The silica fills the gaps in the sponge’s skeleton and, over millions of years, the skeleton itself can dissolve away and be replaced by other minerals. This skeleton is a fossil, and the flint fills the spaces left by the soft parts of the animal after they rotted away.
Sponges are hollow tube or cone shapes and have no muscles, stomach, brain or nerves. They are filter feeders that catch bacteria and microscopic plants & animals from seawater that flows through tiny channels (pores) in their body.  Sponges are open at the top, and water currents flowing across the opening helps pull in water through the pores and remove it from the centre chamber, like wind blowing across a chimney.

Diagram showing water flow through a sponge's body

A simple diagram of a sponge’s body showing the pores in the sponge’s body, and the direction of water flow (blue arrows). Credit: reference 3.

Figure showing a living sponge

A living sponge, showing the typical hollow tube shape. Credit: reference 4.

The first sponge below is preserved in chalk and is a typical funnel shape. Some fossils may have a textured ring around the top, showing the rough pattern of the sponge’s surface and pores, like in the second photo.

Figure showing typical funnel shaped sponge

Fossil of a sponge (Ventriculites species) that lived in the Chalk sea. This sponge attached to the sediment with its branching roots. © SWM.

Figure showing rim imprint of a sponge's body in flint.

A flint nodule showing the imprint of the upper rim of a sponge’s body. Credit: reference 5

References

  1. Essex Bedrock, Essex Rock 1999. GeoEssex.org, retrieved 11:36, 24.4.2020
  2. © G Lucy. GeoEssex.org, retrieved 11:31, 24.4.2020
  3. Adapted from: Porifera_body_structures_01 By Philcha – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
  4. NOAA Photo Library reef3859 By Twilight Zone Expedition Team 2007, NOAA-OE. , Public Domain,
  5. Flint rim print. flint-paramoudra.com, retrieved 11:47, 24.4.2020

Object of the Month -September 2018

September’s Object of the Month is a collection of fossilised teeth chosen by James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

These fossilised teeth come from the extinct fish Ptychodus (pronounced tie-co-duss) which lived across the Americas, Europe and Asia. They are closely related to modern sharks and rays, but may not have been direct ancestors. Some species grew up to 10 metres long, feeding on the large shellfish that existed during the Cretaceous period, 66–145 million years ago. Although they had similar diet and teeth to modern rays, they looked more like modern nurse sharks, which cruise the seabed for small fish and shellfish.

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